With every big-name endorsement that Owen Smith wins in his quest to unseat Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour Party’s leader, his chances seem as remote as ever.
It’s not that Labour voters don’t respect Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband, or London mayor Sadiq Khan or even Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale or former shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn or any other of dozens of high-profile Labour officials.
But the Labour rank-and-file, which elected Corbyn as its leader with a first-ballot victory only last September, seem just as determined to deliver another mandate in three weeks when ballots close in this year’s Labour leadership contest. It’s entirely possible that Corbyn will even exceed the 59.5% of support he won in 2015.
So when Labour gathers for its annual conference on August 24, there’s little doubt — at least today — that Corbyn will emerge as the winner once again. It’s especially likely after his opponents failed to force him Corbyn to win renomination from sitting Labour MPs and after the same Corbyn opponents failed in court to prevent new (likely pro-Corbyn) party members from voting in the 2016 contest. That means that Labour’s parliamentary party will remain at contretemps with a twice-elected party leader. Smith, for all his qualities as a potentially unifying successor to Corbyn’s tumultuous leadership, is not yet breaking through as a genuine alternative, even as Labour voters begin to vote.
A strong Corbyn effort might embolden him and his increasingly isolated frontbench to force Labour MPs to stand for re-selection in their own constituencies, essentially forcing a primary-style fight for all of his critics. That may not matter to many MPs in marginal constituencies, who would lose reelection if a general election were held today, many polls show, whether they are automatically re-selected to stand for parliament or not.
The fear of both widespread de-selection from the left and a landslide defeat to the right, however, could force a formal splinter movement from Corbyn’s Labour, and that could conceivably, with enough support, become the ‘new’ official opposition in the House of Commons.
Given where Labour today stands — divided and electorally hopeless — it’s truly incredible that Smith’s chances seem so lopsided.
When pro-Leave campaigners argued that, by leaving the European Union, Great Britain could ‘take back control,’ one of the clear things over which Brexit proponents seem to want to take control was national borders.
Given that Great Britain itself is an island, that’s mostly a theoretical proposition, because you can’t step across the border into England, Scotland and Wales — their ‘borders’ are through their seaports and airports.
That’s not true in Northern Ireland, the only region in the United Kingdom that does share a land border with another European Union member-state. It’s also one of the most delicate tripwires for British prime minister Theresa May in her dutiful quest to invoke Article 50 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty next year and begin negotiations for a British EU withdrawal.
Scotland has garnered more headlines because Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has argued that Scots, who voted strongly for Remain, deserve a second independence referendum when the British government finally does leave the European Union. But if ‘Remain’ proponents are looking to the one part of the United Kingdom that could impossibly prevent Article 50’s invocation, they should look to Northern Ireland, where Brexit could unravel two decades of peace, and where Brexit is already causing some anxiety about the region’s future.
May, just days after replacing David Cameron at 10 Downing Street, visited Belfast earlier this week in a bid to reassure both unionists and republicans. But it’s not clear that May’s first journey to Northern Ireland, which preceded a meeting with Ireland’s leader a day later, was a success.
May boldly claimed that Brexit need not result in the return of a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But settling Northern Ireland’s Brexit border issue is virtually intractable for the May government — at least without alienating one of three crucial groups of people: first, the mostly Catholic republicans of Northern Ireland; second, the most Protestant unionists of Northern Ireland or finally, those Brexit supports across the entire country who voted ‘Leave’ in large part to close UK borders to further immigration.
Europe, it’s safe to say, was focused on a lot of threats in the last month — a polarized British electorate that voted to leave the European Union, ongoing worries about the Italian banking sector, yet another terrorist attack in France, a failed military coup in Turkey.
No one has spent much time considering the possibility that political instability could come to the Netherlands, a northern European country that was one of the six founding members of what is today the European Union.
As Americans and non-Americans alike turn to Cleveland to watch the unorthodox spectacle of Donald Trump’s formal coronation as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, one of the Europeans in attendance hopes to become the next prime minister of The Netherlands. And he has reason for optimism. According to polls, Geert Wilders’s Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom) could win the next Dutch election, which must take place before March 15.
If those polls hold, Wilders, who has been a fixture in Dutch politics for more than a decade, would win the election by a robust margin, dwarfing the more traditional center-right, liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) of prime minister Mark Rutte.
