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Trump effect: Europe turning toward integration, away from populists

Across Europe, support for Trump-style populists is falling, even though many European populists were growing long before Trump entered the political scene. (123RF / Evgeny Gromov)

If there’s one thing that unites Europeans, it’s the concept that they are better — more enlightened, more cultured and more sophisticated — than Americans.

That was especially true during the presidency of George W. Bush, when France, Germany and other leading anchors of the European Union vociferously opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq. In 2002, it sometimes seemed like German chancellor Gerhard Schröder was running against Bush, not against his conservative German challenger, Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber.

Europeans might be leaning in a similar direction in the Trump era, even though it’s hardly been a month since Donald Trump took office. In the days after Trump’s surprise election last November (and after the Brexit vote last summer), populists like Geert Wilders in The Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France had reason to believe that Trump’s victory would give political tailwinds to their own electoral efforts in 2017.

If anything, however, Europeans are pulling back from populism in the first months of 2017. As four of the founding EU countries gear up for elections in the coming months — the first will be The Netherlands in just nine days — the threat of a Trump-style populist surging to power seems increasingly farfetched.

Maybe Europeans simply outright disdain what they perceive as the vulgar, Jacksonian urges of American voters. Maybe it’s shock at the way Trump’s inexperienced administration has bumbled through its first 40 days or the troubles of British prime minister Theresa May in navigating her country through the thicket of Brexit and withdrawing from the European Union.

More likely though, it could be that Trump’s oft-stated criticism of NATO and praise for Russian president Vladimir Putin have finally shaken Europeans out of the fog that’s gathered for 70 years under the penumbra of pax Americana. Even as officials like US vice president Mike Pence and US defense secretary James Mattis reassure European allies that the United States is committed to the trans-Atlantic security alliance, Trump continues to muse about NATO being obsolete (as recently as the week before his inauguration). Furthermore, the America-first nationalism that emerged from Trump’s successful campaign has continued into his administration and promises a new, more skeptical approach to prior American obligations not only in Europe, but worldwide. Just ten days into office, Trump trashed the European Union as a ‘threat’ to the United States, only to back down and call it ‘wonderful’ in February. Breitbart, the outlet that senior Trump strategist Stephen Bannon headed until last summer, ran a headline in January proclaiming that Trump would make the European Union ‘history.’

All of which has left Europeans also rethinking their security position and considering a day when American security guarantees are withdrawn — or simply too unreliable to be trusted.

Arguably, NATO always undermined the European Union, in structural terms, because NATO has been the far more important body for guaranteeing trans-Atlantic security. Though Federica Mogherini is a talented and saavy diplomat, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy is far less important to trans-Atlantic security than the NATO secretary-general (currently, former Norwegian prime minster Jens Stoltenberg). While the stakes of EU policymaking — trade, consumer and environmental regulation, competition law and other economic regulation and a good deal of European fiscal and monetary policy — aren’t low, they would be higher still if the European Union, instead of NATO, were truly responsible for European defense and security. That’s perhaps one reason why the European Union has been stuck since the early 2000s in its own ‘Articles of Confederation’ moment — too far united to pull the entire scheme apart, not yet united enough to pull closer together.

Perhaps, alternatively, it has nothing to do with blowback to Trump or Brexit, and voters in the core western European countries, which are accustomed to a less Schumpeterian form of capitalism, are simply more immune to radical swings than their counterparts subject to the janglier peaks and valleys of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. It’s not too much to think that, possibly, in the aftermath of both Brexit and Trump’s election, core Europe, unleashed from the toxic dynamic of British euroscepticism and emboldened to forge new relationships from outside the American security aegis, may be finding a new confidence after years of economic ennui.

Nevertheless, populists across Europe who tried to cloak themselves in the warm embrace of Trumpismo throughout 2016 are increasingly struggling in 2017. A dark and uncertain 2016 is giving way rapidly to a European spring in 2017 where centrists, progressives and conservatives alike are finding ways to push back against populist and xenophobic threats.  Continue reading Trump effect: Europe turning toward integration, away from populists

As Gabriel steps aside, Schulz gives Germany’s SPD best shot in a generation

Martin Schulz, formerly the European Parliament president, has returned to German domestic politics in recent weeks. (Facebook)

For the past two elections, Germany’s center-left has tried to stymie chancellor Angela Merkel with two jowly, doughy figures compromised by high service in Merkel-led ‘grand coalition’ governments. 

And for the past two elections, Germany’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) has won a smaller share of the vote than at any other time in postwar German history.

For months, it appeared that the Social Democrats were set to sleepwalk into making the same error in 2017.

