Tag Archives: people’s party

Snap South Korean presidential election points to tough Moon-Ahn race

South Korea’s snap presidential election in May now favors the progressive candidate, Moon Jae-in, but he is facing surprisingly strong opposition. (Facebook)

When Moon Jae-in (문재인) won his party’s nomination last Monday, news outlets across the globe immediately proclaimed that the progressive’s nomination all but assured Moon’s victory in the snap presidential election set to take place on May 9. 

Nevertheless, the next 27 days promise to be some of the most tumultuous in the history of South Korean democracy, with former president Park Geun-hye (박근혜) under arrest on bribery and other corruption charges and with US president Donald Trump’s administration taking an increasingly bellicose line over North Korea’s nuclear provocations. Park’s removal from office brought forward the presidential election previously scheduled for December.

Last week’s primaries among all of South Korea’s major parties have effectively settled the presidential field. Almost immediately, though, Moon’s opponents started lining up behind another progressive alternative — former software engineer and entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo (안철수), who kicked off his general election campaign by taking a ride on Seoul’s subways. The hint wasn’t subtle: Ahn is an outsider who understands the problems of everyday Koreans.

It set off an election dynamic that polls say, all of a sudden, is now too close to call.

Once Moon’s ally, former software businessman Ahn Cheol-soo is gaining support from many different corners of South Korean society, united solely by their mutual distrust for Moon. (Facebook)

The sudden Moon-Ahn horse race elevates a long-simmering rivalry that’s defined the South Korean opposition for the better part of the 2010s. Moon and Ahn both hold relatively left-wing views by the standards of South Korean politics. But Ahn is increasingly viewed as more pro-American, given Moon’s skepticism about the US-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system that North Korea and China view as an American provocation. While both Moon and Ahn previously opposed THAAD, which could deploy within weeks, the two candidates are now voicing at least qualified support for its deployment if North Korea’s aggression continues. But Moon has warned that THAAD’s deployment should be halted if North Korea resumes negotiations and freezes its nuclear weapons program.

More broadly, South Korean business elites like that Ahn comes from an entrepreneurial background. Idealistic voters, meanwhile, consider Ahn an untainted maverick who can break the cycle of corruption that’s dogged several administrations from both the left and the right and the ‘chaebol’ conglomerates than dominate the South Korean economy. (Notably, Samsung CEO Jay Y. Lee (이재용) was arrested in February as a result of the wide-ranging corruption scandal that engulfed Park’s presidency, accused of paying up to $40 million in bribes to Park in exchange for favorable treatment for Samsung).

At a stunningly rapid clip, Ahn has defined himself as the outsider to Moon’s insider. In addition, with the Korean right in shambles after Park’s implosion, many conservative voters — for now at least — seem to prefer a strategic vote for Ahn instead of a more right-wing candidate. Continue reading Snap South Korean presidential election points to tough Moon-Ahn race

Pressure builds on Sánchez as third Spanish election looms

(EFE)
Felipe González, right, a respected former four-term prime minister, has called on Pedro Sánchez, the current PSOE leader, to allow a conservative minority government. (EFE)

Felipe González was just 41 years old when he became, in the view of many Spaniards, the most consequential prime minister to date in post-Franco Spain.galiciabasqueSpain_Flag_Icon

Across a span of 14 years in power, González, the leader of the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), won four consecutive elections, normalized the rule of law and the traditions of democratic participation in Spain, brought the country into what was then the European Economic Community, the forerunner of today’s European Union, and shepherded Spain into NATO as a firm member of the transatlantic military and security alliance.

Today, while Spaniards take for granted many of those accomplishments as pillars of the Spanish state, González is also now remembered for the levels of corruption that sank his final government and a botched attempt to combat armed Basque nationalists.

But he’s still the first among Spain’s elder statesmen, in many ways as influential as the former king, Juan Carlos I, who abdicated in 2014 in favor of his son Felipe VI. In truth, the two are more responsible than anyone for Spain’s vibrant democracy today.

Third election a Christmas miracle?

As his country enters its 10th month without a government, voters may worry that Spanish democracy has become a bit too vibrant in recent years, as a strong two-party political system has crumbled into a four-party state with myriad regionalist parties from all corners of Spain, its two-party system dissolved under the penumbra of depression-level GDP contraction and unemployment.

That’s why, after two elections, the first in December 2015 and the second in June 2016, no party can quite cobble together the necessary majority to form a government. If Spain’s party leaders cannot unlock a breakthrough by the end of October, the country will head to the polls for the third time in 13 months, possibly even on Christmas Day 2016.

González, who has doled out criticism for all of Spain’s political leaders, is one of the few PSOE figures publicly urging his party and its young leader, Pedro Sánchez, to concede its fight to deny another government under conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy. In his view, Spain would suffer greater damage from a third general election in 13 months — as polls show that yet another snap election would result in essentially the same deadlock as the last two. In a country where turnout of 75% or more isn’t uncommon, turnout dropped from 69.7% in December to just 65.7% in June, and it could fall even lower, to 63% or worse, with another snap vote. Generally speaking, Spanish observers believe that will boost the PP, at the expense of the PSOE and Podemos, the leftist, anti-austerity movement that formed in 2014 out of the indignados movement of Spain’s masses of unemployed workers.