Wilders has enthusiastically embraced Trump at a time when nationalist populism is on the rise throughout the United States as well as Europe, tweeting out ‘Make The Netherlands Great Again’ to supporters earlier this spring. He’s arrived with a splash at the Republican National Convention, invited by the Tennessee delegation. As an outspoken critic of immigration, Islam and the European Union, Wilders hopes that he can finally break through to an election victory in March and perhaps, at long last, fulfill his dream of becoming prime minister.
Wilders inherited much of the support that Pim Fortuyn once commanded before the latter’s assassination in 2002. Wilders is known mostly for his outright rejection of Islam and his quest to terminate all immigration from Muslim-majority countries into the Netherlands. Though Wilders often denies links to other European far-right parties by pointing to his more liberal record on economic policy, he is clearly the Dutch analog to figures like Britain’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marine Le Pen. Wilders is currently on trial in the Netherlands for inciting hatred as a result of disparaging comments he made about the Dutch Moroccan minority, though he wears the legal dispute as a badge of honor — a politician willing to speak the truth about Muslims. For more than a decade, following the assassinations of Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (the latter killed by a Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent in 2004), Wilders lives under strict protection from potential threats.
It’s been a busy three weeks in British politics, but it’s been an especially busy 36 hours since Theresa May became the new prime minister and rolled out the key appointments of what will be the country’s government for the foreseeable future.
The most important role goes to Philip Hammond, who is now chancellor after three years as foreign secretary, and Amber Rudd will replace May as home secretary. But the biggest surprise was May’s decision yesterday to appoint former London mayor Boris Johnson as the new foreign secretary.
In one sense, it’s a perfect move for Johnson, who is perhaps the most well-known British politician abroad, who was born in New York City, and who (mostly) served as a capable ambassador for London in his two terms as mayor, most notably during the 2012 Olympics. It’s a remarkable comeback for a politician who lent his star power to the ‘Leave’ campaign, then watched as his ally, Michael Gove, brutally nudged him out of the Conservative leadership contest. Despite his humiliating withdrawal from the contest, Johnson is still one of the most potent political talents on the Tory benches.
It was a standard assumption throughout the United Kingdom’s EU membership referendum that former London mayor Boris Johnson supported the ‘Leave’ side due in large part to his ambitions of succeeding David Cameron as Conservative Party leader and then as prime minister.
At one point, Amber Rudd, the secretary of state for energy and climate change, in a debate over Brexit, argued that the only number that Johnson was interested in was the number 10 — as in 10 Downing Street. And that was from a rising star in Johnson’s own party.
When Johnson made his high-profile decision to join the Leave camp, he did so shortly after another top figure in Tory politics made the same decision — Michael Gove, previously a close Cameron confidante and justice secretary, but whose main mark on government had been four years of tumultuous (and often divisive) reforms as Britain’s education secretary.
Gove entered politics at Cameron’s request, and he was so close to the prime minister that he served as godfather to Cameron’s severely disabled son Ivan (who sadly died in 2009). It was a blow to Cameron when Gove declared his support for the Leave campaign, and the two’s once-solid friendship is reportedly strained.
After weeks of campaigning alongside Johnson and emerging on the winning side of the referendum debate, however, Gove’s declaration this morning of his own leadership contest has strained far more than a friendship, upending British politics in a week when every hour seems to bring a shocking new twist. Indeed, Gove’s leadership challenge and his ‘more in sadness than in anger’ conclusion that Johnson wasn’t up to the task of being prime minister will now define Gove’s political future. Just as Ed Miliband never fully escaped the cloak of treachery in pipping his own brother, the far more experienced former foreign minister David Miliband, for the Labour Party leadership, Gove’s eleventh-hour change of heart will dominate the narrative of the campaign ahead. Nigel Evans said that Gove had ‘stabbed Boris in the front,’ and even Johnson, in his remarks in withdrawing from the leadership race, paraphrased Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, subtly comparing Gove to Brutus, the friend-turned-assassin.
When a private email to Gove from Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, a columnist for the Daily Mail, was accidentally leaked to the press yesterday, it showed that Gove and his private circle held considerable doubts about a Johnson government. In closing out her email, Vine advised Gove to ‘be his stubborn best.’
It seems that Gove was far more stubborn than anyone believed possible when he made a late-night decision to stand for the leadership himself — Johnson found out along with the British press this morning as Gove announced his plans:
In particular, I wanted to help build a team behind Boris Johnson so that a politician who argued for leaving the European Union could lead us to a better future. But I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead. I have, therefore, decided to put my name forward for the leadership. I want there to be an open and positive debate about the path the country will now take.
