Tag: elections (page 2 of 4)

Leader Comebacks

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”  So spoke Winston Churchill, after the Allied victory in the Second Battle of El Alamein.  We could say much the same of his defeat in the 1945 general election.

 A core assumption underlying most of the work analyzing the impact of domestic politics on international relations is that leaders want to remain in office.  Insofar as ensuring national survival, territorial integrity, and policy autonomy might help leaders retain power, focusing on political ambition often does not tell us anything more than we might get from a state-centric approach.  But there are some important exceptions.  For one, democracies rarely if ever fight wars against one another.  The fact that different institutions create different incentives for self-interested leaders may have something to do with that.  For another, we often attribute the occurrence (or continuation) of wars to electoral motivations.  I myself argued for a long time that Obama was pursuing the same strategy in Afghanistan that Nixon pursued in Vietnam – don’t lose the war until you’re a lame duck.

Most of these arguments, however, assume that a leader’s career ends once he or she leaves office.  Yet this is not the case.  Many leaders eventually make a comeback, returning to office after some time out of power.  The British electorate deemed Churchill less suitable for managing the postwar economic recovery than international crises, and so favored the Labour Party in 1945.  Yet they once more turned to the Churchill and the Conservatives in 1951 after the Labour Party had achieved most of what it set out to do.  If we were to limit our attention to the 1945 election, we might conclude that Churchill did not benefit electorally from victory in WWII (as I myself once did), even though Churchill’s wartime record contributed to his return to power.

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Why I Voted for Barack Obama Today

Amazing how the Simpsons is still pretty funny after 25 years…

 

In the interest of full disclosure, I thought I’d list the reasons why I voted the way I did. I know conservative media regularly accuse professors of politicizing the classroom, but an honest discussion of why one chooses the way one did can also be useful exercise of citizenship. (See Drezner for an example of what I was thinking of.) So with that goal, not demagoguery, in mind, here we go:

1. The Tea Party Scares Me

This is easily the most important reason for me. Regular readers of my own blog will know that I vote in the Republican primary and write regularly about the Republican party, but almost never about the Democrats. (Even in Korea where I live, my sympathies are with the conservatives.) I don’t see myself as a Democrat. I see myself as a moderate Republican, like Andrew Sullivan or (less so) David Frum. Unfortunately, the Tea Party has made the GOP very inhospitable for moderates.

Given Romney’s propensity to blow with the ideological wind rather than stake a claim somewhere, I think it is likely he’ll get bullied by the hard right once in office. Following Kornacki, my problem with Romney is not his ideology – because I don’t know what that is – but the party from which he stems, run, as it is, by increasingly radical, Christianist, southern right-wingers. I find it simply impossible to vote for a party so contemptuous of science, so willing to violate church-state distinctions, so committed to a heavily armed citizenry, so obsessed with regulating sex, so strutting and belligerent toward the rest of the world, so unwilling to compromise on taxes to close the deficit, etc. Hint to the RNC: the rest of the country is not Dixie; please stop dragging us down this road. This southernization of the GOP in the last 20 years has made it harder and harder for me to vote for national Republicans, even though I vote for them a lot in Ohio. Not surprisingly, I find Andrew Sullivan’s conservatism quite congenial.

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Five Election-Explaining Clichés I really don’t want to hear this Tuesday

imagesCA14TN02
On Interstate 71, south of Columbus; Ohio’s most famous sign

 

So it’s election time, which means CNN, etc. will be filled with pundits with only the vaguest credentials – never any PhDs Sad smile – telling you why the outcome inevitably had to be such-and-such. (Retrodiction is so insufferably smug.) And they’ll explain it as if these tired clichés are real insights and not the same flim-flam they pedal every November.

So let me predict the future: here are the five worst clichés you’ll hear Tuesday – the lamest, most recycled, simplistic, and least analytically useful (because they’re so flexible they can explain almost any outcome).

Save yourself hours of Donna Brazile and David Gergen right now; just roll these out at Thanksgiving dinner to impress the relatives:

1. Ohio, or the white, blue-collar voter theory of everything 

Every four years the media runs the same easy, generic storyline about my state (Economist 2004, 2008, 2012; FT) that goes something like this: ‘these grizzled veterans of America’s economic dislocation cleave to their guns and religion but increasingly live in suburbs and see their kids work in tech plants outside Columbus or Dayton. The large urban populations of Cleveland and Cincinnati are balanced by the church-going rural voters in the god’s country of southeastern Appalachia…’ Yawn. And it goes on like that for pages. Most of these articles make sure to cite the above picture. And yes, that sign is for real; I’ve seen it. It’s on the same road that leads to the Creation Museum (no joke either – I’ve been there), but thankfully that’s over the river in Kentucky. I guess they go to the dentist even less often than we do.

The thing is, we get all this attention for 3-4 months before every election – but then nothing afterwards. So how much can they can take us seriously as a swing state? In 2004, Rove drove up GOP turnout with the Defense of Marriage Act ballot issue and terrorism. In 2008, Clinton and Obama told us they were going to amend NAFTA and reduce illegal immigration to save our jobs. This year, Romney and Obama promise to defend us against China. If you’re keeping score, that means there should be no homosexual Mexican terrorists driving NAFTA-certified trucks on Chinese tires around Ohio. Ah yes, Ohio, that clichéd, right-wing blue-collar paradise!

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Joss Whedon on Romney and Zombies

What?? It was too good to resist… Continue reading

3rd Presidential Debate, Foreigner Version: If you’re not an American, you’re Mentally Ill or something

Did anyone else find the third presidential debate just appallingly narcissistic and self-congratulatory? Good lord. Good thing America is around to show you bubble-headed foreigners the way to freedom. I could run through all the offensive, ‘America-is-tasked-with-upholding-the-mantle-of-liberty’ patronizing condescension, but why bother? (Nexon does a nice job here.) I told my students to watch it, and in retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have. It was so embarrassing, and in class this week I kept trying to explain why we talk down to the rest of the world like this while my students rolled their eyes in disgust.

I keep saying this – running around the world telling people how exceptional and bound-to-lead we are is a great way to alienate the planet and convince them of exactly the opposite – to not to follow us. We’d have a much easier time with the world if we could back off the blustery, Fox News nationalism and actually speak maturely. But Americans couldn’t give a damn about the rest of the world, no matter how much we posture about our world historic role to lead it.  Our ODA totals are disgrace for a coutnry as wealthy as we are. We don’t learn languages much. The only time we worry about casualties in the war on terror is when they are own; our clear disinterest for all the collateral damage we have done since 9/11 speak volumes to the rest of the planet.

So instead, here is the debate foreigners heard:

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The Difference Parties Don’t Make?

To the best of my knowledge, no prominent peer-reviewed article in political science has reported a difference in the frequency with which the United States enters into conflict under Democratic presidents relative to Republican presidents.  That’s not because no one has looked for such a difference (I know I have).  It’s because, to date, no one has found one.  This is the file drawer problem in action.

Now, we want to be careful not to over-interpret that.  Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  There could be lots of reasons why we might fail to observe such a difference even if it was true that one party was significantly more hawkish than the other.  But when we look at other democracies, we DO find clear evidence that left-leaning governments involve their nations in conflict less often than do right-leaning governments.

As we head into the third presidential debate, it’s worth keeping this in mind.  I am reluctant to say that there’s  not much difference between what US foreign policy would look like under a second Obama administration and what it would look like under a Romney administration.  I can’t know that for a certainty.  But the past provides relatively little clear evidence that those who believe it will can point to.

But wait, you say.  What about Bush?  How can I believe that a Gore administration would have taken the US to war in Iraq?

Well, for starters, Clinton may have selected Gore to be his running mate in 1992 in part because he voted to authorize the Gulf War whereas most prominent Democrats had not.  In the closing days of the 1992 campaign, Gore essentially accused Bush of appeasing Saddam, suggesting that there’d have been no need for war if Bush hadn’t tried so hard to befriend him.  Soft on Iraq, Al Gore was not.  Or you might consider all the statements made by Democrats in the late nineties up through 2002 about Iraq and WMD (seriously, go click on that link), or the international town hall meeting the Clinton administration held in February of 1998 to communicate the administration’s dedication to destroying Iraq’s stockpile of WMD, or the bill passed with bipartisan support in the same year calling for regime change.  And, again, there’s the fact that the US has not involved itself in conflict more often under Republicans than Democrats since 1945.  But if you’re still convinced that the 2000 presidential election proved to be very consequential for foreign policy — and I’m willing to entertain such arguments, even if I’m less willing than most to accept them on face value — that doesn’t tell us whether the same will hold in 2012.

