All posts by Kevin Lees

Seven consequences of Moon Jae-in’s landslide South Korean victory

Moon Jae-in easily won the South Korean presidency in a snap election on Tuesday. (Facebook)

Moon Jae-in (문재인) was easily elected president in South Korea yesterday, following one of the most tumultuous periods in Korean democracy.

Following the December impeachment and the March removal from (by a unanimous 8-0 verdict of the constitutional court) of conservative president Park Guen-hye (박근혜), who now faces criminal charges for accepting bribes, South Korea’s previously scheduled presidential election moved up from December to May 9.

As polls predicted, Moon, the candidate of South Korea’s center-left Democratic Party (더불어민주당) easily won the presidency in a landslide against his nearest rival, Hong Jun-pyo (홍준표), governor of South Gyeongsang province, the candidate of the conservative Liberty Korea Party (자유한국당).

The election marks the end of nearly a decade of conservative rule in the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential office, and Moon has promised to bring a sweep of transparency and reform to domestic policy and a more conciliatory approach to North Korea in foreign policy.

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RELATED: Snap South Korean presidential election
points to tough Moon-Ahn race

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Moon, a longtime human rights activist and attorney, served from 2003 to 2008 as the chief of staff, one of the leading presidential aides, to former president Roh Moo-hyun. Moon was making his second presidential run after losing the 2012 race to Park.

So what’s next? Here are the seven leading policy and political consequences from Moon’s landslide victory. Continue reading Seven consequences of Moon Jae-in’s landslide South Korean victory

Macron’s landslide win a emphatic mandate for liberal democracy

Emmanuel Macron won the French presidency on Sunday before addressing the country n front of the Louvre. (Facebook)

Ultimately, a 30-point landslide portends more significance than a 20-point landslide. 

French voters emphatically rejected Marine Le Pen, though not, perhaps, by the same margin as they rejected her father 15 years ago. But polls, which showed Emmanuel Macron’s 20-point lead shrinking ever so slightly two weeks ago, rebounded after the sole debate during the runoff campaign. Macron’s ultimate margin of victory was beyond what polls were even showing by the end of last week.

Generally, Le Pen and the hard-right Front national knew that a win was highly unlikely. A ‘victory’ would have been winning over 40% of the vote by, say, winning over a majority of the first-round supporters of François Fillon, the candidate of the center-right Les Républicains — or at least winning majorities in the southeast and north of France where Le Pen’s support was strongest.

Instead, Le Pen didn’t even break 34% nationally. She won just two departments: Pas-de-Calais and Aisne in the north of the country. In Paris, the French political, administrative, financial and cultural capital, she won just 10.3% of the vote. Le Pen’s performance fell so short of hopes and expectations that she now hopes to rename her party before next month’s parliamentary elections and could face internal questions about her leadership. Continue reading Macron’s landslide win a emphatic mandate for liberal democracy

How I view American politics (and the Trump administration) today

The ‘religious freedom’ executive order was a cheap photo opportunity, a publicity stunt; it doesn’t (yet) rewrite the Internal Revenue Code and constitutionally, it cannot.

The American Health Care Act passed the House of Representatives, narrowly, by a 217 to 213 margin today, too, but it certainly will not survive the Senate in its current form, which was denounced by every group from the American Medical Association to the AARP. That’s quite clear from Orrin Hatch, let alone moderate Republicans like Susan Collins.

Repeal of much of the Dodd-Frank Act, the financial services reform, is making its way through the House — and may also pass the House, but unless the Senate eliminates the legislative filibuster, Republicans will be hard-pressed to find 60 votes in the Senate, where Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, whose chief policy legacy is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, will surely stand for hours to filibuster her way to national political stardom.

Meanwhile, Trump (though he had a temper tantrum about a shutdown) and the GOP caved on a budget that looks very much like something Hillary Clinton would have approved.

Good luck to Trump in solving Puerto Rico’s impending bankruptcy and a pending referendum on statehood in two months.