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RELATED: PSOE’s incentives point to PP-Ciudadanos minority government in Spain

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Another election in Spain would come as both Germany and France face national elections in 2017 with rising eurosceptic sentiment. It would come weeks after a make-or-break referendum on constitutional reform that’s seen as a plebiscite on Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, and as the United Kingdom, under its new prime minister Theresa May, maneuvers to leave the European Union after its blockbuster June 2016 ‘Brexit’ vote. It could fall just days after the United States might elect businessman and reality television star Donald Trump as its next president.

So the last thing Spain’s leaders (and European and American leaders) want is another inconclusive vote and prolonged uncertainty that could threaten the slight economic growth that Spain’s generated in 2015 and 2016 and that has left the country without a government to implement a budget for the next year or provide leadership in ongoing post-Brexit debates over the European Union’s future.

Rajoy fails to win investiture vote

Prime minister Mariano Rajoy has continued to lead a caretaker government since last December. (Facebook)
Prime minister Mariano Rajoy has continued to lead a caretaker government since last December. (Facebook)

The latest despair comes after another failed attempt by Rajoy to retain power. Although his conservative Partido Popular (PP, the People’s Party) won the greatest number of seats in the most recent June election (indeed, a 14-seat increase from the December election), he has twice failed to win two confidence votes since the end of August, with a majority of the Chamber of Deputies (Congreso de los Diputados), the lower house of the Spanish parliament, blocking Rajoy’s investiture. Continue reading Pressure builds on Sánchez as third Spanish election looms

PSOE’s incentives point to PP-Ciudadanos minority government in Spain

Pedro Sánchez has led the PSOE to a better-than-expected result, but it leaves Spain no closer to a clear governing majority. (Facebook)
Pedro Sánchez has led the PSOE to a better-than-expected result, but it leaves Spain no closer to a clear governing majority. (Facebook)

Voting under the penumbra of an ongoing political crisis in the United Kingdom following last Thursday’s referendum, in which a bare majority of British voters chose to leave the European Union, Spanish voters in Sunday’s general election — the second in seven months — fell back on established parties instead of more radical newcomers.Spain_Flag_Icon

Despite polls (and even exit polls) that predicted the rise of Unidos Podemos, a joint ticket of Spain’s far-left communists and Podemos, the newer anti-austerity movement, the ticket won the same number of seats in the lower house of Spain’s parliament, the 350-member Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), than it had after the December general election.

Forecasts that Unidos Podemos would overtake the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) proved wrong. The PSOE, under the leadership of Pedro Sánchez, remains the largest leftist force in Spanish politics.

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Unfortunately for Sánchez, the PSOE fell further behind the governing center-right Partido Popular (PP, the People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy, which won 137 seats — a 14-seat increase since the December 2015 elections. Those gains came mostly as a result of record-low turnout and a subtle migration back to Rajoy’s party from the upstart, liberal Ciudadanos, which lost eight seats in last Sunday’s voting.

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So what next? In an election where voters largely returned the same verdict, Spain’s political class is now looking at another round of coalition talks as a country with a traditional two-party system now copes with four major parties.

At the heart of these talks, however, is the PSOE, which is now positioned as the leading swing vote between Spain’s conservatives and Spain’s hard left. No matter what comes next for Spain, the PSOE will almost certainly determine the outcome.

So as Spain’s political leaders get down to the business of coalition talks in the days and weeks to come, the most important factor to keep in mind are the PSOE’s political incentives (and, to a lesser degree, Sánchez’s incentive to remain PSOE leader in the hopes of winning a future election). Continue reading PSOE’s incentives point to PP-Ciudadanos minority government in Spain

Austrian center wins a hollow presidential victory

Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly defeated the far right in Austria's presidential election, but it might ultimately be a Phyrric victory. (Amélie Chapalain / Facebook)
Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly defeated the far right in Austria’s presidential election, but it might ultimately be a Pyrrhic victory. (Amélie Chapalain / Facebook)

It took the counting of around 750,000 postal votes on Monday to settle what had been a too-close-to-call runoff to determine who would win Austria’s (mostly ceremonial) presidency.austria flag

The winner, by a very narrow margin, is Alexander Van der Bellen, a 72-year-old professor and, nominally an independent, though formerly a parliamentary leader of the Die Grünen (Austrian Green Party), and you could almost hear the palpable sigh of relief from across the European Union as far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer conceded defeat.

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But it’s a hollow relief.

The result means that Austria’s hard right will not occupy the presidency and, therefore, will not be able to attempt to terminate the current government or try to wrest greater powers from Austria’s parliament. But given the tumult of the past month in Austrian politics, the hard right has clearly been emboldened by the presidential race, and it will now look to the next parliamentary elections to take real power.

The first-round, double-digit victory of Norbert Hofer, the 45-year-old candidate of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria), stunned not only Austria, but all of Europe. It represents the closest than any far-right party has come to winning power at the national level in the European Union since the 1930s.

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RELATED: Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

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Its success shouldn’t have been surprising. The Freedom Party has increasingly gained on the country’s mainstream parties, and it nearly toppled state governments in regional elections last autumn.

