I had a series of posts that I was planning to finalize starting today about the Brexit referendum but, of course, the news of Jo Cox’s murder has preempted everyone’s thoughts about the European Union debate today.
There will be plenty of time for more debate in the week ahead, one of the most important weeks of political debate in the United Kingdom’s postwar history and, indeed, in Europe’s postwar history.
But it will now be forever marred by Cox’s assassination, especially if, as has been widely reported, the gunman shouted out ‘Britain first!’ as he was shooting the 41-year-old Labour MP.
Cox, a wife who leaves behind a grieving husband, Brendan, and two young children, was elected to the House of Commons in 2015 after a longtime career with Oxfam and other charitable organizations. She was in particular passionate about providing relief to those suffering in war-torn Syria. As a Labour candidate and MP, she was a passionate supporter of resettling refugees from Syria in the United Kingdom. She was one just a few supporters of Liz Kendall in last summer’s Labour leadership contest, but she was also one of the MPs willing to put Jeremy Corbyn’s name on the ballot. If anyone personified the kind of rising star who could carry forward the center-left policy perspective of ‘Blairism without Blair,’ it might reasonably have been someone like Jo Cox.
She was also a passionate product of Yorkshire, and she was genuinely proud of the fact that she grew up in Bentley and that she never lost touch with her roots in that community, indeed the community where a deranged killer ended what should have been decades more of public service.
This weekend, Serbia’s prime minister Aleksandar Vučić finalized a four-year consolidation of power in early parliamentary elections that delivered a landslide victory for his center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), giving him the mandate and the support to advance political and economic reforms that he hopes could one day result in Serbia’s accession as a member-state of the European Union.
In results late Sunday night, the SNS a wide lead over its nearest competitor, the center-left Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS, Социјалистичка партија Србије), which currently serves as the government’s junior coalition partner. The Socialist leader, Ivica Dačić, a former prime minister, currently serves as Vučić’s foreign minister. Several parties of the fragmented center-left and hard-right ultra-nationalist parties trail far behind in single digits. With just under 50% of the total vote on Sunday, the SNS can expect to have an absolute majority in Serbia’s unicameral, 250-seat National Assembly (Народна скупштина).
Vučic called the snap elections earlier this year, fully knowing how well his party was doing in the polls. Like it or not, Vučic and the former SNS leader Tomislav Nikolić, currently in his first term as president, will be directing Serbian policy through the end of the decade.
But Serbia is far from the only country in the Balkans that will vote this year, and Sunday’s vote kicks off what could become a season of electoral change across the region.
Unlike Serbia, where voters were happy to deliver Vučic the broad mandate he wanted, voters in the rest of the western Balkans are far less sanguine about their elected officials. Opposition politicians in Montenegro nearly ousted their long-serving prime minister earlier this year, though fresh elections are due before October. The twists and turns of a wiretapping scandal in Macedonia have reached fever pitch this week, with protesters marching against the government in Skopje, and a June 5 parliamentary election date is currently in doubt.
A region that still dreams of EU accession
The western Balkans are the last major region of Europe that has not yet been integrated into the European Union. With the possible exception of Turkey, it’s the final frontier of EU accession. Among the six (or seven, if you count Kosovo) countries that emerged out of the former Yugoslavia, only two of them have won EU member-state status, Slovenia and Croatia. They join only Albania in representing the western Balkans in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The remaining Balkan states are in varying stages of their quests for accession:
Macedonia was granted candidate status back in 2005, but democratic and economic backsliding have stalled its membership push, not to mention its long-running spat with Greece over the name, ‘Macedonia,’ which Greeks consider to be an inaccurate appropriation of Greek culture and history.
Montenegro gained candidate status in December 2010, and negotiations are ongoing, though Montenegro has fully implemented just two of 33 chapters of the acquis communautaire, the body of EU law required for all member-states.
The European Union granted Serbia candidate status in March 2012, negotiations kicked off in 2014 and Vučic is eager to conclude accession by the year 2020, though that remains incredibly optimistic.
Albania won candidate status in June 2014, and though its negotiations have yet to begin, prime minister Edi Rama, a former artist who charged to power in 2013, is an energetic center-left figure who’s worked closely with former British prime minister Tony Blair to develop a package of EU-friendly economic and political reforms.
Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for membership status in February 2016, but the European Union hasn’t yet granted it candidate status.
Given the existential threats that the European Union faces, hardly anyone outside the Balkans seems to have the stomach for what promises to be a difficult round of accession. The June 23 referendum in the United Kingdom on whether to leave the European Union remains too close to call, but its passage would be a major blow to the notion of ‘ever closer union.’ Much of southern Europe, most especially Greece, have still not recovered from the eurozone crisis that stretched the limits of EU financial, economic and monetary policy and that brought into question the future of the single currency. Meanwhile, the most acute refugee crisis in Europe since World War II has weakened the Schengen agreement by undermining the free movement of people within the European Union and the eradication of internal EU borders.