Nikki Haley, James Mattis and H.R. McMaster (the latter replacing an erratic national security advisor fired in disgrace just 20 days into the administration)  are ignoring the lunacy of Trump’s unthinking blather, contradicting him in plain sight and driving a sane foreign policy not dissimilar to Obama-era policy: pro-NATO, cautious of Russia, ambitious to look to the Pacific, reluctant to get bogged down in the Middle East. (Yeah, yeah, Israeli-Palestinian peace is so easy, Don). As Haley and Mattis, in particular, travel the world putting out Trump’s fires, allies (and rivals) are learning not to take seriously the words of the sitting American president. It takes something to kick an Australian prime minister twice in four months. For months — years! — NATO was obsolete; then, all of a sudden, ‘NATO is no longer obsolete.’ At this point, I almost expect Trump to try to renegotiate NAFTA by extending it to South American and Asia and calling it the ‘Trump Pacific Partnership.’

If you could forget (for one millisecond) just how much is at stake for the lives and livelihoods and safety of so many Americans (to say nothing of South Koreans, Japanese, Europeans and so on), it would be endearing, even touching, to watch a president learn what the job entails in real time. It’s a ‘teachable moment,’ as one former certain president liked to say. For Trump’s hard-core nationalist supporters, the first 100 days must have felt like a Schoolhouse Rock. Policy — from Chinese relations to US health care reform — is indeed harder than you thought.

I don’t doubt the challenges ahead for those of us who oppose Trump. Immigrants are terrified, and there are reasons for women, people of color, LGBT Americans and the poorest among us to be especially anxious. I will not minimize the ugliness and the divisiveness that Trump has single-handedly brought into American political discourse.

But today was (mostly) smoke, not fire, and it seems like House Republicans put themselves on record supporting a deeply divisive bill that will never become law — without so much as a CBO score. They may pay dearly in 2018. That’s still a long ways off.

For now, Obamacare is still intact (though, yeah, it has some flaws that need fixed). So is the Johnson Amendment. So is the EPA. So is the Export-Import Bank. So is USAID. So is State. So is the FBI (which continues to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian intelligence). So are all our institutions, even if they have no political appointees.

The not-quite-a-Muslim ban was halted twice by federal courts, and so many eyes are on Trump that he’s deported fewer immigrants (so far) than Obama. Not a single brick of border wall is built (it’s an idiotic idea anyway for anyone who understands modern air travel), and Mexico is certainly not going to pay. Though Trump may outrage Mexicans enough that they elect a leftist populist of their own in 2018.

Meanwhile, sensible tax reform (including lower corporate rates and some form of repatriation), Trump’s oft-promised infrastructure spending and Ivanka Trump’s promise of universal maternity leave — all of which would have been top priorities in a Clinton administration, working with House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, now seem farther than ever from being enacted.

Governing is tough work, and the Trump administration has no clue how to do it.

Reince Preibus, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Gary Cohn — they are all competing for Trump’s ear, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses in the Oval Office. But they share in common this: none of them had a day’s experience in government before January 20. Rex Tillerson, whose sole experience is with one company — Exxon-Mobile — still doesn’t even have a deputy secretary of state, let alone anyone else to guide him.

Every day, the novelty of Trump’s blather on Twitter wears off, as do the outlandish remarks showing just how little respect he has for American history and the American presidency (‘no one asks why the Civil War was fought,’ come on). As on The Apprentice, he’s doing a great job pretending like he’s in charge, running things. Hell, I don’t care how much he golfs. I don’t care how many times he throws fake Rose Garden parties for fake legislative accomplishments, spews fake facts about the world and his administration, all while whining about fake news. There’s one statistic from which Trump can never hide: 28.1 million watched the Season 1 finale of The Apprentice. By the last season, that shrank to just 4.5 million, as the schtick wore off and viewers grew bored.

Savor that, at least, tonight, on a day of such venom, hubris and pain.

When Barack Obama was president, I wrote often about his flaws on foreign policy, and I certainly would have done the same with Hillary Clinton — or Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz or John Kasich.