Despite its defeat, the FPÖ has been able not only to undermine a sitting chancellor, but to force his resignation. After social democratic chancellor Werner Faymann initially welcomed refugees to Austria last summer, he abruptly reversed course under pressure from the Freedom Party and angry voters, instead co-opting the rhetoric and the policies of the far right, complete with border fences and anti-immigration crackdowns.

But the candidate of Faymann’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) finished in fourth place, and shortly after the first-round vote, the Social Democrats essentially forced Faymann to resign, bringing to an end an eight-year tenure leading a grand coalition government with the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party). For its part, the ÖVP presidential candidate placed an even more disappointing fifth.

Faymann, to his credit, ably led Austria through the 2008-09 global financial panic and the 2010 eurozone crisis, and Austria and its banking system, moreover, helped stave off a broader crisis in central Europe and the Balkans. Instead of leaving office, having made the noble case for welcoming refugees, he left power earlier this month after capitulating to the hard right. Continue reading Austrian center wins a hollow presidential victory

Koreans look to 2017 after Park’s governing party loses seats

South Korean president Park Guen-hye met with US president Barack Obama in Washington soon after taking office in 2013. (White House)
South Korean president Park Guen-hye met with US president Barack Obama in Washington soon after taking office in 2013. (White House)

Though it’s only been two weeks since South Koreans upended polls to deliver a shock verdict in parliamentary elections, the country is now pivoting toward its next presidential election — which is nearly 20 months away. northkorea

Taking place nearly two-thirds of the way through the five-year term of president Park Guen-hye (박근혜), the election was an opportunity for Park to solidify her grip on the National Assembly, as well as her own party, the conservative Saenuri Party (새누리당, ‘New Frontier’ Party) by winning a more solid majority in South Korea’s 300-member unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (대한민국 국회). 

Despite poll predictions that Saenuri would take advantage of a split opposition and win an even wider majority, the party instead lost ground, falling further away from an absolute majority, winning just 122 seats, 24 fewer seats in the National Assembly than the party held before the elections. Park, like all South Korean presidents, is limited to a single term in office and, in some regards, she became a lame duck president from the first days of the 2013 inauguration of the country’s first female president. That hasn’t stopped Park from wielding power through a very strong executive branch.

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Saenuri’s defeat, however, and Park’s failures in particular, mean that the country is now shifting towards the posturing among Park’s opponents, including those within other Saenuri Party factions, to plot a path to the presidency in an election that will not be held until December 20, 2017.

The results will give hope to the traditional center-left opposition party, the newly renamed (as of last December) Minjoo Party (더불어민주당), a successor to what used to be called the Democratic United Party, which won 123 seats — one more than Saenuri. That could embolden several top figures within the party to mount a 2017 presidential bid, including Moon Jae-in (문재인), the party’s former leader and its 2012 candidate against Park.

But the results will give even more hope to the newly formed, as of February, People’s Party (국민의당), an alternative liberal party that has pulled supporters away from Minjoo. Its leader is Ahn Cheol-soo (안철수), a software entrepreneur, businessman and academic, who burst onto the political scene as a potential presidential candidate in 2012. He will now almost certainly be a contender in the 2017 election. Though the People’s Party only won 38 seats, it actually won more votes than Minjoo.

So what does South Korea’s election mean for the rest of Park’s administration and for 2017? Continue reading Koreans look to 2017 after Park’s governing party loses seats

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.

andalusia2015 andalusia parliament

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

Madrid ignores Catalan vote at grave risk

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Though Sunday’s unofficial referendum on Catalan sovereignty may have been legally murky, it is nonetheless clear that Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s strategy of ignoring the groundswell of support for regional self-determination and autonomy has been a failure.cataloniaSpain_Flag_Icon

So what actually happened on Sunday — and where do the Catalan nationalist movement and the Spanish government go from here?

What happened in Sunday’s ‘consultation’ vote

2004155Photo credit to AFP.

Catalans voted in a non-binding, unofficial ‘consultation’ that its Generalitat (or regional government) once hoped would be a legal referendum not unlike the recent September vote on independence in Scotland. But Rajoy has refused to countenance even the idea of negotiating the terms of such a referendum, and he has consistently ruled out any vote as unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, Catalunya’s regional president Artur Mas (pictured above) has championed a referendum since at least 2012, and his party and other more radical groups in the Catalan regional parliament overwhelmingly voted to hold the referendum, setting the central and Catalan regional governments on what has been a divisive battle over the past year.

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RELATED: Mas cancels official Catalan independence vote

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Mas backed down on the ‘official’ nature of the referendum, which in any event was always designed to be non-binding, when Spain’s constitutional court ruled that the vote was illegal last month. Much to the chagrin of other, more leftist nationalists, however, Mas instead moved forward with an unofficial referendum, taking care not to use official Spanish government resources to conduct the vote.

The Spanish constitutional court ruled last week, in a second decision, that even this unofficial, non-binding ‘consultation’ should be delayed until it could have time to rule on its further legality. Mas went ahead with the vote, anyway, however, prompting a sharp rebuke from Rajoy’s government on Sunday:

Justice Minister Rafael Catalá described the November 9 vote as an “act of political propaganda with no democratic validity; a sterile and useless act.”

The minister went on to announce that the public prosecutor would evaluate the facts of Sunday’s vote and decide whether or not to begin legal action in the courts.

