Fear, a decisive force in these European elections

As the European Parliament elections approach, a growing sense of fear stemming from multiple — yet mutually reinforcing — sources seems to be the decisive force shaping electoral behaviour. Citizens of the EU experience uncertainty in the face of broad economic and cultural changes occurring at an unprecedented pace, coupled by unforeseen crises, such as Covid and the climate crisis, and the re-emergence of war conflicts, on a continent accustomed to peace for over half a century.

The survey

Last month, more than 10,800 European voters took a stand on the pressing issues and running challenges of the EU, as part of a large-scale comparative survey conducted by Kapa Research across 10 member countries (Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, and Spain) between May 4 and 24, 2024.

This survey goes beyond domestic dilemmas or voting intentions. Taking a closer look at emerging and established trends within European societies between 2019 and 2024, it examines what shapes the bloc’s social agenda today, citizen concerns about European and international issues, leadership expectations, and opinions about leading global figures. On question after question, responses reveal a strong undercurrent of fear impacting voting behaviour just days before June’s European elections, emanating from four critical realities.

Rising cost of living is the foremost concern for Europeans heading to the polls.

Fear cause No.1: Economic uncertainty

Rising cost of living is the foremost concern for Europeans heading to the polls. Inflation shocks that have stunned European economies during the post-pandemic period established a deep-rooted unease about people’s ability to make ends meet. Asked about issues that worry them most when thinking of today’s Europe, respondents, at an average of 47 percent , place “rising cost of living” as their top concern. The issue has become remarkably salient in countries like France (58 percent), Greece (55 percent), Romania (54 percent), Spain (49 percent), and Bulgaria (44 percent), yet, still, in the rest of the surveyed member countries the cost of living ends up among the top three causes of concern. This wide sense of economic uncertainty is further spurred by a lingering feeling of unfairness when it comes to the distribution of wealth: M ore than eight out of 10 (81 percent overall) sense that “in Europe, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer”.

via Kapa Research

Anxiety transforms into fear when one realizes that the main political conflict has little to do with competing economic solutions to high living costs. Instead, it is more of a clash between systemic forces and extremists, primarily centred on the field of immigration and the perceived threat to the European way of life.

Fear cause No.2: Immigration

On the cultural front, since 2015, immigration in Europe has been a complex and multifaceted issue, with humanitarian and political implications. In our survey, immigration appears to be the second most important citizen concern with 37 percent (on average), while, at the same time, on the question of which areas should Europe focus on the next five years, calls for “stricter immigration control” are prevalent, with 36 percent of respondents across all surveyed countries ranking it as a top priority. This is notably evident in Germany (56 percent), in spite of its reputation as a welcoming country early in the migration crisis, and in Italy (40 percent), a hub-country into Europe for migrants and refugees. More importantly, the perception of immigration as a “threat to public order” is widespread, with 68 percent of respondents holding this view, compared to only 23 percent who see it as an “opportunity for a new workforce”.

via Kapa Research

Fear cause No.3: War on our doorstep

The return of war to Europe has reignited fears about security; conflicts in Ukraine and, more recently, in Gaza come into play as new factors impacting this year’s EU elections. In this survey, “the Russia-Ukraine war” is the third most pressing concern for 35 percent of respondents, only two percentage points below “immigration ”. Here geographical proximity is crucial as the issue is especially prominent in Estonia (52 percent), Hungary (50 percent), Poland (50 percent), and Romania (43 percent), all neighbouring countries to either Russia or Ukraine. Additionally, demand for immediate ceasefire on both fronts is prevalent: 65 percent believe that hostilities in Gaza “must stop immediately ”, while the same view is supported by 60 percent for the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

To this end, as the feeling of danger from wars and terrorism grows stronger, EU-UK relations become indirectly connected to the issue of security: 56% of respondents wish for a (re)alignment between Great Britain and the EU. At the same time, and compared to current leaders, former UK PM Tony Blair enjoys strong popularity ratings.

Fear cause No.4: The unknown reality of AI

Over time, technological advancement has been widely welcomed as a positive development for humanity, as a means of improving living conditions, and as a growth accelerator. The rapid rise of a rtificial i ntelligence in citizens’ day-to-day lives seems to be disrupting this tradition. Among the member countries surveyed, an average majority of 51 percent considers AI more as a “threat to humanity” rather than as an “opportunity” (31 percent ). Along the same vein, scepticism is reflected in the reluctance to embrace AI as a strategic goal for the EU in the next five years, with 54 percent opposing such a move.

via Kapa Research

Mixing all four of the above ingredients produces an explosive cocktail of fear within European societies.

