Politics & The World

This last weekend of protests in the US and elsewhere has been a success story in itself. Can you imagine the horror of a Trump inauguration uncontested? It would have been like a funeral with a disrespectful long-lost relative who keeps on insulting the deceased, while the aggrieved (i.e. Sanders and the Democratic Left) are forced to remain silent so as not to disturb the ceremony even more. People on the street, from bandana-wearing bin destroyers to baby-carrying families, shared a common goal: crashing the party, making their opposition heard, and showing the world that the new President of the United States is not an accurate reflection of American society.

One of the common questions, however, coming from both sympathetic and contrarian groups, was the following: why is it that these marches are “for women”, and not just “against Trump”; or for other groups also attacked by his campaign, such as Latinos? There are two ways of answering this question. The first and easy one is to say that, since Trump is not really in power yet, only women can, for the moment, embody a legitimate response based around the “grab’em by the pussy incident”, and other similar comments. Consequently, we’d have to wait to see how his presidency develops, whether he works towards building the wall with Mexico, deporting Muslims en masse, and other promises, in order to call for similar protests on behalf of those groups. This logic, implying a division of ‘issues’ between groups (rights for the LGBT movement/debt cancellation for students/labour protection for industrial workers) leads to dissolving the strenght of multitudes into unconnected pipes leading to nowhere.

Why is it, then, so tempting to make this about women and women alone? Probably, because it is satisfaying to see the ‘snowflake’ response from the alt-Right. Take a look at the Facebook comments on the news reports and private posts about the Women’s marches. I’m sure it’ll only take two seconds to spot some commentaries such as: “Ship all these bra burning libs out to Mosul and see who the real bigots are !!”, “Go make me a sandwich!”, “What a load of brain dead lefties think they can influence the United States democratic system ?”, “In one day, Trump got more fat women out walking than Michelle Obama did in 8 years” (these are real ones I just dug up, all of them with several “likes”). This brief satisfaction of standing against abuse, nonetheless, is counter-productive as it corresponds with the narrative of Trump’s followers.

How is single-issue “identity politics” (i.e. basing political action around belonging to a certain group) detrimental in opposing Trump? Simply, there is a specific argument this group of “deplorables” will be quick to make: these women are frustrated because “their candidate” lost the election, so they are questioning the US democratic system as whole in the name of “Shrillary”. They’ll wonder, “can you imagine if Hilary had won? Would we have had the same sort of global solidarity if we had led our own “March for Trump (or for America, or whatever they think they stand for)”? The answer is, of course, no. But they will still have legitimacy to make that claim, equalising the white nationalist cause with the women’s cause, on behalf of liberal pluralism.

This is why a limited identitarian approach, based on the idea of women opposing Trump, “because they’re women” (whether they are Sheryl Sandberg or Angela Davis) is the wrong way forward for developing a true opposition. As long as it is based on defending “toleration” or “respect” for victims, this movement will play in the hands of the Trumpian narrative by which he is defending another “oppressed minority”, the white working class forgotten by globalisation. Why should not we also tolerate Nazis, the KKK, pro-segregation people, etc.? They are also identities, minority opinions overlooked and ridiculed by the nation’s progressive media. The only way to break from this impasse is to understand that those women on the street today, like those in Black Lives Matter, are not speaking for their ‘interest’ group: they speak for all of us.

This is because the current economic system is not just an enemy of the white working class. While the coverage of the issues affecting these sectors of the population (endemic unemployment, alcoholism, depression, etc.) had been overlooked by most candidates and pundits (except, of course, Trump and Sanders), the weeks after the election saw an inverse shift on New York Times and similar outlets to reflect the concerns of the white working class. Suddenly, their lives were the only ones that “mattered”. But as a Black Lives Matter activist would be more than happy to clarify, more often than not, it is black lives (and deaths) that are forgotten by media and political institutions! Fighting for attention from liberal media quarters is certainly not another way forward to be pursued: one cannot measure suffering against suffering to see which is the worthier cause.