Though the law is squarely on the side of the Spanish government, the Catalans seem to have valid political and moral reasons for demanding at least a voice over their own future. In any event, at least 2.3 million Catalans turned out for the vote, representing around 35% of the total Catalan electorate, nearly all of them were pro-independence voters.

The vote asked two questions: first, ‘do you want Catalunya to be a state?’ and second, ‘if so, do you want Catalunya to be an independent state?’

The so-called ‘yes-yes’ vote won with around 80.8% of the vote. The so-called ‘yes-no’ vote (i.e., those supporters of a Catalan state, but not necessarily an independent state) won another 10.1%. ‘No’ won just 4.5% of the vote.

While that’s skewed in favor of the independence movement, it’s also not insignificant — and it indicates that a large portion of the Catalan people want a legal and valid vote on their status. The longer that Madrid assumes an ostrich position over what’s become a very real sense of grievance among everyday Catalans, the worse the standoff over independence will end. By refusing to discuss the possibility, Rajoy and the central government risk pushing moderate unionists into the arms of the Catalan nationalists.

Nevertheless, Sunday’s turnout fell far short of the 3.7 million voters who participated in the most recent November 2012 regional elections, indicating that a substantial number of voters (who presumably aren’t as enthusiastic about independence) didn’t bother to turn out. The two-pronged ballot question demonstrates the kind of too-cute-by-half ambiguity that British prime minister David Cameron refused to entertain when negotiating the Scottish referendum — what, after all, does it mean for Catalunya to be a state if not independent?

A frustrated electorate trapped between Rajoy and Mas

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The most obvious solution to the standoff is a calm, rational conversation between the Mas and Rajoy governments that would result in greater autonomy for Catalunya’s Generalitat with respect to its own finances and spending. Incredibly, however, the two leaders went months earlier this year without even talking.

Rajoy, whose center-right Partido Popular (PP, People’s Party) won the November 2011 Spanish general elections, has consistently refused to discuss greater autonomy for Catalunya. In part, this is because Rajoy’s party has fairly little support within Catalunya — the Partit Popular de Catalunya (PPC, People’s Party of Catalonia) is just the fourth-largest bloc in the regional parliament. So Rajoy feels little immediate political pain from snubbing the region.

When he took office, Rajoy faced the likelihood that Spain would be essentially forced into a European bailout. As it turned out, Rajoy was forced into implementing budget cuts and tax increases to stave off a bailout — in addition to similar austerity measures introduced by his predecessor, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the center-left prime minister whose Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) came to power in 2004 at the dawn of the Spanish construction and finance boom.

Accordingly, Rajoy has a decent argument for avoiding a full-fledged independence referendum: with a 23.7% unemployment rate as of September, Spain is still in the midst of the worst financial and economic crisis in decades. An independence referendum in Catalunya might credibly be followed by a referendum in the Basque Country/Euskadi, another economic powerhouse with an even more painful history of separatism. Copycat movements could thrive in Galicia and elsewhere. So Rajoy has a reasonably sympathetic argument that a Catalan referendum in the midst of the current crisis could eventually pose an existential threat to the Spanish nation.

But that’s not an excuse for ignoring the problem. What’s worse is that the Spanish economic crisis is itself also fueling greater discontent among Catalans, who believe they send far more in revenue to the Spanish central government than they receive back in services and infrastructure. Though the data isn’t entirely clear, the Catalans are essentially correct. It rankles that all high-speed trains in Spain run through Madrid, for example, and that almost all of the country’s international flights arrive at the Madrid airport. Catalunya, with just 7.5 million of Spain’s 47 million citizens, is responsible for 19% of the economy.

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RELATED: In refusing Catalan vote,
Rajoy risks isolating himself and Spain’s future

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The Scottish referendum was also about economics (nationalists believe they can thrive as a smaller, oil-rich country within the European Union) and about politics (like the PP in Catalunya, the Conservatives have relatively little support in Scotland). But the Catalan movement is also colored by additional layers of complexity that Rajoy shows virtually no sign of appreciating — notably decades of suppression of its language and culture by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. When Rajoy’s education minister, a few years ago, suggested a stronger national program in the Castilian language, it particularly rankled Catalans, many of whom remember the days when the Catalan language was legally banned.

But Mas, the leader of the Convergència i Unió (CiU, Convergence and Union), a two-party, center-right nationalist coalition that’s traditionally been the most powerful force in Catalan politics since the return of democracy, is hardly an honest broker. CiU has always been more comfortable with greater autonomy than full independence, and Mas only recently converted to the cause in 2012 following widespread protests. Since taking power in 2010, Mas has made many of the same painful, unpopular budget decisions at the regional level that Rajoy has made at the national level. What’s more, Jordi Pujol, the former CiU leader and Catalan president between 1980 and 2003, has been subject of increasing scrutiny over his personal wealth and corruption accusations.

Accordingly, neither Mas nor Rajoy come out of the current showdown from a incredible position of strength. That might not necessarily matter if they could at least find a middle ground to discuss the most sensible solution to the political crisis — constitutional reform, greater regional autonomy and the possible creation of a federalist system in Spain.

As elections loom, what comes next?

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So far, however, the chances of any productive talks between Madrid and Barcelona seem small.

Mas has given Rajoy a two-week deadline to begin negotiations for a formal referendum. Rajoy, however, is almost certainly unlikely to take Mas up on that offer.