For current EU members, then, it may look like there’s precious little benefit in EU accession. But for the Balkan states, there remains enthusiasm that EU membership will force the kind of reforms that could reduce the crippling corruption that is, on general, worse in the Balkans than in the rest of Europe:
Balkans populations also hope that EU membership will also clear the path not only for reforms, but for the kind of funding that could allow them to catch up to the higher EU standard of living, which, not surprisingly lags far behind: With eventual EU membership — and the promise it brings of greater incomes and opportunities — dangling as a carrot, it’s no surprise that Vučic has amassed so much political power in Serbia and an impressive amount of respect among European leaders. But it’s that same dynamic that could lead to massive changes throughout the rest of the region, most notably in Montenegro and Macedonia.
Wiretaps and pardons
Eleven days ago, Macedonia’s president Gjorge Ivanov pardoned 56 people, all of whom were implicated in a wide-ranging wiretapping scandal that forced the country’s powerful prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, to resign in January. Beginning in the early 2010s, Gruevski and his government were found to have wiretapped illegally up to 20,000 Macedonians, opposition figures, journalists and even diplomats.
Ivanov, who announced a decree that would end all investigations into the wiretapping scandal, set off a constitutional crisis from what had already been a crisis of governance and the rule of law, and his announcements met with sharp disapproval from EU officials and Macedonia’s political opposition.
Gruevski’s ruling VMRO-DPMNE (Внатрешна македонска револуционерна организација – Демократска партија за македонско национално единство; Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) has been in power since 2006. It easily won a fourth consecutive term in April 2014, though the election was hardly a fair fight.
Gruevski has spent much of the past decade stoking nationalist sentiment, which has antagonized Greece; for example, he erected an 11-foot high statue of Alexander the Great in Macedonia’s capital of Skopje. While the spat with Greece helped Gruevski, in part, to rally domestic support, it has only hardened Greek determination to block Macedonian membership not only in the European Union, but NATO as well. Meanwhile, the VMRO-DPMNE’s government has done little to introduce reforms to stem corruption or promote liberalization.
Macedonians now seem fed up with Gruevski’s empty promises and hollow rhetoric, to say nothing of the wiretapping shenanigans and his attempts to persuade Ivanov to pull the plug on the ongoing investigations.
Elections were set for June 5, but the government, fearing a rout, may try to postpone them. A meeting scheduled earlier today in Vienna among EU leaders and Macedonia’s political leaders was cancelled, even as the intensity of Macedonia’s protesters increases.
Zoran Zaev, Macedonia’s opposition leader and the head of the center-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM, Социјалдемократски сојуз на Македонија), was instrumental in revealing the extent of the wiretapping scandal, though only after Gruevski tried to have Zaev jailed for allegedly attempting to illegally toppling the government.
For years, Zaev has opposed Gruevski’s nationalist showmanship and denounced the government’s flashy development projects as wasteful vanity spending. Now, with Ivanov’s announcement to suspend the wiretapping scandal that Zaev himself helped to reveal, the opposition leader has joined the front lines of the protesters. There’s a sense that he could soon be leading the country, though he pledged earlier this month to boycott elections without additional reforms to guarantee political freedom and a free and fair electoral process. An original plan to hold elections in April has already been postponed once to June and could well be delayed again.
Negotiations over the conduct and timing of the Macedonian elections are just the beginning of what could become an even more tumultuous year. If Zaev and an opposition coalition forces VMRO-DPMNE from power, no one knows exactly how willingly Gruevski and his allies will concede. Moreover, from day one, a Zaev-led government would be locked in a high-stakes battle with Ivanov to reinstate the wiretapping investigation.
Đukanović’s last stand?
Though it officially won its independence from Serbia only in June 2006, Milo Đukanović has controlled Montenegro like a personal fiefdom since 1991, when he was first elected prime minister. Đukanović has held power, on and off, ever since.
Polls show that Đukanović and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS, Demokratska Partija Socijalista Crne Gore) hold a wide lead in elections that have to be called within the next six months. But that belies the frustration that’s built for a quarter-century with Đukanović and his family, whose opponents argue that they run Montenegro as their own personal duchy of corruption.
As in Serbia, Montenegro’s opposition is even more split today than it was in the last election. The conservative opposition Democratic Front (Demokratski front) did poorly in the 2012 parliamentary elections, and its leader Miodrag Lekić narrowly lost the 2013 presidential election. Last year, however, Lekić left the party to form Democratic Alliance (DEMOS, Demokratski savez), a competing center-right party.