Instead, it should be clear that the current system (pre and post-Trump) does not deliver to any of these groups in particular, and is actually holding them all down. Poor students, illegal migrants, pensioners who’ve lost their savings: aren’t they all equally cut off from basic healthcare at the point of use, universal access to higher education, modern transport infrastructure and job security? Women, overrepresented in Federal jobs, and conducting many of the unpaid or underpaid tasks of “emotional labour” (child rearing, teaching, nursing, etc.) will definitely suffer more than other groups under a government promising more cuts to social services (not to mention the constant verbal abuse from Trump and his cronies).

This explains why women would be a leading organising group, but it doesn’t mean it is only their issues that should be regarded for a growing opposition. Marching women and their allies, contrary to what their detractors claim, should be seen as representing the future coming-together of groups, the potential universality of those threatened not just by Trump’s vulgarity, but by his vision of the world, his politics (in a wide sense).

“Particularlist” thinking has so far shaped the Democratic representatives’ attitude towards Trump’s nominees for top offices, who have been attacked on their lack of “credentials” and “professionalism” for their assigned policy areas. Remove the tit-for-tat exchanges on Congress, however, and the substance of economic and political thinking is the same: market knows best. If there are people suffering in America is because we still need a little financial inclusion and employment workshops here and there (Democrats); or because Obama, with his pro-State policies, blocked businesses from growing even more (Republicans). This is why activists, party sympathisers, churches, any organisation and possible ally against Trump must keep pushing and realise the only way forward is to initiate a process for a coherent political programme that can unite everybody around a different politics.

Enemies of Trump in America unite, you have nothing to lose but an orange president!

Politics & The World

Thursday night marked the final Republican primary debate before Sunday’s vote. Former Prime Minister François Fillon and Mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppé qualified for the knockout-round in the first round vote last week. Juppé and Fillon do not only represent two types of charismatic leaders, they lay out two different visions of French conservatism.

Many pollsters and political commentators are hiding their embarrassment of their own false predictions of last weeks primary vote by focusing solely on the ongoing showdown for the Republican nomination. Yet, let’s not forget that a former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, did not even make it to the second round of the primary of his own party. All the experts had predicted the knockout-round to be Juppé vs. Sarkozy, two like-minded Republicans whose differences merely cristallise in the disdain for each other personally (as do their own supporters).

With the stunning upset of Fillon’s qualification to the second round, a new battleground has opened up, a cliff between two conservative streams, that will only be visible for this week, until the vote on Sunday will have all Republicans fall behind the nominee. This divide became visible in Thursday’s debate.

The debate on the French state-broadcaster France 2 started off very amicably: Juppé and Fillon seemed like esteemed gentlemen, without any disagreements: both agreed that the political class needs to stop giving in to the powerful trade unions, that government needs to be transparent and that indictments need to resolve in resignations (even though Juppé did not do that when he was involved in his own political scandal in the 1990s under president Chirac) and even that the total number of parliamentarians needs to be drastically reduced.

After this buddy-like kickoff, Fillon’s and Juppé’s differences became crystal clear: Fillon is a social conservative, yet running on fiscal conservatism, and Juppé a centre-right Europhile running on his De Gaulle-like charisma.

These two worlds first came clashing on labour policy, as François Fillon is a proponent of easing up procedures for firing employees: “We don’t help employees by making labour regulation too stiff. This very policy has lead us to a situation in which companies don’t settle in France to begin with“, asserted Fillon. Fillon also wants to get rid of the 35-hour working week that has hampered the French economy, and let employees negotiate working hour contracts again. Juppé replied that “making it easier to fire employees doesn’t ease employment“, and also seemed shy on his own campaign proposal to increase working hours for public sector employees.

Fillon voiced his criticism on Juppé over his failure to stand up for radical changes. François Fillon seems almost eager to clash with both the trade unions and the public sector, out of which he intends to cut 500,000 jobs. His tax plan intends to considerable reduce corporate income tax, all while delaying lowering income tax for households to “as soon as the economy is back on track again“. Juppé and Fillon agreed on increasing sales tax and abolishing the socialist government’s solidarity tax on wealth.

The difference in tone which was already apparent during the debate on fiscal and labour policy, became even more apparent when François Fillon voiced his opposition to multiculturalism and the “ideological indoctrination of public school history lessons”. Fillon famously wants to reform history lessons nationally, namely to teach that the French colonisations were there to merely “spread the culture”, playing down the horrors of the French 19th century settlements. In fact, Fillon expresses little reservation towards manifesting his social conservatism and nativist inspirations.