If and when the Trump administration scores a major foreign policy or diplomatic victory, I’ll be the first to applaud.

But I’ll never relent. Trumpismo and its empty know-nothing populism is a fraud, and it has been since June 2015 — most of all to the voters who elected Trump to the most important elective office in the world’s largest economic and military power.

For those of us — conservatives, liberals, libertarians — who have always been #NeverTrump, keep up the fight, each in our own ways, for a government that works to maximize economic and cultural opportunity for all. And let’s take a moment, on such a dreary day for the American republic, to love one another and continue seeking ways to bring Americans back together, with a government in 2018 and 2020 that we can respect again.

Le Pen-Macron debate echoes Trump-Clinton slugfests

Far-right presidential contender Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron clashed in their only debate between the April first-round presidential vote and Sunday’s runoff. (Eric Feferberg / AFP)

For those of us Americans who spent 270 minutes of our autumn in 2016 glued to the television debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the experience of watching Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron spar for 150 minutes, in their only exclusive debate ahead of Sunday’s presidential runoff, felt something like a cross between déjà vu and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

There was Le Pen, with half-baked policy schemes as scattered as the disheveled piles of papers and files in front of her, but plenty of resentment and the attitude you’d expect from the self-proclaimed champion of France’s working class, the losers from globalization, growing immigration and Europeanization.

There was Macron, composed to the point of arrogance, already looking beyond May 7 and toward the June parliamentary elections (where his En marche movement is hoping to go from zero seats in the 577-seat French national assembly to a majority) and beyond to at least one five-year term as the youngest president in France’s history.

At times, as one friend noted, it felt eerily like the New York University experiment that swapped Clinton’s and Trump’s genders (much to the confusion of the experiment’s audience). Continue reading Le Pen-Macron debate echoes Trump-Clinton slugfests

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

Kevin O’Leary (right) dropped out of the Conservative leadership race last week, but his endorsement of former minister Maxime Bernier (left) doesn’t guarantee Bernier’s victory. (Facebook)

It turns out that Kevin O’Leary wasn’t quite Mr. Wonderful for Canada’s Conservative Party.

Last week, on the brink of the final debate among the candidates to lead the party, the television star and businessman dropped out of the race. Arguing, oddly, that he didn’t think he could win enough votes in the French-speaking province of Quebec, O’Leary immediately endorsed Maxime Bernier.

O’Leary, the closest thing to a frontrunner in the Tory leadership race, has boosted Bernier to quasi-frontrunner status as Conservative party members begin casting ballots that will be counted by the end of May.

That doesn’t mean, however, Bernier has a lock on the leadership. Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer, the former speaker of the House of Commons, has emerged as his leading alternative, though a handful of Ontario-based candidates lingering in third place could ultimately determine the outcome — or emerge as compromise candidates themselves. Continue reading As O’Leary exits race, Canadian Tories focus on a more conventional leadership race

Le Pen’s moment is now, not in 2022 — but she’s already blown it

Marine Le Pen campaigns on the south coast of France. (Facebook)

Every piece of election-related data we have suggests Emmanuel Macron will win this weekend’s presidential runoff in France and, by the standards of most political contests, it will be a landslide — perhaps a victory of more than 20%.

But it comes with a sense of disquiet, even among Macron’s supporters.

Part of it is lingering anxiety from last June’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s presidential election last November. That’s understandable. But the polls are far more slanted in Macron’s favor than they ever were for ‘Remain’ or for Hillary Clinton.

Polls haven’t been enough to stop niggling doubts that Marine Le Pen might somehow win just enough center-right voters, while just enough leftist voters are too disillusioned to vote for the aggressively centrist Macron, to score an upset victory. But pluralities of the supporters of third-placed conservative former prime minister François Fillon and fourth-placed hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon alike say they will support Macron in the July 7 runoff.