Gove will be a formidable candidate. He comes to the Tory leadership race, presumably, with many (though not all) of the MPs who were prepared to support Johnson and Gove as something of a joint ticket (with the implication that Gove would serve as Johnson’s chancellor and a guarantor that a Johnson government wouldn’t go wobbly on Brexit).
But while Johnson may have indeed been a fair-weather convert to Brexit, no one should doubt Gove’s long-held euroscepticism. It comes, in part, from Gove’s own background, watching the fishing business that his father and grandfather built destroyed by European competition in the 1970s. If Johnson brought the personality and ‘star power’ to the Leave campaign, Gove brought with him the accumulated credibility of one of the Conservative Party’s brightest and most committed reformists. Though Johnson and United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage perhaps won more headlines, Gove was also in the mix, making a credible case for Brexit, earning plaudits as the ‘brains’ of the Leave campaign.
After leaving Oxford, Gove entered the media world and quickly became one of the lights of the right-wing press. When he came to politics in 2005, winning election to parliament from the southeastern English constituency of Surrey Heath, he was part of Cameron’s original ‘Notting Hill’ set that included chancellor George Osborne, whose vigorous support for the Remain campaign eliminated his long-held wishes of succeeding Cameron as prime minister. On social policy, Gove has always been as progressive as Cameron or Osborne — he supported providing marriage equality for gays and lesbians in the 2013 landmark parliamentary vote, for example.
Upon the Conservative victory in the 2010 general election and Cameron’s governing coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Gove became secretary of state for education, and he used the position to upend the state of English education for the next four years. To this day, Gove is a figure of hatred and scorn among British teachers for the pace and extent of the policy reforms he initiated. As education secretary, he uncoupled schools from local authorities (giving them more freedom) while introducing all sorts of micromanaging revisions to the English curriculum (thereby taking away much of that freedom). He made it easier for researchers to access information about education and schools to determine which strategies are performing well.
Though Cameron, in part due to howls of protest from teachers, demoted him to chief whip in 2014, Gove was appointed secretary of state for justice in 2015, where he has had much less time to implement deep reforms. (He did, however, discontinue a court fee introduced by his predecessor Chris Grayling).
Gove will now make the case that only a Leave supporter — unlike his chief competitor, home secretary Theresa May — can credibly assume the premiership after the decision in last Thursday’s referendum. He will also argue that, unlike May, he alone is willing to hold firm in negotiations with the remaining 27 member-states of the European Union. As one of the leading voices of the Leave campaign, Gove will begin with significant support among the Tory eurosceptic backbenches. If he winds up as one of the final two contenders, he may find that his Leave support will be rewarded among those rank-and-file Tory members who will determine the winner of the runoff this summer. His starring role in the Leave campaign may have made him far more palatable to Tory rank-and-file who now see him less as an Oxbridge policy nerd and more of a crusader for their own (anti-EU) values.
But as Hugo Dixon noted earlier today, Gove is a something of a radical — more so than just a small-c conservative — and that separates him from Cameron, May and perhaps even Johnson. In light of the rapid pace of political developments, however, there’s no guarantee that Gove will even make it into the wider runoff. Work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb has already amassed several high-profile endorsements and the support of nearly 20 MPs. If Gove helped put Johnson on the pile of so many would-be prime ministers who never quite made it out of the starting gate — Michael Portillo, Kenneth Clarke, David Miliband — no one should be surprised if Gove himself winds up behind May and Crabb in the parliamentary voting that will take place in the first two weeks of July. Unlike Johnson, May or Crabb, Gove has something of an awkward, even oddball, personality, and Gove himself has many times said that he lacks the talent to be prime minister.
Then again, after getting the best of one-time mentor Cameron and one-time ally Johnson, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Gove thrive, either.
Voting under the penumbra of an ongoing political crisis in the United Kingdom following last Thursday’s referendum, in which a bare majority of British voters chose to leave the European Union, Spanish voters in Sunday’s general election — the second in seven months — fell back on established parties instead of more radical newcomers.
Despite polls (and even exit polls) that predicted the rise of Unidos Podemos, a joint ticket of Spain’s far-left communists and Podemos, the newer anti-austerity movement, the ticket won the same number of seats in the lower house of Spain’s parliament, the 350-member Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), than it had after the December general election.