On foreign policy, Alain Juppé seemingly supports the status quo when it comes to Syria. In fact, his appreciation for the European Union, which he continuously marks as his selling argument against the far-right, leaves him no space for an appeasement with Russia. Juppé interrogated Fillon on his friendly personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, which has been on French news for the entire week. Indeed the foreign policy differences are visible: a rare find in French politics, as interventionism is usually a negotiation with European partners, not a doctrine. Fillon opposes the imposed trade sanctions on Russia and sees deepened diplomatic relations as a way to stop the terror-regime of Assad in Syria. Juppé on the other hand stayed vague on his proposals, seeming more like a wise leader that will make “France respectable again on the international stage“. For Juppé, France first needs to refind its confidence vis-à-vis of the Germans before it can reach beyond.

So this is it. The French right couldn’t be more split on Sunday’s vote, between Juppé’s establishment EU-proning gaullisme and Fillon’s social conservatism mixed with an opposition to unions and a bloated public sector. The open primary is highly unpredictable. Fillon’s large victory last Sunday could be without effect this weekend, depending on which voters make their way to the polls. Only 63% of the voters in the first round of the primary were Republicans or centre-right voters.

This way it seems ironically, that the biggest divide in French conservatism in decades will be resolved by the electorate of the French left. 2016 will continue to surprise us.

Politics & The World

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is dead. It was never really popular on either side of the Atlantic, but the election of Donald Trump finished it off. The socialists in Wallonia and the labor unions in Germany can thank the new men in the White House for doing what they could not.

EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström already announced that “TTIP will probably be in the freezer for quite some time, and what happens when it is defrosted, we will have to wait and see.”

But it seems unlikely that the negotiations will ever warm up again. Donald Trump has made it very clear in his “Plan To Rebuild the American Economy by Fighting for Free Trade” that he intends to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is already signed but not ratified. Even NAFTA, the trade agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada, which has been in place for more than 20 years, could be terminated under his presidency. Stopping TTIP would be the least drastic step among the changes that U.S. trade policy is going to experience in the coming years.

However, withdrawing from TTIP is the last thing to do if Trump intends to rebuild the American economy. A study by the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) concluded that the economic benefits for the United States are 95 billion Euros (103 billion US dollars) by 2027; around the yearly GDP of Utah.

Protectionism has never made a country great again, and America will be no exception.

The main problem of many trade agreements is political. The benefits are spread out over many while the costs are concentrated on a few, who organize to oppose them. TTIP would create a net employment gain of 750,000; a number large enough to employ the working population of New Hampshire. But undoubtedly some people will become unemployed, and they do not care if some Washington think tank points out that their job losses are counteracted by the hiring of many more workers elsewhere.

This is exactly where most of the resentments against trade agreements originate. People are concerned that they will lose their jobs in a world where the pace of change keeps accelerating. It is easy to point to the nearby company that had to close down, but it is much harder to recognize the benefits consumers and workers enjoy because of cheaper goods and a more prosperous economy. As such, the gains for the U.S. from free trade are easily forgotten.

U.S. policymakers did a poor job of addressing the concerns of large parts of the population for too long. 68 percent of Trump supporters say, “free trade agreements have hurt them or their family” and the result of this frustration were seen last Tuesday. Yet the Trump administration would be even more in the wrong to give in to the temptation of isolating the U.S. economy from the rest of the world.

Fortunately a middle path exists. Additional support for workers who are laid off when the economy adjusts could be incorporated into the trade agreements. Or the highly debated investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS), which allow companies to sue governments, could be scrapped. Such adjustments would not only be supported by Trump voters, but could find bipartisan backing from the Democrats as well. A renegotiated TTIP could not only strengthen the U.S. economy, but also help to unite this divided nation. Let us hope this is what Trump means when he promises to “appoint tough and smart trade negotiators to fight on behalf of American workers.”