In December, however, Đukanović only narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in Montenegro’s unicameral, 81-member parliament (Skupština Crne Gore), following widespread protests that began in October over longstanding suspicions of Đukanović’s corruption. Protesters demanded his resignation and a transitional government; Đukanović himself spent half of the 2000s fending off a criminal inquiry into corruption from an Italian prosecutor. Đukanović’s long-time allies, the Social Democratic Party (Socijaldemokratska Partija Crne Gore), left government for the first time since 1998.
Đukanović has hoped that Montenegro’s relatively strong economy and a general trend toward liberalization will distract from his critics’ worst allegations. Moreover, Montenegrins will go to the polls as he pursues the country’s accession to NATO after formally opening talks in February. It’s a step that has appalled Moscow, which still holds plenty of economic and cultural power in the western Balkans, despite the region’s aspirations to integrate further with the rest of Europe.
Đukanović, who is only 54 years old, seems unlikely to take the opportunity of 2016 elections to step down. But it’s not inconceivable that, despite Montenegro’s more successful strides toward NATO and, eventually, EU accession, he too will face the kind of popular wrath that is now greeting Gruevski across Macedonia.
When US president Barack Obama took the stage yesterday in London (and on the pages of The Daily Telegraph) to dismantle, with surgical precision, the arguments against the United Kingdom staying in the European Union, it didn’t feel like a rupture in international politics.
But it was a radical departure from standard operating procedure.
US presidents, to say nothing of lower officials, have never had qualms intervening in the domestic affairs of foreign countries.
Rarely does an American president so do in such a public forum.
Rarer still that an American president would weigh in on a matter that will be determined by a foreign electorate in eight weeks.
Standing beside the British prime minister, Obama was making the case against Brexit better than anyone else on the British political stage, in part because of the sheer scale of power that comes with the American presidency. Special or no, the body language of Obama and his British counterpart David Cameron spoke everything about the unequal bilateral partnership. Amazingly, Obama managed to shrink and upstage Cameron nearly as much as George W. Bush diminished Tony Blair, oft mocked as Bush’s ‘poodle,’ over the Iraq war in 2003. Continue reading Obama’s credibility now on the line with Brexit vote→
On Sunday, Serbians will go to the polls nearly two years before the current government’s term ends.
The results are hardly in doubt.
Prime minister Aleksandar Vučić is basically guaranteed to return to power by a wide margin, according to nearly every poll taken since the last election. His party, the center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), already leads a coalition that enjoys a firm majority in Serbia’s unicameral National Assembly (Народна скупштина).
Originally due by March 2018, Vučić called snap elections in March in a bid to build an even more powerful majority. Vučić argues that a fresh mandate will give his government the space to push Serbia ever closer toward European integration; critics argue that’s a fig leaf to disguise a Vučić power grab, an attempt to squeeze the Serbian political opposition into powerlessness.
Despite problems with self-censorship in the press, Reporters without Borders ranks Serbia 59th in its 2016 press freedom rankings — that’s better than EU members Croatia, Hungary and Italy. Neighboring countries fare far worse — Kosovo ranks 90th, Montenegro ranks 106 and Macedonia ranks 118, just higher than Afghanistan.
With increasingly illiberal figures like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán thumbing their nose at European Union leaders, Vučić’s rise isn’t without its anxieties.
That’s especially true for the United States and Europe, both of whom have an interest in a country of 7 million that remains, economically and culturally, the anchor of the Balkans region, though Serbia itself shares an alphabet, similar language and a religion with Russia. Serbia is dependent upon Russia for natural gas, as well as a market for exports. In recent years, Vučić has shown that he’s willing to turn to Moscow and other surprising allies, such as the United Arab Emirates, for help when European leaders proved too slow.
That means that the European Union, despite its existential troubles, can’t afford to keep Serbians waiting indefinitely for membership.
Regardless, if polls are correct, Vučić will complete a four-year, three-election cycle that brings the SNS the most powerful domestic government in Serbia’s history following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Regionally, the Serbian vote takes place in the context of a year of explosive potential as Macedonia and Montenegro are also set to go to the polls amid tense political climates.
A pathway to Serbian political dominance
In July 2012, the SNS narrowly defeated the center-left, liberal Democratic Party (DS, Демократска странка) by a margin of 24.1% to 22.1%, following eight years of Democratic Party dominance in Serbia that smoothed the country’s transition from war-torn pariah to EU aspirant.
At the same time, Serbia’s two-term president Boris Tadić also lost his office to SNS leader Tomislav Nikolić. Once more sympathetic to Russia than to the rest of Europe, Nikolić and his acolyte, Vučić, quickly embraced the cause of EU accession. They made a deal with the nationalist, center-left Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS) to take power, even though that meant making the SPS’s leader, Ivica Dačić, once a protégé of strongman Slobodan Milošević (who founded the SPS), Serbia’s new prime minister.
