Tag Archives: corruption

‘Penelopegate’ and socialism shake up French presidential election yet again

François Fillon, once the surprise frontrunner for the French presidency, may be forced to quite the race by the end of the week. (Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images)

Last week was supposed to belong to Benoît Hamon.

The former education minister, and more recently, rebel backbencher, clinched the nomination of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) over one-time favorite, former prime minister Manuel Valls. He did so with a hearty serving of left-wing economic policies designed to drive the party’s base and recapture leftists voters who, according to polls, had abandoned the Socialists for the communist candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Instead of a Hamon party coronation, French voters instead watches the wheels fall off the campaign of former prime minister François Fillon, previously the frontrunner to win the second-round runoff in May.

Not surprisingly, Fillon’s undoing is a corruption scandal, and it has left an already topsy-turvy presidential election even more uncertain. Fillon came from behind to defeat a former president (Nicolas Sarkozy) and a trusted and moderate former prime minister and former foreign minister (Alain Juppé) to win a surprise victory in the presidential primary for the center-right Les Républicains last November.

The mostly satirical and sometimes investigative Canard enchaîné last week reported that Fillon’s wife, Penelope, received over ‎€500,000 from public funds for a job that she allegedly never performed when Fillon was a member of the French parliament and prime minister under Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012. Since that story broke, it’s been alleged that the amount totals something more like €900,000, and that Fillon paid additional amounts of around €84,000 to his children for equally cozy sinecures.

Penelope Fillon was born in Wales, and unlike some of the previous leading ladies of the Élysée, is quite averse to publicity, claiming as recently as last year that she preferred to stay at home at the Fillon country estate, decrying, as recently as last year, said she wasn’t involved at all in her husband’s professional or political life. After Sarkozy’s bling-bling presidency and whirlwind romance of singer Carla Bruni, and the odd dynamics among incumbent president François Hollande’s former consort Valérie Trierweiler, his former partner (and presidential candidate) Ségolène Royal and his various other romantic interests, Fillon’s reticence was just fine with French voters.

That is, until they found out that Penelope Fillon earned nearly a million euros in public funds for, apparently, very little work. It’s not great, as a candidate for the presidency, to defend nepotism, let alone the notion that your wife actually performed the work in question that merited such a cushy and reliable salary.

Fillon’s Thatcherite platform calls for eliminating a half-million public-sector jobs to cut wasteful spending. Moreover, he won the Republican nomination by contrasting his previously squeaky-clean record with that of the ethically challenged Sarkozy and with Juppé, whose most recent prominence came after a long period in the wilderness induced his own corruption conviction. So the charges against Fillon are just about fatal. It’s hard to imagine that he can survive the hypocrisy of his current position.

While Fillon has said that he will not drop out of the race unless French police formally open an investigation (presumably well after the election this spring), he may be forced out of the race from sheer embarrassment and collapse in support. As the scandal continues to unfold, the latest Kantar Sofres poll shows him at 22%, now falling behind the anti-immigration, anti-EU leader of the Front national (FN) Marine Le Pen (25%) and nearly tied with the independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, a former Hollande minister (21%). Hamon, buoyed by his surprise Socialist nomination, drew 15% and Mélenchon drew 10%.

The fear for Republicans is that Fillon will be so damaged that he fails to make it to the May runoff (or falters against Le Pen in the runoff), but not so damaged that he must quit the race. A defiant Fillon in recent days has tried to hide behind his wife and railed against shadowy figures that he claims are trying to bring down his candidacy, and that he can provide proof that his wife’s work was legal and valid.

No one believes him.

French police raided parliamentary offices earlier this week, and investigators are closing in on the one-time frontrunner, whose odds of winning the election are plummeting.

Even if Fillon does drop out of the race, there’s no consensus Plan B among French conservatives. Juppé, the runner-up in the November nomination contest, would be the natural replacement. In fact, Juppé might even prove the more formidable candidate because he can bring more centrist voters to the Republicans than the socially and economically conservative Fillon. But he has ruled out stepping in as Fillon’s replacement. Though Juppé could change his mind, there are any number of potential candidates who could step in: Sarkozy himself, former ecology minister and Paris mayoral candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet or former agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire. No one knows.

So where does this leave the rest of the field?

It’s great news for Le Pen, who has struggled to win more than 25% of first-round voters, who can now rail against the hypocrisy and corruption of the political elite. Even if Fillon drops out and Republicans find a replacement, ‘Penelopegate’ is a gift to the hard right, and more conservative voters will now be giving the Front national a second look. Le Pen herself is under a cloud because of her refusal to reimburse the European Parliament for €300,000 in misused funds.

