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Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya's governor Ramzan Kadyrov face "votes" on Sunday. (AFP)
Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya’s governor Ramzan Kadyrov won their respective “elections” on Sunday. (AFP)

Earlier this month, voters went to the polls in Belarus to elect the country’s rubber-stamp parliament under its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko and, in what amounts to democratic liberalization, two opposition MPs were elected to the 110-member assembly from the constituency that contains Minsk, the capital.chechnyaRussia Flag Icon

Last weekend, a higher number of opposition MPs were elected to the  state Duma (ду́ма), the lower house of the Russian federal assembly, when Russian voters took to the polls on September 18. Nevertheless, despite the unfair and unfree nature of Russian elections, an electoral rout for president Vladimir Putin’s United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я) means that Putin will now turn to the presidential election scheduled for 2018 with an even tighter grip on the Duma after United Russia increased its total seats from 238 to 343 in the 450-member body. As predicted, Putin took fewer chances in the September 18 elections after unexpected setbacks in the 2011 elections that saw United Russia’s share of the vote fall below 50% for the first time. 

Moreover, nearly all of the remaining seats were awarded to opposition parties — like Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (Политическая партия ЛДПР), Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party (Коммунистическая Партия) and Sergey Mironov’s A Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) — that long ago ceased to be anything but plaint, obedient and toothless in the face of Putin’s autocratic rule, whose party logos even mirror those of Putin’s United Russia party. Putin’s liberal opponents, operating under greater constraints than in past elections, failed to win even a single seat to the parliament.

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The drab affair marked a sharp contrast with the 2011 parliamentary elections, the aftermath of which brought accusations of fraud and some of the most serious and widespread anti-government protests across Moscow (and Russia) since the end of the Cold War, prompting demands for greater accountability and democracy. Today, however, though Russia’s economy is flagging under international sanctions and depressed global oil and commodities prices, Putin’s power appears more absolute than ever. He’s expected to win the next presidential election with ease, thereby extending his rule through at least 2024 (when, conceivably, American voters could be choosing the successor to a two-term administration headed by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump). 

Moreover, more than 18 months after opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was murdered just footsteps from the Kremlin, perhaps the most telling statistic was the drop in turnout — from around 60% in the 2011 parliamentary elections to just under 48% this year. That’s the lowest in a decade, even as reports emerged of ballot-stuffing and other dirty tricks that may have artificially boosted support for Putin’s United Russia. Turnout in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where opposition voices have traditionally been loudest, fell even more precipitously to well below 30%. Though the low turnout might have boosted the share of support that Putin and his allies won, it’s also the clearest sign of growing disenchantment with Putin’s regime and its record on the economy (which contracted by nearly 4% last year, and is expected to contract further in 2016) and on civil and political rights. Corruption, as usual, remains rampant, even if oligarchs no longer dominate the Russian economy as they did in the 1990s. 

Perhaps the most well-known opposition leader today, Alexei Navalny, a blogger who was at the heart of the 2011 protests, has been notably quiet (with his own ‘Progress Party’ banned from the election), though he is expected to contest the 2018 presidential vote — at least, if he’s not banned or imprisoned.

As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday's parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia's long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)
As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday’s parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia’s long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)

Notably, it was the first election since 2003 in which half (225) of the Duma’s seats were determined in single-member constituencies, with the other half determined by party-list proportional representation as in recent elections. Though United Russia won just 140 of the 225 proportional seats, it took 203 of the single-member constituency seats, which undoubtedly contributed to its 105-deputy gain on Sunday. One such new United Russia deputy is Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg native who has battled against LGBT rights for years, including a fight to introduce a law in the local city parliament in St. Petersburg banning so-called ‘gay propaganda.’ (For what it’s worth, Russian authorities today censored one of the most popular gay news websites in the country).

For the Kremlin, though there’s some risk that the new constituency-elected deputies could be more independent-minded than party-list deputies, it’s a risk balanced by the massive supermajority that Putin now commands in the Duma.

Conceivably, as Moscow’s economic woes grow, there’s nothing to stop Putin and his allies from moving the scheduled presidential election to 2017 — and there are signs that Putin plans to do exactly that. (The weekend’s parliamentary elections were moved forward to September from an earlier plan to hold them in December, scrambling opposition efforts).

The elections came just a month after Putin replaced a longtime ally, Sergei Ivanov, as his chief of staff, a sign that the Kremlin is already looking beyond the next presidential race to what would be Putin’s fourth term in office (not counting the additional period from 2008 to 2012 when Putin’s trusted ally Dmitri Medvedev served as president, with Putin essentially running the country as prime minister).

Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)
Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)

For Putin, the flawed parliamentary vote also comes at a crucial time for Russia’s role in the international order. Increasingly at odds with NATO, Putin thumbed his nose at American and European officials when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, then helped instigate a civil war in eastern Ukraine that continues even today. Increasingly, Putin believes that Russia has a geopolitical responsibility to all Russian-speaking people, even those outside Russia’s borders, complicating relations with several former Soviet states. Putin has also stepped up Russian military assistance to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, providing crucial support against Sunni-dominated militias in Aleppo and elsewhere — even as Russian and U.S. officials try to extend a ceasefire in the country’s now five-year civil war.

Moreover, though the Russian parliamentary elections are hardly front-page international news, the results are relevant to the 2016 US presidential election, in which Russian influence and cyberattacks have played a prominent role. As Republican nominee Donald Trump continues to praise Putin as a ‘strong leader,’ it’s important to note that Putin’s strength comes in large part from a brutal disregard for the rule of law and the liberal and democratic values that have, for over two centuries, been a fundamental bedrock of American politics and governance. To the extent that the next president of the United States has to deal with Putin’s ‘strength,’ it will be derived in part from a parliamentary victory yesterday that bears no resemblance to the kind of democracy practiced in the United States today, but through a mix of authoritarian force and coercion.  Continue reading Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

EU should give Tsipras a chance to govern

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With his sweeping victory today in Greece, Alexis Tspiras has led the far left to its only victory since his country’s return to democratic rule in 1974.Greece Flag Icon

In so doing, Tsipras (pictured above) and the socialist SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left, Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς) have upended the political order in a country that, for more than four decades, shifted between the rule of political elites on both the center-right and the center-left, often hailing from two or three dozen well-connected families. Tsipras’s victory today is as much the defeat of that Greek political elite on both the left and right, which cumulatively share responsibility for irresponsible budget policies and widespread corruption in government.

More recently, they have also shared responsibility for the Greek bailout that ceded significant control over Greek fiscal policy to the ‘troika’ of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Center-left prime minister George Papandreou (himself the son of a prime minister) accepted the first bailout in his term, between 2009 and 2011. Since 2012, a grand coalition headed by center-right prime minister Antonis Samaras and center-left deputy prime minister Evangelos Venizelos, have also accepted the increasingly onerous demands of the troika in exchange for the funding that has floated Greece’s treasury since the eurozone crisis of 2010.

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RELATED: What to expect from Greece’s January 25 snap elections

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Tsipras, at age 40, emerged in the lead-up to the 2012 parliamentary elections, by consolidating support on the Greek left in his denunciations of the grinding course of austerity that accompanied Greece’s humiliating bailout. Then, Greece was only in its third consecutive year of recession and, remarkably, the unemployment rate was actually lower then (24.8%) than it is today (25.8%), with the country nominally back on the path to GDP growth.

But for all the smoke of the election campaign, and for all Tsipras’s fiery rhetoric, the reality is that Tsipras and SYRIZA have spent the past three years moderating their positions and preparing for the day when Tspiras would lead the next Greek government, which may prove more ‘pragmatic left’ than ‘radical left.’

In 2012, Tspiras was ambivalent (at best) about Greece’s eurozone membership. Today, however, Tspiras is adamant, along with a wide majority of the Greek electorate, that Greece must retain the single currency. Whereas SYRIZA once mused about defaulting on greek debt and ripping up the ‘memorandum’ of stipulations that governs the country’s two bailouts, which totals €240 billion, the party now pledges to renegotiate Greece’s debt burden with EU leaders in an orderly manner. Though Tspiras and other SYRIZA leaders are committed to reversing the grinding austerity of the past six years, they will seek to do so in the context of a balanced budget (as opposed to the 4% to 5% surplus that outgoing prime minister Antonis Samaras hoped to achieve).

Tsipras, in short, will govern more like a social democrat than a democratic socialist. As prime minister, with the full weight on government on his shoulders, Tspiras will be hard-pressed to deliver appreciable relief from six years of austerity, recession and unemployment. To devote more funding for public services and boost growth will require a very different skill set than the campaign oratory of the past three years.  Continue reading EU should give Tsipras a chance to govern

Putin ally Sobyanin holds on for full term as Moscow mayor in race against Navalny

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In case you missed it (and there’s much more important news coming from Russia this week), Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin has won reelection heartily in what will be the biggest election this year in Russia.MoscowRussia Flag Icon

But don’t get your hopes up — Sobyanin’s reelection has long been certain since announcing what amounts to snap election earlier this summer.

