Tag Archives: greens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

Far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer easily won the first round of Austria's presidential election. (Facebook)
Far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer easily won the first round of Austria’s presidential election. (Facebook)

On a day when Serbians reelected their pro-European government in landslide, the spotlight suddenly fell on Austria instead.austria flag

Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the anti-immigrant, far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria), easily won the first round of Austria’s presidential election, while the candidates of the two governing parties fell to fourth and fifth place.

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Hofer’s first-round lead of more than 10% shocked not only Vienna, but the entire European Union.

At age 45, Hofer is not nearly as well known as some of the Freedom Party’s top officials, including its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache. But his fresh-faced appeal might have improved the party’s chances, in contrast to one of the FPÖ’s more established figures. Austria has admitted more refugees, on a per-capita basis, than even Germany, and Hofer spent much of his campaign trashing Austria’s willingness to pay more into the European Union than it receives in return, stoking anger over bailouts to Greece and other member-state with crippling debt. Continue reading Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

Don’t risk overrating AfD’s rise in German state elections

Since taking over the Alternative for Germany party last year, Frauke Petry has steered it in a stridently anti-migrant direction. (Facebook)
Since taking over the Alternative for Germany party last year, Frauke Petry has steered it in a stridently anti-migrant direction. (Facebook)

It’s tempting to argue that results from three state elections in Germany on Sunday spell the beginning of the end for chancellor Angela Merkel.Germany Flag Icon

In all three states, the eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) won representation for the first time at the state level. That means that the AfD’s parliamentary presence will rise to eight German state assemblies, with the party poised to enter the Bundestag in the next federal election (after narrowly missing the 5% electoral threshold in September 2013).

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RELATED: Kretschmann wins big in Germany’s prosperous south

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It’s not the first time that radical parties have made minor gains in elections. In the 1992 Baden-Württemberg state elections, the hard-right Die Republikaner (Republicans) won over 12% of the vote, making it the state’s third-largest party. Hard-right parties have routinely won a small share of the national vote, though never enough to enter the Bundestag. Former East German communists founded what is today the radical leftist flank of Die Linke (The Left) and, despite a quarter-century from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the party (certainly not as hard-left as it was in 1989) is still controversial.

It’s true that Merkel has taken a bold stand in welcoming refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, and that policy has left many German voters concerned that the rate of immigrants — over one million since the migration crisis swelled last summer — is more than Germany society can assimilate culturally, socially and economically.

It’s not an unfair concern, so it’s not surprising that the AfD’s popularity is rising. Since its creation in 2013 as a party of mildly eurosceptic academics, it has turned sharply right under a new more hardline leader, Frauke Petry, a 40-year-old chemist and businesswoman whose anti-migration rhetoric has attracted voters scared of the effects of so many new German refugees. The AfD’s turn was so hard that Bernd Lucke, one of the movement’s founders, quit the party last summer.

The migration crisis may have been the impetus for the AfD’s emergence, but it’s no surprise that a right-wing alternative to Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) is coming into view. She has become Germany’s most dominant politician in a generation by occupying virtually all of the ideological territory on the center-right and the center-left, leaving her right flank somewhat unprotected.

Hugging the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) into two grand coalitions since 2005, she’s shown a willingness to poach its most popular policies, including a raise in the German minimum wage. She’s been at the center of difficult battles to keep the European Union united, including last summer’s near-disastrous negotiations to keep Greece in the eurozone. The effect has been that more moderate voters have flocked to the CDU — so much so that she nearly won a remarkable absolute majority in the Bundestag in September 2013.

But it also means that voters who want change are turning not to the CDU’s junior coalition partner, the SPD, but to fringe groups, including the AfD. While the AfD’s gains are real, and they shouldn’t be ignored, neither should they be overstated. Far-right politics in Germany have existed for years, and while it’s true that the AfD clearly took votes from the CDU in Sunday’s state elections, it also appears that the AfD draws from far-left voters in eastern Germany and from disaffected SPD voters in western Germany.

The three states that held elections on March 13 couldn’t be more different, and it’s a risk to make blanket statements about the future of German politics through generalizing the results of Sunday’s elections.

Taking them one by one shows that, though the AfD risk is real, the electorate remains by far in favor of Merkel’s moderate approach to governance.  Continue reading Don’t risk overrating AfD’s rise in German state elections

Häupl holds off far-right threat in Vienna elections

Vienna's Social Democratic mayor, Michael Häupl, has held power since 1994. (Hans Punz/aPA)
Vienna’s Social Democratic mayor, Michael Häupl, has held power since 1994. (Hans Punz/aPA)

Sometimes, what doesn’t happen in an election matters more than what does happen.austria flag

So it was in Vienna on Sunday, when Michael Häupl, the longtime center-left mayor held onto power. That’s not so surprising, because his Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) has controlled Vienna’s state government in every election in the postwar era.