What is past is always present in politics. But that’s especially acute in the case of Serbia, because Nikolić, Vučić and Dačić all began their political lives on the ultranationalist right. Today, however, the three Serbian leaders have (so far, at least) transcended the bitter wars of the 1990s, using the reward of EU accession as a rationale not only to implement IMF-style economic reforms but to make genuine efforts to extradite suspected war criminals from the 1990s and to pacify relations with neighbors, most especially Kosovo, whose independence Serbia does not recognize.
The government performed adequately, however. Neither Nikolić nor Vučić made a harsh turn away from the strong EU relations that the Democratic Party nurtured, nor did Dačić suddenly revert to 1990s era ultranationalism. Dačić led the push to open formal negotiations with the European Union for Serbian accession. However begrudgingly, the Dačić government engaged Kosovo over talks about the breakaway region’s international status.
In early 2014, Vučić, then minister of defense, saw an opportunity for the SNS to take power in its own right, and he essentially forced Dačić to call early elections.
It wasn’t a difficult decision, politically, because it instantly made Vučić the most powerful figure in Serbia.
The SNS won easily with 48.4% of the vote and 158 of the 250 seats in the unicameral National Assembly. The second-placed SPS, which would continue in coalition as a junior member, with Dačić serving as Vučić’s new minister of foreign affairs, won 13.5%. The Democratic Party, suffering from a divide between its new leader, former Belgrade mayor Dragan Đilas and Tadić, the future president, who ultimately left to form a new party, the Social Democratic Party (SDS, Социјалдемократска странка). The divide was fatal to Serbia’s democratic center-left, however, because the Democratic Party won just 6.0% and the Tadić-led SDS won just 5.7%.
Bracing for an even larger mandate?
Again, for the next two years, the government performed adequately. Low GDP growth was still strong enough for the unemployment rate to continue declining (though it’s still precariously close to 20%), and Vučić nuzzled ever closer to EU advisors with the hope of advancing negotiations one step closer to EU membership. For now, Vučić hasn’t particularly weakened Serbian democracy on his own, with the kind of anti-liberal steps that Hungary or Poland have taken, though the internal troubles of the opposition may make it seem otherwise. Indeed, Serbia has welcomed refugees in the face of a deluge of Syrians and others on European shores, the largest wave of migrants to Europe since World War II.
If, contrary to the United Kingdom’s new fixed parliament law, the British went to the ballot box tomorrow, most polls show that the result wouldn’t change much.
That is, a Conservative government with which Britons are less than enthusiastic.
Nearly eight months into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the opposition, center-left Labour Party, there’s no indication that the electorate has warmed to Corbyn’s hard-left policy views, nor any likelihood that Corbyn’s own critics on the back benches, populated with many of the figures who once wielded power in the ‘New Labour’ years under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, trust him as their standard-bearer.
The nearly flawless campaign of the left-wing (though not always Corbynite) Sadiq Khan, Labour’s candidate in London’s mayoral race, will give Corbyn at least one highlight in the coming May 5 regional elections. But Labour faces potential routs across England and, most damningly, failure to make any real progress against Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) apparently heading to a romp in Scottish parliamentary elections, with a nearly 30% lead over the Scottish Labour Party.
All of which will put even greater pressure on Corbyn’s leadership. Though Corbyn entered the Labour race with no hope of actually winning, there’s little that the party’s Blair/Brown/Miliband/Cooper wing (which dominates the parliamentary caucus, though not the Labour grassroots) can do unless or until Corbyn loses popularity among the Labour faithful that delivered him to the leadership last summer. It’s not an outcome that appears likely to happen anytime soon.
Nevertheless, even if Labour suffers an especially poor night on May 5, Corbyn has a tailor-made opportunity to save his leadership. In the process, Corbyn might also transform his image among a British electorate that remains highly skeptical of ever giving Corbyn the keys to 10 Downing Street.
It all rides on how Corbyn wages the Labour campaign to remain within the European Union in the coming June 23 referendum. If he succeeds, politically and substantively, Corbyn could both silence critics in his own party and, for the first time, introduce himself as truly prime ministerial material.
At the heart of the tragic jihadist assault on Brussels this week lies what economics and political scientists know as a collective action problem.
Within the hollowed-out central state of Belgium, virtually no one wants to foot the bill for the kind of counter-terrorism, security and police investigation operations that Brussels needed to avert Tuesday’s horrific simultaneous airport and subway attacks. The European Commission, which calls Brussels home, has neither the power nor the inclination to provide a supranational layer of security to the city.
Brussels, a majority French-speaking city, is its own region, though it lies completely outside the borders of the left-leaning, French-speaking Wallonia. Meanwhile, the more economically vibrant Flemish-speaking Flanders has, as a condition for keeping the Belgian union together for the past half-century, increasingly demanded more regional powers from both Wallonia and Brussels.