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RELATED: Why France’s election result is still more of the same

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Macron’s campaign for the last week, too, has been somewhat tone-deaf. Of course, a candidate who comes from the political and financial elite might have rethought holding an election-night party at a posh Paris bistro. Le Pen crashed his campaign stop last week at a Whirlpool factory, forcing a sheepish Macron to spend an hour talking to working-class voters. Macron, ultimately, spent far more time trying to engage the workers than Le Pen, who posed for some selfies. But the stunt worked — and made Macron look defensive.

There, too, is a sense that Le Pen’s endorsement from right-wing presidential contender Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and a handful of stragglers on the French right (along with Mélenchon’s refusal to endorse Macron) lacks the urgency of the broad ‘republican front’ that met the shock 2002 French runoff between Jacques Chirac and Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

So what gives?

2022.  Continue reading Le Pen’s moment is now, not in 2022 — but she’s already blown it

As Jokowi looks to 2019 reelection, rivals deal a blow by taking Jakarta

After a tough campaign waged on religious and ethnic lines, Jakarta’s incoming governor Anies Baswedan (left) met with his defeated rival, outgoing governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (right) last week. (Facebook)

Whatever the Jakarta gubernatorial election portends for Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s reelection chances in 2019, it points perhaps to a nastier fight for the presidency and, more generally, in Indonesian politics in the future.

While official results still aren’t available, early counts made clear that Anies Baswedan, backed by both nationalist elites and a growing hardline Islamist movement, unseated Jokowi’s successor as Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known by his nickname, ‘Ahok’) by a far wider margin than expected. A Christian of Chinese descent. Ahok, who ran on Jokowi’s 2012 ticket, took over as governor when Jokowi won the Indonesian presidency in 2014.

Ahok was never quite as popular as Jokowi, and in Indonesian politics, where alliances can shift overnight, it’s too strong to suggest that Ahok’s defeat predicts trouble for Jokowi, who is looking to reelection in mid-2019. But the harsh tone of an election that took on racial and religious tones in a country that prides itself on tolerance and coexistence is an ominous sign.

Jakarta, home to over 10 million people, is one of the world’s 15 most-populous cities and, by far, the largest city in Indonesia. As governor, Ahok perhaps has an even more impressive record in three years than Jokowi had in two. With few ties to the longstanding ruling class, Ahok was an anti-corruption crusader whose brash actions to clean up Jakarta’s canals, reduce pollution and demolish some of the worst slums in the city rankled many of its residents, especially its poorer ones.

Far more damning to Ahok, however, was a concerted effort last year by radical Islamists to drag his name through the mud.

As the campaign wore on, however, it became clear that Ahok’s political rivals were happy to benefit from angst over his status a double minority and, especially, as a non-Muslim. At the end of last year, the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) organized a series of protests against Ahok that severely dented his popularity, especially among Muslims. The campaign introduced a new and far more divisive edge to Indonesian politics, which has not traditionally revolved primarily around race or religion. Ahok could still be imprisoned for up to five years on charges of violating blasphemy laws — what Ahok’s supporters believe a ridiculous and politically motivated charge. The outgoing governor is accused of insulting the Quran by quoting a Quranic verse last September in his reelection bid.

In an earlier round of voting on February 15, Ahok narrowly led Anies and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the son of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi’s predecessor as president, but failed to secure the majority support necessary to avoid a runoff.  Continue reading As Jokowi looks to 2019 reelection, rivals deal a blow by taking Jakarta

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

Jeremy Corbyn has been written off as a Labour leader who will flush his party’s election chances away. (Twitter)

In the first viral meme of the 2017 general election campaign, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was photographed on a train loo.

The headlines write themselves.

‘Watch as Corbyn flushes Labour down the tube!’

The tragedy of the 2017 election is that an election that should be all about Brexit will instead become a referendum on Corbynism. By all rights, the campaign of the next five weeks should focus upon how the United Kingdom will leave the European Union (and the fallout effects for Scotland and Northern Ireland) — not on Corbyn’s socialist platform and the ongoing divisions within Labour or the rudderless leadership that Labour, generally, and Corbyn, in particular, have shown in the aftermath of last June’s Brexit referendum.