What’s more, though polls showed that the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria) was trailing the Social Democrats by just 1% in the week before Vienna’s elections, the Freedom Party actually lost by nearly 10%. Though the Freedom Party’s result marks a gain against its prior result in 2010, and its strength is growing amid the backdrop of Europe’s migration and refugee crisis, its failure in Vienna is notable.

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After an election campaign that pitted Häupl in competition directly with the Freedom Party’s leader Heinz-Christian Strache, the far right’s failure to break through should come as a relief to Austria’s entire political mainstream, of both right and left. Had Strache won the election, it would have shaken the foundations of the grand coalition that governs Austria under Social Democratic chancellor Werner Faymann.

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Vienna, aside from being Austria’s capital, is also the country’s largest state, with 1.8 million of Austria’s 8.6 million people, so elections for the Landtag invariably influence the national political climate. Die Grünen (the Greens/Green Alternative), the third-placed party, won enough seats to give the SPÖ-led coalition a majority in the state assembly. Continue reading Häupl holds off far-right threat in Vienna elections

Freedom Party surges in Upper Austria with its gaze fixed on Vienna

Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache is all smiles campaigning during Oktoberfest.
Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache is all smiles campaigning during Oktoberfest.

Amid the refugee crisis that has strained European borders, internal and external, since late summer, there’s increasing discussion of using formal diplomatic sanctions against Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán for his intransigence in dealing with migrants, many of whom are Syrians fleeing years of civil war or otherwise miserable refugee camps in an overburdened Lebanon.austria flag

The last time that the European Union assessed diplomatic sanctions, however, was in 2000, when it chided Austria for letting the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria) into government.

But in the first electoral test for the eastern European countries at the heart of the migrant crisis, it was the FPÖ that emerged as the clear winner, surging 9% to second place in Oberösterreich (Upper Austria)’s regional elections and winning 18 of the regional parliament’s 56 seats.

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Its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, already had reason to be pleased with himself after taking the party to third-place status in Austria’s national parliamentary elections in September 2013.

His party only narrowly lost to the long-dominant center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party), which has controlled the state government since 1945, and whose leader, Josef Pühringer, has served as the state’s governor since 1995. Though its population is just 1.44 million, the state is Austria’s industrial heartland and the country’s third-most populous state, and it borders Germany’s Bavaria and the Czech Republic. The  center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) of Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann fell to third place.

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Since 2003, the Austrian People’s Party has governed Upper Austria in a so-called ‘black-green’ coalition with Die Grünen (the Greens/Green Alternative). Though the Greens actually improved on their support from the most recent election in 2009, the ÖVP’s loss of seven seats means that their partnership is two seats short of a majority in the unicameral Landtag. Pühringer will have to form a minority government, looking to the Social Democrats or the Freedom Party for support on a case-by-case basis or otherwise enter into negotiations for a ‘grand coalition’ with the Social Democrats. Continue reading Freedom Party surges in Upper Austria with its gaze fixed on Vienna

Has Germany (and Europe) reached peak Merkel?

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In the span of six days, German chancellor Angela Merkel has made a teenage Palestinian refugee cry with her government’s stand on refugee and immigration policy (then tried to pet her, in what must be one of her most cringe-worthy moments as chancellor), reiterated her increasingly isolated position in Europe in opposition to LGBT marriage equality and almost allowed her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble to force Greece out of the eurozone, in the process undermining Merkel’s authority both at home and within the wider eurozone.Germany Flag Icon

Some week.

Merkel, who won a narrower-than-expected victory in the 2005 election, reached the apex of her political power in September 2013, when her governing Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) nearly won an absolute majority in the country’s parliamentary elections. Despite being forced back into a ‘grand coalition’ with the rival center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party), Merkel’s popularity crested. At long last, she had won a clear personal mandate for her cautious, seemingly ideology-free leadership.

But when faced with policy issues — like Greece, LGBT rights and immigration — featuring such sharp contrasts, Merkel’s popularity was always going to fall from those stratospheric levels.

The crisis over Greece’s future highlighted the limits of Merkel’s conciliatory governing style — to sit back, wait for a consensus to emerge and follow public opinion, even (or especially) if it means co-opting a rival party’s positions. That’s how Merkel has handled everything from nuclear power to raising the minimum wage. But there’s a limit to that kind of governance. Continue reading Has Germany (and Europe) reached peak Merkel?