Politics & The World

It is well-known that Spanish politicians have been unable to reach an agreement after nine months of political uncertainty and instability. The Spanish political landscape which had been dominated by two parties was shaken up and party leaders were unable to produce a compromise which would allow to build a coalition government. It is worth looking at these developments quickly before coming to the central question: how do we, the youth, feel when seeing that the leaders, we are supposed to look up to, cannot reach consensus and resolve this chaotic situation?

Spain had its national elections on December 20, 2015. For the first time, not two, but four potentially governing parties were competing; it was not only about Conservatives (PP) and Socialists (PSOE) anymore, but also about two new parties: Podemos (left-wing and similar to Syriza) and Ciudadanos (liberal Citizens). Mariano Rajoy, the PP’s leader, came out with most votes, but without a majority big enough to govern. The actual result? Six months of confusion and no real agreement. Even though some parties held talks, none of them came close to creating a sufficiently large coalition.

Six months later, on June 26, 2016, Spaniards were called to vote again. Things did not change much; the two established parties had a bigger share of the votes, but it still was not enough to govern. However, this time they came at least a bit closer: Ciudadanos agreed to support PP in in exchange for the promise to pursue stricter laws to fight corruption. Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez in the meantime, kept repeating he would always say “no” to Mariano Rajoy, regardless of Rajoy heading the party with most votes.

Podemos, led by Pablo Iglesias, has not played an important role since the second elections. However, since neither the PP and Ciudadanos coalition nor the PSOE and Podemos coalition are able to reach a majority alone, the question could be if Socialists and Podemos will reach an agreement with the support of other leftists and nationalists parties (something similar to what happened in Portugal).

Now, what feeling does this political deadlock convey to the population and most importantly, the youth? There is a strong feeling of hopelessness and annoyance towards our political leaders. People ask: How can any of these parties pretend to be able to lead a whole country if they cannot even talk among themselves? Although this chaos has completely blocked the state institutions and slowed down foreign investment, some politicians prefer to look after personal interest and party considerations. Only one single agreement has been reached and credit shall be given for that: to change the date of the possible third national elections, in case they have to be invoked, since by following the amount of days stated in the Constitution the elections would happen on Christmas day and, of course, going on vacation is more important than having a government.

Meanwhile the population gets active in other ways: An online platform has gathered over 140,000 signatures demanding politicians to stop earning a public salary until they actually start working. Socialist Felipe Gonzales, Spain’s longest president (from 1982 to 1996) has also suggested that all parties must replace their leaders if Spain has to go to third elections.

In the end, Spain’s political scenario today looks quite absurd. Some of the parties that did not win are eager for power and apparently will not stop until they get it (a coalition of ‘losers’ sounds undemocratic to me). On the other side, the one who won is sank in dozens of corruption scandals that are coming to light every now and then, putting into question the quality of the Spanish system. All together, no political party seems to be taking the chaos seriously enough to actually talk, negotiate, and bring us a president. What remains is to protest against this incompetence at highest level and to hope that, at least, our generation does not repeat these failures. Hopefully one day they will feel pressured enough to put the national interest ahead of their personal one.

Politics & The World

by Hoai Tram Nguyen

“What time is it now?” was the most frequently asked question in Turkey on the 25th of October 2015. Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to delay the time change to winter time due to the upcoming national elections on Sunday, the 1st of November. Appointments were missed, flights were delayed, and frustrations towards “Erdogan’s time” grew.

Next to the special time initiation, particular news stations (the ones who were critical towards Erdogan) were hijacked from their broadcast, demonstrations were cracked down by police, and international attention on Turkey was high.

Why was Turkey holding the second parliamentary election within five months?

What is the reason behind internal tensions in the country?

And where did the high international interest in the elections come from?

Previous Elections
Turkey has been ruled by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002. This changed however as the party lost its long-held majority for the first time in the elections earlier this year in June. Even more significant, their opposition, called the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) gained 80 seats and surpassed the threshold of 10% (with 12%) to enter Parliament for the first time in history.

This was significant because the HDP was the first pro-Kurdish party that succeeded to pass the threshold. Coalition talks failed – which was not a surprise taking into account Erdogan’s ambitious dream of a presidential instead of a parliamentary system.