Key takeaway

Mixing all four of the above ingredients produces an explosive cocktail of fear within European societies. While combined with the prevalent EU technocracy and the weak institutions-to-citizens communication, it is reasonable to expect mounted distrust and electoral consequences. Voters will use their ballot to send painful messages. However, our survey shows that the great majority still favo r strengthening the European acquis — security, freedom, democracy, growth, and social cohesion — and seek a competent leadership that can defend it.

via Kapa Research

See full survey report by Kapa Research here.



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Pioneering policy leadership in a transformative era

With the European Parliament and U.S. elections looming, Europe is facing policy uncertainties on both sides of the Atlantic. Persistent geopolitical turmoil in Ukraine and the Middle East, and threats to democracy — coupled with concerns over slow economic recovery, demographic shifts, climate hazards and the rapid evolution of powerful AI — all add to the complex global political and economic landscape. Europe’s present and future demands leaders who are capable of effectively navigating multifaceted challenges.

At the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, we are committed to developing a groundbreaking executive program that prepares professionals for multilevel policymaking of the 21st century. Our new EUI Global Executive Master (GEM) aims to transform policy professionals into agents of change and enhance their skills as effective managers and leaders who inspire and drive sustainable change.

Listening and responding to the needs of policy professionals is at the core of our new program.

New leaders wanted

George Papaconstantinou is dean of executive education of the European University Institute, and a former Minister of Finance and Minister of Environment and Energy of Greece. | via European University Institute

Just as public policy has changed in the past 20 years, so has executive education for public policy professionals. Listening and responding to the needs of policy professionals is at the core of our new program. The new GEM takes our commitment to training professionals to respond to today’s cross-border issues to the next level; it stands out from other executive master programs through its dedication to providing a personalized career development journey.

Launching in September 2024, the GEM has a two-year, part-time format, with three week-long study periods in Florence, and two additional visits to global policy hubs. This format, combined with online modules, allows policy professionals to integrate full-time work commitments with professional growth and peer exchange, building their knowledge, skills, and networks in a structured way.

This allows policy professionals to integrate full-time work commitments with professional growth and peer exchange.

During the first year, EUI GEM participants take four core modules that will set the basis for a comprehensive understanding of the complex task of policymaking, and its interaction with government, the economy and global trends. In the second year, they have the possibility to select courses in one or more of four specializations: energy and climate; economy and finance; tech and governance; and geopolitics and security.

These core and elective courses are complemented by intensive professional development modules and workshops aimed at enhancing skills in the critical areas of change management, project management, strategic foresight, leadership, negotiations, policy communications, and media relations.

Through the final capstone project, EUI GEM participants will address real policy challenges faced by organizations, including their own, proposing solutions based on original research under the guidance of both the organizations concerned and EUI faculty.

In addition, the program includes thematic executive study visits for in-depth insights and first-hand practical experience.

In addition, the program includes thematic executive study visits for in-depth insights and first-hand practical experience. Participants attend the EUI State of the Union Conference in Florence, a flagship event that brings together global leaders to reflect on the most pressing issues of the European agenda. They explore the role of strategic foresight in EU institutions’ policy planning through an executive study visit to Brussels, complemented by dedicated training sessions and networking opportunities. A final Global Challenge study visit aims to encourage participants to engage with local policy stakeholders.

Bridging academia and practice

Since its inaugural executive training course in 2004, the EUI has successfully trained over 23,000 professionals of approximately 160 nationalities, in almost 600 courses. The EUI GEM leverages this expertise by merging the academic and practical policy expertise from our Florence School of Transnational Governance and the Robert Schuman Centre, as well as the academic excellence in the EUI departments.

The EUI GEM’s aspiration to bridge the gap between academia and practice is also reflected in the faculty line-up, featuring leading academics, private-sector experts, and policymakers who bring invaluable expertise into a peer-learning environment that fosters both learning and exchange with policy professionals.

Effective, agile and inclusive governance involves interaction and mutual learning between the public sector, the private sector and civil society actors, all acting as change agents. That is why our program is designed to bring innovative perspectives on public policy from all three: the public and the private sector, as well as civil society, and we welcome applications from all three sectors. 

