Election Day in Italy

 

How about a morning coffee catch up on today’s Italian elections?

To start, bookmark these two overviews, a general explainer from Euronews and a cheat sheet from an economic perspective.

Now, what people are saying:

Italy’s Election Could Change Everything, Scott B. MacDonald argues. If Eurosceptics win a majority and cobble together a coalition Italy could face a referendum on whether to leave the eurozone.

That’s doubtful. Politico.eu sees things differently.

The Guardian has a long article on Italy’s political fringe, The fascist movement that has brought Mussolini back to the mainstreamAnd Tim Parks writes that just over a month ago the body of an eighteen-year old girl

“was found in the countryside near Macerata in Central Italy. Soon the police had arrested a Nigerian accused of selling the girl drugs. On February 3, a white man, previously a local government candidate for the Northern League, drove through the town firing some thirty shots from his car into immigrant shops and bars, wounding six people.”

And thus the stage was set for an ugly five weeks of immigration-centered contentiousness. At the center of that particular stage is Matteo Salvini, 44, leader of the Lega (formerly the Northern League), a xenophobic, racist bunch who fear an “Islamic invasion” in Italy. (Here is an interview.) Salvini has gathered up all the last minute press with headlines like the most dangerous man in Italy.

At the same time, today’s election is huge for the anti-establishment, poll-leading Movimento Cinque Stelle, or 5 Star Movement, the formerly insurgent party founded by Beppe Grillo, a stand-up comedian who is himself ineligible to hold office because of a negligent homicide conviction.

M5S politician Virginia Elena Raggi is Mayor of Rome, and Chiara Appendino is Mayor of Turin. Because its members now wield actual power, to decidedly mixed results, M5S is in awkward transition, governing while campaigning as insurgents.

Part of the problem is that they aren’t governing all that well. Raggi was indicted two weeks ago on favoritism charges that sound familiar: lying about cronyism. In Raggi’s case it was appointing her former assistant’s brother to be Rome’s tourism chief.

Grillo keeps a lower profile than during the rise of the movement. The party’s hopes are pinned on 31 year old Luigi Di Maio, a Vice-President of Chamber of Deputies in the Italian Parliament. Conventional wisdom holds that even if M5S were to get the most votes it would be difficult for them to cobble together a governing coalition.

(M5S background here from Bloomberg. The Atlantic explains How Italy’s Five-Star Movement Is Winning the Youth Vote: “They can’t find jobs, and the centrist parties have failed them, opening space for the populists.”)

The former PM Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) polls in second place but it ain’t got no juice. Slim Odds.

•••••

And then there’s this, from a different Tim Parks article titled Whoever Wins Won’t Govern:

“We are the country of … the decree that never becomes law and the investment that is always inadequate; in the rare event that everything goes smoothly and parliament gets something done we are the country that can rely on the courts to undo it. Italian power is impotence.

Whoever wins, they will not govern. All will go on just the same. Most key policies will be decided outside Italy.”

By which he means the European Union.

•••••

The EU is a wholly fascinating polity. Choose your corner. In the northwest and southeast the United Kingdom and Greece slash and tear at Brussels’ rule. In the northeast, Finland is grateful the EU has its back, given its long Russian border, while in the southwest Portugal appreciates the €1.8 billion more that it receives annually than it contributes to Brussels (2016). And in the middle, the yet-to-be initiated Balkan countries both want in and don’t.

My Italian friends were the first to assure me, seriously, that Donald Trump could become the American president. This was nonsense, I assured them, but they had seen it. They had lived the Silvio Berlusconi experience. Now as usual, Italy faces a dizzy field of Communists, anarchists, stuntmen, the common paralysis and … Berlusconi.

The prospects of a return of Berlusconi invite despair.  One would hope that having once elected a clown parody of a statesman, the good people of (insert your country name here) would run him out of town.

This election is worth staying up late to watch. Happy election day.

Speaking of morning coffee, got time to buy me a cup?

The Runoff

On yesterday’s elections: 1. the French have rejected both traditional parties in an election for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic. And 2. the pollsters largely got it right, which is more than can be said for their British and American counterparts these last couple years.

While the next two weeks are potentially fraught, for the moment the idea of a functioning European project survives. But headlines like

“Macron to ‘blow Le Pen out of the water’ in final round of French election – Not even a terrorist attack could increase Front National’s chances, experts believe”

in this morning’s Independent are exactly what forces of moderation don’t want to see over the next two weeks. Because, as Der Spiegel explains,

“if only a fraction of those who believe that Macron’s victory is a given end up staying home on May 7, then Le Pen has a shot at becoming France’s next president. Because there is one certainty that has survived: Front National supporters will turn out in force.”

While the periphery frays (Brexit, the Turkish referendum), you can at least make an argument this morning that the core still believes in the European idea. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves with this ‘blow her out of the water’ kind of loose talk. Two delicate weeks lie ahead for an entirely untested would-be leader in a world full of surprises.