There are two important points here.  First, what candidates say they will do in terms of foreign policy is not exactly a perfect predictor of what they’ll actually do in office, any more than opposition to policies enacted by someone else after the fact proves that one would not have pursued the same policy.  Note that Obama’s primary victory over Clinton may well have been driven by the perception of him as an anti-war candidate.  Granted, those who were surprised when he escalated US involvement in Afghanistan clearly didn’t pay close enough attention to what he actually said on the campaign trail.  But neither did he position himself as the type of person who would conduct more drone strikes than Bush (by a considerable margin), nor was it clear that Obama would keep Gitmo open, declare it legal to kill US citizens without first trying and convicting them of crimes, and so forth.

Second, note that Romney’s foreign policy platform to date can be summarized as “I’ll do what Obama would do, but I’ll do it with more swagger.”  Even setting aside concerns about how well campaign rhetoric predicts policy choices made in office (has anyone looked at this systematically?), there’s relatively little difference between the policies these two candidates are currently telling us that they would pursue.

There may not even be much of a puzzle here.  Studies that have found systematic differences in the frequency with which democratic states enter into conflict under left-leaning governments relative to right-leaning governments, such as the one I linked to above, largely focus on minor powers who are allied with the US.  In such countries, foreign policy is largely a luxury good.  By that, I mean that these states look to the US to address their greatest security threats.  A left-leaning government in such a state can refrain from responding to minor incidents in a hostile manner without much affecting their security.  Similarly, a right-leaning government can behave a bit more aggressively when dealing with minor incidents, content in the knowledge that their actions will have little impact on the nation’s security.  Put differently, when you outsource large part of your security policy to a superpower, you can afford to treat the areas you retain control over as a venue for symbolic politics.  The smaller you are, the more you can afford to cater to your base without compromising your security.  Superpowers might be playing by different rules though.

Again, to be clear, I’m not saying that we know for a certainty that there’s no difference between US foreign policy under Democratic and Republican presidents.  What I’m saying is that we have some theoretical reason to expect that there might not be much difference, and an absence of persuasive evidence that there is much of a difference.  There’s always the possibility that existing attempts to establish a difference between the parties have overlooked something important, or that this time will be different.  And I haven’t said a word about the impact of the party of the president on domestic policy (nor shall I, since that’s a subject that’s well outside my area of expertise).  But it’s at least plausible that the difference between how Democratic and Republican presidents behave in office, with respect to foreign policy, is far smaller than many realize.

RNC: Don’t Speak in a Publicly-Built Facility when you Attack Government – D’oh!

tampa_convention_center

I got bogged down with NK for awhile, so I missed a chance to comment on the RNC and the US election more generally. I have some thoughts after the break, but a Democrat friend of mine wrote the following, which is a pretty good first draft of the GOP’s problems I think, in this election cycle:

On the whole, I found the Republican convention disgusting and not simply because I disagree with their policies. They substantively are disconnected from the problems of the average person. They offered nothing which will help average people and, what they do offer, is bereft of details. They said nothing – NOTHING – about the two wars they started and the one that is still ongoing. (They do however feel we should have wars, or at least brinksmanship with several other countries.) They have no narrative connecting who they were just four years ago with who they think they are now.

The narrative they do present is a fantasy beyond what even Republicans of a prior generation would present. They stand in a publicly-built convention center preaching nothing but disdain for the role of government. They parade women, Latinos and an African-American secretary of state who talk about the ‘bootstrap’ mentality of their parents with no mention of the giants of civil rights and the role of government which reformed the bigoted society which their beloved founding fathers gave us. That reformation – more than their parents – allowed the likes of Condoleezza Rice to be where she is today.
They reach out to women with symbolism and yelps of ‘I love you women,’ but want to savage Medicare and Medicaid, both programs disproportionately benefiting women (remember, Medicaid is also a program for the elderly medical class who enter nursing homes). They are utter hypocrites on things like government stimulus – Romney first supported it and Ryan voted for Bush’s Tarp and took money from Obama’s stimulus. Even by politicians’ standards, their willingness to lie about Obama’s policies and statements is breathtaking.

But what bothers me the most is this ‘we built it’ mentality which they go on with. The US’ post-war middle class and social stability would not have existed without government. Support for college education, a redistributive tax structure, a modest social safety net, civil rights, Keynesian counter-cyclical spending, massive government infrastructure programs from highways, to the space program, to the defense establishment contributed mightily to every American’s success. This includes the success of their plutocrat leader Mitt Romney who made his money during the tech boom of the 1990s, a tech boom built on government research in computers and the internet. It includes the success of his running mate Paul Ryan whose family made much of their money building government-funded roads. 

I would add that I wonder how much ‘risk’ himself Romney has ever actually taken, given that dramatically pairing back the welfare state is emerging as the GOP meme for this election? If the Randian superman who ‘built it all himself’ is the economic ideology of the GOP, then it becomes central just how much Romney, Ryan, Cantor, Limbaugh, etc. exploit government services. Ayn Rand herself accepted Social Security and Medicare late in her life. That strikes me as fairly fraudulent, as does insisting that SS and Medicare be retained for today’s elderly but not tomorrow’s. I’m sure that the likelihood of older voters to vote GOP and younger voters to go for Obama has nothing to do with that.

For example, did Ryan try to steer government money into his district, as a congressman, as most congressmen do? If he did, isn’t that hard to justify given what he’s saying now? It seems increasingly obvious that Romney never did without in his life in a meaningful way, never went through a ‘back in grad school when I lived in a crappy apartment and ate ramen’ phase. He “refused to head up Bain Capital until Bain promised him he would get back his old salary and interest if he failed. He risked nothing.” He’s also done a fair job of using the government to make a mountain of money – whether that be fixing the Olympics, getting a sorta government bailout, using a battery of accountants to gin up such amazing tax shelters that he doesn’t want to release his returns, or working in government itself – governors get paid a lot more than most Americans. I don’t mean to begrudge Romney his success, but profiting handsomely from government while you promise to tear it down for those who come after you strikes me as fairly selfish.

More generally, I would ask how the GOP thought that a guy who’s practically a caricature of Gordon Gekko could get elected just 3 years after white shoe banking nearly wrecked the world? That just staggers me. And the scandals that continue to come out – LIBOR most recently – have made it obvious to just about everyone except Jamie Dimon that Wall Street needs a tighter regime, most obviously the Volcker Rule. Given just how much we’ve all learned about the financial industry since 2009 (in a bad way), I can’t imagine Romney – who’s so obviously steeped in the values of that class, right down to his perfect hair and willingness to say anything to please – winning. I can’t imagine Tea Partiers, who share the Occupy Movement’s disdain for too-big-to-fail banks and slick ‘masters of the universe,’ being enthusiastic for this guy either. Good lord, even Sandy Weill is now saying the banks need to be broken up. Yet in the first presidential election after the mostly-Wall-Street-caused Great Recession, we’re going to elect such an obvious product of the financial services industry? Wow. God help me for saying it, but where’s Santorum or Bachmann (at least they were honest) when you need them? It’s a measure of just how bad the economy is and just how weak a president and candidate Obama is that Romney is competitive at all.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

All Politics is Local, Korean style

 

Because I work for a public university, I am a national civil servant. So it was inappropriate for me to comment on my site about the recent Korean parliamentary election. But now that it’s over (here are the results), I thought it would be fun, as a political scientist, to share this video of what downhome street politics looks like in my election district in Korea. Here’s a little anthropological, comparative politics participant observation in the field.