An inspiring environment

EUI GEM participants spend 25 days in residence at the magnificent Palazzo Buontalenti, headquarters of our Florence School of Transnational Governance. The former Medici palace harbors art-historical treasures in the heart of Florence. In September 2024, a dedicated executive education center will be inaugurated at Palazzo Buontalenti, coinciding with the arrival of the participants of the first GEM cohort.

The GEM is poised to redefine the standards for executive education and empower a new generation of policy practitioners. We are ambitious and bold, and trust that our first cohort will be, too. After all, they are the first to embark on this adventure of a new program. We can’t wait to welcome them here in Florence, where the journey to shape the future begins. Will you join us?

Learn more about the EUI Global Executive Master.

The EUI Global Executive Master | via European University Institute



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Senegal’s presidential election: A look at the four main candidates

After a political crisis with many twists and turns, Senegalese voters go to the polls on Sunday to choose their new president. Seventeen contenders are hoping to succeed President Macky Sall. FRANCE 24 examines the political backgrounds and main proposals of  four candidates: Amadou Ba, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, Idrissa Seck and Khalifa Sall.

Issued on:

5 min

A fast-paced electoral campaign is coming to an end for 17 Senegalese presidential candidates. Over just two weeks, they have been striving to convince voters to support them at the polls on Sunday.

This extraordinary campaign was cut short by the political crisis that began on February 3, when Sall cancelled the election that had been scheduled for February 25. Senegalese lawmakers voted to postpone the vote to December 15, but the Constitutional Council voided the cancellation and the postponement and forced Sall to set a new date. 

Read moreHow Senegal’s presidential election was postponed, reinstated and moved up

Sall is nearing the end of two terms (2012-2024) at the head of one of West Africa’s most stable countries. The constitution doesn’t allow him to run for a third mandate.

On March 9, two days after the council confirmed the March 24 vote, Senegal’s presidential candidates launched their campaigns. The 17 hopefuls have increased their trips and public meetings over the last few days to boost visibility and present their ideas on issues including sovereignty, civil liberties, emigration, schools, unemployment and a fishing industry crisis.

Here’s a look at the four main candidates’ key proposals:

  • Amadou Ba, the continuity candidate

Senegalese Prime Minister Amadou Ba speaks in Dakar on December 21, 2023. © Seyllou, AFP

Prime Minister Amadou Ba, 62, is a ruling party candidate and Sall’s preferred successor. The former minister of economy and finance and then foreign affairs, Ba presents himself as a candidate for stability and the continuity of the incumbent’s economic record, while also promising a return to calm after months of political crisis.

Ba focused his campaign programme on youth employment in a country where three-quarters of the population is under 35. His key promise: to create 1 million jobs by 2028 through public/private partnerships and investment in agriculture, industry, infrastructure and renewable energies.

He also calls for updating “conventions and contracts signed by the state of Senegal in the field of natural resources”, providing a minimum financial allowance to the elderly and accelerating the construction of a national school of cultural arts and crafts.

  • Bassirou Diomaye Faye, the anti-system candidate
Senegalese presidential candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye gestures during a press conference in Dakar on March 15, 2024.
Senegalese presidential candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye gestures during a press conference in Dakar on March 15, 2024. © John Wessels, AFP

Bassirou Diomaye Faye, 44, a replacement for opposition leader Ousmane Sonko who was excluded from the presidential race in January, has had even less time than other candidates to campaign in person. The cofounder of the opposition Pastef party, who was released from prison along with Sonko on March 14, is campaigning against the country’s political class and promises to reclaim Senegal’s “sovereignty”, a term used 18 times in his electoral platform.

To this end, Faye proposes getting rid of the CFA franc inherited from the colonial era to introduce a new currency, and to make the teaching of  English widespread in a country where the official language is French. He also says he wants to renegotiate mining and hydrocarbon contracts as well as defence agreements.

The Pastef platform also aims for institutional reform with the creation of the role of vice president and safeguards to check the power of the president, including potential removal from office.

  • Idrissa Seck, the veteran candidate
Idrissa Seck, founder of the Rewmi party, is seen during an opposition press conference in Dakar on January 15, 2019. Seck was also a candidate in Senegal’s 2019 presidential election.
Idrissa Seck, founder of the Rewmi party, is seen during an opposition press conference in Dakar on January 15, 2019. Seck was also a candidate in Senegal’s 2019 presidential election. © Seyllou, AFP

Former prime minister Idrissa Seck, who served under ex-president Abdoulaye Wade between 2002 and 2004, is running in a fourth consecutive presidential race. The 64-year-old former Sall opponent, who long maintained the suspense surrounding his eventual candidacy, has put his political experience and knowledge of the inner workings of government to use in his bid to win over voters.