It’s Show Time for French Elections

This will get you up to speed on the state of things one month before the French election: The center-right Républicains and center-left Parti Socialiste have dominated French politics since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, and this year neither may advance to the final round. Among the Républicains, the two best known candidates went down in turn. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s comeback attempt was turned back early, then in the primaries’ second round, Alain Juppé was defeated by former Prime Minister François Fillon, who promptly became embroiled in a scandal that has brought his poll numbers down to 18%. He is currently polling in third place.

President François Hollande’s hapless governance has brought the center-left Socialistes’ prospects down with him, and the Socialistes have chosen to radically shake up their status quo. As on the center-right, the expected standard bearer, Manuel Valls, fell decisively in the primaries to a harder left candidate named Benoit Hamon, who proposes shortening the work week to 32 hours, and a tax on robots. He languishes in last place, most recently polling 14.1%.

The candidates most likely to finish one-two are Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Macron has positioned himself squarely in the center, having left the Socialistes to form a party called En Marche, meaning sort of “on the move,” or “let’s go!” While Macron, 39, is accused of a lack of policy heft, he is just about tied atop the polls with the leader of the Front Nationale, Marine Le Pen. Le Pen has worked hard on the “de-démonization” of the anti-EU, law and order party she inherited from her father, the holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen. The firebrand populist hopes to benefit from the rise of nationalism in the west, and from the “Trump effect.”

Here is one in a series of election ads (with English subtitles) that seeks to show Le Pen’s steely determination and patriotism:

The first round of the elections in Sunday, 23 April, with the top two candidates moving to a runoff two weeks later. Conventional wisdom suggests the rest of the political spectrum will close ranks against Le Pen, behind whoever emerges as her opponent in the second round, to be held Sunday, 7 May. More on that then.

Brexit Shock in London on the Morning After

VotingSmall

Friends and others I talked with here felt gently optimistic about the prospects for Remain this time yesterday. Even as British TV coverage started up at 10:00 last night, BBC1 entered the fray with a wink and a nudge, ‘we think we’ve got this remain thing in the bag’ kind of undertone.

The Brexit vote saw the highest UK-wide turnout of the past two decades and the people we know told us just about all their friends and most of the people they know favored Remain, convincing them that the Leave camp was, as was the popular view, made up mostly of older people who remembered a ‘good old days’ that never existed.

The solid Leave result reinforces a couple of ideas.

First, it adds weight to the emerging consensus that in today’s atomized, web-driven information seeking, we really do get information that tends to reinforce our beliefs. It was obvious to my entire cadre that the only correct-thinking way to vote was Remain, but we only turned up with 48 per cent of the vote.

Second, this is a real and tenacious revolution against the establishment that may well spread across west. Just yesterday we were joking that with a leave vote the U.K. could have the honor of kicking off Donald Tusk’s ‘end of western civilization,’ which could then be followed by Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, the end of the EU and shortly after surely the apocalypse. Yesterday, that was a joke.

Will the EU or the UK be the first to pull apart? As to the UK, politicians were staking out their positions before the last votes were counted. Here is Nicola Sturgeon on the Scottish vote: “Scotland has delivered a strong, unequivocal vote to remain in the EU, and I welcome that endorsement of our European status.”

And from Wales, Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood: “With Scotland voting to remain and a second independence referendum now on the cards, it is clear that the UK cannot continue in its current form. Wales, its economy and its communities will soon be at the full mercy of the Westminster elite and robust action must be taken to mitigate the impact of this.”

The centrifuge spins within the parties too. Labour’s leader is widely derided and it was the Tories’ slow motion disintegration kicked the whole thing off in the first place. The Prime Minister has resigned, not so much the honorable choice as the only one after driving the bus over the cliff. 

It’s the 10:00 hour on the morning after and London has awoken to market shock, reassurances from the central bank and, as from one of my friends, “I despair! I really fear for the future of my children and their generation.”

Let’s hold that thought for now. I’m going to wander down to Westminster and see what I can see.

Post Soviet Politics Never Stops

riga

A rift has opened up across post Soviet Europe in the wake of the Riga Summit, (that’s Riga across the Daugava River, above) with all the former Soviet states lining up according to their perceived interests. Armenia and Belarus resist the final declaration in Riga, each beholden to Moscow for various protections, while Georgia, the Baltics and Ukraine clamor to camp under the EU umbrella.

The best way to decide what you think is to listen to respected scholars, but they line up equally on both sides. Andrew Michta and Judy Dempsey call the EU feckless while Stratfor and Brian Whitmore put President Putin on the back foot.

Who’s right? And with the injection of the US instigated FIFA controversy and the opportunity it affords the US to scold Russia and vice versa, what’s next? 

First Impressions of the Minsk II Agreement

Some people are roundly trashing Minsk II. About the most positive sentiments out there seem to be that it’s better than nothing.

I’m pretty skeptical.

Note that the document that emerged wasn’t signed by the government leaders but by these negotiators, members of the Trilateral Contact Group, same as Minsk I:

[OSCE] Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini

Second President of Ukraine L.D. Kuchma

The Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Ukraine M.Yu. Zurabov

A. V. Zakharchenko

I. V. Plotnitsky

Not putting the clout of the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine explicitly behind the document doesn’t augur well for its implementation, I don’t think.