This took place about 2 minutes from our apartment, in the middle of a boisterous Korean streetmarket (the woman next to me was chopping the heads off of fish). The candidate’s name is Jin Bok Lee (the incumbent and a conservative); here’s his campaign truck and part-time campaign dance squad. So if you’re wondering what Richard Fenno’s ‘homestyle’ campaigning looks like in Korea, here you go, goofiness and all. Don’t miss the ajeossi on the left side boogying with the dancers. Awesome! Doubtless, this is what Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson had in mind Smile.

In Busan, I live in Dongnae Gu. ‘Dongnae’ is proper name, and ‘Gu’ would roughly translate as ‘precinct,’ but much it’s larger (around 250,000 people I’ve heard). Busan is pretty conservative, a stronghold for the conservative, government Sae Nuri Party (the new, hard-to-translate name of the old Grand National Party). Korean parties change names all the time, and mix and merge so much it’s hard to keep track.

Korea’s voting system for the National Assembly is similar to the German system for the Bundestag. It’s a mix of proportional representation (54 seats) and single-member districts (246). Here’s a quick write-up on the election process. It’s also a very presidentialized semi-presidential system. There is a prime minister, but he’s pretty weak. Turn out on April 11 was 54.3%. The wiki write-up on the results is amazingly thorough just 36 hours after the vote.

Back in the 1990s, I worked for a US representative in the district office. It was campaign season, so inevitably I ‘voluntered’ a lot. I didn’t have to dance in public like these kids, but we did walk in parades, go to church lunches, work the bingo halls, and do all that sort of stuff Fenno talked about in Homestyle. And when Assemblyman Lee spoke, after the dancers, he all but channeled Tip O’Neill’s famous line that ‘all politics is local.’ Here’s him speaking:

Election 008

To my mind, perhaps as an IR guy, the big issues in Korea all revolve around North Korea, where I tend to agree with moderate SNP hawks. But as O’Neill and Fenno would predict, our assemblyman said pretty much nothing about foreign affairs. Instead, it was all about the pork. He told us we’d get more money for schools (pretty much a throw-away line in any democracy I guess), more foreign teachers for direct foreign language instruction (a big issue in Korea, where English proficiency is critical professional skill), and Dongnae would become a transportation hub (even though we are a very dense, totally enclosed section of Busan), complete with another subway station (we just got a big new subway interchange built last year, which is supposedly bringing more people to a big mall in our Gu). The big issues in Korea this year are social-welfarist – things like school lunches for kids and the widening Gini-coefficient. So the SNP has been pivoting left for months. This was definitely not Romney talking about ‘self-reliance’ and ‘job creators.’

Finally, I guess as if to show the conservatives around the world just can’t resist, Lee drew some specious link about how the opposition parties in Korea wouldn’t care if al Qaeda showed up in Seoul. Ah, the ease of Bush-Rove-Palin demagoguery. I guess when Obama was “pallin’ around with terrorists,” Korean left-wingers were setting the meets in Seoul. Actually Korea’s conservatives are a lot more balanced and centrist than the GOP, so I was rather disappointed with that remark. Some Korean conservatives have used Christianity as a wedge issue, which has provoked tension with Buddhist community. And NK can always bring out over-the-top anti-communist cold-war rhetoric from the right-wing media here. But the kind of nastiness the Tea Party has brought to American discourse (cheering for the death penalty and such) is pretty uncommon here. I once remember even hearing a sitting congressman on the campaign trail in the US call CNN the ‘Communist News Network’ directly to a group of reporters. To its great credit, the Korean right doesn’t usually talk that way.

It turns out Lee was reelected. The pre-election consensus our Gu seemed to be that he was good, even if even else in the NA is corrupt, which sounds pretty much like the well-established finding in American politics that Americans loathe Congress as a body, but like their own guy.

It is also worth noting that there was almost no one under 40 among the listeners at that street event. That was immediately obvious. That reminded me of those arguments in the US that because the elderly vote and pay attention so much to politics, their preferred issues like Social Security and Medicare are untouchable. Korea is aging rapidly, and I imagine the effects will be similar.

Next, if your wondering about the truck, they are common here, which surprised me. It reminds me of those political trucks driving around in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and that’s how they do it. The truck pulls up to an intersection. The dancers and music start up, and then the candidate starts bellowing into the mic. That really struck me, because in the US, when I worked for Congress, it was all about TV. Hitting the streets was a worth a few points in the polls maybe, but it was difficult and boring and time-consuming. (Our candidate hated it.) The real focus was dialing for dollars and then big ad buys on TV. Thankfully, Korea is not like that, at least in the legislative races. Korea is far more dense than the US, so there are only a few major TV markets for a huge number of districts. My colleagues tell me it would therefore be astronomically expensive for National Assembly candidates to go on TV. But this fall is the presidential race, which should be played out heavily on TV in the American sense.

Finally the number “1” on Assemblyman Lee’s truck means his party is the first list on the PR portion of the ballot. List 1 is the conservative bloc; list 2 is the social democratic or liberal bloc (the Democratic United Party).

Random factoid: Door-to-door campaigning is illegal in Korea, in order to prevent direct vote buying. The average constituency in Korea is 200,000 voters, less than one-third of a US House seat. But I still find it hard to imagine that so many people could get bribed.

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.

Russia’s Elections

 Haven’t had time to form serious thoughts on the matter, so outsourced to the Power Vertical.

South Ossetia

If you’re that rare sort of person who doesn’t avidly follows political machinations in South Caucasus breakaway republics, then you’re missing some surprising developments in South Ossetia. RFE provides some good background:

Tensions are rising in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia following a clumsy attempt by de facto President Eduard Kokoity to thwart Moscow’s attempt to install its preferred candidate to succeed him and simultaneously prolong his term in office by having the republic’s Supreme Court annul the outcome of the November 27 presidential election runoff.

But the apparent winner of that runoff vote, opposition candidate Alla Dzhioyeva, refuses to accept the Supreme Court ruling. She has set about forming a government, and met earlier on November 30 with Kokoity to try to persuade him to acknowledge her as president and cede power. When he refused, she released an appeal to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to intervene to restore “constitutional order and stability.”

In the first round of voting on November 13, the three candidates backed by Kokoity each polled less than 10 percent of the vote. South Ossetian Emergency Situations Minister Anatoly Bibilov, who is backed by Moscow, and former Education Minister Dzhioyeva finished neck and neck with between 24-25 percent of the vote.

Incomplete results made public the morning after the runoff from 74 of the total 85 polling stations gave Dzhioyeva 56.74 percent of the vote compared with 40 percent for Bibilov. Bibilov responded by publicly alleging that Dzhioyeva’s supporters engaged in intimidating and bribing voters to cast their ballots for her.

Acting on those allegations, the Unity party that backed Bibilov’s candidacy appealed to the Supreme Court to annul the outcome of the vote, which it duly did.

The Supreme Court also ruled that because the final election results were invalid, they should not be made public, and that in light of the purported “violations” by her supporters Dzhioyeva is not eligible to participate in the repeat ballot. It did not specify which article of the election law that latter ruling was based on. Meeting in emergency session later on November 29, the South Ossetian parliament, in which only four pro-Kokoity parties are represented, scheduled that vote for March 25, 2012.


The crisis has only deepened:

Alla Dzhioyeva, the disqualified South Ossetian presidential candidate, says she does not see any reason to hold talks with a Kremlin representative who arrived in the breakaway Georgian province on December 2.

Dzhioyeva said she saw no point in meeting Sergei Vinokurov, a representative of Russia’s presidential administration, accusing Russian officials of siding with her political opponents….

Parliament later set a new date for presidential elections and barred Dzhioyeva from taking part.

Dzhioyeva said her supporters would “disrupt” that March poll if she is not allowed to participate.

On December 2, Dzhioyeva said her supporters would not cast ballots in Russian parliamentary elections on December 4 in protest.

These events lend some support to Cooley’s and Mitchell’s recommendations for how western powers should deal with Abkhazia and South Ossetia (PDF). Rather than simply ignoring them, the west should engage “without recognition” in order to reduce their dependence on Russia. Not that I’m convinced that Moscow would allow relations to develop that far. But it is better than nothing.   

Cana-dammerung: A belated final post on the Canadian Election

Cry the beloved country.