Forecasts that Unidos Podemos would overtake the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) proved wrong. The PSOE, under the leadership of Pedro Sánchez, remains the largest leftist force in Spanish politics.
Unfortunately for Sánchez, the PSOE fell further behind the governing center-right Partido Popular (PP, the People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy, which won 137 seats — a 14-seat increase since the December 2015 elections. Those gains came mostly as a result of record-low turnout and a subtle migration back to Rajoy’s party from the upstart, liberal Ciudadanos, which lost eight seats in last Sunday’s voting.
So what next? In an election where voters largely returned the same verdict, Spain’s political class is now looking at another round of coalition talks as a country with a traditional two-party system now copes with four major parties.
At the heart of these talks, however, is the PSOE, which is now positioned as the leading swing vote between Spain’s conservatives and Spain’s hard left. No matter what comes next for Spain, the PSOE will almost certainly determine the outcome.
A few months ago, I argued that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had a tailor-made opportunity with the EU membership referendum.
Given that working-class Labour voters would be likely to determine the result, Corbyn could have shown that he has what it takes on the most crucial national referendum in decades. Most importantly, for a nervous set of Labour MPs warily eyeing a general election in 2020 or even sooner, it would show that Corbyn could actually win votes.
Corbyn, who fought a lonely fight in the 1970s and 1980s against Margaret Thatcher, then increasingly against his own party’s moderate ‘third way’ leadership in the 1990s and 2000s, was uniquely placed to win back those voters in northern England, many of whom supported Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the 2015 general election. Of course, they are the voters who also voted so overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. Sadly, Corbyn had the kind of credibility that could have brought more working-class voters in Labour’s traditional northern heartlands to the Remain camp.
As it turns out, Labour supporters backed Remain by the considerable margin of 69% to 31%. But that 31% that supported Leave could have made the difference between failure and victory.
Normally, when a politician — especially a president or a prime minister — resigns, he or she is met with effusive praise.
There’s the defeat. Then the stepping down. Then a deluge of pieces heralding the peaks as well as the valleys of the political career that’s just ended.
Not David Cameron, who stepped out of 10 Downing Street this morning to step down as British prime minister, a day after he narrowly lost a campaign to keep the United Kingdom inside the European Union. For Cameron, today’s political obituaries, so to speak, are absolutely brutal. The Independent called him the ‘worst prime minister in a hundred years.’
And that’s perhaps fair. He is, after all, the prime minister who managed to guide his country, accidentally, out of the European Union. His country (and, indeed all of Europe) now faces a period of massive uncertainty as a result.
The man who once hectored his party to stop ‘banging on about Europe’ has now been done in over Europe — just as the last two Conservative prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
He’ll leave behind a Scotland that wanted to stay inside the European Union by a margin of 62% to 38% and that will now have the moral and political capital to demand a fresh independence referendum to become an independent Scotland within the European Union. First minister Nicola Sturgeon, of course, knew this all along, and she wasted no time in making clear that a second vote is now her top priority.
He’ll also leave behind an awful mess as to the status of Northern Ireland, which also voted for Remain by a narrower margin. Its borders with the Republic of Ireland are now unclear, the republican Sinn Fein now wants a border poll on Irish unification and the Good Friday agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence might have to be amended.
He’ll leave behind an angry electorate in England, sharply divided by income, race, ethnicity and culture — if the divide between England Scotland looks insurmountable, so does the divide between London and the rest of England. Despite the warning signs, and the rise of Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Cameron failed to provide English voters with the devolution of regional power that voters enjoyed in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and even London.
Cameron showed, unlike Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, he was willing to accede to the wishes of Scottish nationalists and give them a say in their own self-determination. Given the corrosive nature of the eurosceptic populism within his own party and in UKIP, it wasn’t unreasonable that Cameron would force them to ‘put up or shut up’ with the first in-out vote on EU membership since 1975, when the European Union was just the European Economic Community.
Polls are now open across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where voters are deciding whether to either remain a member of the European Union or to leave the European Union. It’s home to the largest city in the European Union (London) and, with 64.9 million people, it’s the third-most populous state in the European Union, after Germany and France.