Most immediately, Fillon’s collapse will help Macron, another vaguely centrist independent, though none of Macron’s message of neoliberal reform, avowed defense of the European Union and immigration, his background as an investment banker nor his recent record as a top aide to Hollande and former industry minister in Hollande’s government seem to fit the current moment of populism and nationalism. Fillon also hopes to win over centrist voters who feel Hamon veers too far from the Socialist Party’s social democracy and too close to hard-left bona fide socialism.

Fillon’s collapse might also give another center-right figure, François Bayrou, an opening. Bayrou, who has run for president three times in the past and is something of a gadfly in French politics, still managed to win 18.5% of the vote in the 2007 election (against Sarkozy and Royal). Without a strong conservative in the race, Bayrou could still emerge as the sole moderate untainted by Hollande’s deeply unpopular Socialist government. Though he has downplayed the likelihood of a fourth run, Bayrou hasn’t completely shut the door, and Fillon’s collapse could give him the platform to reconsider.

South Africa’s largest city Johannesburg gets new opposition mayor

Herman Mashaba, who founded 'Black Like Me,' a leading hair product company in South Africa, is now Johannesburg's mayor. (Facebook)
Herman Mashaba, who founded ‘Black Like Me,’ a leading hair product company in South Africa, is now Johannesburg’s mayor. (Facebook)

Though the Democratic Alliance (DA) didn’t win the greatest number of votes in local elections in Johannesburg municipality in the country’s local elections on August 3, the party’s mayoral hopeful, Herman Mashaba, was elected Monday as mayor in the most populous municipality of South Africa.south africa flag

Mashaba, a successful businessman who hopes to bring a more market-driven approach to running the South African metropolis, won the votes of 144 council members, ousting the popular incumbent Parks Tau of the African National Congress (ANC), who won just 125 votes. Another DA official, Vasco Da Gama (no relation to the explorer), was also elected speaker of the Johannesburg council on a chaotic day in which one of the ANC’s council members collapsed and died amid the voting.

Greater Johannesburg, with around 7.5 million people, is the third-most populous metropolitan area in sub-Saharan Africa, after Lagos and Kinshasa-Brazzaville. It’s an amazing opportunity for the DA to weaken the two-decade grip that the ANC has held on power in South Africa and most of its major cities (excepting Cape Town and Western Cape province, which have become strongholds for the Democratic Alliance). 

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RELATED: DA impresses with wins in South African municipal elections

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That the ANC — Nelson Mandela’s ANC (!) — still the only party to rule post-apartheid South Africa, and not by a small margin, has lost control of Johannesburg is an incredible blow. The ANC’s woes are compounded by clearer losses to the DA in two other municipalities: Nelson Mandela Bay, a municipality that includes Port Elizabeth, the largest city of Eastern Cape province; and Tshwane, which includes Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative and executive capital.

Under a new, youthful black South African leader in Mmusi Maimane, the Democratic Alliance will now have three years and three cities to demonstrate that it is ready to compete directly with the ANC across the entire country and govern in a responsible manner. Under the leadership of Maimane and several fresh faces, the Democratic Alliance seems to be shedding its unfair image as a party of white South Africans devoted to defending white interests. Mashaba, 56 years old, is a well-known businessman who founded a hair care products company, Black Like Me, in the 1980s, and leveraged his success to build a wide business empire.

His pro-capitalist approach to economic policy means that he will attempt to boost private-sector job creation while working to reduce corruption. Though he will have a five-year term as Johannesburg mayor, the DA will have relatively less time to showcase that it is fit to run the national government before the next set of general elections in 2019. Continue reading South Africa’s largest city Johannesburg gets new opposition mayor

A populist, nationalist neophyte rises in the Americas

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A popular figure from television and a neophyte to national politics rides a wave of populist protest against corruption, incompetence and the status quo to the top of the polls. First, he co-opts the nationalist message of conservatives, rattles against the supposed wrongs of neighboring countries and aligns himself with some of the country’s most reactionary forces. He then faces off against a former first lady, whose social democratic credentials are  overshadowed by suspicions and whispers of corruption and foul play. Easily, that man wins the presidency, making easy work of both the country’s conservative movement and the former first lady. guatemala flag icon

Sound familiar?

It’s not the United States and it’s not Donald Trump, now the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party.

It’s Jimmy Morales, the populist comedian who won an overwhelming victory in last September’s presidential election in Guatemala.

But you might be excused for confusing the two.