With the federal election formally set for September 24, it seemed that the SPD would choose as its candidate for chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the economy minister who serves as vice chancellor in the current Große Koalition and who has served as the party’s official leader since 2009.

Though polls showed Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), in power since 2005, losing some ground to the eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), they still maintained a consistent lead of anywhere from 11% to 17% against the Social Democrats. With Gabriel at the helm, the SPD seemed content to lose another election to Merkel, perhaps willing to suffer as the junior partner in her fourth-term governing coalition or otherwise in complete opposition.

So it was a surprise to see Gabriel on Tuesday bow out of competition to lead his party into the 2017 elections and instead endorse Martin Schulz, who stepped down as the president of the European Parliament just weeks ago to return to German politics. Continue reading As Gabriel steps aside, Schulz gives Germany’s SPD best shot in a generation

What Italy’s Tangentopoli in 1992 political trauma can teach Brazil in 2016

Interim president Michel Temer was booed at the opening ceremony for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. (Facebook)
Interim president Michel Temer was booed at the opening ceremony for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. (Facebook)

Given ancient Rome’s delight in all things Hellenistic, it’s perhaps surprising that it took until 1960 for the Italian capital to win its turn hosting the Summer Olympic Games.brazilItaly Flag Icon

Those 1960 Games, however, showcased a Rome that, in barely more than a decade, rose from the ashes of World War II’s devastation. Under the guidance of U.S. and western allies and under the aegis of the Catholic, conservative Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democrats), the 1960 Games forecast a competent and determined Italy that would, for the next three decades, leap forward economically in surprising and creative ways.

Though Italy today seems often trapped in sclerotic and tradition-bound ways, it wasn’t outlandish to say that Italy in 1960 was still a country of the future.  

That evergreen label, too, is affixed to Brazil. It’s the country of the future, the old chestnut goes… and it always will be.

When Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Olympic Games in 2009, it looked like that future, always just beyond the horizon, was finally within reach. In 2010, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva marked the last of eight years in power. With GDP growth of 7.5%, the frothiest Brazilian economy in a quarter-century, and with extreme poverty nearly eliminated across Brazil through a series of social welfare, transfer and educational programs, it was a victory lap for a figure who had become the most mythic colossus of the Latin American left. Though Brazil’s 2010 boom was part of a short-lived emerging economies bubble, things were still looking up for Brazil as recently as 2014, when Lula da Silva’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, narrowly won reelection – the fourth consecutive term for the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), defeating both Marina Silva, a charismatic third-way economic leftist and evangelical Christian who would have been Brazil’s first leader of African descent, and conservative Aécio Neves, a telegenic and well-regarded senator and successful former governor of Minas Gerais.

Even then, it was still possible to regard the historic 2016 Games, the first to be held in South America, as notice that at long last, Brazil would be a country of the present. Instead, the country today is in political and economic crisis. Far from announcing Brazil as a major economic power, the Rio Games themselves have become a symbol of economic inequality and government misrule. At best, they have been an opportunity (as much for Brazilians as for Trump-weary and Clinton-fatigued Americans) to forget politics for two weeks.   Continue reading What Italy’s Tangentopoli in 1992 political trauma can teach Brazil in 2016

AfD, FDP thrive in Hamburg state elections

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It’s a slow election year in Germany, so there will be few tests at the state level for chancellor Angela Merkel, her center-left ‘grand coalition’ partners or any of the various challengers to Merkel’s hold on German centrism.hamburgGermany Flag Icon

That makes the results from Sunday’s election in Hamburg, a city-state in the German north, perhaps more important than they otherwise would be, and it’s not great news for Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), which won just one-third as much support as its center-left rival (and partner in federal government), the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party).

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RELATED: Thuringia and Brandenburg election results —
Left, AfD on the rise

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The CDU and the SPD continue to be the largest of Germany’s political parties and, notwithstanding the fact that they have joined together in the second ‘grand coalition’ in 10 years, the two parties fight fiercely at the state level and will contest Germany’s next national elections later this decade. Nevertheless, it wasn’t unexpected that the SPD, under the leadership of Hamburg first mayor Olaf Scholz (pictured above), would easily win the election. Though the SPD lost four seats, enough to deprive it of its absolute majority, Scholz will almost certainly form the next government, likely with Die Grünen (the Greens).