No one — at the European level, at the national level or at either of the Walloon or Flemish regional level — has a proper incentive to fund what’s obviously become a disproportionate security cost for Brussels, in particular (and not, say, Antwerp or Ghent or Charleroi).
While there are obviously many reasons for Tuesday’s terror attacks, it’s no surprise that Brussels recurs as the setting for jihadist attacks. Radical Islamists in the Molenbeek community, now an infamous byword for jihadist agitation in Europe, were central to planning the 2004 Madrid attacks, last November’s attacks in Paris and, now, the terrorist strike that Belgian authorities feared four months ago — and that forced Brussels itself into a four-day lockdown as police forces tried to stymie a terrorist plot last November.
Just four months after the Paris attacks, planned from Brussels, brought the Belgian capital to a standstill for 96 hours, and just four days after Belgian police, at long last, captured Salah Abdeslam, the remaining suspect in last year’s Paris attacks, Belgian authorities were already on high alert.
Everyone knows that Scotland narrowly voted against independence in September 2014.
The ‘Yes’ campaign waged that fight fully knowing that, by 2017, there would be a broader UK-wide vote on the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union. Given that Scots are relatively (though not universally) more pro-European than English voters, growing British euroscepticism may have played an important role to nudge some Scots toward the ‘Yes’ camp.
With that Brexit referendum now set for June 23, it’s the Scottish referendum that looms over the coming vote in at least two ways that could make Brexit more likely.
The first amounts to pure game theory on the part of Scotland’s voters, who comprise around 8.4% of the total UK population.
In 2015, we saw how falling oil prices affected world politics from Alberta to Nigeria. Net exporters like Venezuela, Russia and the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries are feeling the drop in revenues, and that could accelerate political agitation as oil prices force budget cuts.
As Brad Plumer wrote yesterday for Vox, explaining the fall in oil prices is simple. Supply has outstripped demand, and while global demand is still growing, it’s growing at about half the rate that it was even in mid-2015.
The difference between $30 oil (about the current price level), $20 oil or $50 oil could make or break incumbents seeking reelection — lower oil prices mean fewer goodies at election time.
In 2016, that means oil prices could affect Scotland’s May regional elections by dampening the economic case for Scottish independence and, therefore, the electoral support for the Scottish National Party. It means that Russia’s September legislative elections could engender the same kind of political protests (or worse) that met the last elections in 2011. Lower oil prices are already endangering Ghanian president John Dramani Mahama’s hopes for reelection in December, given how much Mahama has staked on Ghana’s oil potential. It could even push Venezuela’s opposition, newly empowered as the majority in the National Assembly, to seek chavista president Nicolás Maduro’s recall even more quickly.
More generally, it could make life difficult for Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari. Not only will lower oil revenues hurt his capacity to deploy resources across Africa’s most populous country, but Buhari must find a way to deliver to Nigeria’s impoverished Muslim north, where Boko Haram continues to pose a security challenge, and Nigeria’s southeastern Igbo population, including Rivers state and Delta state, where much of Nigeria’s oil reserves are located. The southeastern challenge is particularly precarious, in light of the fact that Buhari defeated Goodluck Jonathan, the first president to come from Nigeria’s oil-rich southeast. A wrong step by Buhari could catalyze long-simmering demands for greater political autonomy or even secession.
On the demand side, the European Union (as a whole) imports more oil than any other country in the world — by a longshot. Lower prices could bring about the kind of truly robust economic growth that has eluded the eurozone for decades. That, in turn, could ameliorate the pressures of democratic backslide among the central European Visegrad Group, and it could goose economic activity in Mediterranean countries like Portugal, Spain and Greece, where no single political party has enough support for a majority government. That, in turn, could reduce support for radical leftist parties and bolster more moderate coalitions. It could, marginally, benefit incumbent governments in Ireland, Romania and elsewhere in 2016 and France in 2017. (The same effect, by the way, relieves a lot of pressure on faltering ‘Abenomics’ policy in Japan, too).
In his final state of the union address last night, even US president Barack Obama bragged about lower oil prices. If prices stay consistently low throughout 2016, it could marginally help Obama’s Democratic Party win the November general election.
Autocratic countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Angola, Algeria and Kazakhstan, could face popular protests.
As predicted, Spain’s messy general election resulted in no clear winner, and none of its two largest parties could claim a majority in the lower house of Spain’s parliament.
What’s more, though two upstart parties upended the political status quo that’s existed for nearly 40 years in Spain, neither did so well that they can form a government — or even serve as a kingmaker for one of the two established parties.