What happens thereafter is murky, though.

Mas’s party, the larger, more moderate and more aggressive Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC, Democratic Covergence) within the CiU, would like to hold early regional elections, rolling the dice that they would become a de facto referendum on Catalan independence — or at least the right of the Catalan government to call a vote. The smaller, Christian democratic Unió Democràtica de Catalunya (UDC, Democratic Union) has always been less enthusiastic about Mas’s push for independence and would prefer to wait on snap elections.

Part of the political calculus for Mas, Rajoy and the CiU are polls that show that the most popular party in Catalunya is now the leftist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalonia), an even more radical pro-independence party led by historian Oriol Junqueras.

On paper, at least, the PP and the CiU have much more in common than the PP and Esquerra, so both Rajoy and Mas have an incentive to reach some kind of face-saving deal in the next few days.

But at the rate Rajoy is going, he may not have the opportunity to negotiate anything in the long run.

The rise of the anti-establishment Podemos (‘We can!’), the movement founded earlier this year by professor Pablo Iglesias (pictured above), has scrambled all pretenses of Spain’s two-party system. Winning five of the country’s seats to the European Parliament in May, Podemos wants to reevaluate Spain’s public debt, lower the retirement age to 60 to free up more jobs for younger workers and reverse the austerity of the past two PSOE and PP governments, using government spending to create jobs for a country that still has the highest unemployment within the European Union, despite signs of new growth. A Podemos win would be a significant setback to the orthodox policies that German chancellor Angela Merkel has attempted to establish throughout the eurozone, including the 2011 ‘fiscal compact’ that firmly limits national budget deficits to less than 3% of GDP.

Podemos, in a shock Metroscopia poll a couple weeks ago, gained the lead among potential voters in advance of the next Spanish general election, which must be held before December 2015 — it would win 27.7% to just 26.2% for the PSOE, under the leadership of Pedro Sánchez, who won his party’s July leadership contest, and 20.7 for Rajoy’s PP. Sánchez, for his part, opposes Catalan independence, but has indicated much greater willingness to hold discussions with regional leaders over constitutional reform.

The local Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC-PSOE, Socialists’ Party of Catalonia) controlled the regional government between 2003 and 2010, and many of its members are sympathetic to the idea that Catalans should have the right to self-determination.

Though Podemos is widely viewed as a leftist alternative, it has attracted widespread support from many Spaniards who have lost faith in both major parties, especially among young voters who face the worst job prospects, and the indignados, the unemployed protestors who have given voice to the harsh effects of what are now a half-decade of austerity policies.

Ironically, Podemos has attracted little support within Catalunya, where voters have a nationalist (and leftist) alternative in Esquerra.

But as Spain nears the one-year mark until its elections, with the November 9 referendum now in the rear-view mirror, the brinksmanship between Rajoy and Mas won’t matter if they can’t find a path toward reconciliation. At this time next year, their respective governments could be headed by much more radical figures.

Mas cancels official Catalan independence vote

diadaPhoto credit to Diario de Navarra.

If you thought that the Scottish independence referendum was a  divisive matter, just wait another three weeks.Spain_Flag_Iconcatalonia

Even though Catalunya’s regional president Artur Mas officially cancelled a scheduled referendum on Catalan independence originally scheduled for November 9, diffusing a constitutional crisis with the national Spanish government, Mas announced that Catalans will instead have the option to participate in a non-binding ‘consultation.’

From referendum to ‘consultation’

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In substance, the informal ‘consultation’ isn’t incredibly different than the formal vote that Mas (pictured above) and the Catalan regional parliament initially scheduled, given that Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy denounced the vote and questioned the ability of Mas or a majority of the Catalan parliament to call a referendum legally. Spain’s constitutional court ruled the referendum unconstitutional at the end of September, and Mas originally declared that the vote would go forward.

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RELATED: In refusing Catalan vote,
Rajoy risks isolating himself and Spain’s future

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

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Mas’s admission this week that the vote will be informal and non-binding reduces many of the tensions with Madrid, though the original vote wasn’t entirely binding, either. But his announcement may dampen his credibility with pro-independence Catalans (critics took to Twitter to declare it was ‘game over’ for Mas) and force the third regional election in four years.

Nevertheless, the referendum will still ask Catalan voters the same two questions as before:

Do you want Catalonia to be a state?

If so, do you want Catalonia to be an independent state?

No matter what happened on November 9, no one believed that the issue of Catalan sovereignty would be definitively settled anytime soon.  Continue reading Mas cancels official Catalan independence vote

Ruiz-Gallardón resigns after Rajoy drops Spanish abortion bill

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It’s not just the United States that struggles over competing beliefs about abortion. In Spain, pro-choice advocates won one of their biggest international victories of the decade when the country’s conservative government this week backed down on plans to implement a restrictive new abortion law. Spain_Flag_Icon

Spanish justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón resigned Tuesday after prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s cabinet dropped plans for legislation that would heavily restrict abortion rights in the European Union’s fifth-most populous country. The law would have largely rolled back liberalizations enacted by the previous center-left government of prime minister José Luis Zapatero.

