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National Front

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European Elections: The Pitchfork-Wielding Populists

“There is no doubt that many populist, Eurosceptic and even nationalistic parties are entering the European Parliament,” said the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, after all the votes in Sunday’s election for the European Union’s parliament had been counted. He did not say that the barbarian hordes were at the EU’s gates – but he probably thought it.

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, made the same observation rather more colourfully in the Daily Telegraph on Monday: “From Dublin to Lublin, from Portugal to Pomerania, the pitchfork-wielding populists are converging on…Brussels – drunk on local hooch and chanting nationalist slogans and preparing to give the federalist machinery a good old kicking with their authentically folkloric clogs.” There is much truth in what he says.

It is true that the EU’s parliamentary elections last Sunday produced a large assortment of nationalists, neo-fascists and hard leftists who are united in their dislike for the EU. Together they will account for almost a third of the members of the European Parliament (MEPs), a situation that was unimaginable only five years ago. However, it is not true that this bloc of rejectionist MEPs will paralyse the EU.

One reason is that the mainstream centre-right and centre-left blocs of MEPs still have a majority in the parliament. They will probably create a grand coalition that makes all the key decisions behind closed doors, and then rams them through with little real debate. (Of course, this will further alienate the millions who voted for anti-EU candidates.)

The second reason is that the “pitchfork-wielding populists” will never constitute a single bloc, since they disagree on practically everything apart from their policy on the EU. Some, like the National Front in France and the United Kingdom Independence Party, want their countries to leave the EU. Others, like the far-left Syriza Party in Greece, just want to get rid of the common currency, the euro, and end the EU’s policy of enforced austerity.

The Alternative for Germany wants to keep the euro but allow the Mediterranean countries to leave it. Jobbik in Hungary and the Danish People’s Party are viciously anti-immigrant. Germany’s National Democratic Party and Golden Dawn in Greece are neo-Nazi. There is a fringe party for every taste.

The most important reason, however, is that the European Parliament has little authority over the bureaucrats who carry out EU policy and none at all over the national governments that actually decide on the policies. The parliament was created to add a dollop of democracy to the process, but it simply cannot paralyse the EU.
Yet this election has been a great shock, because it has revealed a vast reservoir of hostility to the EU among the populations of half its member states, including some of the biggest ones. In France the anti-EU National Front got more votes than either of the mainstream parties, the Gaullists and the Socialists. In Britain the United Kingdom Independence Party beat both the Conservatives and Labour.

Precisely because the European Parliament has so little real power, however, this was a cost-free protest vote. At least half the people who backed the National Front and UKIP in the EU election will probably go back to voting for the established parties when the next national elections are held in France and Britain, because the outcome of those elections will matter to them.

Nevertheless, it was a very loud protest, and it has badly shaken the European elites who took it for granted that progress towards a more united Europe was inevitable. What they now have to figure out is whether this was just a cry of rage and pain caused by six years of economic crisis and falling living standards, or whether it really is a protest against any further expansion of the “European project” – indeed, even a demand to roll it back.

The pain and rage are real enough: even six years later, few European economies are back up to where they were before the banking crisis exploded in 2008. Unemployment is still high right across the EU, and youth unemployment is catastrophically high in some countries. (In Greece and Spain, almost half of the under-25s have no work.)

If the EU’s current unpopularity is mainly due to a poor economy, then a few years of economic growth and rising incomes should make it go away. Most of the national economies in the EU will grow at least a bit this year, and as the economic situation improves the anger should subside. But what if the whole notion of an ever more united Europe is being rejected by the very people who were supposed to benefit from it?

As in many other parts of the world, the widening gulf between the few rich and the many whose living standards are stagnant or falling has created an incipient revolt against globalisation – and the EU’s centralising tendencies are widely seen as part of that problem. Renewed economic growth will not cure the EU’s malaise if the wealth does not trickle down to the majority.