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The troubling aspect for the CDU isn’t that it did so poorly in Hamburg, which has traditionally leaned toward the SPD, but that it seems to be losing voters to more right-wing alternatives, including the mildly eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), which actively advocates that Greece and other countries leave the eurozone. It’s the four state where the AfD has now surpassed the minimal threshold to win seats in the state parliament/assembly.  Continue reading AfD, FDP thrive in Hamburg state elections

Thuringia and Brandenburg election results: Left, AfD on the rise

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With the world’s attention more focused on Scotland’s independence referendum this week — or even on Sweden’s national elections — it’s tempting to give short shrift to two state elections in eastern Germany last weekend. But, taken together, they portend major implications for the future of German politics.

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The first is the now undeniable rise of the conservative, eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany). Having narrowly missed the 5% threshold to win seats at the national level last September, the AfD won nearly 10% the August 31 elections in the eastern state of Saxony.

In the September 14 elections, the AfD blew past 10% in both states — winning 12.2% of the ‘list’ vote in Brandenburg and 10.6% of the vote in Thuringia. Not only has the AfD displaced the fast-withering Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party), it now threatens to steal both social and economic conservative voters from the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) of three-term chancellor Angela Merkel. Years of Merkel’s cautious pragmatism and two ‘grand coalition’ governments may have caught up to the CDU, giving the AfD a wide berth on the German right.

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RELATED: CDU wins Saxony, but faces tougher road in two weeks’ time

RELATED: Left hopes to make eastern breakthrough in
German state elections

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Meanwhile, Germany’s socialist party,  Die Linke (Left Party), will continue as the junior partner to the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) in the Brandenburg state government. More extraordinarily, it has supplanted the SPD as the clear party of the left in Thuringia.

Its leader, Bodo Ramelow (pictured above) could become the state’s next minister-president, which would mark the first time that the  Left has controlled any state government in Germany. Established after reunification as the remnants of the former East German socialist party, it now also includes a significant band of former disaffected left-wing SPD members and supporters.

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Continue reading Thuringia and Brandenburg election results: Left, AfD on the rise

CDU wins Saxony, but faces tougher road in two weeks’ time

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It’s not necessarily that Saxony is shifting to the right, as The Economist wrote earlier this week about the results of last Sunday’s state elections in Saxony.Germany Flag Iconsaxony

It’s more that right-leaning voters are switching allegiances from one party to another, not unlike similar shifts in western Germany and at the federal level. 

Though the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) will have to find a new junior coalition partner, there’s no doubt that it will continue to govern under minister-president Stanislaw Tillich (pictured above with German’s chancellor Angela Merkel), who won his second reelection after assuming the office in May 2008. 

Neither its junior partner in the outgoing government, the liberal Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party), nor the neo-Nazi Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD, National Democratic Party) met the 5% hurdle to return their legislators to  Saxony’s 126-seat state parliament, the Landtag.

Many of their voters appear to have supported the newly formed, anti-euro Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) instead, which won 9.7%, making them the fourth-largest party in the Landtag with 14 seats. 

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RELATED: Left hopes to make eastern breakthrough in German state elections

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None of this news, however, was unpredictable, because the results largely lined up with polls. 

The election was most disastrous for the Free Democrats, a party that, it’s not an exaggeration to say, faces political extinction.  Though the FDP made some of its strongest gains in its history in  2009 at both the federal and at state levels, it’s been facing backlash  for the past four years. In last September’s federal elections, it lost all 93 of its seats in the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, shut out for the first time in postwar history. Now that it’s lost all of its seats in Saxony’s Landtag, it will no longer be a part of any state government, a massive turn for a party that just one year ago controlled the German foreign ministry, among other portfolios. It now holds seats in just eight of 16 state assemblies, a number that could drop to six if it wins less than 5% of the vote in upcoming September 14 elections in Brandenburg and Thuringia. 

The AfD, also a party with center-right tendencies, is best known for its relatively eurosceptic stand, even if its euroscepticism is muted by the standards of the United Kingdom, France and even The Netherlands. Continue reading CDU wins Saxony, but faces tougher road in two weeks’ time

One month out, Löfven and Social Democrats lead in Sweden

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Voters go to the polls in Scandinavia’s largest country on September 14, and if he can hold onto the lead that his party has enjoyed for over a year, former labor leader Stefan Löfven (pictured above) will become Sweden’s next prime minister. Sweden

That’s slightly surprising because most Swedes don’t necessarily give center-right prime minister Frederik Reinfeldt poor marks. In two terms, Reinfeldt has earned praise, domestically and abroad, for his government’s economic stewardship, bringing Sweden out of the 2008-09 financial crisis with some of the strongest growth in the European Union. In that time, Reinfeldt has reduced the size of Sweden’s public sector, while nevertheless retaining the character of his country’s renowned social welfare state.