For much of the last 11 months, as Trump has come to dominate American politics, the most immediate comparison in international politics has been former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. It’s true that there are many similarities — both are wealthy, older- than-average figures and both are right-wing populists with a penchant for blunt talk who rose to prominence as political outsiders.

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RELATED: Why Trump isn’t quite an American Berlusconi

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But unlike Berlusconi, who owns much of the private Italian media, Trump doesn’t actually control any of the American media. What’s more important, though, is that Trump has done so well in presidential politics in spite of his wealth and business prowess. Michael Bloomberg and dozens of other businessmen are far wealthier and far more powerful, but they’re not presumptive nominees of a major U.S. political party.  Trump won the Republican nomination without deploying significant personal wealth and, indeed, he won with just a fraction of the amounts spent by competing Republican campaigns and their various super PACs.

Rather, Trump’s political success is due to his amazing abilities for self-promotion and self-branding, honed after decades of selling the ‘Trump’ brand and after 14 seasons starring in the reality television series The Apprentice. At this point, Trump-as-presidential-nominee owes his success to media personality, not any particular real estate canny.

That’s exactly the same skill set that Morales used in his spectacular run to the presidency in Guatemala last autumn. It’s also nearly the same platform — a lot of populist slogans heavy on identity, nationalism and throw-the-bums-out rhetoric, but light on actual policy details.  Continue reading A populist, nationalist neophyte rises in the Americas

Spain heads toward fresh elections on June 26

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Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, could fall if his party drops to third place in June. (Facebook)

Shortly after the December general election, I wrote that Spain faced three possible choices — a German-style grand coalition, a Portuguese-style ‘coalition of the left’ or a Greek-style stalemate and fresh elections. Spain_Flag_Icon

Spain chose the Greek option.

Five months after a national election ripped apart Spain’s decades-long two-party system, the failure of the country’s four major parties to reach a coalition agreement means that Spain’s voters will once again go to the polls on June 26 for a fresh vote, after a deadline ran out on midnight Tuesday to find a viable government.

Notably, the rerun of Spain’s national elections will fall just three days after the United Kingdom votes on whether to leave the European Union, a critical vote for the entire continent.

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The problem is that, with talks stalled for any conceivable governing majority, the Spanish electorate seems set to repeat results similar to last December’s election. For now, markets are not unduly spooked by the political impasse in Madrid, but continued uncertainty through the second half of 2016 could prove different if no clear government emerges from the new elections and, presumably, a new round of coalition talks brokered by Spain’s young new king, Felipe VI.

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RELATED: Three choices for new fractured political landscape

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So who are the four major parties and how do they stand heading into the June vote? Continue reading Spain heads toward fresh elections on June 26

Brazil might not be better off in a post-Dilma world

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Michel Temer, Brazil’s vice president, comes from an ideology-free party devoted primarily to remaining in power. (Facebook)

It’s looking increasingly likely that Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff might not make it through the end of her term in January 2019.brazil

On March 12, Rousseff’s main coalition partner, the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) announced that it would take a full month to reconsider its support for Rousseff, currently in her second term and what amounts to the fourth consecutive term of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers Party) that began with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s 2002 election victory.

Since mid-March, the drive to impeach Rousseff has only intensified, with prosecutors seeking to interview and possibly detain Lula da Silva himself, the godfather of not just the Brazilian left but the entire Latin American left. Rousseff attempted to appoint Lula da Silva as her chief of staff to give him the kind of ministerial role that he would need to evade potential investigation, though Brazil’s supreme court blocking the appointment in short order. Though Rousseff herself has not been personally implicated in the Petrobras scandal (whereby officials gave kickbacks to politicians in exchange for inflated construction contracts), investigators believe that Lula da Silva might be more deeply involved.

Lula da Silva, incredibly, might be arrested at any moment, which would almost certainly accelerate the push to impeach Rousseff on obscure charges about obfuscation of Brazil’s state finances during the 2014 election campaign. Also, incredibly, impeachment isn’t the only way that Rousseff might be forced from office. If it emerges that she won the 2014 presidential election through illicit money, she and the vice president could be removed through the cassação process that could vacated the election altogether.

Either way, the presidency would end up in either the hands of the PMDB: in the case of impeachment, vice president Michel Temer or, in the case that the 2014 election is annulled, the speaker of the Brazilian congress’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies (Câmara dos Deputados), Eduardo Cunha.