No doubt, those divisions and Labour’s weakening support are among the reasons it was so tempting for Conservative prime minister Theresa May to call an early election.

Labour is already precariously close to its 1983 position, when it won just 27.6% of the vote and 209 seats in the House of Commons. Under Ed Miliband in the May 2015 general election, Labour sunk to 30.4% of the vote and 232 seats. Labour now holds just 229 seats in the House of Commons.

If you think that Labour cannot sink below its 1983 levels, though, you’re mistaken. Continue reading Why Labour’s 2017 defeat could be much worse than Foot’s 1983 disaster

Why France’s election result is still ‘more of the same’

Emmanuel Macron’s first-round victory and wide polling lead against Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election all but assures him of victory in the runoff on May 7. (Facebook)

After a roller-coaster presidential election, the first-round results came with little surprise — almost exactly as pollsters predicted.

French voters will choose in a May 7 runoff between two presidential contenders who increasingly embody the two dominant political views of the 2010s: cosmopolitan liberalism and protectionist nationalism.

The frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron, is a former economy minister who got his start in politics under outgoing president François Hollande and a former member of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) running as an independent centrist under his formed En marche movement.

His opponent is Front national leader Marine Le Pen, who is waging a hard-right nationalist campaign opposed to globalization, European integration, immigration and the creeping influence of Islam on secular France. Though they may not carry the banners of the two major parties of French politics, in key ways, Macron and Le Pen represent less rupture and ‘more of the same.’

2017 runoff set to unfold much like 2002’s election

Almost certainly, French voters will choose Macron as their next president by a wide margin in 15 days — he has held a consistent and durable polling lead of more than 20% against Le Pen.

The third-placed candidate, former conservative prime minister François Fillon, of Les Républicains, has already endorsed Macron in the runoff (though former president Nicolas Sarkozy, sharply, has not).  So has Benoît Hamon, the official Socialist candidate, and Hollande followed suit today. Former prime minister Manuel Valls, the runner-up to Hamon for the Socialist nomination in January, had already endorsed Macron in the first round. Hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has not yet endorsed Macron over Le Pen, but Pierre Laurent, the head of France’s Communist Party, has already done so.

Continue reading Why France’s election result is still ‘more of the same’

The six possible runoffs that could result from France’s Sunday election

A welcome ceremony at the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the French president. (radututa / 123rf)

On Sunday, voters in France — soon to be the second-most populous member-state of the European Union — will decide the two finalists, out of a field of 11, who will battle for the French presidency next month.

Since February, polls have consistently shown centrist independent Emmanuel Macron and hard-right Marine Le Pen, the leader of the eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Front national, most likely to advance to the May 7 runoff. Macron, a former economy minister in outgoing president François Hollande’s administration, has waged an unorthodox and personalized campaign, pulling supporters from both the center-right and the center-left under the banner of a new political movement, En marche (Forward).

Le Pen, who has somewhat toned down the rhetoric of the party that her father founded in 1972, remains a hard-right warrior championing economic nationalism, with plenty of attacks on the European Union, the scourge of Islam and the woes of immigration. It’s a stand that may yet boost her in the wake of a terrorist strike that killed two policemen on the Champs-Élysées Thursday night in the heart of Paris, as even US president Donald Trump noted early Friday morning.

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RELATED: If Mélenchon surges into unlikely runoff, it won’t come from last-minute leftist unity

RELATED: How Le Pen might win a runoff against Macron

RELATED: After presidency, Macron would face
uphill battle for National Assembly

RELATED: The nightmare French election scenario
no one is talking about

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One-time front runner François Fillon, the candidate of the center-right Les Républicains, leaped into a strong lead last November after defeating former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppé for the Republican nomination. Since February, however, Fillon has dropped to third place after police opened a formal investigation into whether Fillon used over €800,000 in public funds to pay his wife (Penelope) and his children for essentially ‘fake’ jobs — popularly known as ‘Penelopegate.’ Refusing to drop out, however, Fillon — a social conservative and Thatcherite liberal who served as Sarkozy’s prime minister for five years — has waged an energetic and defiant campaign, even under the cloud of corruption charges.

Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has surged in the polls after strong performances in two debates in March/April sent left-wing voters swooning. The far-left candidate of La France insoumise (Unsubmissive France) and a coalition of communists and other far-left groups, Mélenchon has gained support at the expense of the official candidate of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), Benoît Hamon. A former education minister and left-wing rebel who ultimately resigned in opposition to Hollande’s centrist push for labor reform, has campaigned on a deeply leftist platform of his own, with calls for a universal basic income, a 32-hour work week, a tax on robots and a higher minimum wage. After the deeply unpopular Hollande ruled out a reelection bid, Hamon won the Socialist nomination in January, defeating Hollande’s more centrist former prime minister Manuel Valls. Hamon now languishes in the single digits in most polls, while Mélenchon’s more radical campaign — he wants to introduce a 100% tax on incomes over €33,000 a month, reinvent or leave the European Union and leave NATO — has captured more of the electorate’s imagination.

Those polls now show the top four candidates — Macron, Le Pen, Fillon and Mélenchon — all gathered together within the margin of error, with between 19% and 25% support as voters prepare to cast ballots in the April 23 first-round vote. With Macron and Le Pen unable in the final weeks of the campaign to expand into larger coalitions, with Fillon holding steady with his core of Republican voters and with Mélenchon consolidating France’s leftist voters, no one can predict which of the four candidates will advance.

We’ll know soon enough. In the meanwhile, here is what you should expect from each of the potential six runoffs that could follow Sunday’s result. Continue reading The six possible runoffs that could result from France’s Sunday election

The only way to save Turkish democracy is a competent opposition

If the opponents of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hope to unlock his increasingly autocratic grip on power, they need to join forces, then work to divide the ruling AKP.

It’s a bridge too far to say that the Turkish opposition is responsible for a decade and a half of losses to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

But there’s no doubt that his opponents certainly haven’t posed an effective brake on Erdoğan’s accelerating chokehold on Turkish democracy.

Turkish voters, according to official tallies, narrowly approved sweeping changes to the Turkish constitution on April 16 that bring far more powers to the Turkish presidency with far fewer checks and balances against the newly empowered executive.

This was always Erdoğan’s plan.

It was his plan in August 2014, when the longtime prime minister stood for (and won) the presidency, introducing a de facto presidential system in Turkey. Prime minister Binali Yıldırım essentially serves at the pleasure of the Turkish president today.

It was his plan last weekend, when he won (or possibly stole) a victory for a de jure presidential system through 18 separate constitutional amendments, many of which take effect in 2019 with a likely joint parliamentary and presidential election. Most immediately, however, Erdoğan will be able to drop the façade of presidential independence and return to lead the party that he already controls indirectly. (It’s a step that apparently won praise, almost alone among Atlantic leaders, from US president Donald Trump and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán.)

It was his plan when, after the longtime ruling Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) failed to win an outright majority in June 2015, he plotted a crackdown on the Kurdish minority — after years of progress in integrating Kurds by relaxing restrictive and counterproductive restrictions on Kurdish language and culture — to engineer a majority win in a new round of elections five months later. Continue reading The only way to save Turkish democracy is a competent opposition

Snap British election gives Farron and Lib Dems a genuine chance to unite anti-Brexit voters

Tim Farron has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to forge a new broad-based liberal, moderate and pro-Europe party across the United Kingdom. (Facebook)

In calling a snap election for June 8, British prime minister Theresa May has done exactly what former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown didn’t do a decade ago — taking initiative to win a personal mandate and extend her party’s majority for up to five more years.

With Labour’s likely support tomorrow, May is set to win a two-thirds majority to hold an election, in spite of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act that would otherwise set the next general election for 2020 — long after the two-year negotiations triggered last month by Article 50 to leave the European Union are set to end. May and the Conservatives now hope that voters will give her an emphatic endorsement for her approach to Brexit — and a much wider majority than the 17-seat margin the Conservatives currently enjoy in the House of Commons. Though some commentators believe a wide Tory victory would make a ‘hard Brexit’ more likely, a lot of sharp commentators believe that it could give May the cushion she needs to implement a much less radical ‘soft Brexit.’