AfD, FDP thrive in Hamburg state elections

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

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

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

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

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

Germany’s Left Party comes of age with Ramelow victory

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After months of inter-party negotiations, the east-central German state of Thuringia will have a government led by Bodo Ramelow, the state leader of the democratic socialist Die Linke (Left Party).thuringiaGermany Flag Icon

On the surface, it means that Die Linke, partially the successor to  Socialist Unity Party (SED) that ruled the eastern German Democratic Republic, will control a state government for the first time since reunification, which has bred a significant amount of controversy:

Never before in a fully democratic Germany has a regional election triggered so much protest, with thousands demonstrating outside the parliament in Erfurt on Thursday evening ahead of the vote, declaring that the “perpetrators” were heading back into office.

Demonstrators included former East German dissidents, some of whom had spent time behind bars for their opposition views. They shouted “Stasi out!” in reference to East Germany’s repressive secret police, and “The Social Democrats have betrayed us”.

Even center-right chancellor Angela Merkel has used stark language to reject a Left-led government, arguing that Ramelow’s victory is equivalent to putting Karl Marx in charge of government.

But that’s a fairly oversimplified narrative.

Ramelow and the Left will govern in coalition with two far more moderate center-left parties, the Die Grünen (the Greens) and the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party). The SPD, nationally, governs in a ‘grand coalition’ with chancellor Merkel’s conservative Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union).

Moreover, the Left isn’t even the largest party in the Thuringia Landtag, the regional assembly:

thuringia landtag

Far from bringing a police state or a socialist revolution to the tranquil streets of sleepy Erfurt, the Left will be governing in coalition with two far more moderate partners. With the support of the Greens and the SPD, Ramelow’s government will have a one-vote margin in the Landtag. So even if it wanted to introduce radical far-left measures, the Left wouldn’t get very far.

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RELATED: Thuringia and Brandenburg results: Left & AfD on the rise

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

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It’s not clear, however, that it wants to do so. Thuringia provides the party with the opportunity that it can govern responsibly, even with a different ideological perspective than Merkel’s prevailing CDU or the moderate SPD. While the Left is relatively pro-Russia, plenty of former chancellors, from Gerhard Schröder to Helmut Kohl, have struck more lenient views toward Russia than most European figures. While the Left is also anti-NATO, that’s because it’s on the more ultra-pacifist side of a political culture that for decades has been incredibly pacifist.

Ramelow, a Lutheran union leader born in West Germany, is hardly a flamethrower, and he’s an advocate of pro-growth, anti-austerity policies. He’s called for wider investment in education and wants to provide a free year of kindergarten to every child in the state.

Continue reading Germany’s Left Party comes of age with Ramelow victory

Three things you should know about Sweden’s new health minister

wikstromPhoto credit to Philip Mauritzson.

Stand aside, Sebastian Kurz.Sweden

The competition for top heartthrob among Europe’s national government ministers just got a lot tougher with the October 3 appointment of Gabriel Wikström, the 29-year-old minister for public health, health care and sports in Sweden’s new center-left government, whose dimpled smile, steely blue eyes and blond hair are sending Turks (and others) swooning on Twitter, and the young Social Democrat is quickly becoming a sensation far beyond Sweden’s borders:

The good-looking Wikström has become something of a sensation among Turkish teens since he was named as a minister in the new Swedish government headed by Prime Minister Stefan Loefven.

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So who is Wikström? Why has he been appointed a minister? And beyond his smile and boyish good looks, what are the policy issues that he’ll face as a minister?

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Here are three points that tell you everything you need to know about Sweden’s newest export. Continue reading Three things you should know about Sweden’s new health minister

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

Ramelow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Left hopes to make eastern breakthrough in German state elections

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Bodo Ramelow (pictured above) isn’t a Stasi throwback intent on socializing Thuringia into a communist hellhole.Germany Flag Icon

Instead, he’s a rather boring Lutheran born in West Germany, but he could also become the minister-president of the former East German state after state elections on September 14, which could give Die Linke (Left Party) control of its only state in Germany. Thuringia is just one of three eastern states voting throughout the next month, joining Brandenburg on September 14 and Saxony two weeks earlier on August 31.

The Left Party, in particular, has a strong following in the former East Germany, given its roots as the former Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus (Party of Democratic Socialism), the successor to the Socialist Unity Party that ruled the eastern German Democratic Republic during the Cold War. As such, the traditional Western parties have been wary of partnering with the Left Party.