Neither result would give Brazilians much comfort about the state of their country’s government.
Continue reading Brazil might not be better off in a post-Dilma world

Why Trump isn’t quite an American Berlusconi

Despite similarities between former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and US businessman Donald Trump, there are also key differences to their governance approach.
Despite similarities between former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and US businessman Donald Trump, there are also key differences to their governance approach.

One of the sharpest comparisons for Americans trying to understand the resilient appeal of Donald Trump is the rise of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi in the 1990s.Italy Flag Icon

Rising from the ashes of a widespread corruption scandal that tarred Italy’s entire political elite, Berlusconi, one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, rose from 1994’s power vacuum to what would become nearly two decades dominating Italian politics. Though he lost power less than a year after his first election, he stormed back to power in 2001. Despite a short-lived turn in 2006 to the center-left’s Romano Prodi, Berlusconi once again returned in 2008. Forced to resign in 2011 amid a debt crisis, Berlusconi still led the Italian right to what amounts to a draw in the 2013 election.

It’s as if Italian voters just couldn’t help themselves, such was the spectacle of a showman that the Italian media dubbed ‘Il cavaliere,’ the ‘knight.’ Time and again, Berlusconi’s charms proved irresistible. It’s not out of the question that he might mount yet another comeback by the time that the 2018 elections roll around. Continue reading Why Trump isn’t quite an American Berlusconi

Venezuela’s disappointing new legislative leader is only slightly better than chavismo

Henry Ramos Allup is set to become the next president of Venezuela’s National Assembly today.

Without a doubt, the victory of the anti-chavista opposition in the December 6 elections was one of the most improbable and most impressive wins in world politics in 2015.Venezuela Flag Icon

With a two-thirds majority that the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable) is still trying to defend from attacks from the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the opposition today took control of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), the legislative branch of Venezuela’s government. That will continue to be true, no matter if the PSUV tries to invalidate a handful of MUD deputies or if president Nicolas Maduro tries to create an alternative chavista-dominated popular assembly.

For the first time since 1999, the chavistas haven’t controlled the National Assembly. Naturally, it was a momentous occasion. For now, the Venezuelan people seem firmly behind the opposition, in the hopes that they can push Maduro toward reforms to provide economic relief after years of socialist policies and, perhaps more damningly, widespread corruption, handouts to socialist allies like Cuba and Nicaragua and mismanagement of PdVSA, the state petroleum company, which has only accelerated losses stemming from the global decline in oil prices.

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RELATED: Venezuela’s opposition supermajority must prioritize recalling Maduro

RELATED: No matter who wins, the December 6 elections will not be chavismo‘s last stand

RELATED: A primer on the MUD, Venezuela’s broad opposition coalition

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But that’s also why it’s so disappointing that the MUD coalition chose as the president of the National Assembly the 72-year-old Henry Ramos Allup, a longtime fixture on the Venezuelan opposition and a throwback to the ancien régime that proved so corrupt and incapable that it opened the path to Hugo Chávez’s perfectly democratic election to the Venezuelan presidency in 1998.

Let’s start with the good news. Ramos Allup, it’s true, was chosen through a democratic process, an internal vote among the 112 MUD deputies. He easily defeated Julio Borges, another opposition figure close to former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, by a vote of 63 to 49 over the weekend. He’s one of the few figures within the opposition to have some experience of Venezuelan governance before chavismo and, truth be told, he’s a tough and wily character who will not easily be rolled. (Though, almost immediately after the new majority took power in the National Assembly, the chavista deputies, including the former Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, promptly walked out).

Then again, for an opposition that hopes to present itself as a fresh movement of good government and reform capable to bringing change to Venezuela, it’s a curious choice. Continue reading Venezuela’s disappointing new legislative leader is only slightly better than chavismo

Zanzibar election nullified as Magufuli easily wins Tanzanian presidency

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Though it was the most competitive presidential election in the history of democratic Tanzania, the ruling party candidate, public works minister John Magufuli easily won the election last Sunday in results announced earlier today by Tanzania’s elections commission.zanzibar
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Magufuli emerged as a dark-horse candidate of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, Party of the Revolution)  after a contentious fight left former prime minister Edward Lowassa and foreign minister Bernard Membe (the favorite of outgoing president Jakaya Kikwete) both precluded from contention.

Earlier this summer, the spurned Lowassa decided instead to depart for the opposition camp, becoming the presidential challenger for a coalition that includes Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (popularly known simply as Chadema), a liberal opposition party formed in 1992.

Tanzania’s electoral commission announced that Magufuli won 58.46% of the vote while Lowassa won just 39.97%. The CCF is also expected to win a majority of the 357 seats in Tanzania’s Bunge, the unicameral parliament.