The time in between the elections of June and November could be described as highly tense and divided. The outcome of the previous elections resulted in a rise of tensions between the Kurds and the nationalistic Turks. Still today, the Turkish-Kurdish peace process is far away from being a success.

At the end of July, President Erdogan emphasised in a statement that the peace process was impossible to continue “with those who threaten our national unity and brotherhood”. The situation became even more complicated when Turkey decided to bomb ISIS alongside with NATO, while simultaneously bombing camps of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq.

This led to growing violence on the east side of the country, which saw not only suffering among civilians rising, but also a return to the vicious circle of the Oslo Process negotiations which failed in 2011. Even though Turkey has shown great efforts in the evolution of granting Kurds equal citizenship rights, assimilation and acculturation are still a common phenomenon according to critics.

Recognition of Kurdish identity or not, visible internal violence was still growing in many parts of Turkey. Consequently, hundreds of people gathered for a peace-rally in Ankara to protest against the violence on the 10th of October. Tragically, these peaceful demonstrators became victims of a twin bomb attack, which killed more than 130 people.

The aftermath of these bombings was even grimmer – social media was shut down by the government for nearly a week. Fortunately, my Facebook was still half-functioning, and my Turkish friend was able to send me a message to warn me of upcoming demonstrations: “Please try to avoid Taksim/Beyoğlu for 2 days, the police will not hesitate to use water cannons, rubber bullets, and teargas”.

Demonstrators went on the streets and protests broke out like my friend predicted, as they were blaming the government for the attacks in Ankara. Their suspicion could be linked with the fact that the HDP organised the peace rally. In the period between the attack and the elections, many demonstrations have broken out, showing divisions in the country with brutal police force.
International Interest in Turkey

The world we are living in today shows how tightly interconnected we are. The war in Syria gave Turkey a significant role in global politics. The high flow of refugees that have reached the EU countries through Turkey has resulted in many talks between the EU and Turkey.

On the one hand, the EU needs a functioning Turkish government to cooperate with in the refugee crisis. On the other hand, the EU cannot ignore its values such as democracy, human rights, freedom of media etc. The latter is partially a major problem in the accession process of Turkey to the EU.

MEP Marietje Schaake put emphasis on this matter during a debate before the elections:
“The media is under serious and systematic pressure in Turkey. This is not just about insults, in fact it is about personal attacks on journalists, intimidation, excessive, politically-motivated tax fines on media companies, raid of media companies, personal violence used against a columnist recently. This is very very worrying and does not enable an environment and a debate for free elections”.

However, if one looks more critically at the situation, one could conclude that the EU was more focused on a stable government, rather than another hung parliament as the refugee crisis continues to affect the EU on daily basis. Priorities? Right…

It is too early to speculate on the future of the country after these elections. All we know is that Erdogan won back his majority votes (50% of the votes), enabling Turkey to be ruled by a single-party once again. However, the outcome must have disappointed Erdogan to a lower degree, as the AKP party only gained 316 seats, but would need 367 seats to change the constitution. Moreover, the HDP succeeded once again to pass the threshold (though lower this time, with 10%). How the country will progress now is still a question that no one can yet answer. Only time will tell, what I can say is: let’s hope for the best from all sides (internal and external).

Image by Democracy Chronicles, taken from flickr

Politics & The World

by Filip Rambousek

On the 30th of October, the EU has gone through with its promise to temporarily lift sanctions against Belarus. More specifically, the EU will for four months raise its travel ban on 170 individuals, as well as its asset freeze of three entities in Belarus.

The promise to raise these sanctions was a carrot dangled in front of Lukashenko before the recent elections. In exchange, Lukashenko had to respond with some degree of liberalisation of his regime.

In concrete terms, the EU demanded slightly more democratic elections, and a release of some political prisoners. Lukashenko made good on both expectations. In August, he released six political prisoners. Before the elections, he allowed the only opposition candidate, Tatsiana Karatkevich, to be interviewed by the main government newspaper. During the elections, the OSCE’s observes were met with fewer obstacles to carry out their work than previously. Overall, the OSCE cited “positive developments” in the Belarusian electoral process.