While the conservative Partido Popular (PP, the People’s Party) emerged with the largest share of the vote, prime minister Mariano Rajoy has plenty of reason to despair. Much of the party’s support comes from older voters in the Spanish countryside, and the PP benefited from an electoral system that delivers slightly more seats to parties with support outside Spain’s urban centers. Nevertheless, he has lost his absolute majority, dropped 64 seats and, worst of all for Rajoy, there’s no clear or easy path to a governing majority. Though Spain’s economy has stabilized under the past four years of PP rule, unemployment remains staggeringly high (21.2%). The party’s leader since 2004, Rajoy might ultimately be pushed aside during coalition talks for a younger or more charismatic leader, like deputy prime minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría.
Meanwhile, the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) suffered its worst defeat since the transition to democracy in the late 1970s. Its new leader, Pedro Sánchez, a moderate economist, simply could not convince voters to look beyond long-simmering corruption scandals (which, by the way, also plague Rajoy’s party) and the record of the prior PSOE government, which took the first steps toward the path of austerity measures in the aftermath of the 2009-10 eurozone debt crisis.
Indeed, the PSOE just barely outpolled Podemos, an anti-austerity alternative that burst onto the Spanish political scene in 2014, embracing the anti-establishment protests of the ‘indignados’ movement. Despite leading polls earlier this year, Podemos crashed as fears grew that it would cause the kind of economic pandemonium that plagued Greece after the election of the far-left SYRIZA this year. Its leading spokesperson, Pablo Iglesias, began to moderate his movement’s rhetoric, and rallied to a strong third-place finish.
The center-right liberal Ciudadanos (‘C’s,’ Citizens), a federalist, economically liberal party founded in Catalonia in 2007, made the leap from regional politics to national politics, but its leader Albert Rivera must be disappointed that it failed to steal more voters from Rajoy.
With another handful of seats going to various pro-independence Catalan parties, as well as Basque and Galician regional parties, the net result is that no one has enough seats in the 350-member Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), the lower house of Spain’s legislature, the Cortes Generales (General Courts).
Notably, Rajoy maintained the PP’s majority, however reduced, in the far less powerful upper house, the Senado (Senate), which can be overruled on most matters (i.e., not ‘organic laws’ that deal with constitutional matters, civil rights and federalism) by majority vote of the Chamber of Deputies.Voters elected 208 senators on Sunday as well (an additional 58 senators are appointed by regional assemblies).
Two sets of statistics are worth considering.
First, the traditional major parties (the PP and PSOE) won just 50.7% of the vote in aggregate, compared to 83.8% in the 2008 election and 73.4% in the 2011 election. Obviously, that means Spain is entering a new era where coalition politics are more important. That’s not entirely unprecedented — when José María Aznar won 156 seats after the 1996 elections, he had to work with Catalan, Basque and Canarian nationalists to form a stable government. But the success of Podemos and Ciudadanos has transformed Spain’s politics from a two-party matter to a multiparty affair.
Secondly, among the four major parties to emerge from the 2015 election, it’s staggering just how evenly divided the Spanish left and right are. Together, the PP and Ciudadanos won 42.65% of the vote and the PSOE and Podemos won 42.67%. Spain’s electorate, in the broadest sense, delivered neither a mandate to a sharp left turn or a sharp right turn.
What Spain now faces is a difficult choice of among three different paths, all of which carry their own risks and challenges. Spain’s new young king, Felipe VI, will also take a more hands-on role in the coalition formation process than his father, Juan Carlos I, ever did. The good news for Spain is that the three options each mirror paths taken by three of its fellow European Union member-states in the last three years:
Germany 2013: a ‘grand coalition’ between the two established parties;
Portugal 2015: a fragile coalition government that brings together all of the parties and movements of the left; and
Greece 2012: deadlocked coalition talks lead to fresh elections.
To the extent that Spain is entering a new coalition-based era of its parliamentary politics, a reshaped Spanish political landscape might transcend 20th century fractures and the transition to democracy that’s dominated Spanish political life for a half-century.
Five days before the Christmas holiday, Spanish voters will go to the polls to choose a new government in an election that’s being hailed as the country’s most important since 1982.
Indeed, voter turnout may well exceed the 80% levels not seen since 1982, when Spain had only just emerged from its Francoist dictatorship and was four years away from joining the European Economic Community, the predecessor to today’s European Union. Moreover, it will also be the first general election to take place under Felipe VI, whose father Juan Carlos I abdicated in June 2014 after guiding the country’s transition to democracy in the mid-1970s.
But what makes the December 20 election so unique is that economic crisis has shattered Spain’s stable two-party electoral tradition, leaving a four-way free-for-all that could force unwieldy coalitions or a minority government at a time when the country has only just started its economic recovery. Distrust in both major parties, moreover, has opened the way for a popular far-left movement at the national level and greater discord at the regional level, most notably in Catalonia, where support for the independence movement is growing. No matter who wins power in the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy, the next Spanish government will face difficult decisions about GDP growth, lingering unemployment, and federalism and possible constitutional change.