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RELATED: Genuinely competitive election boosts Tanzanian democracy

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Lowassa, who served as Kikwete’s prime minister from 2005 to 2008, left office in scandal and mired under allegations of corruption. While his political power and support base made him the most potent possible challenger for Chadema, it also tarred the previously anti-corruption opposition party. No longer would Chadema necessarily be the party of change nor would it be the party of transparency and good government, and its 2010 presidential candidate Wilbrod Slaa left the party and endorsed Magufuli.

Works minister John Magufuli performed push-ups on the campaign trail to show his fitness for office. (Facebook)

Magufuli, age 55, swatted away criticisms of old age and ill health, at one point doing push-ups on the campaign trail to demonstrate his vigor. The showdown between him and Lowassa was among the most contested election campaigns in the country’s history, with both candidates vying for an electorate that’s one of the world’s youngest — 50% of the population is between the ages of 18 and 32.

But as easily as the national elections seem to have gone throughout the Tanzanian mainland, the islands of largely autonomous Zanzibar have been far more problematic.  Continue reading Zanzibar election nullified as Magufuli easily wins Tanzanian presidency

Morales easily wins Guatemala’s presidency

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As expected, former comic actor Jimmy Morales won Guatemala’s presidential runoff Sunday, besting former first lady Sandra Torres by a margin of more than two-to-one.guatemala flag icon

Riding a wave of widespread popular discontent with a political elite widely seen as corrupt — including former vice president Roxana Baldetti and former president Otto Pérez Molina, both of whom are in jail pending corruption charges — Morales easily captured the presidency with over 67% of the vote.

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RELATED: Polls give Morales a lock on Guatemala’s presidential runoff

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That was the easy part.

As a political neophyte, Morales will have a steep learning curve in office, especially if he wants to carry forward the agenda of electoral and political reforms that can could make Guatemala’s government more permanently transparent and accountable.

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Though he ran under the banner of a small conservative party founded a few years ago by retired conservative generals, the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN, National Convergence Front), it holds just 11 seats in Guatemala’s unicameral Congreso (Congress). That means that Morales is going to have to build a congressional majority nearly from scratch. The good news is that Guatemala’s political parties are so personality-driven that the collapse of Pérez Molina, Torres and former presidential frontrunner Manuel Baldizón means there will be ample room for legislators to join the Morales bandwagon. The bad news is that many of those legislators are part of Guatemala’s corruption problem, and they have no incentive to enact reforms that will make graft even more difficult and establish roadblocks to the political financing they will need to further their own political careers.

Meanwhile, Morales’s landslide obscures the fact that a lot of Guatemalans — even those who voted for him — are worried about the right-wing flavor of his campaign. Though Morales attracted a broad coalition of voters who are eager to flush the corrupt political elite out of power, there’s far more hesitation about Morales himself.

A socially conservative evangelical, Morales is anti-abortion, anti-LGBT rights and he has the support of much of the military elite, through the FCN and otherwise. He’s argued for the outright annexation of Belize, for example, and he’s otherwise embraced nationalist positions. Other critics point out that many of his skits, over a long career in television, are rooted in racial and ethnic stereotypes, which could breed distrust among indigenous Mayan and other communities that have often been mistreated by Guatemala’s military and democratic governments alike.

What’s at stake in this weekend’s Catalan regional elections

27-s elections

If September 2014 was the month when Scottish independence made global headlines, it might be September 2015 when Catalan independence has its breakthrough — at least if regional president Artur Mas has his way. cataloniaSpain_Flag_Icon

Barely 10 months after Catalonia’s regional government held a non-binding referendum on independence, and just three months before the Spanish general election, Catalan voters will elect a new regional parliament in a campaign that Mas has been waging for months as a de facto referendum on the region’s future status within — or outside of — Spain.

Mas, the presidential candidate of the cross-ideological Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) coalition, argues that a victory for the pro-independence forces will give him the leverage he needs to demand negotiations with Spain’s central government. Spain’s conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy, however, has steadfastly refused to discuss autonomy with Mas, let alone an independence referendum. Rajoy contends that any independence process is illegal, and Spain’s constitutional court ruled that last year’s November referendum was illegal. Though Mas backed down and canceled the vote, he nevertheless provoked Madrid by holding a non-binding plebiscite to flex the muscles of the Catalan independence movement. In turn, Rajoy’s refusal to discuss the matter or even permit an in-out referendum has alienated Catalan voters who might not otherwise be enthusiastic about independence.

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RELATED: Can Felipe VI do for federalism
what Juan Carlos did for democracy?