Still, Lukashenko has not suddenly become a dedicated democrat. The political prisoners, while physically out of jail, remain under close government supervision, with many of their civil liberties curtailed. Despite the improvements, we also cannot speak about democratic elections in Belarus. Belarusian civil society representatives complained about non-transparent vote counting. The OSCE’s head observer agreed, stating that “it is clear that Belarus still has a long way to go towards fulfilling its democratic commitments”.

But why should an authoritarian like Lukashenko, after 21 years in charge, and who even without the rigging of votes has the genuine support of around 60% of Belarusians, bother with pleasing the West? The answer is simple: Europe has changed, and its last dictator with it. In fact, Lukashenko has long lost the right to this moniker. This title has been, yet again, rightfully claimed by the leader of Russia. Putin’s regime, with its domestic repression and foreign aggression, currently represents the biggest threat to the EU, as well as the global order. In reality, he is now one of the “better” dictators in the authoritarian pantheon.

Lukashenko is a shrewd, cold pragmatist, whose only goal is to stay in power. He is very well aware of the threat that the new doctrine of Putinism presents to his position in Belarus. With his invasion of Ukraine, Putin has declared that he has the right to get involved in the internal affairs of any country with a Russian minority. Because of this, Belarus is obviously a prime candidate for the Russian army’s next trip abroad. To Lukashenko, a slight liberalisation of the regime represents a lesser evil, and a lesser threat to his power, than a further deterioration of his relations with the West and total dependency on Russia.

Lukashenko is therefore doing all he can to reinforce Belarusian independence. His concerns were well illustrated in the elections’ propaganda campaign. While in the past, government posters emphasised economic progress and social stability, this year, the billboards boasted Belarusian soldiers, with slogans such as “Standing on the Guard of Belarusian Independence”. More importantly, Lukashenko has recently rejected Russian designs at a new army base in Belarus, retorting, rather prosaically, that Belarus “doesn’t need it”.

This geopolitical shift is also reflected in the sudden thaw in the relations between the EU and Belarus. While the support of the respect of human rights abroad is an important aspect of EU’s foreign policy, Lukashenko has not done enough to deserve this immediate change of European attitude towards his country. Rather Lukashenko has played his cards well, and managed to place himself in a position wherein he is at the same time universally disliked and yet indispensable. According to Radio Free Europe’s Brian Whitmore,

At home, he has turned himself into a bulwark against domination by Moscow. For Moscow, he’s turned himself into a last line of defence against a pro-Western Coloured Revolution in Belarus. For the West, he has made himself useful as a counterweight to Moscow.

This thaw may, therefore, actually be a rare example of pragmatism, strategy, and long-sightedness in the EU’s foreign policy. The removal of sanctions is a concrete concession, designed to bring Putin’s erstwhile vassal closer to the EU’s sphere of influence. For once, it seems, the EU has decided to seize the day.

It has made a good first step, and should continue in this strategy. It should support Lukashenko’s every liberalising step, and offer concrete financial and other rewards in exchange. In this way, Belarus would decrease its dependency on Russia further. At the same time, the EU should keep pushing for increased respect for human rights, and threaten Lukashenko with an immediate and stricter imposition of sanctions, should he backtrack.

This will have the effect of isolating Russia, but it will not change Belarus. It is crucial to keep in mind that in Belarus Lukashenko holds genuine, overwhelming support of the population. If the EU also aims at promoting human rights and democratic principles, therefore, the education of the younger generation of Belarusians is the only way of shifting the country westwards. The EU should support, with financial and political means, the efforts of Belarusian civil society, independent media and NGOs. There are some interesting projects going on such as Dutch-Polish Russian language TV project, which is designed to counter Russian propaganda. This has high potential, since most Belarusians get their information precisely from Russian language TV.

These are long term plans. For now, we should support any country, and any dictator, who has made even a symbolical gesture at a departure from Putin’s inner circle.

Image by United Nations Photo, taken from flickr

Politics & The World

by João Albuquerque

In a period of great economic depression the Portuguese people were called upon to cast their vote on what was expected to be another bi-polarized race between the Socialist Party (PS) and the right wing coalition that led the government over the last four years. The result, however, came as a surprise to almost everyone and has set the country on a still unclear path about what to do next.