That’s beginning to change as the German left increasingly considers a more unified approach, and eastern Germany has been a laboratory for so-called ‘red-red coalitions’ between the Left and the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party). As such, the Left Party served as the junior partner in Berlin’s government for a decade between 2001 and 2011 and in the state government of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern between 1998 and 2006. Furthermore, a red-red coalition currently governs Brandenburg, and its leaders hope to renew a second term for the government in September’s election.

Though the outcomes aren’t roughly in doubt, the elections take place under the backdrop of news that the eurozone could be sinking back into economic contraction. Initial numbers from the second quarter of the year showed the economy contracting by 0.2% — the first contraction since 2012 — after first-quarter growth was revised down from 0.8% to 0.7%.

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RELATED: Has the first Ossi chancellor been
good or bad for the former East Germany?

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That’s in addition to the income gap that still plagues eastern Germany, where economic growth lags significantly behind the states of former West Germany, nearly a quarter-century after reunification:

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The east’s lagging economic growth, the strength of Die Linke, and  growing unity between the SPD and Die Linke are common themes in all three state elections over the next month.

Saxony: August 31

saxony

Saxony is the most populous of the three eastern states voting over the next month, making it the biggest prize. But it’s also where the governing Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) of chancellor Angela Merkel are most assured of winning reelection. Continue reading Left hopes to make eastern breakthrough in German state elections

Will New Zealand get a new flag later this year?

key

New Zealand prime minister John Key opened the door to a national referendum later this year on changing the country’s flag, which would end a longstanding debate over whether it too closely resembles Australia’s flag.new zealand icon

That’s not a joke.

Key (pictured above, hoisting the Australian flag) suggested the referendum might be held at the same time as parliamentary elections in the island country of 4.4 million, and it’s an idea that proves relatively popular among Kiwis:

The idea has gained support from former Governor-General Dame Catherine Tizzard.  “Our flag and the Australian flag is so often confused for one another and the symbolism of our flag is a bit out-dated,” she says.

While Phoenix and All Whites Footballer Ben Sigmund agrees the trans-Tasman flags are too alike.  “Our flag is too much like the Australian flag so John Key I think you should change it mate.”

Here’s the Australian flag:

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Here’s the current New Zealand flag:

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Critics may have a point.  Canadian officials made a famous protocol faux pas in 1984 when former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke was met New Zealand flag instead of the Australian.

Both share in common the Union Jack in the upper left quadrant, a nod to their status as former British colonies, members of the Commonwealth and countries that have retained the British monarch — Queen Elizabeth II is the queen of Australia and the queen of New Zealand, too, though both countries have a governor-general that acts as the head of state when the British monarch isn’t in town.  Both share a blue ensign (Pantone 280C for color nerds) as the background to their flags.

Both flags also reference the four main stars in the Southern Cross constellation visible in the southern hemisphere, though the Australian version includes a fifth star that shines less brightly and a sixth star below the Union Jack, the seven-pointed ‘Commonwealth’ star — six points represent Australia’s six states and the last point represents the territories.

The current New Zealand flag replaced the British Union Jack in 1902.

As anticipated by Key, any referendum would present a choice between the current flag and another alternative put forward by the government.  One option that Key has mooted is the ‘silver fern’ flag — the silver fern, an unofficial symbol of New Zealand that dates back to the country’s military insignia during the South African War, adorns the one-dollar coin and the coat of arms:

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A new flag might also reference the Māori, the indigenous Polynesian people in New Zealand, a group that today represents 14.6% of the country’s population and has mobilized to develop increasing political power.  Hone Harawira, the leader of the Māori Party, would support a new flag, but would prefer that it include the motif of the current Māori flag:

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Taken together, the desire to differentiate New Zealand’s flag from Australia’s, the inclusion of the silver fern, the push to remove the Union Jack, and the push for Māori representation on the flag opens an unlimited number of potential choices:

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Proponents of the current flag point to tradition and to the country’s common cause with the United Kingdom:

John Banks, leader of New Zealand’s ACT party said: “No. Men fought under that flag and sacrificed their lives in many war campaigns.  “I’m a bit old-fashioned, I don’t want the name of the country changed, or the flag, or God Save the Queen.”

Key leads the center-right New Zealand National Party, and he must call elections before November 2014.  He’ll be looking to win a third consecutive term in office.  Since coming to power in 2008, Key’s administration has raised the goods and services tax, privatized some public sector assets, responded to a major earthquake in Christchurch (New Zealand’s second-most populous city), enacted the Wellington Agreement to provide greater defense cooperation with the United States and propelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership among the United States, several Asian countries and several Latin American countries.