Well it’s been just over two weeks since the Canadian Election – and I am much overdue for the long promised third installment of the snoozefest series that I started. In some ways I’m glad I waited to write my reply: first, because I was contemplating throwing myself off of Tower Bridge. In a moment of panic on the morning after the election I formed the Government of Canada in Exile (please join!) but I think I have calmed down now and have a new appreciation for the UK visa renewal process. Second, because I wanted to actually spend some time thinking about the implication of Canada’s first majority government since 2006.


So, what did I think?

Basically nothing. I actively ignored it. I’ve been bogged down with exams, international affairs (that OBL thing) and not quite willing to face up to the fact that Canada just handed this guy a majority mandate.

So, what am I making up off of the top of my head?

Lots!

Canada before/after 2011 election

(For the too long/didn’t read crowd, this graphic should sum up everything up nicely.)

As a re-cap (just in case you were, for some reason, more interested in the bin Laden shooting) The centre-right Conservatives (Tories) got a solid majority government. The Liberal Party of Canada, lead by academic/public intellectual/did-not-come-back-for-you carpet bagging Michael Ignatieff, had its worst showing in its party history with only 40 seats. By comparison, in 1993, the Liberal Party had 177 seats (177!). Canada was one big red party. Instead, the New Democratic Party, lead by Mustachio-in-Chief Jack Layton, is now the leader of the Opposition which has never happened before and giving unfortunate choices in facial hair a new lease on life.

Finally, and perhaps the best news for Canadian nationalists since “money and the ethnic vote” helped keep the nation together, the Bloc Qubecois were completely decimated – going from 54 to 4 (FOUR!) seats. My extremely superficial comment on this would be that you can only be a one trick pony for so long, BQ; People want other things too.

Oh, and Elizabeth May, (a Yankee!!!)  the leader of Canada’s Green Party, won a seat , but the party did not do well overall as progressives apparently lined up to vote for the NDP instead.

A couple of interesting things here

Our new Official Opposition

  1. Harper won his majority government with 40% of the vote. The split ‘left’ vote (now into three parties: Liberal – though there are centre-right Liberals as well – NDP , Green) may mean that Conservatives will have an advantage to come…
  2. …so long as Harper can keep his party together. While he did not have a majority, he had an excuse not to move on socially conservative legislation. We’ll see if he does now. Certainly, I think we can expect foreign funding for issues that social conservatives do not like (birth control, abortions, etc) to be cut further as a pacifying measure. However, last week there was a large demonstration against abortion rights on Parliament Hill (admittedly an annual event). To what extent will Harper listen to these individuals (many from the west) in his caucus? An article in the Globe and Mail pointed out that Harper now has more MPs from Ontario than Alberta – will he have to take (more libertarian) Ontario more seriously now?
  3. Many of the new NDP candidates are just as surprised to be elected as many Canadians are to see them. It seems quite clear that many figured they did not really stand a chance in the election – particularly in Quebec. Yet, with the “Layton surge”, they have found themselves wisked into the House of Commons with some interesting results:
    a) Several of the candidates are university students (some who have been taught by co-Duck blogger Steven Saideman at McGill). Canada just elected its youngest MPs – it will be the first time that those under 25 will be so well represented… although all in the Opposition benches.
    b) To show you how bizarre the situation has become, we have the story of Ruth Ellen Brosseau. Don’t let the French name fool you! Despite the fact that she represents what seems to be an entirely francophone district, she doesn’t actually speak French. She may actually have never been to the ridding (electoral district for you who keep asking me what a ridding is and saying “that’s so cute”. >:-( ) and she spent much of the election in Las Vegas. While she’s already been a focal-point of criticism, I think this story implies much that might happen in the next Parliament…
  4. It’s Amateur Hour. And that might be a good and bad thing. The bad is obviously that the NDP has never had to be ‘responsible’ before in a national government. They’re not going to know the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of the system in the same way that, say, the Liberals do. They have many new people and Layton is going to have to organize a shadow cabinet for the first time that represents Canada. There are going to be a lot of mistakes made. That being said, the good is that these new individuals are going to be full of enthusiasm. They are not career politicians, but fresh faces of people who were hopefully motivated for the right reasons. Perhaps this means that they are going to do a good job of holding the government to account. While experience is valuable, things can also get stale.
  5. The long and painful Liberal demise. I don’t have enough time, space, hair-to-pull-out to go into a lengthy discussion here. (Check out Taylor Owen and Dave Eaves on this, he’s had some earlier op-eds too.) Needless to say, the party needs to find a balance between starting from ground zero and drawing on past traditions that have brought the party success. Good luck with that.
For those of us who are (admittedly) anti-Harper (I’m guessing you’ve already figured that out), it may not be as bad as it seems. There was a lot of speculation that Harper might calm down once he got the majority government he craved. (This was the opinion of the Economist, and Globe and Mail.) He might. Apparently we’re back to calling the government the “Government of Canada” rather than “the Harper Government”. That’s nice. I hear Mubarak-style branding ain’t going very well anyways.

Additionally, beside the NDP, the Tories elected some new and interesting MPs – in particular Chris Alexander, the former UN-Representative and foreign affairs wunderkind. I only briefly met him once when he gave a talk in London, but those who know him better than I say very good things about him.

Yet after yesterday’s cabinet was unveiled, it’s clear that Harper has just kept pretty much everyone in the same place. Including – shockingly – Minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda in place. (Not much space here to go into the story – suffice to say she was found guilty of lying to Parliament, political interference into an evaluation process and really just being terrible.) Given that he has elected talent like Alexander, I find this HUGELY disappointing. My only hope is that he wants to get Alexander warmed up in his job as MP before he receives a government position in the next shuffle, probably in 12-18 months.  

As for the one of the only big changes: John Baird, the Tory rabid-seal-insta-shout-hack-attack-machine-on-two-legs, you can read my hysterical reaction here. Poor DFAIT. Pity the workers there, my internet friends. The only hope here is that Baird’s good relationship with Harper means that we might actually get something of a coherent foreign policy – a much neglected portfolio

In effect, all of this means that he’s opted for continuity (and I would say incompetence) rather than change.

More griping to come, I’m sure. In the meantime, I will probably keep most of my Cana-blogging over at the Cana-blog while the drinking struggle continues. 

The 2011 Canadian Election: Lessons Learned and Mindless Amateur Speculation

Canadian democracy rests in this man’s hands.

Yesterday I provided a fully superficial background and survey of developments regarding the 2011 Canadian Election. The short version is 1) We’ve had a series of minority governments. 2) Stephen Harper probably thought he could get a majority, and now that does not seem likely though it is still possible. 3) The NDP has ‘surged’, probably at the Liberal’s expense, but also very much at the expense of the Quebec nationalist/separatist Bloc Party and possibly even that of the Tories (who may have expected disappointed Liberals to flock right rather than left.)

In other words – no one has any idea what is going to happen. ThreeHundredandEight has a post on what would happen if the parties achieved their ‘vote ceiling’ ie) how many seats they would get if everyone who says they are going to vote for them actually does. So a majority government for the Tories is still possible (they have a pretty dedicated party followers. One might say rabid, but that is unkind. Just don’t date any…)

So, based on the fact that we are in electoral terra incognita if the polls are right, what can we possibly say we have learned from the election?