After four years of harsh economic and social restrictions imposed upon the Portuguese people by the most liberal government of its history, the two ruling parties, running together in a coalition called “Portugal Ahead” (Portugal à Frente – PaF) have yet again been the single most voted force, gaining more seats in the Parliament than any other party alone.

However, compared to the previous parliamentary framework, they lost the overall majority held until last Sunday, losing 25 MPs, a direct consequence of having lost 14% of the votes from 2011 to today. The very important nuance, this time, is that all in all the left in the parliament has more votes and more seats combined than the right wing coalition.

Has the youth given up?

In the aftermath of these elections, several results stroke as surprising. The main was the extremely high abstention rate, especially among the young people. Several reasons have contributed to this: a) the real rate of youth unemployment is estimated to be over 30%, with many long-term unemployed people; b) tremendous emigration rates, with numbers set on over 300.000 people leaving the country (110.000/year in two consecutive years set the record in Portuguese history, beating even the darkest years of the Colonial War in the 1960’s), most of these being young people; c) from a sociological point of view, the emigration is currently very different from that  of the 1960’s, consisting more of a brain drain than a less qualified one, mostly composed of educated young people (researchers, doctors and nurses are among those who have left the country in the recent years).

Huge cuts on the health system, on education and research, especially in reducing grants and scholarships, led to this big flee of the country. Official numbers estimate that for two consecutive years, 110k people per year left the country, allowing to point at an estimate of around 400k people leaving the country over the last 4 years. This translates into a higher abstention rate among the young people and a higher disappointment with politics and government than 4 years ago.

Which government now?

In his first statement after the elections, the PR has appealed for an agreement between the right and PS, something that has been declined by the Socialists. In the meantime, António Costa, PS Secretary-general, has started conversations with left wing parties. As talks are still going this can become a turning point in the Portuguese political framework, for success in setting up a left coalition would be an historic event, never before made possible at this level. So, what would this mean for Portugal and what kind of legitimacy would there be in a post-electoral left coalition?

The most western country in Europe has been one of the most harshly affected countries by the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. After calling for international financial assistance from the Troika – IMF, ECB and the European Commission –, which eventually led the right wing coalition to power, austerity measures were rigorously and vehemently implemented. The PM vigorously stated that his government was willing to go even further on imposing austerity in order to put Portugal’s fragile economy back on track.

A high increase on income and consumption taxes, reducing on wages and cutting on pensions, cuts on social welfare, such as unemployment benefit or the social supplement for the elderly, budget cuts on the healthcare system and public schools have set the agenda for what resulted in a clear loss of purchase power, a decrease of quality in medical assistance and education, public and foreign debt have both sky rocketed, over 200k jobs were lost and deficit remains the same as it was in 2011. On the event of these elections, the right ran again on the same premise: continue the austerity path, this time without the presence of the troika.

On the other hand, and despite the differences between the left wing parties, the main message was very clear: no more austerity, light or heavy, imposed slowly or fast. Interesting as it is, the Portuguese people clearly expressed an intention of change and voted largely for parties that rejected austerity; by giving them a clear majority in Parliament voters have put a tremendous pressure on the left parties to find a stable government solution.

An unclear future

At the time of writing, there is still no clear indication whether this possibility will become a reality, with conversations still going on. Nonetheless, the situation as it is, configures a golden opportunity to establish a broad base alliance to set a government on the basis of a policy change towards building a fairer society. Naturally, negotiations will bring out several differences among the parties; but the compromise to defend welfare, equality and social justice would need to prevail in the compromise solution eventually found. A strong, rational and balanced agreement between the three left parties, based on settling for a greater good and finding the common points, is essential to guarantee a stable government, assuring that the majority of voters’ aspirations are met.

The decisions that may emerge on the next few days will be determinant to understand what kind of society will be built in Portugal over the next few years. The success of inaction can result in the come back of the right wing coalition, giving way to more austerity measures and social impoverishment; the triumph of a left wing coalition can, on the other hand, contribute to a change of course in social and economical policies not only in Portugal but also in Europe. Let us not be in doubt: it is the model of state that was at stake in the elections of 4 October, and the Portuguese people were clear on their choice. Will there be a real correspondence to these aspirations?