For decades, Spanish elections were essentially, at the national level, a fight between the conservative Partido Popular (PP, the People’s Party) and the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party). In the most recent 2011 election, the PP won 186 seats in the 350-member Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), the Spanish parliament’s lower house, while the PSOE won 110 seats.
Both parties can point to massive successes over the past three decades. Under longtime PSOE prime minister Felipe González, Spain consolidated its liberal democracy and benefited greatly from closer economic and financial ties to Europe, while Barcelona’s emergence as the host of the 1992 Summer Olympics catapulted it into a world-class city. Under conservative prime minister José María Aznar, Spain joined the core of western European countries as a founding member of the eurozone in 2002 and developed widening security ties with the United States. When the PSOE returned to power in 2004 under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the government enacted same-sex marriage in 2005 and later negotiated a peaceful ceasefire with the paramilitary Basque nationalist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA).
The pain in Spain
But the global financial crisis of 2008-09 and subsequent eurozone crisis of 2010 knocked Spain off its pedestal.
Not unlike Florida, Nevada and parts of California in the United States, property values in Spain fell as rapidly as they once climbed, and an economy driven by construction and easy credit sputtered to near-depression levels of contraction. Despite running a more parsimonious fiscal policy in the 2000s than even Germany, Zapatero’s government soon found its expenses far exceeding revenues, and his government engaged in a series of tax increases and spending cuts.
The Spanish electorate ousted Zapatero in December 2011, ushering the People’s Party back to power under Mariano Rajoy, whose main goal was to prevent Spain from needing to seek an emergency bailout. Despite some scares over the Spanish banking system in 2012, Rajoy succeeded in keeping Spain bailout-free, but at the cost of ever greater spending cuts and tax hikes. The Rajoy government’s tough fiscal medicine, to some degree, has worked. Yields on Spanish 10-year debt have steadily fallen from a high of over 7.2% in July 2012 to less than 1.8% today. For a country without economic expansion since 2008, the Spanish economy returned to fragile growth in 2014, and it maintained growth throughout 2015 — notching 1% growth in the second quarter of this year and 0.8% in the third.
But voters are not enthusiastic about the prospects of reelecting Rajoy, a leader who never quite managed to win over Spanish hearts. Spain’s unemployment rate today is still 21.2%, a drop from the record-high 26.9% level recorded in early 2013. But that’s still a far higher jobless rate than anywhere else in the European Union (with the exception of Greece).
In the 2008 election, before the bottom fell out of the Spanish economy, the two major parties together won 83.8% of the vote. By 2011, that percentage fell to 73.4%. If polls are correct, that percentage could fall below 50% on Sunday, as both the PP and the PSOE struggle against the surging popularity of the anti-austerity Podemos (‘We can’) on the left and the liberal, federalist Ciudadanos (C’s, Citizens) on the right.
If the election were held today, the PP would win around 110 seats, the PSOE around 90, and Podemos and Ciudadanos would each win around 60, leaving none of them with a clear majority. The uncertainty of the four-way race has both energized the electorate (in a manner reminiscent to those first early elections in the post-dictatorship era) and enhanced the chances of post-election uncertainty that both Greece and Portugal have endured this year. Continue reading Spain readies for historic, four-way election on December 20→
Standing before the House of Commons Wednesday night, eliciting applause from both the governing Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party, Benn made the clearest case for the United Kingdom to join US and French airstrikes in Syria.
Slack-jawed commentators lined up to call Benn’s speech one of the best in the Commons in recent memory and, given the rarity of applause (let alone bipartisan applause) in the House, there’s a great case that they are right. The Telegraph‘s Dan Hodges argued that Benn looked not just like a future opposition leader, but a future prime minister (and you don’t hear those words thrown around these days about anyone in Labour):
Tonight [Benn] articulately, and passionately and elegantly re-crafted his ploughshares into swords. The diplomatic case. The military case. The strategic case. Calmly and forensically he made the argument the Prime Minister could not make and the Leader of the Opposition could not destroy.
Ironically, Benn is the son of the late Tony Benn, the former secretary of state for energy under prime minister James Callaghan, and a one-time deputy leadership candidate in 1981. Long a member of Labour’s hard left, the adjective ‘Bennite’ for decades described the party’s supposedly unelectable left-wing fringe, mentoring socialists like Jeremy Corbyn, who recently upset Labour’s moderates to win the Labour leadership in September, and John McDonnell, who now serves as shadow chancellor. Even after standing down from Parliament in 2001, Tony Benn was an outspoken critic of the British participation in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, serving in the mid-2000s as the leader of the ‘Stop the War’ coalition that Corbyn would later head. Continue reading Who is Hilary Benn?→
I recently sat down with Brian Beary, who writes today about recent elections across Europe for The European Institute — including Poland, Switzerland, Portugal, Greece and state elections in Austria.