Among his signature proposals are compulsory military service, the creation of a common currency for West African countries and a fund financed by oil and gas companies to compensate for damage to the fishing industry. 

The founder of Senegal’s Rewmi party also proposes to devote 60 percent of public investment to areas outside the Dakar region.

  • Khalifa Sall, the comeback candidate
Presidential candidate Khalifa Sall greets supporters during a tour of several areas in Senegal’s capital Dakar on March 9, 2024.
Presidential candidate Khalifa Sall greets supporters during a tour of several areas in Senegal’s capital Dakar on March 9, 2024. © Seyllou, AFP

Khalifa Sall (no relation to the outgoing president) is another Senegalese political heavyweight trying his luck in the race. Sentenced to five years in prison and a fine of 5 million CFA francs for fraud and embezzlement of public funds in 2018, the leader of the Taxawu Senegal coalition was barred from entering the 2019 presidential contest. Macky Sall’s rival has since returned to politics thanks to a presidential pardon and a law authorising the restoration of civil rights for convicted people who were amnestied following a national dialogue initiated by the government in May 2023.

In this election, the 68-year-old Sall is presenting himself as the candidate to heal a “damaged” country. The man who sees himself as the heir to Senegal’s socialist party promises to institute a citizen-initiated referendum. He also pledges to devote at least 1,000 billion CFA francs (1.5 billion euros) of the annual national budget to agriculture.

Sall’s foreign policy programme aims to “diversify and rebalance” diplomatic and economic partnerships by “strengthening (global) south-south cooperation and cooperation with emerging countries”.

This article is a translation of the original in French.

 

The 17 candidates in Senegal’s presidential election

Anta Babacar Ngom

Amadou Ba

Boubacar Camara

Déthié Fall

Daouda Ndiaye

Khalifa Sall

Idrissa Seck

Mame Boye Diao

Mouhamed Boun Abdallah Dionne

Aliou Mamadou Dia

Malick Gackou

Aly Ngouille Ndiaye

Mamadou Lamine Diallo

Serigne Mboup

Pape Djibril Fall

Bassirou Diomaye Faye

Thierno Allassane Sall

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How Senegal’s presidential election was postponed, reinstated and moved up

Voters in Senegal go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president in the most wide-open election in the country’s history. The vote comes a few weeks after the explosion of a profound political crisis triggered by its cancellation and then delay by President Macky Sall. FRANCE 24 takes a look back at recent events.

Senegal is set to experience a new stage in its electoral drama on Sunday as some 7 million voters go to the polls across the West African country to elect their next president.

The election is remarkable in several ways, not least because it marks the end of President Macky Sall’s 12 years in power. And with 17 candidates vying to succeed him, it is the most wide-open presidential vote since Senegal gained independence from France in 1960.

It also marks the culmination of an intense political battle over the date of the polls, which began when Sall cancelled the election three weeks before its initial date of February 25, sending shock waves throughout Senegal. FRANCE 24 traces the key developments during the democratic crisis that ensued. 

Postponement of the vote

Sall announced that the ballot would be postponed indefinitely while speaking on national television on February 3, just a few hours before the start of the presidential campaign.

“For the past few days, our country has been faced with a dispute between the National Assembly and the Constitutional Council, in open conflict over an alleged case of corruption of judges,” he said, arguing that this situation threatened the credibility of the vote.

FRANCE 24 Special Edition: Senegal vote postponed ‘indefinitely’



Senegalese President Macky Sall postponed the country’s presidential elections © FRANCE 24 screengrab

Senegalese lawmakers four days earlier approved a parliamentary inquiry into how some potential candidates’ applications to enter the race had been invalidated. The inquiry was called for by the party of Karim Wade, who was excluded from the contest due to his French citizenship, as only citizens of exclusively Senegalese nationality are allowed to run. Wade’s supporters said they suspected two Constitutional Council judges of having “dubious connections” with some candidates, notably Prime Minister Amadou Ba, Sall’s preferred successor.

At the same time, police took presidential candidate Rose Wardini, whose application had been validated by the Constitutional Council, into custody on charges of “forgery, use of forgery and fraud” on suspicion of having dual French-Senegalese nationality.

A political manoeuvre?