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At face value, Catalans are merely going to the polls on September 27 to elect the 135 members of the regional parliament. But after the Greek eurozone showdown earlier the summer threatened the eurozone’s stability and split Europe’s north and south, and even as the ongoing refugee crisis is threatening the integrity of the borders-free Schengen zone, splitting Europe’s west and east, the cause of Catalan independence could become the European Union’s next fashionable crisis.

Mas promises that if the Catalan electorate gives Junts pel Sí a majority in the Catalan parliament, however narrow, it will be sufficient to launch an 18-month process that will result in the region’s independence and promulgate a new Catalan constitution.

So what exactly is happening in Catalonia? And what should we expect the day after regional elections? Continue reading What’s at stake in this weekend’s Catalan regional elections

Three days before elections, Pérez Molina resigns after arrest warrant issued

OPMresign

Within 48 hours of the decision of Guatemala’s Congress to lift president Otto Pérez Molina’s immunity form prosecution, the former army general met with charges of bribery and tax evasion and was warned not to leave the country. Early Thursday morning, he resigned the presidency — the first time that judicial pressure against corruption has forced out a Guatemalan president.guatemala flag icon

It’s the second time that a judicial process has attempted to hold a top official accountable in recent years. In 2013, a tribunal convicted Efraín Ríos Montt, the country’s military leader from 1982 to 1983, of genocide and crimes of humanity for his role in the massacre of at least 10,000 Ixil Mayans. Though Guatemala’s constitutional court eventually overturned the conviction, the 89-year-old Ríos Montt will undergo a retrial, though his attorneys argue he is mentally unfit for any trial or sentence.

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RELATED: Guatemala lifts Pérez Molina’s immunity
six days before vote to replace him

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The new acting president is Alejandro Maldonado, the 79-year-old who took over as vice president when Roxana Baldetti resigned (and she is now also facing trial for corruption charges). Maldonado is a former foreign minister, former ambassador to the United Nations and to Mexico, and he briefly served as the president of Guatemala’s constitutional court. It will be Maldonado who hands over power to the winner of Guatemala’s election this autumn.

Amid the high-stake drama, Guatemala’s presidential candidates are positioning for the general election set to take place this Sunday, September 6. After months of protests, Pérez Molina’s resignation seems most likely to benefit the independent candidacy of Jimmy Morales, a political neophyte and comedian who has run an anti-corruption campaign mixed with elements of social conservatism, populism and nationalism, though he has not been incredibly forthcoming about policy proposals. Some polls this week showed Morales overtaking frontrunner Manuel Baldizón. Like Pérez Molina, Baldizón is a longtime politician of the Guatemalan right, and Baldizón’s party, Libertad Democrática Renovada (LIDER, Renewed Democratic Liberty), is rumored to have financing ties to drug cartels and other corrupt elements within the country. Baldizón, the runner-up in the 2011 election, is running on the slogan, ‘Le toca,’ which translates to ‘His turn.’

Sandra Torres, the former first lady and Álvaro Colom’s ex-wife, is running as the candidate of the center-left Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE, National Unity of Hope). Zury Ríos, the daughter of the former military dictator, is running as the candidate of the right-wing Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG, Guatemalan Republican Front).

If, as expected, no candidate wins an outright majority, the top two candidate will compete in an October 25 runoff. Voters will also elect the 158 members of the Guatemalan Congress on Sunday, which could give LIDER a firm hold on the legislative branch — even if an anti-corruption wave pushes Baldizón into second or third place on the presidential ballot.

Guatemala lifts Pérez Molina’s immunity six days before vote to replace him

gcityPhoto credit to Quetzalvision.

Six days before Guatemalans go to the polls to choose a successor to president Otto Pérez Molina, the country’s congress voted to strip the term-limited incumbent of his immunity, opening the way for what might become the first prosecution of a Guatemalan president on corruption charges in Guatemala.guatemala flag icon

The vote today in Guatemala’s Congress was historic, and it will make Sunday’s unpredictable general election even more difficult to forecast. But it wasn’t exactly a bombshell, even though it seems like a key turning point in the gradual maturation of Central American democracy and law.

When Pérez Molina, a retired army general, took office, he quickly found himself on Washington’s bad side when he argued for drug legalization as a solution to the decades-long failures of the US-led war on drugs. At home, however, he was regarded as a tough-on-crime conservative whose military background might help police efforts to reduce drug- and gang-related violence, despite murmurs about his role in various human rights abuses during Guatemala’s sprawling decades-long civil war that reached a gruesome nadir in the early 1980s.