Image by Carsten ten Brink, taken from Flickr.

Politics & The World

by Hannah Soraya

Last Sunday Catalonia held its regional elections with the purpose of choosing its regional parliament. The electorate, however, headed out to the polls with one prevalent thought in mind: Independence, yes or no?

These elections were not called as a referendum on independence (such as the one illegally held on November 9th last year). However, Artur Mas -the president of the Generalitat of Catalonia- considered them a “de facto referendum” on the breaking away from Spain. Madrid, on the other hand, has not had the best response to these demands for independence, being firmly against any negotiations regarding the separation between the region and the rest of the country, with one of the greatest arguments being that it is simply unconstitutional.

The arguments for independence revolve around two issues: self-government and economic and fiscal policies.

The Spanish Constitution grants each region the right to self-government, but this self-government is nowhere near the central power that Madrid has. The regions do have certain autonomy on matters such as language and culture. However, they have no say in economic policies, which is the main issue for secessionists as they feel they are carrying the burden of Spain.

Catalonia is a wealthy region that manages to produce nearly one fifth of the Spanish GDP with a growing tendency throughout the years, despite the country being immersed in a deep economic crisis. A much repeated argument in this debate is that Catalonia has no responsibility for Spanish debt, and therefore leaving would actually be beneficial to Catalonia’s economy.

What the pro-independence platform Junts Pel Sí (Together For Yes) left aside during its campaign was the rest of the issues that deeply affect Catalan society. Mas has been praised from all political sides for being able to bring the national debate to his side. The secessionist leader has managed to ingrain the independence issue in the voters while at the same time forgetting to address many pressing problems: the alarming growth rates of child poverty in Catalonia (20%) since the beginning of his administration; the unapologetic austerity measures that have harmed social services with deep cuts and privatization of the public sector; the increase of wealth disparities or the corruption scandals inside his party.

On September 27th the main political platforms that stood for the parliamentary elections were: Together For Yes (a centre-right pro-independence coalition led by Artur Mas), Citizens (a neoliberal non-nationalist party), Socialists’ Party of Catalonia (openly federalist and social-democrat), People’s Party (the current Spanish government with a conservative and unionist ideology), Catalonia Yes we Can (a leftist coalition that supports the right for Catalans to choose) and lastly, Popular Unity Candidacy (a left-wing pro-independence party).

The secessionist coalition –Junts Pel Sí (JxSí ) – won 62 seats, but we must differentiate between seats and votes: secessionists won in seats but clearly lost in votes. This means that the majority of Catalans does not want independence or, at least, the issue is not within their priorities. The main political force in the opposition is now Citizens, with Albert Rivera as its front runner. Their outcome (25 seats) was impressive for such a new party.

This leaves us with a very difficult scene to form agreements among the parties, as there has not been an absolute majority for either of them. Allying with CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy) is the last chance for the secessionists to form a government, but their deputy David Fernández has already claimed that no one from his party will ever back Artur Mas. A coalition formed by non-nationalist parties could also be a solution, but just like an agreement between JxSí and CUP, it would be very difficult due to the disparity of ideologies. In the worst case, we would be witnessing a repetition of the elections, just like what happened in Andalusia last May.

Since knowing the results, several political analysts have affirmed that Mas will try to negotiate once again with Madrid. If Spain gets a more flexible government after the upcoming general elections in December, we could witness a new Fiscal Agreement between the regions. However, a domino effect is also very possible. If Catalonia reaches such an agreement with the central government, the Basque Country and Galicia would possibly try to demand the same for them. In this case, what the government should do is a constitutional reform in regards to Spanish federalism.

This effect could also transfer to other European countries that have had issues with inner nationalisms such as Scotland in the UK, Padania in Italy or Flanders in Belgium. The simultaneity of the rise of nationalisms and the economic crisis could create a very dangerous geopolitical landscape that we have already seen in Europe and that did not end up very well.

If one thing we know for sure, it is that these parliamentary elections have served as a first round to the upcoming Spanish general elections and there will be two possible outcomes: Either a reinforced Spain in an each time more German-centric EU or a fragmented one that could create an easy way for other nationalisms to emerge.


Picture by SBA73, taken from flickr