This is a horrible lie.
  1. As I have been periodically moaning about, (and is most important for Duck readers) foreign policy does not matter in elections in Western democracies unless something has gone, really, really wrong. I posted a list of 12 questions I would like to see answered by the parties – and that still stands outside of an election. Let’s see what’s in the new Speech from the Throne (which is the government agenda which sets the tone for all policies). My fellow blogger Steve Saideman has some speculation here as to what might happen in the future. Also, James Joyner at Outside the Beltway wrote a good response to my post. 
  2. The Liberals have not been able to present themselves as a good alternative to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper. This is rather obvious considering the position they are in. But the point is that they have not really presented themselves as anything other than a less-right-wing version of the Tories. And Ignatieff has simply not been able to convince individuals that he would make a good leader. I think suspect that Iggy will be exiting stage-right (left? centre?) from Canadian politics in a few days.
    I wonder why this didn’t work out? I have a few ideas – the damage of a decade of political in-fighting to be sure. Additionally the Liberal Party is broke and does not have a lot of money to draw on to fight – and it has had to fight three times in the past five years. It just doesn’t have the resources to launch a massive against the Conservative electoral machine (affectionately known as the ‘war room’). A lot of it may have been Iggy’s inability to fight a characterization of him as a carpet-bagger or (*shock*) intellectual.
  3. Do Canadians like intellectuals? This is more of a question than a lesson learned. I had always thought that Canadians were more open to “smartypants” than their neighbours to the south, but this may be a mischaracterization on both fronts. For instance, a few years ago I had a (very partisan) Tory friend tell me that unlike that over-educated professor (I forget if it was Dion or Ignatieff – both have PhDs), Stephen Harper was a ‘real’ Canadian who could identify with him and his problems. I did have to point out to said friend that Stephen Harper has two university degrees and is writing a book on the history of hockey in his spare time. It ain’t exactly clearing brush in Texas. Yet it’s only recently that Harper has been portrayed by the Tories as a ‘trained economist’ that can help Canada grow. Harper is a smart, smart man. He may not openly pontificate like Ignatieff, but he’s clever and well educated. Why hide that fact?
    Perhaps I’m reflecting wrongly on the nature of Canadian Prime Ministers, or the legacy of Pierre Trudeau, our “philosopher king” who was a very long serving Prime Minister. I always thought his persona as an intellectual added to his mystique, which seemed very good at getting him elected over and over and over. Maybe Canada is tired of Trudeaus? Maybe not? It will be interesting to see how this pans out. As a final note here, I would just argue that I do not detect much presentation of Layton as an ‘intellectual’ in the NDP campaign. He’s running on experience, and as a career politician, he has lots of it – though not much in actual power…
  4. Canadians do not seem to care about the mis-management of government. I made this point yesterday. But the point stands. There have been so many government scandals in the past five years that I have lost track. The Tories were elected back in 2006 on the idea that they would bring transparency and ethical behaviour back to government after the sponsorship scandal affected the Liberal Party. So much for that! Yet it does not seem to bother many Canadians. How else can you explain Harper’s leadership ratings? Or the fact that despite the fact that he has literally been held in contempt of Parliament, his ministers have been caught in bare-faced lies (yet not forced to resign) and he continuously shuts down any independent monitoring of his government actions (not to mention it would appear that the G20 summit funding went insanely out of control) that his party will still likely be the government next week.
  5. Finally, there are Maclean’s writer Paul Wells’ Rules of Canadian Politics
    1. For any given situation, Canadian politics will tend toward the least exciting possible outcome.
    2. If everyone in Ottawa knows something, it’s not true.
    3. The candidate in the best mood wins.
    4. The guy who auditions for the role of opposition leader will get the job

Of these four rules, I would say number one is definitely out – I haven’t been this interested in AGES. Number two is probably true but doesn’t apply. Number three seems to be where it’s at. Is Harper in the best mood? No. Smiling would break the man’s face. Layton is in the best mood (and why wouldn’t he be? His party is doing better than it EVER has. He may not win, but he is winning.

As for number four – I’m not even sure that Michael Ignatieff is going to get that job.

Michael Ignatieff after Monday.



Finally – What We May Speculate Uselessly and Far Removed From the Situation

First, of our four national parties, three will have new leaders by the end of the year – IF:

  1. The Tories get a minority government with less seats than they presently have (possible)
  2. The Bloc fair horribly in Quebec (seems likely)
  3. The Liberals fall to third place (very possible. Likely even.)

Second, some controversial thinking: Will the NDP be like the LibDems in the UK? Possibly. I speculated a bit about this on Twitter – and got a mixed response. But I think there are a lot of similarities:

a. Popular leaders of national parties that can attract a lot of soft-left votes
b. Ability to present the party as an alternative to the mainstream
c. Will likely be responsible for a Conservative government shy of a majority.

What’s the difference here? The LibDems made the fateful decision to actually enter into power with the Conservatives. I’m pretty sure this will not be possible in a Canadian scenario – the Conservatives and NDP are very far apart on a number of issues. They are on opposite sides of the admittedly (narrow) political spectrum. And I think most NDP supporters would just rather stab their eyes out with a rusty spoon.

This leaves two options: the Liberals could form a coalition with the Tories – which would be hilarious, awful and INSANELY hypocritical concerning all of the campaigning Harper did against (perfectly legitimate) coalitions. Or the Liberals and the NDP, if they have enough seats, may try to form a coalition (or understanding) without the Bloc (who seem destined to do badly, unless they get their supporters out in a BIG way). This is what the Tories have warned though – and considering that the Liberals would (humiliatingly) be the junior partner, I think they would sit this dance out. But it’s not certain….

There have been some stories in the press that Harper will not comment on what he will do if his party does not have a majority, or if the NDP and the Liberals do decide to form a coalition. There has even been some speculation that he will not re-establish the government back to Ottawa. Given the fact that he is willing to prorogue parliament – twice – to stay in power, I think this is a possible outcome. But ultimately, I’d like to think it is an unlikely one. We don’t need Canada turning into Belgium. And I would hope that the man who puts so much emphasis on his ability to lead a ‘stable’ Canada would not do anything so foolish.

Next post on Tuesday: The fall out. Things be changing? Maybe? Possibly?!

Why we need to debate foreign policy in elections: Lessons from the UK 2010 General Election

FYI: I am blogging on Canada-related issues at the Cana-blog. It basically satiates my desire to engage with Canadian issues without boring Duck readers to death about our various neuroses from North of the 49th Parallel. Do check it out though, eh?

Last year I blogged about the UK General Election as a “Johnny Foreigner”. I thought it would be a very dull affair, but it ended up being pretty interesting with the first televised election debates, “Cleggmania” and the subsequent coalition discussions. What didn’t the election have? Foreign policy.

In fact the only foreign policy-related items that really featured at all were brief disagreements over relations with Europe (more about the transfer of Westminster powers), climate change and a really, really dispiriting debate on immigration (especially if you are said Johnny Foreigner).

Depressing immigration debates aside, this makes sense. The UK was hit hard by the recession and the debate was largely about the economy. Foreign policy, seldom a popular topic in elections anyway, was even less important. It’s the kind of thing that won’t help you win an election – only lose one.

Lo and behold, it’s 2011 and Canada finds itself in a national election. And what’s not on the agenda? Foreign policy. Why? The economy. And healthcare (which always ranks as important in Canadian elections).

Foreign policy has not and will not play a large role – even if Canada is in Afghanistan and helping to lead the NATO mission in Libya. (Although, to be fair, Carl Meyer at Embassy Magazine has a good article on the ways that foreign policy may feature in the election.) In this sense, there is a certain amount in common with the UK 2010 General Election – at least in terms of the downplaying of foreign policy issues to domestic ones.

But is this something that us IR-wonks should learn to live with? Is there anything we can learn from the UK experience?

In short: yes. After the UK foreign-policy-free election, the coalition has made major and significant policy decisions which affect foreign relations. Some of the significant ones include:

There was no debate on any of these issues. For Afghanistan, all that the leaders spoke of was their trips there and meeting the troops. It could not be said that there was a major debate about the scale, scope and vision of the mission. So should there have been a debate on the UK’s foreign policy priorities and its role in the world? And why wasn’t there one?

There are a number of factors which may have prevented a foreign policy debate.

First, quite frankly, it may have been something that the political parties just didn’t want to confront. It’s not an easy question and, as argued above, it was simply not a priority for them or the voters. Additionally politicians may want to avoid saying anything inflammatory about allies or policies during the election which may come back to haunt them later.

Second, in the parliamentary system, where cabinet ministers sit in the legislature (and owe their position more to patronage and party balancing than expertise), there were not necessarily any obvious foreign policy spokespersons. Certainly there were politicians with interest (such as Rory Stewart). But while positions are fluid and unclear, it’s not obvious that there were any obvious persons to debate the issue.

Third, foreign policy events are unpredictable. While some things are constant – NATO, the EU, relations with the United States – no one could have possibly predicted the uprisings in the Middle East or the fact that NATO would be bombing Libya as some kind of R2P operation. So, for example, while Bush and Condoleezza Rice wrote about not using the 82nd Airborne for nation building in 2000, he ended up spending most of his presidency doing just that. Events may distort or even dictate policies – and this is why they are not carefully outlined (other than broad, vague ideas at best) in elections.