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During his presidency, however, Guatemalans became increasingly angry over the corruption that, at best, took place on Pérez Molina’s watch and that, at worst, directly implicates Pérez Molina (pictured above). So far, 14 ministers have resigned as a result of a wide-ranging customs fraud scheme, referred to as La Línea, including seven ministers in August alone and finance minister Dorval Carías last week. Roxana Baldetti, Guatemala’s first female vice president, resigned in May and is now in prison pending trial on corruption charges. Pérez Molina continues to deny any wrongdoing on his part, and he defiantly refused to resign just last week in a press conference, buttressed perhaps with the support of Guatemala’s wealthiest businessman, telecom magnate Mario López Estrada.

Since a United Nations report first revealed the customs scandal in April, however, many Guatemalans have grown skeptical of Pérez Molina’s claims of innocence and, though he survived a congressional vote to remove his immunity last month, prosecutors later announced that they believed Pérez Molina is implicated in the customs scandal. Today’s congressional decision will allow prosecutors to move forward with tax evasion, money laundering or other corruption charges, and it makes it much less likely that Pérez Molina will survive in office until January, when Guatemala’s next president will assume power. Notably, even members of the conservative Partido Patriota (PP, Patriot Party) that Pérez Molina founded in 2001 supported the decision to lift his immunity, the recommendation of a congressional committee examining the scandal.

Corruption is rampant in the region, but voters are increasingly engaged and have started pushing back against the perception of widespread graft. Protesters in Honduras this summer are demanding accountability from officials, and in last year’s Costa Rican election, outgoing president Laura Chinchilla’s administration was seen as so scandal–plagued that her party’s candidate, San Jose mayor Johnny Araya, withdrew from a runoff rather than face a shellacking from his rival, the soft-spoken diplomat and political neophyte Luis Guillermo Solís.

So where does that leave the Guatemalan presidential election? Continue reading Guatemala lifts Pérez Molina’s immunity six days before vote to replace him

Could Romania’s corruption-tainted Ponta be gone for good?

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When a country’s prime minister is targeted in a corruption inquiry, you’d expect him to protest vigorously, using every political and governmental lever to bolster his support.Romania Flag Icon

Faced with his own troubles and an investigation by Romania’s National Anti-Corruption Directorate (known by its Romanian acronym DNA), prime minister Victor Ponta has apparently done the opposite — citing the need for recovery from a knee surgery, Romania’s prime minister notified the country that he would be stepping down on an interim basis of up to 45 days. For now, deputy prime minister Gabriel Oprea is now the acting prime minister while Ponta remains in Istanbul recuperating.

It’s an odd decision, though, and Ponta’s decision to leave the country within days of corruption charges could embolden his political enemies, though his center-left Partidul Social Democrat (PSD, Social Democratic Party) and its allies have a strong majority in Romania’s parliament.

The National Anti-Corruption Directorate alleges that while working as a lawyer in 2007, Ponta (pictured above) received €40,000 for legal work that he didn’t perform from another attorney — who Ponta later appointed to his cabinet. For now, Ponta’s parliamentary majority refuses to lift his immunity, and his allies are even threatening to weaken the anti-graft laws under which the DNA has stepped up its scrutiny of the entirety of Romania’s political elite. The country consistently ranks among the most corrupt countries in the European Union alongside Bulgaria, both of which joined the European Union in 2007. Romania’s president Klaus Iohannis, a political rival who faced off against Ponta in last year’s presidential election, has already called on Ponta to step down. That’s unlikely — and fresh parliamentary elections in Romania aren’t due until 2016.

The chief prosecutor of the DNA, Laura Codruța Kövesi, has empowered the role of an institution that was founded only in 2002 — under her watch, the office won a conviction against Adrian Năstase, Romania’s prime minister between 2000 and 2004, on corruption charges, among many others.

Nevertheless, it’s odd that Ponta essentially sneaked out of the country for knee surgery on June 14, and it’s odd that Ponta sought to relinquish control as prime minister.  Continue reading Could Romania’s corruption-tainted Ponta be gone for good?

The big winner of Mexico’s elections? The not-so-green Green Party

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Of Mexico’s four largest parties, at least as of the last election, only one managed to increase its vote share between 2012 and 2015 — the Partido Verde Ecologista de México (PVEM, Ecologist Green Party of Mexico).Mexico Flag Icon

Since its foundation in 1993, the party has developed a cynical reputation for corruption than any particular devotion to the traditional left-wing, environmentalist causes of green parties throughout the world. Nevertheless, if preliminary estimates are correct, the PVEM will have won more than 7% of the vote in Mexico’s midterm elections, which means that it will almost certainly hold more the fourth-largest bloc of seats in the 500-member Cámara de Diputados (Chamber of Deputies), the lower house of the Mexican Congress.