One of the concepts that we discussed is the nature of European integration today, and the notion that European governance, on everything from migration to fiscal policy, have now become driving forces in national and even local elections:
According to Lees, this is a signal of the EU’s coming of age in a sense. “The EU has become a living, breathing issue in politics. It has moved beyond an issue discussed by lofty elites. It is better that these debates are happening now at the national and local level,” he says.
The evolution was a predictable consequence of the EU’s expansion into so many policy areas. Greeks are acutely aware that their government no longer sets fiscal policy autonomously, with Brussels to a large extent in the driving seat. And Poles can see from the refugee crisis that their EU membership may involve ceding some control over who to admit to their country as the EU seeks to introduce mandatory quotas of refugees to more evenly redistribute them across the 28-member bloc. Syriza’s pledges to fight tooth and nail with the EU to end austerity and bring debt relief, and the PiS’ refusal to swallow the European Commission’s refugee redistribution plan reaped rewards for them at the ballot boxes.
This moment in EU history can be likened to the ‘Articles of Confederation’ period in America’s history in the 1780s where weaknesses in the confederation form drove the founding fathers to decide that a more closely-knit union was needed to enable the nascent nation to function better.
Amid dual concerns about rising immigration and creeping concerns about the reach of the European Union’s writ in non-member Switzerland, today’s Swiss national elections are further evidence of a rightward shift that could complicate governance in a country with a long tradition of consensus-driven government.
Though Switzerland hasn’t received the deluge of refugees as neighboring Austria and Germany, fears about the largest number of refugees arriving in Europe since World War II, boosted the anti-immigration, right-wing Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP, Swiss People’s Party), which won a record 65 seats in Switzerland’s 200-member Nationalrat (National Council), the lower house of the bicameral Bern-based Bundesversammlung (Federal Assembly) — more seats than any other single party has won at any election since 1917. Those gains follow the successes of the far-right Freedom Party in two state elections in the past three weeks in neighboring Austria.
When one party wins an election in Switzerland, it doesn’t mean that the party controls government. Instead, under the Swiss ‘concordance’ system, the four major parties of both left and right share membership on the Federal Council, a seven-member executive board that governs Switzerland and that is indirectly elected by the Federal Assembly. Historically, the Federal Council prides itself on collegiality and compromise. The Swiss presidency rotates annually among the seven members, though the presidential role is chiefly ceremonial. Furthermore, there’s no equivalent of a ‘prime minister,’ and the strong regional government of Switzerland’s 26 cantons means that executive power in the country has always been particularly weak, dating to the federal system agreed in 1848.
But Sunday’s result is prompting calls for a Rechtsrutsch — a move from a grand-coalition government to a more clearly right-leaning government on the basis of the SVP’s superior result.
Both houses of the Federal Assembly will determine the Federal Council’s composition in a secret ballot on December 9. The SVP’s rising strength means that it will take a much more aggressive stand toward shifting the Federal Council to the right, tightening Swiss policy on immigration and the European Union.
It was fitting, perhaps, that Geoffrey Howe, the Tory statesman, died the same weekend that prime minister David Cameron listed his four demands for reforming the European Union — a prelude to the expected 2017 referendum on British EU membership.
Howe died at age 88 after a heart attack on Saturday, ending one of the most accomplished lives of postwar British politics. Entering the House of Commons for the first time in 1964, Howe served as a trade minister under Conservative prime minister Edward Heath. But it was during Margaret Thatcher’s reign that put him in a real position to shine — first as chancellor between 1979 and 1983, during some of the headiest days of the Thatcherite free-market revolution, and later as foreign secretary from 1983 to 1989, when he tackled the US invasion of Grenada, the denouement of the Cold War, the Libyan crisis and, of course, an increasingly adversarial relationship between Thatcher and the European Economic Community.
It was Howe’s resignation speech in 1990 as deputy prime minister, having been unceremoniously demoted by Thatcher from the foreign office, that led to her own downfall just 12 days later.
The speech today is worth watching, not for its drama (though it contained that in spades — Howe’s quiet and gentlemanly manner couldn’t have been more devastating in its effect) but for its warning on Europe, especially with the 2017 referendum looming.
At the time, Howe challenged both Thatcher’s style and substance on Europe. In particular, he took issue with her reluctance to admit the United Kingdom into the ‘currency snake’ that set the value of the UK pound within a narrow band. He also chided her attitude toward ruling out, in absolute terms, any British participation in a single currency: Continue reading Geoffrey Howe showed Britain the path forward on Europe→