Sall said on national TV that “these troubled conditions” could “sow the seeds of pre- and post-electoral dispute”.

“Our country cannot afford a new crisis” after episodes of violence in March 2021 and June 2023, he said.

Sall announced the establishment of a “national dialogue” for “a free, transparent and inclusive election”, while reaffirming his commitment not to stand for a third consecutive term.

But Sall’s decision to postpone the vote sparked many questions in Senegal, not least because ruling party MPs themselves had voted in favour of the parliamentary inquiry. While these legislators said they wanted to clear the name of their candidate Amadou Ba, the opposition blasted a manoeuvre designed to torpedo the election and prevent his defeat. 

Ba is also facing two dissident candidates from within his own camp: former prime minister Mahammed Boun Abdallah Dionne and former interior minister Aly Ngouille Ndiaye.

But general opinion in Senegal holds that Bassirou Diomaye Faye, a candidate chosen by opposition leader Ousmane Sonko to replace him after his own candidacy was invalidated, poses the main threat to the outgoing president’s preferred candidate.

Reacting to Sall’s decision to postpone the election, lawyer and Faye supporter Amadou Ba (not to be confused with the prime minister) criticised the president’s arguments as “incredibly unserious”, pointing out that the parliamentary commission of inquiry was set up only on “mere suspicions” of corruption.

The day after Sall’s televised speech, hundreds of Senegalese demonstrated in the capital Dakar, where clashes broke out with police.

Lawmakers approve December polls

To cancel the February 25 election, Sall repealed a decree summoning the electorate. All that remained was to set a new date. Wade’s coalition called for a six-month postponement and submitted a bill to parliament. During a particularly tense session, lawmakers on February 5 approved December 15 as the new election date, judging the initially proposed date of August 25 to be unfit due to the rainy season.

The new deadline meant that Sall’s mandate, due to end on April 2, would be extended by 10 months. Many people in Senegal objected, denouncing a “constitutional coup d’état” enabling the president to hold on to power. 

Read moreSenegal’s democratic record on the line as presidential vote delay sparks crisis

Several presidential candidates lodged appeals with the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Council to block the postponement of the vote. 

Tensions quickly escalated in the streets. Police cracked down on demonstrations organised across Senegal on February 9 and in the days that followed. Four people died in Dakar, Saint-Louis and Ziguinchor – the southern town where Sonko was elected mayor in 2022 – in connection with the protests, the worst outbreak of violence during the election crisis.

Constitutional Council rules against postponement

The Constitutional Council on February 15 delivered its verdict on the appeal of the election postponement, and it was a clear blow to Sall: the court annulled his decree abrogating the vote for lack of legal basis. The council also found that the law adopted by parliament to postpone the vote violated the constitution, a second no-go.

Noting “the impossibility of organising the presidential election on the initially scheduled date” of February 25, the Constitutional Council asked “the competent authorities to hold it as soon as possible”.

The “national dialogue” organised by Sall but boycotted by the opposition recommended in early March that the delayed vote take place on June 2. In that scenario, Sall would remain in office until the inauguration of Senegal’s fifth president. The proposal was rejected by the Constitutional Council, which ruled that the election must occur before the end of Sall’s term on April 2.

The president and the council on March 7 finally agreed to hold Senegal’s election on March 24. The new date has the advantage of not falling on the Easter holiday, but meant that the presidential campaign unfolded during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan – a first in Senegal’s history. The campaign period was also shortened from 21 to 17 days.

As part of an amnesty law passed by parliament a week earlier, Sonko and his replacement candidate Faye were released from prison on March 14 to rapturous celebrations by their supporters in the streets of Dakar.

On the following day, a final petition from Wade’s camp seeking to ban the ballot on the grounds that it would occur too soon was rejected by the Supreme Court, thus removing the last potential obstacle to the presidential election on Sunday.

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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Russia’s presidential election: Three Putin challengers but little suspense

President Vladimir Putin faces just three rivals in Russia’s March 15-17 presidential election after anti-war candidates were barred from running. But Leonid Slutsky, Nikolai Kharitonov and Vladislav Davankov do not pose much of a challenge for the Russian leader, who is all but guaranteed to secure another six-year term. 

The first polls in Russia’s March 15-17 presidential election opened in the country’s easternmost Kamchatka Peninsula region at 8am local time Friday, with the vast voting exercise spanning 11 time zones set to finish in the westernmost Kaliningrad enclave at 8pm on Sunday.