Reinfeldt’s governments amassed an impressive series of legislative accomplishments over the past eight years. Under his watch, Sweden privatized several public interests, including the maker of Absolut vodka, and otherwise deregulated the pharmaceutical, telecommunications and energy industries. Reinfeldt introduced the  earned income tax credit to reduce taxes on the poorest Swedes while instituting a series of tax cuts, including the abolition of the wealth tax in 2007 and a reduction in the VAT rate on restaurants from 25% to 12%. His government also passed a law to permit same-sex marriage in 2009 with wide support from the opposition.

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In his government’s second term, Reinfeldt avoided the recession that otherwise afflicted much of the rest of the eurozone. Though Reinfeldt and his finance minister, Anders Borg (pictured above, right, with Reinfeldt, left), have resorted to deficit spending to boost Sweden’s economy, their budget deficits haven’t fallen much below 1% of GDP. That’s a much better fiscal record than the average eurozone member, and it’s kept Swedish public debt at the relatively low level of around 40% of Swedish GDP.

It’s arguable that by reforming, privatizing or abolishing the least efficient areas of the Swedish public sector, Reinfeldt’s governments updated for the 21st century the existing welfare state that the long-dominant Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti (Swedish Social Democratic Party) built in the 20th century. Continue reading One month out, Löfven and Social Democrats lead in Sweden

Gerhard Schröder: a wasted opportunity in the Ukraine crisis

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If there’s anyone the European Union could have sent to Moscow on a quiet trip to de-escalate tensions with Russia in February, it was former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder.Germany Flag IconRussia Flag Icon

Schröder served as Germany’s chancellor between 1998 and 2005, when he led two consecutive governments led by his center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party).  As chancellor, Schröder cultivated strong economic ties with Russia, and in 2003, he led Europe’s opposition to he US invasion of Iraq, a cause that also found Schröder in alliance with Russia and its president Vladimir Putin, who Schröder once called a ‘flawless democrat.’

But Schröder’s comments about the growing crisis have been far from discreet, greatly angering his successor, Angela Merkel. He has criticized the European Union’s approach to Ukraine, defended Russia’s right to annex Crimea, and validated Putin’s view that the NATO military action during the 1999 Kosovo War (an action Schröder supported in his first term as chancellor):

Mr. Schroeder told a discussion forum hosted by Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper that as someone who was aware of history, Mr Putin had certain justifiable “ fears about being encircled” and that since the end of the Cold War there had been “ unhappy developments” on the fringes of what was once the Soviet Union. He also claimed that the European Union appeared not to have “the remotest idea” that the Ukraine was “culturally divided” and had made mistakes from the outset in its attempts to reach an association agreement with the country.

Mr. Schroeder accepted that Russia’s intervention was in breach of international law but compared the Kremlin’s action to his own government’s military support for the NATO bombardment of Serbia during the Kosovo crisis in 1999. “We sent our plans to Serbia and together with the rest of NATO they bombed a sovereign state without any UN security council backing,” Mr Schroeder insisted, adding that he had since become cautious in apportioning blame.

That puts his position almost entirely in line with Putin’s — and almost entirely at odds with the German government’s. Needless to say, that has also ruined whatever value Schröder may have had in soothing German and European relations with Russia.  Continue reading Gerhard Schröder: a wasted opportunity in the Ukraine crisis

Tsunis nomination draws scorn from Norwegians

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Not only does George Tsunis not speak Norwegian, he’s never even set foot in Norway.USflagnorway

Yet, even as he stumbled through an embarrassingly poor performance at a hearing on Thursday before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tsunis is set to become the next US ambassador to Oslo.

As US senator John McCain asked Tsunis about the ‘anti-immigration’ Framskrittspartiet (Progress Party), which is the junior member in Norway’s center-right governing coalition, the future ambassador stumbled with his answer or, as Norway’s newspapers phrased it, tråkket i salaten (trampled through the salad bowl).  

“You get some fringe elements that have a microphone and spew their hatred,” he said in the pre-appointment hearing. “And I will tell you Norway has been very quick to denounce them.”
McCain interrupted him, pointing out that as part of the coalition, the party was hardly being denounced.
“I stand corrected,”  Tsunis said after a pause.  “I would like to leave my answer at… it’s a very,very open society and the overwhelming amount of Norwegians and the overwhelming amount of people in parliament don’t feel the same way.”

Good grief.  This came after Tsunis referred to Norway’s ‘president’ — of course, there’s no such office because Norway is a constitutional monarchy.  By way of background, Tsunis is an attorney and a businessman from Long Island.  He founded Chartwell Hotels, which operates properties for InterContinental Hotels and other hotel chains.  Though he supported McCain, a Republican, in the 2008 US presidential election, he bundled nearly $1 million in contributions for US president Barack Obama, a Democrat, in the subsequent 2012 presidential election, and he personally donated $267,244 to the Democratic Party in 2012 and $278,531 in 2010.  Tsunis is an active member of the Greek-American community and the Greek Orthodox Church, which begs why anyone in the Obama administration would send him… to Norway.