Olga Tokariuk gets it right:

Also note these two parts of the agreement:

4. On the same day that the withdrawal of heavy weapons begins, a dialogue must start to prepare for local elections in Donetsk and Luhansk regions in accordance with Ukrainian legislation and Ukrainian laws on the temporary status of Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Dialogue must also begin to address the future status of these regions.

– and –

9. Control of the Ukrainian state border in the conflict zone must be returned to the Ukrainian government on the first day following local elections in the conflict zone and following implementation of point 11 of the Minsk memorandum governing Ukrainian constitutional reform.

It seems to me that together, they’re essentially Russia telling Ukraine, “You can only have your border back after we hold sham elections that we can manipulate as we please, and between now and then we can run as much military materiel into DNR/LNR as we like.”

First impressions only, but not especially hopeful.

Ukraine and Russia. How We Got Here. What’s Next?

maidan

Before the invasion of Crimea, the European Union followed a policy of benign neglect toward its former Soviet neighbors Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and the states in the south Caucasus. It did so through modest funding of its so-called Eastern Partnership. Happy to help, but don’t expect us to go out of our way.

The idea seemed to be that spending some obscure foreign policy money wouldn’t cost much relatively, while at the same time EU states could claim they were engaged. EU leadership knew their modest investment wouldn’t bring its former Soviet neighbor countries up to EU standards, but they reckoned they might discourage Russia in the Bloodlands. With their hands full during the Euro crisis, EU states essentially did the least they could do, in effect ceding to Russia just the thing Russia loudly demands, a tacit sphere of influence.

But after the invasion of Crimea, ten months on from the fall of the Yanukovich government it looks as if President Putin’s impetuous pique at the Maidan uprising may squander just what Russia has long sought.

If the EU can be criticized for half-measures when it comes to winning hearts and minds, so can the Russians. In part because of Russian influence, every day in the more than twenty years since the Berlin Wall fell, citizens of the largest of the former Soviet states, Ukraine, have continued to endure petty, low grade, daily Soviet-style corruption.

Let me give you an example. Our car was once pulled over for speeding on a highway outside Kyiv. Igor, the driver, climbed out into the snow to engage with the traffic cop and when he returned, gave us a lesson in Ukrainian daily life.

He explained that while the fine wasn’t astronomical, about $30, he would have to go to the bank to pay the fee then to the police station to show them he had paid, so slipping the cop some cash would save him a whole day’s pay at work. It was a system, he said, built for bribes.

He knew it and the cop knew it and he didn’t even begrudge the cop, miserably paid and standing outside all day in the snow, because he had a family to feed, too. Endemic, daily petty corruption wears you down.

•••••

Americans hardly noticed when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich cast his lot with Moscow by declining to sign the Ukraine–EU Association Agreement at the Vilnius summit in November, 2013, but Ukrainians were having none of it. They demanded better. Enough was finally enough and Kyiv’s Independence Square, the Maidan, erupted to life.

Twice in ten years events have galvanized the common folk to make a stand on that bitterly cold promenade in central Kyiv. This time they sustained their agitation (even employing a medieval catapult!) right through the long, bitter winter until ultimately Yanukovich fled Kyiv one Saturday in late February, 2014.

On that particular day President Putin kept his host’s grin fixed tightly in place at the Winter Games in Sochi, much as it must have galled him, as the medals were awarded for cross-country skiing, biathlon and Alpine skiing.

But scarcely a week after the closing ceremonies, little green men started appearing on the Crimean peninsula. Using a new, unique brand of organized unpredictability and a complete mastery of media to feed the fog of war, Russia quickly had its way with Crimea.

Months later, official Russia remains angry enough about the Maidan uprising and the expulsion of Yanokovich to foment and maintain the frozen conflict in the region of eastern Ukraine known as Donbas.

Russia has induced three other frozen conflicts, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are in Georgia, and in a part of Moldova called Transdnistria. In each it rules by mafia-style corruption and extracts tribute.

It is a mystery whether the Russian leadership believes that giving Russia’s criminal networks another place to do business by creating a further mafia statelet in the Donbas is a strategic win. Or is the rot so pervasive in the Kremlin that nothing else comes to mind?

That is an important question since the lawlessness itself has had consequences for Russia. Once its hardware caused the crash of MH17, Russia felt unable to admit its obvious culpability or to offer to make amends. Which is appalling, uncivilized and has done more than anything else to galvanize the Europeans behind sanctions.

As for the future, Dmitri Trenin thinks that the German position on Russia has materially changed and that “(T)he course for Russia’s gradual Europeanization has come to an impasse.” Mark Galeotti believes President Obama should demand more from the Russians than he fears the U.S. may settle for. And there is a new dynamic for the new year, dramatically lower oil prices and their effects on both the Russian and European economies.

We’re off to a new year. Let’s watch and see what happens next.

•••••

See my photos from Kyiv, Chernobyl and Odessa here. This story on Medium here.