Polls are open from 7 a.m. through 10 p.m. — that means that here on the east coast of the United States, polls will be closing at 5 p.m. ET, with the first results to arrive shortly thereafter. No official exit polls are being conducted, but private hedge funds are believed to have commissioned exit polls and early financial indictors could tell us know traders believe the result will go. In any event, the final result is expected to be announced by ‘breakfast time’ on Friday morning.
Turkey is not going to become a member-state of the European Union anytime soon.
No matter what joint talks take place next week, next month or next decade between Turkish and European diplomats, it is absolutely incomprehensible that the European Union, with or without the United Kingdom, would be willing to grant membership to a state with the level of economic corruption and political authoritarianism as Turkey. Full stop.
Even if European diplomats did, though, and even if each of the other 27 member-states of the European Union wanted to admit Turkey — which today borders war-torn Syria and destabilized Iraq — all it would take is for a British prime minister to say, simply, ‘No.’
That’s because EU membership is one of a handful of issues accomplished only by unanimity of the European Union’s member-states. For example, Greece has held up Macedonia’s EU accession hopes for years over a long-simmering conflict over the name ‘Macedonia,’ and the Greeks, for the better part of the last century, have been none too keen on doing many favors for their Turkish rivals, either.
Last week, EU officials cheekily informed Turkey that the country has not yet met all of the EU conditions for visa-free travel to the European Union, one of the rewards that Turkey received as part of a controversial deal to stem the flow of Syrian and Iraqi migrants from Turkey into the European Union. Though critics of German chancellor Angela Merkel argue that she sold out EU values in exchange for a Turkish solution to the EU migration crisis, Europeans are holding firm in requiring that Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stop using ‘anti-terror’ laws to arrest journalists, academics and political opponents. This is hardly the stuff of happy Turkish-EU relations. Continue reading ‘Leave’ campaign’s immigration emphasis could trump Brexit economics→
Imagine yourself as a typical, middle-class voter in Northumberland.
Two years ago, you watched as your Scottish brethren to the north held a vote to consider whether to declare independence from the United Kingdom.
When they narrowly voted against independence, you watched as prime minister David Cameron renewed not only the Conservative, but the Labour and Liberal Democratic promise to enact ‘devolution max‘ for Scotland. He also declared, within hours of the vote, that he would seek to prevent Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from voting on local English matters in Westminster, thereby correcting the long-discussed West Lothian question. (He managed mostly to annoy Scottish voters, pushing them in even greater numbers to the Scottish National Party and its talented leader, first minister Nicola Sturgeon). As the independence threat receded, however, Cameron failed to follow up on either the Scottish or the English side of the federalism issues that the referendum brought to the fore.
Now imagine that you feel like your fraught middle-class status is threatened — by the global financial crisis of 2008-09 or by the widening scope of inequality or even by the rising tide of immigrants to your community, making it even more difficult to compete for dignified and meaningful work.
Maybe you even decided to abandon the Tories or Labour in the 2015 general election, voting instead for the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) as a way to send a message to Westminster about immigration or globalization. But with the first-past-the-post system, 12.7% of the vote for UKIP translated into just one seat among the 650-member House of Commons. Within England alone, UKIP won an even larger share of the vote (14.1%) than it did nationally. Again, you might have felt that your vote counted for little. Or nothing.
And so, as another referendum approaches this week on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, you might feel doubly disenfranchised. First, to the nameless bureaucrats in Brussels that you believe dictate too much in the way of the laws and policies that govern England. Secondly, within a national political system whose rules minimize third parties and whose leaders have devolved power to all of the regions except, of course, the region where nearly 84% of the population lives: England.
Leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign make it none too clear that, among their goals is this: Take. Back. Control. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that the parts of the United Kingdom with the greatest amount of regional devolution — London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — largely support the ‘Remain’ side in the Brexit referendum, according to polls. If ‘Leave’ wins on June 23, there’s a very good chance that it will do so despite the firm opposition of non-English voters.
I had a series of posts that I was planning to finalize starting today about the Brexit referendum but, of course, the news of Jo Cox’s murder has preempted everyone’s thoughts about the European Union debate today.
There will be plenty of time for more debate in the week ahead, one of the most important weeks of political debate in the United Kingdom’s postwar history and, indeed, in Europe’s postwar history.
But it will now be forever marred by Cox’s assassination, especially if, as has been widely reported, the gunman shouted out ‘Britain first!’ as he was shooting the 41-year-old Labour MP.