McCain, not thrilled with the response, thanked Tsunis and the ‘incredibly highly qualified group of nominees.’  But perhaps McCain should leave aside the snark himself — Norwegians might also take issue with his characterization of the Progress Party solely as an anti-immigration party.  In fact, the party has its genesis in the anti-tax movement of the 1970s.  It’s certainly in favor of tougher immigration restrictions, and it’s probably Norway’s most controversial major party.  But it’s not nearly as xenophobic as some of Europe’s other parties (e.g., Marine Le Pen’s Front national in France), and it represents something greater in Norway as a party of rupture.

Other mainstream center-left and center-right parties largely support Norway’s social welfare state, just as they support the relatively fiscal conservative steps to limit spending from Norway’s oil largesse.  The Progress Party wants to break away radically from the state-heavy welfare model, and it wants to spend more of Norway’s oil fund today.

That’s why Erna Solberg, the leader of Høyre (the ‘Right,’ or more commonly, the Conservative Party) is Norway’s prime minister today instead of Progress Party leader Siv Jensen.  Solberg pulled the Conservative Party toward a more moderate policy path that’s essentially the center-right analog to the long-governing Arbeiderpartiet (Labour Party), which lost the September 2013 elections after two terms in power under former prime minister Jens Stoltenberg.

It doesn’t seem like it would be so incredibly hard for the Obama administration to bring even someone woefully uniformed about Norway’s political, cultural and economic basics up to speed — even Tsunis!  That the Obama administration chose not to do so is perhaps the most egregious oversight of all. 

The previous ambassador to Norway, Barry White, who served from 2009 to 2013, had at least some basis in international affairs as the longtime managing partner of Foley Hoag LLP, and as the chair of Lex Mundi, a global association of international, independent law firms.  His predecessor, Benson Whitney, served from 2005 to 2009 under former president George W. Bush.  A native of Saint Paul, Minnesota, Whitney came from the US state with the greatest number of Norwegian-Americans by far.  As then-president of the Minnesota Venture Capital Association, he could argue that his experience in venture capital and investments would bode well to serve as a representative to the country with the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund.

It’s not just Tsunis. The Obama administration’s nominee to serve as the ambassador to Hungary, by the way? Colleen Bradley Bell, a television producer and — you guessed it — philanthropist and top Obama campaign donor.  At a time when Hungary faces some of the most troubling accusations of democratic backsliding within the European Union, and with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán set to win another majority under a new (troubling) electoral system in April, the United States is sending the producer of television daytime soap opera ‘The Bold and the Beautiful.’

 

I wrote last June that the nomination of James Costos, a Hollywood executive and Obama donor with no Spanish language skills and no apparent ties to Spain, to become the US ambassador of Spain was a prime example of why the current practice of sending wealthy donors (instead of career diplomats from the US state department) is so flawed: Continue reading Tsunis nomination draws scorn from Norwegians

Bachelet’s most tenacious second-term foe? Lofty expectations.

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Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s president between 2006 and 2010, pulled off Sunday what no other Chilean president has done since the return of democracy in the post-Pinochet era — win a second, non-consecutive term.chile

To draw a contrast to the United States, only one president managed to return to the White House after leaving it — Grover Cleveland, who served two non-consecutive terms in the 1880s and the 1890s, though he’s routinely ranked among the more forgettable and inconsequential of US presidents.  Although it’s an inexact analogy (US presidents have never been barred from holding two consecutive terms the way that Chilean presidents are), Bachelet now faces the challenge of becoming one of Chile’s transformational 21st century leaders — in short, her challenge is not to become Chile’s Grover Cleveland.

Her return as president follows a four-year interregnum of government by Chile’s center-right — and in Sebastián Piñera, a president who represented the most moderate tendencies of the Chilean right, largely unsullied by association with the 17-year military regime of Augusto Pinochet.  Piñera’s term has been marked by relatively robust economic growth and sound government, even if Piñera himself hasn’t always been the most effective advocate for his own administration.  That became especially clear as Piñera seemed to lose control of the tussle between his government and student protesters throughout his term in office.