Though Rajoy and the Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) promised abortion reforms in the campaign that led to their election in December 2011, the legislation has been stalled by political opposition, not just from regional and leftist parties, but within corners of the People’s Party itself, including several prominent party leaders. They include the regional president of Galicia, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who in January called on the national government to tone down the ambitions of its abortion bill, and the deputy speaker of the Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), Celia Villalobos.

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RELATED: New PSOE leader Sánchez faces uphill struggle to unite Spanish left

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Nevertheless, Gallardón had increasingly staked his credibility as justice minister on the bill’s success, arguing earlier this year that the legislation would advance by the end of the summer. That didn’t happen and, on Friday, Rajoy’s cabinet refused to advance the bill.

Continue reading Ruiz-Gallardón resigns after Rajoy drops Spanish abortion bill

New PSOE leader Sánchez faces uphill struggle to unite Spanish left

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He’s a disarmingly handsome economics professor, and he’s the first major Spanish party leader who grew up chiefly in the post-Franco era and in the era of Spanish democracy.Spain_Flag_Icon

But Pedro Sánchez, who leapfrogged the more well-known Eduardo Madina to become the leader of Spain’s Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) earlier this month, and who will assume the leadership later this week, will have his work cut out for him before elections that will take place within the next 17 months, with the party’s traditional voting base increasingly supporting both new and established alternatives on the Spanish left. 

Sánchez (pictured above), just 42 years old, has only been a member of the Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), the lower house of the Spanish parliament, the Cortes Generales, from 2009 to 2011 and  since January 2013, representing Madrid, where he served as a city councillor for the preceding five years.

Sánchez won the PSOE’s first direct contest to elect the party’s general secretary in a three-way race, with 48.7% of all votes against just 36.1% for Madina and 15.1% for the more left-wing José Antonio Pérez Tapias.

Though Madina, at age 38, is even younger than Sánchez, he’s been a member of the Congress of Deputies since 2004 and the secretary-general of the PSOE’s congressional caucus since 2009. A Basque federalist, he was perceived as the frontrunner in the race, especially after taking a republican stand in the aftermath of Juan Carlos I’s abdication from the throne. But the favorite to lead the PSOE, Andalusia’s 39-year-old regional president, Susana Díaz, endorsed Sánchez instead, as did many former officials from the administration of former prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, including former public works and transportation minister José Blanco.

That effectively lifted the more unknown Sánchez, who holds a doctorate in economics, above Madina, who once lost part of his left leg in a Basque nationalist bomb blast.

On his election, Sánchez declared the ‘beginning of the end of Rajoy,’  challenging the unpopular center-right government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy, which has presided over the worst of Spain’s recent economic crisis.

Not so fast.  Continue reading New PSOE leader Sánchez faces uphill struggle to unite Spanish left

With Spanish left reeling, Rubalcaba steps down as PSOE leader

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The European parliamentary elections have claimed their first national leader in Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the general secretary of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), Spain’s traditional center-left party.Spain_Flag_Icon

In Sunday’s elections, Spanish voters elected 54 members of the European Parliament. The ruling Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy won the largest share of the vote, around 26%, and the largest number of seats, 16.

The PSOE placed second with just 23% and 14 seats — that’s a loss of nine seats in the European Parliament.

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Rubalcaba, taking the blame for his party’s losses, announced he would step down from the leadership, calling a meeting on July 19-20 to select a new general secretary of Spain’s largest center-left party:

“We have not managed to regain the trust of the citizens,” Mr Rubalcaba told a press conference in Madrid on Monday, adding that he would not stand for re-election at an extraordinary party conference in July. “We have to take political responsibility for the bad results, and this decision is absolutely mine,” he added.

There’s no guarantee that the next PSOE leader will be able to unite the Spanish left, which has fractured in the face of the economic crisis in the past five years.

The PSOE’s performance was hardly much worse than Rajoy’s party, which lost eight seats. Taken together, the two major Spanish parties won around 49% of the vote. That’s down from nearly 84% in the 2008 Spanish general election, 80% in the previous 2009 European elections and 73% in the 2011 general election.

So while the greater pressure fell on Rubalcaba and the PSOE, the results are hardly heartening for Rajoy. Continue reading With Spanish left reeling, Rubalcaba steps down as PSOE leader

A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 1)

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We now have most of the results from across Europe in the 28-state elections to elect all 751 members of the European Parliament.European_Union

At the European level,  the center-right, Christian democratic European People’s Party (EPP) emerged with about 25 more seats than the center-left, social democratic Party of European Socialists (PES).

That immediately gives former the EPP’s candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, former Luxembourgish prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, a boost in his efforts to actually become the Commission president. But it’s still far from automatic, despite Juncker’s aggressive posture at a press conference Sunday evening:

“I feel fully entitled to become the next president of the European Commission,” Juncker, a former Luxembourg prime minister, told supporters late yesterday in Brussels after the release of preliminary results. Premier for 18 years until he was voted out of office in December, Juncker also gained recognition in his dual role as head of the group of euro-area finance ministers during the debt crisis.

Juncker (pictured above) still must to convince the European Council to propose him as Commission president, and he’ll still need to win over enough right-wing or center-left allies to win a majority vote in the European Parliament.

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RELATED: Here come the Spitzenkandidaten! But does anybody care?

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That process, which could feature a major battle between the European Council and the European Parliament, will unfold in the days, weeks and possibly months ahead.