Finally, foreign policy is just something that politicians feel that international affairs are best debated in Parliament rather than on the campaign trail. (Although the debates may sometimes be lacking as well.)

But there is a lesson here for Canada (and other democracies) that tend to not debate foreign policy in elections: governments are going to have to deal with foreign events, and without some kind of guidance, or debate or understanding of what our interests are and what our priorities should be, then there can be major surprises later on.

Even if it must take place in terms of vague generalities, a foreign policy debate is worth having. It is worth knowing where political parties stand on R2P, development, the United Nations (and UN Security Council) international organizations, etc. Broader ideas and goals should be outlined even if, inevitably, events cause change and reversal later on. While I do not anticipate huge cuts to Canadian defence spending nor a major change on our alliance policies, it would be nice to know what the Conservative (UK and Canadian) line on “the Responsibility to Protect” is – since we seem to be doing a lot of it lately.

EDIT: James Joyner has a great post on the US take on this at Outside the Beltway.

Structural explanations are not always sexy or gratifying, but they typically explain a lot

In the days after the US midterm elections cable news outlets, radio programs, political pundits, newspapers, and activists on both sides of the ideological spectrum have exerted a great deal of blood and sweat to explain the nationwide drubbing of the Democrats. Democrats are predictably covering their behinds—conceding voter anger, but cautioning that the country has not lurched to the right in just two years. Republicans are claiming validation of their position and a greater ideological alignment with the American people. Activists and enthusiasts of all stripes are weaving narratives that use the election results to validate their personal political perspective. The question, of course, is whether any of this is correct or meaningful. Was this election a mass repudiation of Democratic policies? Was it a validation of the Republican platform and/or Tea Party-style conservatives?

Elections are like Rorschach bots—everyone sees something different, and often times what they see is what they want to see. Particularly with elections, people like to place causation in the hands of people—agents—whose efforts, words, thoughts, etc, drive the outcome. And to be sure, individual agents can and do wield a great deal of influence on events. But an overemphasis on agents can lead to spurious conclusions about why something happens. You must also look at structural or environmental factors.

Over at the Monkey Cage, John Snides has a great piece precisely along these lines. Snides and his colleagues looked at which factors where the best predictors of voter choice:

If you had one thing, and one thing only, to predict which Democratic House incumbents would lose their seats in 2010, what would you take? The amount of money they raised? Their TARP vote? Their health care vote? Whether they had a Tea Party opponent? A Nazi reenactor opponent?

Not surprisingly, it’s none of those.

As is typically the case, the partisan makeup of a politician’s district mostly determines which candidate will win.  Snides and his colleagues found that the 2008 Presidential vote in a district explained 83% of the variation in the 2010 vote share (see graph below).

This data does not negate agent-centered factors, but it certainly dulls them.  Additionally, many of the theories being thrown about (the vote was a referendum on Obama, on Democrats, on “Big Government”, etc) just don’t have the explanatory power that the partisan makeup of a district has.

What’s clear is that, structurally speaking, the Democrats were set up for a shellacking.  Historically, the President’s party takes a big hit in the midterms, incumbents are punished in a poor economy (regardless of their control over it), and incumbents in swing districts will be the first to go.  Many of the seats Democrats gained in 2006 and 2008 to take a commanding majority in the House were obtained by targeting vulnerable Republicans in swing districts.  Conservative Democrats ran and won in those districts, meaning they faced a center-right electorate.  Given these structural factors, it is no surprise that the Democrats lost so many seats.

Structural explanations are not very sexy.  They don’t allow a ton of room for debate and analysis after the initial work is done.  By their nature, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done to alter the conditions (i.e. a reduced role for agency).  And they don’t really allow people to indulge in great philosophical and ideological satisfaction.  But, at the end of the day, they can be powerful explanations.  Democrats in 2006 and 2008 were overzealous in their interpretation of what those election results implied, and the same may happen to Republicans in 2010.  Savvy politicians and operatives should take heed.

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]

U.S. Midterm Election Prediction Fest 2010

At Gallup, we are officially predicting–regardless of turnout level–at least 40 seats for Republicans.  Based on the numbers and our historical model, Republicans should land about 60+ House seats, easily gaining the majority.

Personally, I’ll say 65 just to be (arbitrarily) specific.  I’ll also predict that Republicans pick up 7 seats in the Senate, 3 short of a majority in that body.

What do you think? Feel free to leave your own predictions in the comments section.

Should I go vote for women because they’re women?

Reading a recent TIME article on “Why Women Candidates are Talking Tough” inspired me to blog about the upcoming elections a little bit. While there are a record number of women candidates for national office, predictions are that women will lose ground in representational terms. If women pick up any ground (or even don’t lose it), it is predicted to be GOP women winning seats and Democratic women losing them. With so many unappealing women to vote for (whose names I’ll leave off this blog post to be polite), and so few appealing women to vote for … what’s a progressive, Democratic, pro-choice woman to do?

The easy argument (and what I’m likely to do) is to vote with your political preferences. But in the rest of this post, I’ll make an argument for voting for every woman you can, regardless of political preference.

I realize that this sort of behavior is exactly what people think feminists do (that they don’t) that gives feminists a bad name (unjustifiably), but I think it might be an important thought experiment anyway.

So the argument against voting for women just because they are women is that it doesn’t make any sense to vote against your political interests in a democracy, and doing so in effect is voting against one’s political interest. Another argument against such behavior is that feminists argue that the category “woman” is in itself false and problematic.

Conceding both of those things … what if the election (nationally and locally) is already lost to the political cause of those of us who are progressive, pro-choice democrats?

The United States falls below the world average of women’s representation at every level of government – there is a woman-majority parliament in Rwanda, and dozens of places around the world where women constitute more than 35% of the parliament or Congress. In the United States, it is less than 20 percent. Women are drastically underestimated in gubernatorial offices and the cabinet, and there has never been a woman president.

This is not incidental – it is symptomatic of systematic gender bias in the United States. It is no coincidence that women are drastically underrepresented – our ideas about what it means to be a leader correspond to masculinity (which women must constantly prove while men are assumed to have it). Still, women leaders must be “as manly as men” (so they can’t cry) while maintaining their femininity (so they can’t be too aggressive).

Waiting for these masculine (and therefore secondarily male) biased gender rules to disappear is like trying to find atlantis. So how do you get involved to end it? Maybe the answer is to vote for women. Because the more female faces we see in office (regardless of political preference, assuming, in 2010, that’s predetermined), the more we have to confront our underlying gender biases in definitions of leadership and voting habits. Maybe? Or maybe we’ll just lose a lot of women’s rights ground at the same time …

That’s President Timberlake to You!: Which Rock Stars Should Rule the World?


After hearing that former Fugee and musical star Wyclef Jean is running to be the President of Haiti (despite not having lived there for decades and apparently not actually speaking French very well), I got to thinking – what other musical super stars could run as leaders to help fix the nations of the world? In what way could Lady Gaga help with nation-building projects? Could Paul McCartney advise the World Bank in any way (other than being able to possibly fund a small third world nation by himself for a year)?

After a lot of sugar and housecleaning I have come up with the following list of suggestions. United Nations, you can thank me later.
Surely the military inspired dancing and outfits in this video would help to ensure a smooth transition to democracy. Think of the hundreds of thousands of people that could go from dancing for Kim Jung Il to dancing for… fighting injustice? To be honest, I never really got the point of the video. But it looks good – and that’s important in politics.
(Alternate – Korean singing star Rain who will no doubt win over the ultra-Stalinist country with his keen dress sense and smooth dance moves – as he did with Stephen Colbert. And as this video suggests – he’s totally ready to make a nuclear holocaust/World War III pretty dang sexy.)
Madagacar – the cast of Madagascar!

Who better to fix the chronic political instability, devastating poverty and colonial legacy than David Schwimmer? (We’ll prime them with a couple seasons of Friends first, obviously. I’m not so sure he can sing but that’s just details. At least the Lemur King-guy can.)