Moreover, the center-right did itself no favors in the process of nominating a candidate to succeed Piñera — the initial resignation of frontrunner Laurence Golborne last spring over private-sector scandal, the subsequent primary fight within the Chilean right between the more moderate Renovación Nacional (RN, National Renewal) and the more conservative Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI, Independent Democratic Union), the sudden withdrawal of the primary winner Pablo Longueira, and his hasty replacement with former labor minister Evelyn Matthei as the standard-bearer of the fractured center-right Coalición por el Cambio (Coalition for Change) — widely referred to as the Alianza por Chile (Alliance for Chile).

But even in a parallel universe where a united Alianza backed a scandal-free Golborne, Bachelet was always deemed the favorite to win the Chilean presidency.  Furthermore, though Bachelet nearly routed Matthei in the first round (46.70% to 25.03%), she won a nearly two-to-win landslide against Matthei in Sunday’s runoff (62.16% to 37.83%).  But as Bachelet prepares to return to La Moneda, she should fear that the same forces that rendered the Piñera administration so unpopular could also render her second term even more  unpopular, especially after raising such high expectations in her successful second-term presidential campaign.

Part of the problem is that her constituency today covers a wider portion of Chile’s political spectrum than it did in her first victory eight years ago.   Continue reading Bachelet’s most tenacious second-term foe? Lofty expectations.

SPD party membership approves German grand coalition

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In an overwhelming endorsement of Germany’s new grand coalition, party members of the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) have approved the governing agreement between the SPD and chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right union.Germany Flag Icon

Nearly 370,000 German party members approved the agreement by the lopsided margin of 75.96% in a vote that was held over the past two weeks, the results of which were announced earlier today.  The vote followed the November 27 agreement struck among SPD leaders and leaders of Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) and Merkel’s Bavarian allies, the  Christlich-Soziale Union (CSU, the Christian Social Union).

So what next?

Expect Merkel to name a new cabinet within the next 24 hours, and expect her formal reelection as chancellor to come early next week.

You can read more background about the coalition deal here and here, but here’s a short list of points to keep in mind: Continue reading SPD party membership approves German grand coalition

Germany reaches coalition deal, faces SPD party vote

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With the holidays coming, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s goal was to have a coalition government in place by Christmas.Germany Flag Icon

Those plans took a huge leap forward today, as Merkel’s governing Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party), together with their more conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christlich-Soziale Union (CSU, the Christian Social Union) reached a coalition deal with the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party), paving the way for a return to the same ‘grand coalition’ that governed Germany between 2005 and 2009.

Generally speaking, the terms of the deal are as follows:

  • A hike in the German minimum wage across the board to €8.50, a key concession from Merkel to the SPD.
  • More regulation over employees and increases in pensions, both concessions to the SPD.
  • The government will not raise any additional taxes or issue additional debt, maintaining a key CDU-CSU campaign pledge.

Sometimes feisty coalition talks lasted nearly a month, and the deal comes over two months after the election. Taken together, it represents a fairly generous deal for the Social Democrats, whose 470,000 party members will now vote in the next two weeks to either accept or reject the coalition deal — the ballot results are due on December 14.

The CDU-CSU hold 311 seats in the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament, just five short of an absolute majority in the 630-seat Bundestag, following a tremendous victory for the CDU-CSU in the September 22 federal elections.  Those elections saw the CDU-CSU’s previous coalition partner, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party) wiped out completely from the Bundestag after failing to cross the 5% electoral threshold.  Though the Social Democrats won 192 seats, it still represented their second-worst election result in the postwar period.

Though Merkel and SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel will announce further details as to the new government’s policy agenda later today, cabinet ministers won’t be named until after the SPD party membership vote.  But it’s expected that CDU finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble will remain in his position (unlike in the first grand coalition, when the SPD’s Peer Steinbrück held the post).  It’s also expected that Frank-Walter Steinmeier will return as foreign minister, a role he held during the first grand coalition.  Gabriel is expected to become the SPD’s floor leader in the Bundestag or assume a super-charged economy ministry.

So what to expect next?

Merkel’s concessions — especially the €8.50 minimum wage — represent just about as far as the conservative chancellor could go, and it’s likely that Bavarian minister-president and CSU leader Horst Seehofer isn’t thrilled with the deal. (Seehofer, fresh off his own landslide victory earlier in September, is unlikely to leave his perch as Bavaria’s chief executive to take a job in Merkel’s cabinet.)

In particular, the minimum wage increase makes it much more likely that the Social Democratic rank-and-file consent to the government.  If the party vote fails, it’s hard to see how there’s any appetite for a grand coalition, though I would expect Merkel and the SPD to take one last go before Germany moves to new elections — both because Merkel is anxious to get on with European governance matters and because the SPD still trails the CDU-CSU by a wide margin in polls, so Merkel could conceivably win an absolute majority if snap elections are held early next year.  A Bild poll last week showed SPD voters only narrowly in favor of a deal by a vote of 49% to 44%, though at that point, Merkel was still resisting the SPD’s push for hiking the minimum wage.