Sobyanin, Moscow’s acting mayor since 2010 and formerly Russian president Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff, easily defeated opposition activist Alexei Navalny by a margin of 51.37% to 27.24%, just enough to avoid a runoff between the two candidates.

Sobyanin, who is Siberian (so not a native Muscovite), replaced longtime Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who was fired by then-president Dmitry Medvedev in October 2010.  Sobyanin has demonstrated more energy as Moscow’s new mayor, and many Muscovites compare him to Luzhkov in his first years as mayor in the early 1990s — Sobyanin has worked to install bike lanes, develop parks and reduce traffic congestion within Moscow.

So even while Navalny demands a recount of the vote (and it’s suspicious that Sobyanin won 1.37% more than he needed to avoid a direct runoff with Navalny), there’s a credible basis to the notion that Sobyanin commands the support of a majority of Muscovite voters.  Though there’s not much evidence of fraud in an election that had elements of competitiveness, Sobyanin’s campaign controlled the state media and used other advantages to enhance benefits of incumbency.

That hasn’t stopped Navalny, who is already demanding a runoff on the basis of alternative surveys of Sunday’s vote:

Exit polls conducted by the opposition leader’s campaign office suggest that Navalny has claimed 35.6 per cent of the vote, with Sobyanin receiving 46 percent. The opposition candidate announced that there will be a second round of voting in the mayoral election. He vowed to call on his supporters “to take to the streets” if it does not take place.

What’s most striking is that Navalny did so well — the 37-year-old blogger and anti-corruption crusader started off the race as an asterisk.  When the race began in June, Navalny was polling less than 10% in surveys, but that was before the Russian government harassed Navalny in myriad ways, most notably through a conviction of embezzlement on charges that Navalny stole around $500,000 out of a timber company in Kirov.  As a popular uproar against Putin surged in protest of what many Russian believe was a politically motivated trial, the government provisionally released Navalny, allowing him to continue his campaign.  But Navalny faces imprisonment if his conviction isn’t overturned, which could sideline him in Russia’s next legislative elections for the State Duma (Госуда́рственная ду́ма) in 2016 or even the next presidential race in early 2018.  Continue reading Putin ally Sobyanin holds on for full term as Moscow mayor in race against Navalny

History shows Italy’s likely center-left coalition will likely be short-lived and tenuous

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In the last days of Italy’s election campaign, it’s become somewhat conventional wisdom that although the broad centrosinistra (center-left) coalition headed by prime ministerial candidate Pier Luigi Bersani is still on target to win control of Italy’s lower house of parliament, the Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies), it’s now a toss-up as to whether Bersani’s coalition will win enough of the 315 seats up for election to the upper house, the Senato (Senate), to form a stable government.Italy Flag Icon

The reason is based on some odd quirks of Italian electoral and constitutional law — the key point is that while elections to both the Camera dei Deputati and the Senato are conducted according to proportional representation, seats are awarded differently between the two.  The party or coalition that wins the largest proportion of the vote nationally will be guaranteed at least 54% of the seats in the Camera dei Deputati, but seats are awarded to the Senato only on a regional basis, so that the largest vote-winner in each of Italy’s 20 regions is guaranteed a majority of the region’s seats.  Given that Lombardy, Campania and Sicily, three of Italy’s four largest regions, are essentially tossups, the centrodestra could win those three regions and deny Bersani a senatorial majority.

For Bersani to control the lower house, but not the upper house, of Italy’s parliament is certainly somewhat of a nightmare for a campaign that led by double digits when the campaign began.

Thus the hand-wringing that Bersani will be forced to assemble a governing coalition that includes not only his electoral partner, the socialist Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom), the party of the two-term regional president of Puglia, Nichi Vendola (pictured above, left, with Bersani, right), but also turn to other partners — practically, this means some sort of alliance, in the upper house at least, with the centrist coalition led by prime minister Mario Monti, Con Monti per l’Italia (with Monti for Italy).

If the senatorial balance were, however, incredibly close (say, one to three seats), Bersani might also turn to a tiny number of senators likely to be elected from the predominantly communist Rivoluzione Civile (Civil Revolution) coalition, though it remains to be seen whether they would back Bersani — Vendola would certainly find more common cause with them than with Monti and his allies.

Monti and Vendola have mutually ruled out serving together in the same coalition — although Bersani has already committed to many of the reforms that Monti began, Vendola has been much more critical of the Monti government’s efforts, whcih have included tax increases and tax and labor reform.