That’s astounding in an environment where Mexicans rank political corruption at the top of their concerns, alongside drug violence and above even a sluggish, uneven economy.

With the exception of the 2000 election, when the Greens backed conservative maverick Vicente Fox for the presidency, the party has been a reliable junior partner for the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, Party of the Institutional Revolution) and Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto. Together with the Greens and another small party, Partido Nueva Alianza (PANAL, New Alliance), the PRI is expected to hold a narrow legislative majority.

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RELATED: Mexican left disintegrates as midterms approach

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That’s not necessarily great news for Peña Nieto, whose personal reputation has been compromised by financial scandals surrounding himself, his wife and close colleagues, and whose party — certainly not impervious to corruption — remains highly distrusted after governing Mexico uninterrupted for seven decades until Fox’s 2000 election.

The Green Party, however, seems to thrill in flouting election law — Mexico’s new electoral authority, the Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE, National Electoral Institute) fined the party over $20 million in May after it illegally financed campaign advertisements. One sports personality said he was offered 200,000 pesos by the party to support it on election day via Twitter.

Its leader, Jorge Emilio González, the son of the party’s founder, known as El Niño Verde, has a black-hat playboy image of a corrupt baron. His reputation never fully recovered from videotapes that showed him apparently negotiating $2 million in bribes in relation to a shady land deal in Cancun.

Jo Tuckman, writing for The Guardian, finds that the PVEM draws disgust from analysts across the board as a party of ‘false greens’ that often acts more like an organized crime cartel controlled by the González family:

“The Greens concentrate the bad elements of Mexican politics and take them to an extreme,” said political analyst Jesús Silva Herzog. “There are sinister figures in all the big parties, but there are some respectable ones too. I cannot think of a single respectable figure in the Green Party.”

Continue reading The big winner of Mexico’s elections? The not-so-green Green Party

Socialists thrive in Andalusian regional elections

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After last Saturday’s election, it’s no exaggeration to say that Andalusia’s regional president Susana Díaz might be the most popular politician in Spain.Spain_Flag_Iconandalucia flag

Díaz, who heads the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) in Andalusia, the largest region — or ‘autonomous community’ — in Spain, won her first term as regional president since taking power in 2013 upon the abrupt resignation of her predecessor, José Antonio Griñán. Both Griñán and Manuel Chaves, who governed the region between 1990 and 2009, are under investigation for their connection to a wide-ranging ‘ERE’ corruption scandal involving the diversion of funds designated to assist laid-off workers in Andalusia, where the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at 34%, the worst in Spain, where joblessness also remains stubbornly high, despite its economy’s tepid 1.4% growth last year — the first year of GDP expansion since 2008.

Those two concerns, jobs and corruption, dominated the campaign in Andalusia, the sprawling southern region of Spain.

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RELATED: In Andalusia, Díaz takes office with staggeringly high unemployment, economic woes (September 2013)

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Though Andalusia has been a Socialist stronghold since the return of democracy in the late 1970s, disillusionment with widespread corruption and with Spain’s deteriorating economy gave the center-right Partido Popular (PP, People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy its first Andalusian electoral victory in March 2012. Despite the Socialists’ losses, the party remained in power by forming a coalition with a smaller left-wing coalition of parties, Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left).

The Socialist-IU coalition continued under Díaz, who at age 40 is pregnant with her first child and who still marks a sharp contrast, generational and otherwise, with the region’s previous Socialist leaders. Díaz, a sharp-tongued populist who declined to contest the party’s national leadership, has also declined (so far) to challenge the PSOE’s leader Pedro Sánchez to become the prime ministerial nominee in November’s general elections.

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Her victory in Andalusia’s March 22 snap election, called in January after Díaz wearied of the IU’s demands as junior coalition partner, will give hope to Sánchez and the national PSOE leadership that it can thrive throughout the 2015 electoral gauntlet.

An additional 13 regions will hold elections on May 31, including Madrid, the Valencian Community and Castile and León, the third, fourth and sixth most populous regions in Spain, respectively. Rajoy’s PP and its allies are defending governments in 11 of the 13 regions, including each of Madrid, Valencia and Castile and León. The party’s 17-seat loss in Andalucia, therefore, is an alarming sign for the ruling party.  Continue reading Socialists thrive in Andalusian regional elections