In any event, it’s not unreasonable for May to seek a snap election while EU officials pull together their negotiating positions for later this summer — since the last vote in 2015, the country’s experienced the Brexit earthquake and a change in leadership among all three national parties.

It will also come as the Tories are riding high in the polls by a margin of around 20% against Labour, now in its second year of Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left leadership. If the election were held today, every indication points to a historic defeat for Labour. It’s not only the polls, which are dismal enough. Corbyn has made so many enemies among the parliamentary Labour Party that many MPs will not stand for reelection (including former home secretary Alan Johnson, one of the few genuinely popular figures around who represent ‘New Labour’).

Corbyn’s electoral record, too, is weak. When Jamie Reed, a Corbyn critic and an MP since 2005, resigned, Conservative Trudy Harrison captured his Copeland constituency by a 5% margin against the Labour candidate in a February 23 by-election. Not only was it the first gain for a governing party in a by-election since 1982, it was a seat in Labour’s once-reliable northern heartland, held without interruption since 1935.

Without a major change (and it’s hard to see anything that could swing voters on Corbyn at this point), Labour is doomed. The next 51 days will likely bring iteration after iteration of Corbyn’s political obituary, with a crescendo of the infighting within Labour that has characterized his leadership.

It will be ugly.

Labour, with 229 seats, is already near the disastrous levels of its post-war low of 1983 (just 27.6% and 209 seats), and there’s reason to believe Corbyn could still sink further. No one would laugh at the suggestion Labour might lose another 100 seats in June. For Corbyn’s opponents within Labour, the only silver lining to a snap election is that a decisive defeat could end Corbyn’s leadership now (not in 2020), giving Labour an opportunity to rebuild under a more talented and inclusive leader.

Moreover, in the wake of a call for a second referendum on independence for Scotland (which would presumably seek to rejoin the European Union), Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon could well improve the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) position — the party now holds 54 of 57 seats in Scotland with the unionist opposition divided among the three national parties.

So where does this leave anti-Brexit voters who are uncomfortable casting a vote for May’s Tories?

The Liberal Democrats. Continue reading Snap British election gives Farron and Lib Dems a genuine chance to unite anti-Brexit voters

Snap South Korean presidential election points to tough Moon-Ahn race

South Korea’s snap presidential election in May now favors the progressive candidate, Moon Jae-in, but he is facing surprisingly strong opposition. (Facebook)

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.

Once Moon’s ally, former software businessman Ahn Cheol-soo is gaining support from many different corners of South Korean society, united solely by their mutual distrust for Moon. (Facebook)

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).

At a stunningly rapid clip, Ahn has defined himself as the outsider to Moon’s insider. In addition, with the Korean right in shambles after Park’s implosion, many conservative voters — for now at least — seem to prefer a strategic vote for Ahn instead of a more right-wing candidate. Continue reading Snap South Korean presidential election points to tough Moon-Ahn race

If Mélenchon surges into unlikely runoff, it won’t come from last-minute leftist unity

The hard-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is rising in the polls, but it may still prove difficult to make it to a runoff in May. (Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters)

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.

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RELATED: How Le Pen might win a runoff against Macron

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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

Jean-Luc Mélenchon ran for the presidency in 2012 and, despite a last-minute poll surge, won just 11%.

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

Socialist nominee Benoît Hamon has dropped in the polls to a distant fifth place. (Facebook)

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.

That’s unlikely.

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

In order to gain support, Mélenchon might turn to Marine Le Pen, who emphasizes the same anti-elite, anti-EU and economic nationalism message as the far left. (Facebook)

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.

The answer to Syria is the OPCW, not reckless machismo

As US president Donald Trump hosted Chinese president Xi Jinping last night, he also launched a Tomahawk missile strike in Syria. (Facebook)

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.

Then what?

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.