Key doesn’t advocate New Zealand’s transition from a constitutional monarchy to a republic, unlike Russel Norman, the co-leader of the Green Party, which hold 14 seats in the 120-member House of Representatives.

Key’s party controls 59 seats, and his government commands the support of 64 members, including independent and small-party allies.  The opposition New Zealand Labour Party controls just 34 seats.  David Cunliffe, the former health and communications minister, won the party’s leadership last year, despite wider support among the parliamentary caucus for his opponent, Grant Robertson.

Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

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While most of Europe was watching the birth of Germany’s latest grand coalition government last week, Austria’s grand coalition also finalized its government platform.austria flag

Austria, which has an even stronger tradition of cozy coalition politics between the center-left and the center right, will continue to a coalition that’s comprised of its main center-left party, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) and its main center-right party, the Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party).

There was very little unexpected news about the coalition deal, which will continue the broadly centrist course of center-left chancellor Werner Faymann’s government.

But the decision to elevate the hunky 27-year-old Sebastian Kurz as Austria’s new foreign minister was something of a shock.  Michael Spindelegger, the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor, who previously served as foreign minister between 2008 and 2013, will become the government’s new finance minister.

The decision leaves Kurz (pictured above) as one of the world’s youngest political leaders in such a high policymaking role.

So who is this whiz kid?  Kurz became involved in politics at age 10, and by 2009, he was the leader of the youth wing of the Austrian People’s Party.  In 2010, he was elected to the city council of his native Vienna, running under the slogan, ‘Schwarz macht neil‘ (‘Black is cool,’ referring to the color most associated with the People’s Party) in a campaign Hummer that quickly gained the nickname as the ‘Geilomobil‘ (which translates roughly to ‘Horny-mobile’), befitting Kurz’s growing reputation as somewhat of a party animal.  Before you judge him too harshly, however, remember that it was part of a wider push to make the ÖVP more attractive to young voters. And just four months ago, two competing leaders of the Austrian far right both posed shirtless in public.

But by 2011 he was already serving as state secretary for integration, where he impressed skeptics by working to ease the path for the growing number of immigrants to Austria, including through the institution of an extra year of pre-school for immigrant children to learn German.  He helped spearhead a new immigration law in May of this year that clears a path to citizenship for some immigrants within six years.

It was a controversial move on Spindelegger’s part, but it paid off, and Kurz was elected to the Nationalrat (National Council), the chief house of the Austrian parliament, in the September 29 parliamentary elections with a higher number of votes than any other candidate. 

His approach contrasts with that of the more xenophobic approach to immigration of Austria’s far right.  In  September, the Social Democrats won 27.1% and the Austrian People’s Party won 23.8%, but the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) won 21.4%, a strong third-place finish.  But a Dec. 12 Hajek poll showed that if the elections were held over today, the Freedom Party would emerge as the leading party with 26%, followed by the Social Democrats with 23% and the Austrian People’s Party at 20%.  A new free-market libertarian partyDas Neue Österreich (NEOS, The New Austria), which entered the National Council for the first time in September’s elections, would win 11%.

The Freedom Party’s relatively young and charismatic leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, wasted no time in criticizing Kurz for his inexperience:

“When Mr Kurz becomes foreign minister without any diplomatic experience, you have to be amazed. This is the continuation of Austria’s farewell to foreign policy,” right-wing leader Heinz Christian Strache told parliament on Tuesday.

Kurz… took the blows.  “It’s true, of course. Due to my age I have limited experience and of course hardly any diplomatic experience. But what I bring is lots of diligence, energy and the desire to contribute something,” he told Reuters.

But Kurz emphasized the international nature of his previous role with respect to integration, and he argued that his relative youth and high media profile would allow him to make an immediate impact.  Though Austria, with just 8.5 million people, has a less dominant voice on European matters than Germany, it plays a key role in the Balkans, where Serbia and other former Yugoslav countries are hoping to begin accession talks to the European Union early next year. (If your German skills are up for it, here’s an interview with Kurz in Der Standard earlier this week).

Kurz’s appointment also means that he will likely take a key role in the upcoming European Parliament elections by convincing Austrian voters not to turn to euroskeptic parties like the Freedom Party or Team Stronach, the conservative movement of Austro-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach.  Spindelegger was criticized during his tenure at the ministry for being a ‘half-time foreign minister’ in light of his duties as the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor. Continue reading Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

Germany reaches coalition deal, faces SPD party vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what to expect next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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