Cox, a wife who leaves behind a grieving husband, Brendan, and two young children, was elected to the House of Commons in 2015 after a longtime career with Oxfam and other charitable organizations. She was in particular passionate about providing relief to those suffering in war-torn Syria. As a Labour candidate and MP, she was a passionate supporter of resettling refugees from Syria in the United Kingdom. She was one just a few supporters of Liz Kendall in last summer’s Labour leadership contest, but she was also one of the MPs willing to put Jeremy Corbyn’s name on the ballot. If anyone personified the kind of rising star who could carry forward the center-left policy perspective of ‘Blairism without Blair,’ it might reasonably have been someone like Jo Cox.
She was also a passionate product of Yorkshire, and she was genuinely proud of the fact that she grew up in Bentley and that she never lost touch with her roots in that community, indeed the community where a deranged killer ended what should have been decades more of public service.
Across the United Kingdom, voters will go to the polls Thursday for regional council elections nationwide and to elect regional governments in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London.
Most political attention has focused on London, where Labour’s mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan, seems set to win by a hearty margin, or more generally on England, where the rest of the Labour Party will be watching to gauge the effects of Jeremy Corbyn’s eight-month leadership.
In Scotland, first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) is expected to win a landslide victory, with Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives vying for a distant second place.
Above all, voters and politicians are already looking beyond Thursday’s regional and council votes to the European Union referendum on June 23, which could cause national, regional and global tremors.
But Wales is also voting to elect all 60 members of the National Assembly (Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru). Voters choose members directly through constituencies, but vote a second time for a particular party that provides additional seats, on a regional basis, through proportional representation. Though the region has attracted far less attention than Scotland or even Northern Ireland of late, it still boasts 3.1 million residents of its own — a population that’s equal to about 60% of Scotland’s and just 5% of the overall UK population.
As Labour struggles throughout the rest of the country, polls show that the Welsh Labour Party is on track to win Thursday’s vote with ease, which will give Carwyn Jones, the Welsh first minister since December 2009, an easy path to reelection. The center-left Labour, which has historically taken a more nationalist approach to politics in Wales, has won every regional election since 1999, the first in the post-devolution era. Continue reading Nationalists hope to thrive in quiet Welsh elections→
When Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour Party’s leadership last September, party stalwarts in London also voted to choose a candidate to contest London’s mayoral election, one of many regional elections taking place on May 5.
Corbyn’s elevation marked the moment when Labour’s rank-and-file members ripped down the curtain on New Labour, ending the party’s two-decade move to the center that kept it in power for three consecutive terms under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
But it was perhaps the internal contest to lead Labour into London’s mayoral contest that struck the most damning blow.
The initial frontrunner, Tessa Jowell, pushed London’s bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics as a minister in the Blair government. When London, in fact, won the Olympics, she became the government’s minister for the Olympics as well. Jowell, a ‘Blairite’ long associated with the centrist incrementalism of New Labour, seemed like the perfect fit for one of the world’s financial capitals.
Instead, Labour voters turned to Sadiq Khan, a 45-year-old rising star of Labour’s ‘soft left’ flank. The son of Pakistani immigrants (his mother was a seamstress, his father a bus driver), it’s hard to conceive of a sharper contrast against his opponent, Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith, the son of a billionaire.
Goldsmith’s father, James Goldsmith, won notoriety in the 1990s for his ‘Referendum Party,’ a eurosceptic forerunner of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). His son, just 41 years old, wasn’t an implausible candidate for London’s Tories. Like Cameron, Goldsmith is a moderate on social issues, and he is a former writer who spent nearly a decade as the editor of The Ecologist. But he has struggled to contest the image of a wealthy plutocrat out of touch with struggles of everyday Londoners. In April, he struggled to answer several ‘pop quiz’ questions in an interview about the city.
Moreover, Goldsmith’s campaign has been tainted by what even some Conservative critics have called Islamaphobic scare tactics. Those attacks have made Goldsmith seem not only demagogic but also desperate.
This weekend, Serbia’s prime minister Aleksandar Vučić finalized a four-year consolidation of power in early parliamentary elections that delivered a landslide victory for his center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), giving him the mandate and the support to advance political and economic reforms that he hopes could one day result in Serbia’s accession as a member-state of the European Union.