In that case, there may ultimately have to be a retreat to a much looser form of European union.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 11. (“The second…taste”; and “The pain…work”)

France: Mr Normal Takes Charge

24 April 2012

France: Mr Normal Takes Charge

By Gwynne Dyer

“My true adversary does not have a name, a face or a party,” said Francois Hollande, France’s next president. “He never puts forth his candidacy, but nevertheless he governs. My true adversary is the world of finance.”

No other leader of a major power would dare say such a thing. If Hollande, who will be France’s first Socialist president in 17 years, simply defies “the markets”, they will certainly punish him and France severely. However, it remains to be seen how he plays his hand.

Hollande still has one hurdle to cross before he is officially president-elect, but he beat the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy, even in the first round of voting last Sunday, when ten candidates were running. In the run-off vote on 6 May, the polls predict that he will trounce Sarkozy by a margin of 14-16 percent.

Hollande is a shoo-in because in the second round his centre-left party will collect almost all the votes of parties to the left of the Socialists, and also most of the votes of the centrist candidates. Sarkozy leads a centre-right party, but he has to pretend to be much harder right than he is for much the same reasons as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the United States.

If Sarkozy does not spout anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric, he will not even win over the 18 percent of French voters who backed the far-right National Front last Sunday. If he does talk like that, he will lose the swing voters in the centre – and he may still not get the endorsement of National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who reckons that if Sarkozy loses the presidency his party will disintegrate, making her own party the dominant force on the right.

So it will be President Hollande, who recently said that “if the markets are worried (by my policies), I will tell them here and now that I will leave them with no space to act.” Tough words, but what does “no space to act” actually mean? Does it mean anything at all? The markets don’t think so, which is why they did not go into meltdown as soon as Hollande’s election became a certainty.

Hollande is certainly tougher and smarter than the “Mr Normal” who he claims to be. His calm, modest manner presents a striking contrast to the hyperactivity, bad temper and sheer bling of Nicolas Sarkozy, but he graduated from France’s most respected post-graduate school for high flyers, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, and he has been in politics for more than thirty years.

For over a decade he was the leader of the famously fractious Socialist Party, and was nicknamed “Meccano-builder” for his ability to bridge the endless personal and ideological disputes, a process he once likened to picking up dog turds. And he has not promised French voters the moon.

What Hollande has actually promised is slightly less austerity than Sarkozy. He will balance the French budget by 2017, rather than 2016. For symbolism’s sake he will introduce a new 75 percent income tax band for people who earn more than a million euros, but he understands that bringing the budget deficit under control must be accomplished mainly by cutting spending, not raising taxes.

The markets will not have it any other way, and they have France in a corner. In order to cover the interest on its existing debt plus this year’s budget deficit, France must borrow almost one-fifth of its entire Gross Domestic Product this year, and the same again next year. Most of that enormous sum must be borrowed from foreign lenders, so Hollande cannot afford to frighten them by radically changing the austerity policy he inherits from Sarkozy.

He says what he must to get elected, but in office Mr Normal is likely to conduct business as usual – or at least, that is what the markets think. It may be too simplistic a view. Hollande doesn’t agree with the current European orthodoxy, because it has put the eurozone (the 17 out of 27 European Union members that use the euro “single currency”) into an economic death-spiral.

Germany’s huge and healthy economy gives it the whip-hand in the eurozone. Berlin insists on savage austerity measures by EU member governments to bring their budgets back into balance, but if the austerity is so extreme that it kills economic growth, then the budgets will never balance. Hollande argues that growth, especially in the form of big infrastructure projects, must be stimulated by easier credit even while budgets are still in deficit.

Many European leaders agree, as do outside observers like Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who said recently that Europe would “commit suicide” if it did not add reflationary policies to strict budget discipline. Hollande will not start printing money right away, because the euro means he cannot, but he is certainly going to argue for “quantitative easing” (as we now call reflation).