But what do the results mean across Europe in each country? Here’s a look at how the European elections are reverberating across the continent.  Continue reading A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 1)

Le Pen v. Wilders: a tale of two far-right European movements

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The big story from Sunday’s municipal elections in France is the success of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front national (FN, National Front), overshadowing the marquee Paris mayoral election.France Flag IconNetherlands Flag IconEuropean_Union

The far-right won the mayoral race in Hénin-Beaumont, a former mining town in the north, in a rare first-round victory, the FN came in second in Marseille, France’s second-largest city, and it led in at least six other locations as France prepares for second-round runoffs on March 30.

The result should certainly boost Le Pen in her efforts to win  support in European parliamentary elections in May — and to unite the populist hard right across the continent.

According to preliminary results, the Front national won just 4.65% of the national vote. That’s a big deal because the party was running in just 597 of around 37,000 jurisdictions — it’s a massive increase from the 2008 municipal results, when the FN won around 1% and ran in just 119 constituencies. 

The other narrative from Sunday’s vote is the collapse of France’s center-left — president François Hollande’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) won 37.74% nationally, while the center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) of former president Nicolas Sarkozy won 46.54% nationally. The bright spot for the Socialists remains Paris, where first deputy mayor Anne Hidalgo is the slight favorite to win a runoff against former Sarkozy campaign spokesperson and ecology minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet — but don’t rule out an upset next Sunday there, either.

The success in the 2014 municipal elections is just the latest chapter for Le Pen’s rebranding of the Front national in France as a slightly more moderate alternative than the party her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, led for decades. It’s harder today to target the Front national as a xenophobic, anti-Semitic fringe, because Le Pen has focused on an agenda much heavier on euroskepticism and economic nationalism. While the Front national isn’t exactly immigrant-friendly, its position has largely converged with the UMP’s position since the Sarkozy presidency, which embraced hard-right positions on immigration and law-and-order issues. By shifting rightward, Sarkozy may have sidelined Le Pen during his presidency and co-opted her supporters, but today, Sarkozy is almost as responsible as Le Pen for bringing the Front national within the political mainstream.

With the line blurring between the UMP and the Front national, Le Pen could become the chief voice of the French right in 2017, especially if the UMP succumbs to more infighting between its right-wing leader Jean-François Copé and the more moderate former prime minister François Fillon. The next presidential election is still a long way off, but if Sarkozy doesn’t run for the presidency in 2017, Le Pen stands just as much chance as Copé, Fillon or any other UMP figure of representing the French right in the second round.

More immediately troubling for France’s political elite are the European parliamentary elections in May. Despite its breakthrough performance on Sunday, the Front national isn’t about to overrun the city halls of France. Its victory is more symbolic than substantive. But if it’s one thing to turn over your local government to Marine Le Pen, it’s a far different thing to support the Front national as a protest vote with respect to European Union policy.

Polls show that the Front national and the UMP are competing for first place in the European elections within France — the most recent Opinion Way poll from early March shows the UMP winning  22%, the FN winning 21% and the Socialists just 17%. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a wave of undecided voters support the Front national at the last moment, nor would it be a surprise to learn that polling surveys currently underestimate FN support.

Extremists on both the far left and the far right are gaining strength throughout the entire European Union. That’s perhaps understandable, given the harsh economic conditions that have plagued Europe since the last EU-wide elections in 2009. But the euroskeptic right, in particular, seems poised for a breakthrough. Nigel Farage hopes to lead the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party to a breakthrough performance in May, and the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) is tied for first place in polls in Austria.

But just as Le Pen hits her stride, another standard-bearer of the hard right, Geert Wilders, found himself in free fall last week after pledging to allow fewer Moroccans into the Netherlands, remarks that have launched a cascade of criticism and a handful of defections from his party: Continue reading Le Pen v. Wilders: a tale of two far-right European movements

In refusing Catalan vote, Rajoy risks isolating himself and Spain’s future

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It’s not like Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy didn’t have any warning.cataloniaSpain_Flag_Icon

Catalan regional president Artur Mas called early regional elections for November 2012 for the express purpose of winning a mandate behind the call for greater autonomy and/or independence for Catalunya.  That didn’t work out so incredibly well for Mas and his autonomist center-right Convergència i Unió (CiU, Convergence and Union), which lost 12 seats in the 135-member Catalan parliament, and was forced to form a unity government with the pro-independence, leftist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalunya).  Nonetheless, the election largely ratified the strength of the Catalan separatists, who control 87 seats to just 48 for Catalunya’s federalist parties. catalanmap

Three months ago, on September 11 — upon the celebration of Catalan national day — nearly 400,000 Catalan citizens formed a human chain stretching from the Pyrenees to the coast to emphasize just how fervently they support their right to self-determination.

Rajoy, much to his discredit, has ignored those Catalans, and Mas’s government has now set November 9, 2014 as the date for a referendum on Catalan independence — with or without the Spanish federal government’s blessing — after a vote last Thursday in the Catalan parliament that enjoyed the universal support of Mas’s Convergence and Union, the Republic Left and the Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds (ICV, Initiative for Catalonia Greens).  Rajoy (pictured above) and his justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón (pictured below) have made clear that not only is a referendum unacceptable under the Spanish constitution, but that they won’t be coerced into negotiating with Mas over devolving greater power (and funds) back to Catalunya, one of the wealthiest regions in Spain.  With over 7.5 million people, the region account for one-fifth of Spain’s economic output.