In results late Sunday night, the SNS a wide lead over its nearest competitor, the center-left Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS, Социјалистичка партија Србије), which currently serves as the government’s junior coalition partner. The Socialist leader, Ivica Dačić, a former prime minister, currently serves as Vučić’s foreign minister. Several parties of the fragmented center-left and hard-right ultra-nationalist parties trail far behind in single digits. With just under 50% of the total vote on Sunday, the SNS can expect to have an absolute majority in Serbia’s unicameral, 250-seat National Assembly (Народна скупштина).
Vučic called the snap elections earlier this year, fully knowing how well his party was doing in the polls. Like it or not, Vučic and the former SNS leader Tomislav Nikolić, currently in his first term as president, will be directing Serbian policy through the end of the decade.
But Serbia is far from the only country in the Balkans that will vote this year, and Sunday’s vote kicks off what could become a season of electoral change across the region.
Unlike Serbia, where voters were happy to deliver Vučic the broad mandate he wanted, voters in the rest of the western Balkans are far less sanguine about their elected officials. Opposition politicians in Montenegro nearly ousted their long-serving prime minister earlier this year, though fresh elections are due before October. The twists and turns of a wiretapping scandal in Macedonia have reached fever pitch this week, with protesters marching against the government in Skopje, and a June 5 parliamentary election date is currently in doubt.
A region that still dreams of EU accession
The western Balkans are the last major region of Europe that has not yet been integrated into the European Union. With the possible exception of Turkey, it’s the final frontier of EU accession. Among the six (or seven, if you count Kosovo) countries that emerged out of the former Yugoslavia, only two of them have won EU member-state status, Slovenia and Croatia. They join only Albania in representing the western Balkans in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The remaining Balkan states are in varying stages of their quests for accession:
Macedonia was granted candidate status back in 2005, but democratic and economic backsliding have stalled its membership push, not to mention its long-running spat with Greece over the name, ‘Macedonia,’ which Greeks consider to be an inaccurate appropriation of Greek culture and history.
Montenegro gained candidate status in December 2010, and negotiations are ongoing, though Montenegro has fully implemented just two of 33 chapters of the acquis communautaire, the body of EU law required for all member-states.
The European Union granted Serbia candidate status in March 2012, negotiations kicked off in 2014 and Vučic is eager to conclude accession by the year 2020, though that remains incredibly optimistic.
Albania won candidate status in June 2014, and though its negotiations have yet to begin, prime minister Edi Rama, a former artist who charged to power in 2013, is an energetic center-left figure who’s worked closely with former British prime minister Tony Blair to develop a package of EU-friendly economic and political reforms.
Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for membership status in February 2016, but the European Union hasn’t yet granted it candidate status.
Given the existential threats that the European Union faces, hardly anyone outside the Balkans seems to have the stomach for what promises to be a difficult round of accession. The June 23 referendum in the United Kingdom on whether to leave the European Union remains too close to call, but its passage would be a major blow to the notion of ‘ever closer union.’ Much of southern Europe, most especially Greece, have still not recovered from the eurozone crisis that stretched the limits of EU financial, economic and monetary policy and that brought into question the future of the single currency. Meanwhile, the most acute refugee crisis in Europe since World War II has weakened the Schengen agreement by undermining the free movement of people within the European Union and the eradication of internal EU borders.
For current EU members, then, it may look like there’s precious little benefit in EU accession. But for the Balkan states, there remains enthusiasm that EU membership will force the kind of reforms that could reduce the crippling corruption that is, on general, worse in the Balkans than in the rest of Europe:
Balkans populations also hope that EU membership will also clear the path not only for reforms, but for the kind of funding that could allow them to catch up to the higher EU standard of living, which, not surprisingly lags far behind: With eventual EU membership — and the promise it brings of greater incomes and opportunities — dangling as a carrot, it’s no surprise that Vučic has amassed so much political power in Serbia and an impressive amount of respect among European leaders. But it’s that same dynamic that could lead to massive changes throughout the rest of the region, most notably in Montenegro and Macedonia.
Wiretaps and pardons
Eleven days ago, Macedonia’s president Gjorge Ivanov pardoned 56 people, all of whom were implicated in a wide-ranging wiretapping scandal that forced the country’s powerful prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, to resign in January. Beginning in the early 2010s, Gruevski and his government were found to have wiretapped illegally up to 20,000 Macedonians, opposition figures, journalists and even diplomats.
Ivanov, who announced a decree that would end all investigations into the wiretapping scandal, set off a constitutional crisis from what had already been a crisis of governance and the rule of law, and his announcements met with sharp disapproval from EU officials and Macedonia’s political opposition.