China – Beastie Boys

Perhaps after decades of fighting for their right to party, they could put their experience to use fighting for other rights. Like freedom of speech, assembly, protest, etc. Admittedly, songs about the freedom to form a union might not be as catchy.
Alternative: Wang Chung.

Somalia – Ted Nugent

Libertarian wonderland! With no government to get in your way, or make you pay your taxes, surely this charming gentleman would fit right in!? Definitely no trouble carrying firearms there!

Sudan – Mel Gibson

Mostly because I’d just like to think of Mel Gibson in Sudan. The dangerous bit.

Canada – Michael Bublé.

Because he’s cool and super cute (Mikey! Call me!) and your Mom probably likes him too. More importantly, I’d pretty much prefer almost anything to Stephen Harper. (Even if he does do a pretty good song now and then. )
Alternate: If you thought Bryan Adams, Celine Dion or Justin Beiber were going to be on this list, you were very much mistaken.

These are just a few ideas. But I welcome any suggestions or alternates. There are thousands of singers and celebrities who could ever so usefully be deployed to harsh and inhospitable countries. Let’s not let Haiti have all of the fun!

Readers are invited to contribute their ideas – please, comment below or @StephanieCarvin on twitter. After all, it’s for the kids. .

The (Final!) Johnny Foreigner’s Guide to the UK Election: (Insert ‘well hung-parliament’ joke here.)

Well, the entire UK General election and transition came and went in less time than it took to do a US Presidential transition. While the ending was a little bumpy with the “hung parliament” result but a full, formal coalition government has been formed and it is no longer ‘anarchy in the UK’. (Bad pun, yes. Could I stop myself? No.) So today the UK has a new Prime Minister and a coalition government. What can we say in the last JFGTUKE post?

Cleggmania… not so much

This I stating the obvious now, but the surge in popularity for the LibDems did not work in their favour. Certainly they increased their share of the votes at the polls, but with the “first past the post”/winner take all system, this actually translated into less seats because LibDem support was spread across the country rather than concentrated in areas through which to take seats.

So it’s not hard to see why the LibDems are so desperate to change the UK electoral system – more of which can be read about here. But it has successfully put voting reform on the agenda. There is a big rally scheduled for Saturday and a referendum on the issue seems to have been promised by the Tories. But the predictability of this outcome lead to…

Voting Strategerie

Many of my friends and colleagues knew this would be the outcome for the LibDems of course – and that people would, in the end, vote for the party they thought would win (or in a way that they felt would best prevent the party they didn’t like from winning.) Still, I was shocked to see just how many of them did, in the end, vote with their heads and not with their hearts.

Coalition

So it’s a formal coalition. The Tories will be in charge, but there will be at least 5 LibDems in the Cabinet, including Nick Clegg as Deputy PM and Vince Cable doing something with banks. What I find interesting about all of the discussion surrounding forming the government is that the idea that the Tories could go it alone as a minority was not seen as a viable option. (This is the situation in Canada – the government has the most seats, but not an overall majority and is not in any formal coalition.)

The system here seemed to just want, or at least lean towards, a “strong and stable” majority government. Certainly, this is what everyone claimed that this was the markets’ preference. Of course, because of the cuts coming and the difficult times ahead, something more stable is maybe what is going to be needed. And in truth, I don’t think anyone wants an election in six months (well, maybe some Labour friends) and the discussion has indeed been framed in terms of “doing what’s right for the country”. Let’s see how it pans out….

Foreign/EU Policy

…because one of the things that I will be interested in seeing is how foreign policy is going to work. A Lib-Con coalition essentially combines the most Euro-philic and Euro-phobic parties. Conservatives look to the trans-Atlantic “special relationship”, Liberals don’t think it is that big of a deal; that it’s just one of many “special relationships”.

Like many parliamentary democracies, foreign policy is increasingly determined and driven by Number 10 and its priorities. So, if I were to hazard a guess, I would say that foreign and EU policy will probably be driven more by the Tories than the LibDems. (This already seems to be the case – there will be a cap on non-European immigration and LibDems seem to have conceded on replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent.)

My colleague, Al Miskimmon, (very cool on all things Europe and Security) suggested to me that aside from the Number 10 agenda, much will depend on who actually holds what posts in a coalition. Right now, the Chancellor and Foreign Minister are Tories, and it is likely that the Home Secretary will be a Tory as well. These are positions which, other than the Prime Minister, touch most on foreign and EU policies and there is no question that their ideology will have an impact.

However, personally, I can’t help but wonder if being in a coalition will actually temper any EU-skeptic policies that the Tories may have. The EU now impacts on all domestic legislation and it’s not something the UK could just up and leave easily. If Cameron struggles to appease his Euro-skeptic base, he may be able to place blame on his coalition allies. This would allow him to have a less radical policy towards the EU without being accused (or at least being able to excuse himself) of giving into Brussels.

Thatcher: They’re not over it

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but in the last days of the election I couldn’t believe how many references I saw to Thatcher, the 1980s, coalminers strikes, etc. Tories, whatever their colour, shape, size, gender, race – they’re all Thatcher in the eyes of many.

Is this “Tory Derangement Syndrome”? It’s hard for me to know what it was like – I was in Canada while Thatcher was in power and probably spent most of that time playing with My Little Ponies. However, Thatcher is either hero or villain, savior or sinner, the best of times or worst of times… etc. She is only talked about in terms of black or white, there is no in-between. The only thing I could possibly compare it to is the way people speak about Reagan – either saving or nearly destroying the country.

Political colours up front – I’m not a Tory. But to suggest that David Cameron is Margaret Thatcher just seems barmy to me (at least at this point.) Yes, he’s posh. Yes, he went to Eton. But he is no Margaret Thatcher. This is not the 1980s. So far, there is nothing in the Tory agenda which really suggests to me that is truly revolutionary in the same way as what her government was. My friends say that he wants to favour the rich with an inheritance tax cut – but really, that’s hardly what I would call a privatization revolution. (And apparently it was something that they gave up on in exchange for the Coalition government with the LibDems). Cameron, in his first speech outside of Number 10, made a point of saying how much he “believe[s] deeply in public service”.

The fact is that any government coming into power is going to face serious problems and is going to have to make major cuts in spending which will be deeply unpopular. I do not feel that these will necessarily be driven by Tory ideology, but rather just the necessity of the situation. So, in this sense, I can’t help but conclude that the vitriol aimed at the Tories is less for their policies than what they historically represent.

Final Thoughts

Watching the transition, I couldn’t help but feel strangely optimistic. I am very aware that this is not a universal feeling. As mentioned above, my Labour friends seem to be in genuine despair at the state of things. I have non-Labour friends who believe that we’ll have an election in six months (despite whatever agreement may have been reached between the LibDems and Tories). And, of course, the country is in a lot of trouble.

But the idea of a coalition government – where two parties will debate and negotiate ideas to confront the UK’s most pressing issues – seems to me to be something that maybe – just maybe – will work well. After the results came out, Paddy Ashdown observed “The country has spoken – but we don’t know what they’ve said.” But I think we do know – people did not want politics as usual. After a year of parliamentary expenses scandals, a recession, and general disillusionment with politics altogether, I think it’s fair to say that the British want something different. Will it happen? The Liberals may temper the policies of the Tories, and the Tories will be able to form the government that they have wanted for 13 years. Some people have described what will inevitably follow as ‘horse-trading’ but to me it just seems like politics.

The Johnny Foreigner’s Guide to the UK Election Part III – Cursing old ladies edition


I’ve been getting surprisingly decent feedback on these posts. Some of my colleagues at work (who know more about democracy and elections than I do) have said that they felt that they were not entirely wrong or embarrassing so I’ve decided to stick with it until it’s all over next week – and then get back to blowy-uppy-thingies after 6 May.

So what did we see and/or learn in the last leader’s debate on foreign policy last week?

My first observation was that it was stupid to try and find a pub in central London that was showing the debate. In the struggle between a Liverpool football/soccer game and politics, the former was bound to win. So I had to listen to the first 30 minutes on the radio while I scrambled home!