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If the vote actually goes ahead next November (and there’s some reason to believe that Mas is bluffing), it could constitute the most severe constitutional crisis since Spain’s return to democracy in the late 1970s.

To some degree, it’s easy to sympathize with Rajoy.  Though he took office just over two years ago when the center-right Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) ousted the center-left government headed by José Luis Zapatero and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) in November 2011, Rajoy’s popularity has plummeted as he’s pushed Spain through higher taxes and budget cuts.  That fiscal adjustment is plausibly both the cause and effect of a cycle of economic depression that’s left Spain reeling, including an unemployment rate of 26.6% that may be peaking only after five years of GDP contraction.  Spanish finances remain in tatters, despite the budgetary efforts of both the Zapatero and Rajoy governments, and Rajoy simply can’t afford to send more euros to Barcelona.  It’s not difficult to see the slippery slope that would begin once Rajoy starts negotiating with Rajoy over Spanish federalism.  An equally pro-autonomy regional government in Euskadi (Basque Country), which is also wealthier than the Spanish average, will be sure to follow with their own demands.  Other regions, like Galicia and Andalusia, the latter one of Europe’s most economically forlorn, might also make demands for stimulus.

It’s equally easy to see the naked political game that Mas is playing.  You need only look to the way that the referendum will be structured — Catalans will first be asked, ‘Do you want Catalonia to be a state?’ Those who agree with the first question will subsequently be asked, ‘Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state?’  The vote will be an easy way for Catalans to register their disapproval with Madrid without taking the kind of steps that could truly rupture Catalunya from Spain and that could leave Catalunya as an independent country outside the European Union (if only temporarily).  Mas is clearly using the referendum as a game to strengthen his hand vis-à-vis negotiations with Rajoy and, perhaps, to maximize his own standing within the Catalan electorate.  Some relatively moderate voices within the CiU coalition have even said that the referendum should only be held if it’s ultimately deemed ‘legal’ by Madrid.  The shell game of posing two questions to determine whether Catalunya should be a state or an independent state conveniently blurs the line of independence — it’s such a cynical ploy that it’s hard to take Mas seriously as a statesman, despite the legitimate sentiment of millions of pro-independence Catalans.

But Mas can get away with such demagoguery largely because of Rajoy’s intransigence.   Continue reading In refusing Catalan vote, Rajoy risks isolating himself and Spain’s future

Austrian NEOS may win seats in Nationalrat in resurrection of liberal politics

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While Germany’s major liberal party suffered a historic defeat in last weekend’s parliamentary elections, a new Austrian party may win enough seats to return a liberal voice to Austria’s parliament for the first time in nearly 20 years in Austria’s national elections this weekend.austria flag

If it can win 4% of the vote on Sunday, the Das Neue Österreich (NEOS, The New Austria) could enter the Nationalrat, the key 183-member chamber of Austria’s parliament, which would mean that free-market and social liberals would have a voice in Austrian parliamentary politics for the first time since the Liberales Forum (Liberal Forum) lost all of its seats in the 1999 parliamentary elections.  Polls in the lead-up to Austria’s election show the NEOS gaining strength, but still hovering between 3% and the 4% electoral hurdle, and the NEOS continues to gain credibility and momentum in the final days of the campaign.

What’s more, if the NEOS enter the parliament, and the two current governing parties, the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) of chancellor Werner Faymann and the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party), fail to win an absolute majority of seats to continue a two-party grand coalition, the NEOS could conceivably enter government as well in Europe’s first ‘red-black-pink’ coalition.

Given the coziness of Austria’s political elite, and the fact that grand coalitions have dominated Austrian governance in the postwar era, there’s much to recommend the return of a fresh and liberal voice to Austrian politics — or even Austrian government.  Not too shabby for a party that didn’t exist one year ago.

The NEOS were founded as a political party in October 2012, mainly as an alliance of what remains of the Liberal Forum and the Young Liberals, another small party, under the leadership of Matthias Strolz.  Since September, the party’s lead parliamentary candidate has been Hans-Peter Haselsteiner, the CEO of Austrian construction company Strabag and a Liberal deputy in the Nationalrat in the 1990s — it was a stunning reversal for Haselsteiner, who had previously remained somewhat aloof from the NEOS earlier this year.  Not only does Haselsteiner have the deep pockets to finance a strong showing, he’s also one of the most well-known liberals in the country.  Austrians vote for parties through an open-list proportional representation system, so if the NEOS surpass the 4% threshold, the NEOS should count on at least seven seats in the Nationalrat.

Moreover, if the NEOS do enter the Nationalrat, they could lower the total number of seats that the SPÖ and ÖVP can hope to win, making it even more likely that the SPÖ and ÖVP will be forced to look for a third coalition partner to cobble together a governing majority.

In an ironic twist, the NEOS could well enter Austria’s parliament just days after Germany’s Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party) narrowly failed to win 5% of the vote and, accordingly, Germany’s liberal party failed to win a single seat in the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament, for the first time since 1949.  Continue reading Austrian NEOS may win seats in Nationalrat in resurrection of liberal politics