Gruevski’s ruling VMRO-DPMNE (Внатрешна македонска револуционерна организација – Демократска партија за македонско национално единство; Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) has been in power since 2006. It easily won a fourth consecutive term in April 2014, though the election was hardly a fair fight.
Gruevski has spent much of the past decade stoking nationalist sentiment, which has antagonized Greece; for example, he erected an 11-foot high statue of Alexander the Great in Macedonia’s capital of Skopje. While the spat with Greece helped Gruevski, in part, to rally domestic support, it has only hardened Greek determination to block Macedonian membership not only in the European Union, but NATO as well. Meanwhile, the VMRO-DPMNE’s government has done little to introduce reforms to stem corruption or promote liberalization.
Macedonians now seem fed up with Gruevski’s empty promises and hollow rhetoric, to say nothing of the wiretapping shenanigans and his attempts to persuade Ivanov to pull the plug on the ongoing investigations.
Elections were set for June 5, but the government, fearing a rout, may try to postpone them. A meeting scheduled earlier today in Vienna among EU leaders and Macedonia’s political leaders was cancelled, even as the intensity of Macedonia’s protesters increases.
Zoran Zaev, Macedonia’s opposition leader and the head of the center-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM, Социјалдемократски сојуз на Македонија), was instrumental in revealing the extent of the wiretapping scandal, though only after Gruevski tried to have Zaev jailed for allegedly attempting to illegally toppling the government.
For years, Zaev has opposed Gruevski’s nationalist showmanship and denounced the government’s flashy development projects as wasteful vanity spending. Now, with Ivanov’s announcement to suspend the wiretapping scandal that Zaev himself helped to reveal, the opposition leader has joined the front lines of the protesters. There’s a sense that he could soon be leading the country, though he pledged earlier this month to boycott elections without additional reforms to guarantee political freedom and a free and fair electoral process. An original plan to hold elections in April has already been postponed once to June and could well be delayed again.
Negotiations over the conduct and timing of the Macedonian elections are just the beginning of what could become an even more tumultuous year. If Zaev and an opposition coalition forces VMRO-DPMNE from power, no one knows exactly how willingly Gruevski and his allies will concede. Moreover, from day one, a Zaev-led government would be locked in a high-stakes battle with Ivanov to reinstate the wiretapping investigation.
Đukanović’s last stand?
Though it officially won its independence from Serbia only in June 2006, Milo Đukanović has controlled Montenegro like a personal fiefdom since 1991, when he was first elected prime minister. Đukanović has held power, on and off, ever since.
Polls show that Đukanović and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS, Demokratska Partija Socijalista Crne Gore) hold a wide lead in elections that have to be called within the next six months. But that belies the frustration that’s built for a quarter-century with Đukanović and his family, whose opponents argue that they run Montenegro as their own personal duchy of corruption.
As in Serbia, Montenegro’s opposition is even more split today than it was in the last election. The conservative opposition Democratic Front (Demokratski front) did poorly in the 2012 parliamentary elections, and its leader Miodrag Lekić narrowly lost the 2013 presidential election. Last year, however, Lekić left the party to form Democratic Alliance (DEMOS, Demokratski savez), a competing center-right party.
In December, however, Đukanović only narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in Montenegro’s unicameral, 81-member parliament (Skupština Crne Gore), following widespread protests that began in October over longstanding suspicions of Đukanović’s corruption. Protesters demanded his resignation and a transitional government; Đukanović himself spent half of the 2000s fending off a criminal inquiry into corruption from an Italian prosecutor. Đukanović’s long-time allies, the Social Democratic Party (Socijaldemokratska Partija Crne Gore), left government for the first time since 1998.
Đukanović has hoped that Montenegro’s relatively strong economy and a general trend toward liberalization will distract from his critics’ worst allegations. Moreover, Montenegrins will go to the polls as he pursues the country’s accession to NATO after formally opening talks in February. It’s a step that has appalled Moscow, which still holds plenty of economic and cultural power in the western Balkans, despite the region’s aspirations to integrate further with the rest of Europe.
Đukanović, who is only 54 years old, seems unlikely to take the opportunity of 2016 elections to step down. But it’s not inconceivable that, despite Montenegro’s more successful strides toward NATO and, eventually, EU accession, he too will face the kind of popular wrath that is now greeting Gruevski across Macedonia.