If the deal is approved, however, don’t expect the grand coalition to work as smoothly as the first coalition.   Continue reading Germany reaches coalition deal, faces SPD party vote

Merkel’s CDU-CSU, Gabriel’s SPD stumbling toward a not-so-grand coalition in Germany

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We’re less than two weeks from December.  That means that the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament, has been sitting for about a month, and we’re weeks away from the self-imposed deadline that chancellor Angela Merkel placed on securing a new coalition government.Germany Flag Icon

In case you forgot, Merkel won a handsome victory in the September 22 federal election, when her center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) — together with the Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria) — won 311 seats in the Bundestag, just five seats short of an absolute majority.  It was the biggest victory for Merkel’s Christian Democrats in nearly two decades, harkening back to the wide margins that former CDU chancellor Helmut Kohl won in 1990 and in 1994 in the afterglow of the relatively successful reunification of West and East Germany.

But while the CDU-CSU savored a sweet victory, their coalition partners between 2009 and 2013, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party) failed to win any seats in the Bundestag for the first time since 1945, leaving Merkel with two options — a minority government or a coalition government with more leftist partners.

Though Merkel flirted throughout early October with Die Grünen (the Greens), a tantalizingly novel coalition that would have remade the German political spectrum, the Greens pulled out of talks on October 16.  So for over a month, coalition negotiations have been exclusively among the CDU, the CSU and the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party).  Earlier in November, the coalition talks were going so well that CSU leader and Bavarian minister-president Hoorst Seehofer worried that the harmony would subsume the real policy differences between the German right and the German left.

As Merkel quipped earlier this year, Christmas comes sooner than you think, and Merkel, Seehofer and the SPD’s leader, Sigmar Gabriel (pictured above), are under increasing pressure to agree on a coalition agenda — and given that the CDU-CSU’s 311 seats and the SPD’s 192 seats constitute 79.8% of the entire Bundestag, expectations are high that such a wide-ranging coalition will tackle long-term reform both in Germany and in the European Union.  Moreover, any coalition deal agreed among the three parties must also win subsequent confirmation from a vote of 470,000 SPD members in December.

So what’s holding up the deal?  Continue reading Merkel’s CDU-CSU, Gabriel’s SPD stumbling toward a not-so-grand coalition in Germany

LIBRE, Nasralla could leave no party with majority in Honduran Congress

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TEGUCIGALPA — One of the most interesting aspects of the birth of the new leftist Partido Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE, Party of Liberty and Refoundation) in Honduras has been the way it’s opened the door to a new multipolar political system where there had once been just two traditional parties.honduras flag icon

The general consensus is that LIBRE is here to stay, no matter if its presidential candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya wins the November 24 presidential election.  One of the reasons for its staying power is the likelihood that LIBRE remains very much in a three-way fight for seats to the Congreso Nacional (National Congress), Honduras’s 128-member unicameral legislature.

In the past, the predominance of the conservative Partido Nacional (PN, National Party) and the centrist Partido Liberal (PL, Liberal Party) meant that the winner of the presidential election could typically count upon a narrow victory in the National Congress as well.

But this year’s multi-party race means that there’s a real chance no party will win absolute control of the National Congress.  While parties have failed to win an absolute majority in the past, the leading party has always fallen short by just a handful of seats.  This year, the largest bloc could fall 10 or 20 seats short, given Honduras’s electoral system.

That means that the ultimate winner of the presidential election will face an immediate challenge of assembling a majority coalition.  Given that many members of the Liberal Party and the National Party teamed up to support the 2009 coup against former president Manuel Zelaya and the ensuing interim regime of Roberto Micheletti, that could mean trouble if Castro de Zelaya, the wife of the former president, wins on Sunday.  If the two traditional parties team up against her for the next four years, she would face a presidency of gridlock and a narrower mandate.

Other Hondurans believe that the ultimate winner could easily trade economic or political favors to buy — or at least rent — a congressional majority.

“The correct thing would have been to reform the electoral law, and to create a second round so that alliances could be formed,” said Germán Leitzelar, a former labor minister between 2002 and 2006 and a congressman representing the Partido Innovación y Unidad (PINU, Innovation and Unity Party).  “Now, there won’t be any alliances, but there will be ‘economical understandings.’  It will be an agreement based on convenience, and not based on the best interests of the country.”