Without openly defying Berlin, he is likely to become a rallying point for Europeans (and there are a great many of them) who believe that the eurozone will never solve its crisis without economic growth in other countries besides Germany. “Change in France will allow Europe to shift direction,” he says. He may be right.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Hollande is…right”)

 

Sarkozy’s Last Stand

13 March 2012

Sarkozy’s Last Stand

By Gwynne Dyer

Faced with renewed allegations that Muammar Gaddafi had poured up to fifty million euros into his presidential campaign in 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy finally lost it. “If he did (finance my election), I wasn’t very grateful,” he snapped on prime-time television.

Sarkozy, after all, was the prime mover of the bombing campaign that brought Gaddafi down, while the man who made the original accusation during that war was Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the late Libyan dictator’s son and hardly an impartial witness. It was mainly a measure of how much Sarkozy is disliked in France that he had to go on major French television channels once again last week to deny the eight-month-old story.

Plausible or not, many people want to believe the story because it provides a rational basis for their loathing of the man. And Sarkozy’s own behaviour, as he flails around with growing desperation for some new policy that will bring the voters back to his side, is equally unattractive.

His latest proposal, made last Tuesday, was to cancel the Schengen Agreement, the treaty that provides for freedom of movement within the European Union. Unless the EU as a whole agrees within a year to cut drastically the number of foreigners allowed to settle within its boundaries, he said, France will leave the treaty and reimpose its own border controls.

Sarkozy, whose own ancestors were Hungarian and Greek immigrants, was aiming this policy directly at France’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim voters, but it is unlikely to woo them away from the real neo-fascist party in the country. Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader, immediately replied by promising to cut immigration by 95 percent, and for good measure added a promise to quit the common European currency, the euro.

Meanwhile Francois Hollande, the Socialist leader, cruises towards what seems like an inevitable victory in next month’s presidential election despite the fact that he has never held any high government office. Everybody agrees that he is a very nice man, but he would never have got the Socialist nomination if Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the World Bank, had not ruined his chances by getting caught up in several sex scandals.

It’s odd that the polls should be predicting that Hollande will win the election, given that he is an old-fashioned tax-and-spend socialist in a time of financial crisis when most French voters, rightly or wrongly, think the solution is spending cuts and balanced budgets. Being a lifelong party apparatchik doesn’t win him many points either. The only rational explanation is that he is benefiting from the anybody-but-Sarkozy mood of the electorate.

Sarkozy can be cruel about Hollande, comparing him to a sugar cube: it looks solid, but put it in water and it will dissolve to nothing. But that’s no more cruel than the French public’s assessment of Sarkozy himself. He is generally seen as a flashy, fast-talking salesman who lacks the gravity to be president, and whose promises to make France a more competitive, more prosperous society have all come to naught.

A fair person might argue that Sarkozy’s inability to transform France is not really his fault, since he entered office just before the financial collapse of 2008 wrecked everybody’s big plans, including his. But politics is not about fairness, and in the popular view his administration has been a failure.

Then there’s Francois Bayrou, a perennial presidential candidate whose main attraction is that he is none of the above. Every party he ever led – and he has led quite a few in his career – eventually collapsed because he couldn’t get along with the members. He’s pro-European, orthodox in economics, but with a social conscience – the ideal centrist. But he has never won more than 18 percent of the popular vote, and this time he’s sitting at 13 percent.

Marine Le Pen, for all her success in softening the image of the National Front, is only predicted to win 16 percent of the vote in the latest poll, so it comes down to a two-horse race: Hollande vs. Sarkozy. They will be the top two candidates who go through to the all-important second round on 6 May – and then Sarkozy will almost certainly lose.

In the first round of voting, a four-way race, neither Sarkozy nor Hollande is likely to get more than 30 percent of the vote. (Currently, each man is predicted to win 28 percent.) But when every other candidate’s votes must go to one of the two leading candidates in the second round, Francois Hollande wins hands down. No opinion poll this year has given Hollande less than 54 percent of the vote in the run-off, and some have given him as much as 60 percent.