Interestingly enough, despite having listened to the first half of the debate on the radio and the second half on the TV, I did not feel that there was a real difference in how I perceived the debate. I kind of had the impression that they were all doing about equally well. The only major difference that I noticed was that Gordon Brown actually looked a bit better than he did in the first debate. It was the best hair style I’d seen on him in years.

Going into the debate I figured that each of the three leaders had a mission:

Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats) – keep it up
David Cameron (Conservatives) – ramp it up
Gordon Brown (Labour) – don’t look undead

I think, by and large, they all performed these tasks – and the polls seem to confirm this. Cameron has slightly increased his lead, Clegg has held on and Labour… we’ll they’re kind of hanging out (or were until Brown decided to say some really silly things with a live microphone on him as discussed below…)

But the difference from the first debate is that there was no clear winner. When I asked my flatmate who won, she replied that she thought it was Sky News. I think she might be right.

So Brown looked less uncomfortable but still a bit rehearsed. (Also – no one in the Labour Party should ever let him smile. Ever. It’s just not a good look for him.) Clegg had a slightly more difficult task because the LibDems are perceived to be weaker on foreign policy. They oppose the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent (and nuclear energy in general), they are the party that is by far the closest to the European Union and possibly the least friendly to the US. Still, in this heated exchange, I think he held his ground – and did rather well. Cameron seemed to have some of the confidence that everyone expected him to have in the first debate. I think he did much better (though I came to this conclusion after two glasses of Merlot.)

But ultimately I was disappointed because I thought the foreign policy questions were pretty disappointing and in a lot of cases the answers were worse. All of the international questions really came down to domestic issues. Climate change? Insulate your house! (Although Clegg did charge Brown with failing, or being sidelined at Copenhagen… unfairly, I think.) Afghanistan? (Let’s all thank the troops! And we’ve all visited!) A visit from the Pope? (Diplomacy good! Gays good! Touching children bad! But we can all chat!)

Robin Nibblet of Chatham House was pretty critical in his assessment, noting that there were no questions on China. Inderjeet Parmar of TransAtlantia that there was nothing on the Iraq War, UK complicity in the torture of terror suspects, or any kind of troop withdrawal as well. Yet, as David Aaronovitch notes, there was a second question on immigration (which, to be fair, has become pretty much the second major issue of the campaign over the economy). The LSE’s Election Blog reaction is here.

Still, despite my disappointment with the “foreign policy” aspect of the debate, I found myself enjoying the program. Actually, so far I have liked the debates MUCH better than the US ones. They are more dynamic and interesting. I think that so far they can be described as a huge success for generating interest in the election and (with the exception of foreign policy – as discussed above) there have been some pretty good discussions on policy.

They took our jeeeerrrrbs!

The part that I’m finding most painful is the section on immigration. From my perspective as an migrant worker (of sorts) myself, the debate on immigration has been kind of offensive. We’re over-crowding Britain. We’re taking people’s jobs. (British jobs for British workers!) And even then, I am not subject to a lot of harassment that people from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia get – but only because I speak with an “exotic” Canadian accent and I’ve spent a few extra years in school.

But after nearly a month of this I’m wondering if the UK can have a sensible discussion on immigration that isn’t trying to play in the hands of some of the more fringe parties? Yes, controls are a good thing – a crucial thing, actually. But the debate seems less about what we should do about the situation the UK is in and more about numbers, jobs, council flats, etc. Have Labour’s policies actually reduced immigration? Let’s fight about numbers and statistics! Maybe this is just what is foremost on people’s minds and the politicians feel that this is what they need to respond. I’m certainly not going to pretend this is an easy issue – but I can’t help but feel the current state of the debate (literally) is a race to the bottom.

Still, if I was in one of the above categories of immigrants, I would probably be feeling a whole lot worse about all of this. Or at least a bit more vulnerable. Eastern Europeans can’t be feeling particularly welcome right now. But I guess this is the same debate that is being held in other countries, like the United States, where immigration seems to be just as toxic of an issue (although no one has started a vigilante group here yet.)

JFGTTUKE highlights this week:

1. Clegg-mania continued – kinda: Clegg is widely seen as surviving a major test with the second debate and as having potentially changed the political landscape of the UK. Labour is now considered to be in third place (if only just) or barely hanging on to second – something that was truly unconceivable three weeks ago.

2. ‘Hung’ out to dry?: The impact of this goes beyond pushing labour into third place, of course. Virtually all of the politico-media driven hype has been on the impact of a hung-parliament. Will it drive the UK economy into a Greek-like collapse? Will it mean years of paralysis and backdoor deals that will undermine the parliamentary process? Will a hung parliament kick your grandma and eat your baby?
The answer of course, is – who knows. (I’m thinking a definite “no” on the baby-eating.) But there is no question that the Conservatives have been doing whatever they can to frighten the daylights out of the electorate? But will it succeed?
Some of my political friends, (not Tories – though I wouldn’t care if they were) are saying that the spectre of a hung parliament is having an impact on how they will vote. One indicated that because he felt that because the percentage of the popular vote might now have an impact on what happens in the possible post-election negotiations, that he would now vote Labour (despite being in a LibDem safe seat) so that they may have more bargaining power.
Now this individual is politically informed (though not active) so I have to wonder exactly how many other people are feeling this way? Will Clegg-mania survive in the polling booth? Or will people resort to their old loyalties (or the two dominant parties) at the last minute. I suspect Gordon Brown is hoping that this will be the case.

3. Brown Toast? Gordon Brown was caught saying some things about an elderlywoman – a lifelong Labour Party member at that – that were far from flattering. She was asking questions about the economy and immigration (of course) – Brown pretended to make nice, but then, when he thought no one was listening called the woman “bigoted”. (And if you need something to crush your soul, look at the expression of disappointment on the woman’s face when she finds out about it.) I’m sure politicians probably feel this way a lot and say things like this behind closed doors all of the time. However, Brown got caught in a big and bad way. Will it affect voters? There is a lot of media speculation about this today. Certainly it has not helped the perception that he might be a bully, or that he is bad with the general public.

4. Foreign press coverage: I’ve noticed quite a few stories on the election in the foreign press – New York Times, Washington Post, etc. (Check out Karla Adam’s piece on political betting if you want to know the other creative ways people speculate about the election at the bookie.)

However, I’ve also noticed in the last few days that this story has been pushed aside to a certain extent by and large in favour of the speculation about the Euro and the future of Greece, Spain and Portugal.

So is there interest in the US? Are they following it at all? Always impressed that C-SPAN 3 is covering the debate (is that like the ESPN 82 of the political world?) I was impressed that Sky News had Dan Rather deliver his opinion afterwards – although I didn’t find his comments particularly insightful.

Finally *phew* – what can we expect in tonight’s final debate in Birmingham?

Well the debate is on the economy. I would imagine that Brown (while trying to say how much he admires grandmothers who have concerns about immigration in the North of England) will be defending his economic record and how well he managed a “global” crisis. There is a perception that this will be his strong suit. The other two parties will be going after this – saying that years of Labour mismanagement resulted in the UK facing a recession in a much weaker position than it otherwise might have been. They will all talk about how they will cut out waste, preserve the fragile recovery and why the other parties will basically destroy the economic foundation of the nation.

But the UK economy is in a terrible position (although, admittedly, relatively good in terms of, say, that it’s not Mediterranean or needing IMF assistance). Whoever comes in is going to have to wield a terrible axe. I think much of the discussion will be on what the best approach to do this is – Conservatives will attack Labour’s “tax on jobs” (raising the National Insurance – Social Security in the US) and Labour will say that the Conservatives will plunge the nation back into recession. Both will attack the LibDems, who will in turn say that they were warning about an impending financial crisis years before it happened.

I suspect other major issues to be unemployment – particularly youth unemloyment and NEETS (youth Not in Education, Employment, or Training), the Euro and European economy, and (why not) the impact of immigration on the economy.

As for me, the plan for rice cakes last time succumbed to pizza and wine. Now I’m trying to think what suitable economic debate food stuff will be? Probably a tin of beans. Suggestions welcomed, of course.

Election Results from Afghanistan


Preliminary results show it is too close to call; the Guardian interprets this as Karzai having a narrow lead.

UPDATE: Oh, crap.

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