The National Party’s presidential candidate, Juan Orlando Hernández, is currently the president of the National Congress, where the National Party controls 71 seats to just 45 seats for the Liberal Party.  Hernández’s wide majority makes him, in key ways, more powerful than outgoing Honduran president Porfirio Lobo Sosa, and he’s used his perch as congressional president to push through key legislation, including the ‘charter city’ law (subsequently overturned by the Honduran supreme court), a new security fee and the creation this autumn of a new military police.

But that’s not atypical.  Since the return of regularly scheduled elections in 1981, the party that’s won the presidency has also won the largest share of seats in the National Congress.  Between 2006 and 2009, Zelaya could count on 62 seats in the National Congress, just shy of an absolute majority.  Between 2002 and 2006, former president Ricardo Maduro’s National Party controlled 61 seats.

What’s more, the congressional presidency has long been a stepping stone to the presidency — Lobo Sosa held the office between 2002 and 2006, Liberal president Carlos Flores held the office for four years prior to his election in 1997, and Rafael Pineda, the 2001 Liberal presidential candidate, also held the office.

If Hernández wins the presidency and the National Party claims dominance over the National Congress as well, the top two candidates to become the next congressional president are Lena Gutiérrez (pictured above, center) and Rigoberto Chang Castillo (pictured above, left).

Gutiérrez, at age 36, is a rising star of the Honduran right, and currently the first vice president of the National Congress.  Fluent in English, Gutiérrez studied engineering at the Texas A&M University.  She entered the National Congress in 2009, and she’s focused mainly on laws boosting education and development.  Chang Castillo, a Tegucigalpa attorney, another rising star and a top Hernández ally, is the first secretary of the National Congress.  Both hold seats from the department of Francisco Morazán, which includes Tegucigalpa and surrounding areas, and which will elect 23 members of Congress, more than any other department.  The department of Cortés, which includes San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second-most populous city and its industrial capital, will elect 20 members.  In each department, a voter will have as many votes as the number of seats — a voter in Tegucigalpa will be allowed 23 congressional votes, but a voter in the Bay Islands department will have just one vote. Continue reading LIBRE, Nasralla could leave no party with majority in Honduran Congress

Sobotka turns to forming government after troubling internal ČSSD revolt

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Normally, party leaders face the boot when they lose elections, not after they win them.czech

But that’s what happened in the Czech Republic, when the center-left Česká strana sociálně demokratická (ČSSD, Czech Social Democratic Party) narrowly topped the country’s parliamentary elections in late October with just over 20% of the vote.

Though the Social Democrats won the election, they took just 50 out of 200 seats in the Poslanecká sněmovna (the Chamber of Deputies), the lower house of the Czech parliament, and only nearly edged out a new populist, anti-corruption, business-friendly party, the Akce nespokojených občanů (ANO, Action of Dissatisfied Citizens), founded just two years ago by wealth businessman Andrej Babiš.

That left the leader of the Social Democrats, Bohuslav Sobotka, in a difficult position.  The fractured result means that the Social Democrats will have to find at least another 50 deputies in order to govern — and despite the willingness of the Social Democrats to work alongside the Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy (KSČM, Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) for the first time in the post-Soviet era, the 33 seats that the Communists won won’t alone be enough to float a Social Democrat-led government.

But what left his leadership truly in question was a split between two wings of his party, a pro-Sobotka wing that hopes to keep its distance from the Czech Republic’s new president, Miloš Zeman, and a pro-Zeman wing that seeks closer collaboration between the two.  Zeman led the Social Democrats over a decade ago, and he served as Czech prime minister from 1998 to 2002.  A falling-out with the ČSSD leadership in the mid-2000s, however, caused Zeman to quit the Social Democrats and form a new party.

Zeman triumphed in his own right in the January 2013 presidential election — the first such direct election in Czech politics — and has spent the greater part of the year trying to muscle even more power for the Czech presidency at the expense of the parliamentary government.

So almost immediately following the election, Zeman (pictured above, left, with Sobotka) and top members of the pro-Zeman wing of the Social Democrats, including the party’s deputy leader Michal Hašek, held a secret meeting.  That preceded a call for Sobotka to step down as leader on the basis that Sobotka’s personalized, centralized campaign led to a poorer-than-expected result.

The ‘coup’ soon fell apart, though — Hašek and other participants in the secret meeting with Zeman lied about it, Sobotka rallied his supporters  against Zeman’s interference in internal party affairs, Czech overwhelming blamed Hašek for causing political instability and so, for now, Sobotka remains leader and Hašek has stepped down as deputy chair.

Sobotka won a battle, but it’s far from clear that he’ll even be the next prime minister.  Continue reading Sobotka turns to forming government after troubling internal ČSSD revolt