Nicolas Sarkozy is a formidable campaigner, but this is a gap that is almost impossible to close in the time that remains. France is going to have a Socialist president for only the second time in the history of the Fifth Republic.

 

Malaysia: Sodomy and Democracy

12 January 2012

Malaysia: Sodomy and Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

Anwar Ibrahim is an unusual man in two respects. One is that the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia is probably the only senior politician in the world to have been charged with sodomy (which is a crime in Malaysia). Not only that: he was charged with sodomy twice, in trials ten years apart – and the charges were dismissed both times. The last time was just last weekend (9 January).

The other unusual thing about Anwar is that he has managed to build a real opposition alliance in Malaysia, which may well end the ruling party’s half-century grip on power in the forthcoming elections. As you might expect, these two facts are not entirely unrelated.

The reason that the National Front coalition has ruled Malaysia ever since independence in 1957, even though Malaysia is a democracy where you would expect an occasional change of government, is fear. Many Malaysians of all ethnic groups fear that the National Front is the only thing that keeps the lid on the bubbling pot of ethnic resentments.

For many centuries the dominant ethnic group in the country was the Malays, but under British rule a huge wave of immigration from China and the Indian sub-continent reduced the Malays to only 60 percent of the population. Almost all of the Malays were Muslim; few of the others were. But the bigger problem was that the Malays ended up much poorer than the newcomers.

In 1969 there were bloody riots in Kuala Lumpur that killed at least hundreds of people, and perhaps as many as 2,000.

The country was already growing fast economically (it has averaged 6.5 percent annually for the past fifty years), and all the ethnic elites were terrified that more violence would kill the goose that was laying the golden eggs. So they made new rules that would placate the angry Malay majority by giving them priority in employment, education, business, and access to cheap housing and assisted savings.

Those rules are still in effect, and the National Front, Malay-dominated but embodying leading members of all communities, won eight successive elections because its “New Economic Policy” (which was really about race) was seen as the only formula for domestic peace. However, time passes and circumstances change.

Malaysia is now a middle-income country where differences in income and education between the various ethnic groups have narrowed considerably. The National Front, after so long in power, has spawned a multitude of corruption scandals. And then along comes a Muslim, part-Malay politician who threatens the status quo.

Anwar Ibrahim began as a student leader demanding an even more privileged place for Malays and Muslims in Malaysia, but he has travelled a long way since then. Mahathir Mohamad, the autocratic prime minister who ruled from 1981 to 2003, picked him as a potential successor and rapidly promoted him to deputy prime minister, but then in the late 1990s they fell out.

Their quarrels were over issues like Mahathir’s toleration of corruption, but the basic problem was that Mahathir did not tolerate dissent. Anwar was dismissed as deputy prime minister in 1998, and immediately afterwards he was charged with corruption and sodomy. The aim was not only to jail him but to discredit him in the eyes of pious voters.

Anwar was jailed in 1999, but his sodomy conviction (based on highly implausible evidence) was overturned by Malaysia’s Federal Court in 2004. Having served five years on the corruption charge, he returned to politics, but now as the leader of the People’s Alliance, an improbable coalition of Islamic, Malay nationalist and ethnic Chinese parties. And in the 2008 election, the People’s Alliance won one-third of the seats in parliament.

So Anwar was immediately charged with sodomy again. Even fewer people believed it this time, and a week ago, quite contrary to expectations, a court threw the charges out. “To be honest I was a little surprised,” Anwar said afterwards. And now that he has emerged from that shadow, he stands a good chance of winning the election that must be held this year or next.

Thirty percent of the voters are undecided, and at least half the seats in the country are up for grabs. If the People’s Alliance wins, it will be because Malaysians of all ethnic groups believe that the “New Economic Policy” (which could be called the “New Ethnic Policy”) is an outdated relic that facilitates corruption, and prefer a government that treats all Malaysians the same regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

Then Anwar and everybody else will find out whether the country has really outgrown its ethnic obsessions.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8 (“Malaysia…quo”).