It doesn’t help that Vendola, who is openly gay and supports same-sex marriage in Italy, is at contretemps with the social conservative bent of Monti’s coalition.  Although Monti has expressly opposed same-sex marriage and adopt by same-sex couples, the coalition includes the Unione di Centro (UdC, Union of the Centre), comprised of former Christian Democrats and led by Pier Ferdinando Casini, who has very close ties to the Vatican, and Futuro e Libertà per l’Italia (FLI, Future and Freedom), a party formed by Gianfranco Fini, a moderate who once served as Silvio Berlusconi’s foreign minister.

There are no easy answers for Bersani, and on Monday, Wolfgang Münchau at The Financial Times predicted a re-run of the prior leftist government of former prime minister Romano Prodi, who came to office in April 2006 as the moderate head of a wide-ranging leftist coalition that included relatively moderate former Christian Democrats, more progressive social democrats and die-hard communists (including Fausto Bertinotti, who became the president of the Camera dei Deputati from 2006 to 2008).

That government fell in early 2008 over a vote of no confidence in the Senato, when senator-for-life and former Christian Democratic prime minister Giulio Andreotti scuttled an attempt to pass equal civil rights for same-sex partners.

So Münchau is right to predict that the chances of a full five-year — or even one-year — government are fairly slim in the event of an unwieldy coalition that would include not only Vendola and Bersani (difficult enough), but also Casini, Fini and Monti.

That will certainly cause even more hand-wringing and not just in Milan and Rome, but in Berlin, Brussels, London and Washington, too — without a stable government to assure investors, a new Italian financial crisis could once again endanger the future viability of the single currency.  That’s assuming that Italy, and the other troubled economies of the eurozone, finds a path out from the wilderness of increasing unemployment and low or declining GDP growth.  The reality is that the next government, whether led by Monti, Berlusconi or Bersani, will face a lot of incredibly difficult and painful choices for Italy’s future.

But the troubling precedents go beyond the most recent Prodi government — the Italian left has been long fragmented and disorganized since the end of the ‘first republic’ and the breakup of the former Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI, Italian Communist Party), which goes a long way in explaining how dysfunctional leftist governments have been in Italy.  Continue reading History shows Italy’s likely center-left coalition will likely be short-lived and tenuous

Don’t worry about Cuba’s shamtastic elections — focus instead on Castro’s reforms

Cuba — the Caribbean’s most populous nation with over 11 million people — is holding parliamentary elections this Sunday.cuba

But those elections are so stage-managed by the Cuban government that they make the recent troubling Jordanian elections look like best practices in liberal democracy.

As a technical matter, Cuban voters will elect all 612 members of the Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular (the National Assembly of People’s Power).

Fortuitously, there are exactly 612 candidates who have been selected for the honor of running in the election, which follows virtually no campaigning or fundraising or any of the other effluvia of modern elections.  It’s fair to say that, in contrast, the selection of the Politburo Standing Committee of the People’s Republic of China, has much more drama.

That’s probably all the same, anyway, given that the Partido Comunista de Cuba (PCC, Communist Party of Cuba) has been enshrined in the Cuban constitution as the country’s governing party since 1959.

The National Assembly meets just twice a year, and although it’s officially the ultimate law-making authority in Cuba, the reality is that its role is essentially to ratify decisions made by the executive branch of Cuba’s government, where the real power lies with Cuban president Raúl Castro (pictured above, left, with his brother Fidel Castro).  He heads both the Consejo de Estado (the Council of State), a 31-member body that exercises legislative authority in between the two annual sessions of the National Assembly, and the Consejo de Ministros (Council of Ministers), essentially the Cuban government’s cabinet:

Since virtually all decisions are made as executive orders by the Council of Ministers, the parliament is relegated to rubber stamping decisions already made and sometimes already implemented.

Virtually all votes are unanimous and any debates among the members are held behind closed doors. Even an abstention is highly rare. This is to say 612 deputies routinely agree with every executive order passed by the Council of Ministers.

Despite the sham elections, it’s nonetheless a dynamic time for Cuban policymaking, so there’s never been a more optimistic time for proponents of economic and even political reform.  Furthermore, given the advanced age of both Castro brothers — Raúl is currently 81 — it’s nearly certain that Cuba’s leadership will pass to a new generation sooner rather than later.

Continue reading Don’t worry about Cuba’s shamtastic elections — focus instead on Castro’s reforms