The election holds little suspense. Incumbent Vladimir Putin – who has been in power either as president or prime minister for nearly a quarter-century – is set to secure another six-year term. 

But a longtime autocrat requires a veneer of legitimacy, even in Russia. Voters will thus have a choice between the almost guaranteed victor and three pre-approved candidates.   

Ultranationalist Leonid Slutsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladislav Davankov of the relatively liberal New People’s Party and veteran candidate Nikolai Kharitonov of the Communist Party are the supporting characters in 2024’s electoral choreography. In a possible sign of Russia’s shrinking tolerance for political challenges, that’s four fewer candidates than qualified for the 2018 presidential election. 

Competition and criticism was severely curtailed in the lead-up to the 2024 vote, with authorities blocking a number of opposition hopefuls and critics using a variety of means, including labelling them as “foreign agents”.   

“Between the ‘foreign agent’ labels, the fines, imprisonments and the incredible hardening of the regime, the number of candidates is limited. However, they represent real political forces. The nationalist right carries political weight in Russia, as do the Communists, whose score could be in the region of 10 percent,” noted Jean de Gliniasty, former French ambassador to Russia and current senior research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS).

Read more‘Noon against Putin’: Navalny widow realises his last wish for the Russian opposition

‘I don’t dream of beating Putin’

But while some of the candidates represent established political parties, they do not pose much of a challenge to Putin, nor have they put up much of a fight on the campaign trail.

Shortly after registering his candidacy in December 2023, Slutsky – the candidate from the ultranationalist LDPR founded by the late right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky – appeared certain of defeat.

“I don’t dream of beating Putin. What’s the point?” Slutsky told reporters. The 56-year-old Russian politician who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian lower house, the State Duma, then predicted “a huge victory” for Putin.

At 75, Kharitonov is the oldest candidate on the ballot. A veteran Communist Party politician who has been a State Duma deputy since 1993, Kharitonov ran for president in 2004, coming in second to Putin with 13.7 percent of the vote.

This time, Kharitonov ran a low-key campaign, focused on Soviet-era issues, including criticising capitalism, promoting industrial nationalisation and an increase in the Russian birth rate.

Davankov, 39, is the youngest of the opposition candidates. The former businessman-turned-politician promotes greater freedom for businesses and a stronger role for regional authorities. 

The deputy chairman of the State Duma, where his party holds 15 of the 450 seats, Davankov has tried to position himself as a candidate opposed to the Kremlin’s excessive curbs on personal freedoms. He favours peace talks with Ukraine, following the Kremlin’s official line, while reiterating that it should be “on our terms and with no rollback”, meaning Russia should not cede territory it has occupied.

Read moreFive things to know about Russia’s upcoming presidential election

“Each candidate presents juxtaposed ideologies and domestic policies, but collectively these contribute to Putin’s goal of tightening his grip on Russia during his next presidential term,” noted Callum Fraser of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in a column, “Putin’s Grand Plan for Russia’s 2024 Elections“.

According to Putin’s critics, these three quasi-opponents, integrated into the Russian political system, perform an important function: to channel the discontent of various strata of society and provide a pluralist veneer for the vote, while the real opposition has been wiped out by years of repression.

“Throughout history, Russian power has always been extremely careful to respect formal rules. Even a very authoritarian regime faces public opinion and cares about it. This election remains a test of Putin’s legitimacy and popularity. Even if this test appears to be a formality, it has value for those in power,” explained de Gliniasty.

No political space for anti-war candidates

But not all positions on the political spectrum are represented on the ballot this year. In the lead-up to the presidential election, criticism of the Ukraine invasion was effectively suppressed with the arrests of tens of thousands of peaceful protesters. Hefty fines were also slapped on anyone voicing opposition to the war, according to international rights groups.

Two independent presidential hopeful running on anti-war platforms, Yekaterina Duntsova and Boris Nadezhdin, were barred from running by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC).

While the CEC barred Duntsova in December, Nadezhdin’s candidacy attracted attention, with thousands lining up in cities across Russia in January to give their signatures supporting the anti-war candidate.

That did not work in Nadezhdin’s favour.

“The question obviously arose of leaving out a voice that could have played a symbolic role and brought in, dare I say it, left-leaning, liberal voters. Boris Nadezhdin could have stood for election if he had achieved a modest score, but faced with the enthusiasm generated by his candidacy, the Kremlin preferred to send him packing,” explained de Gliniasty.

A ‘noon vote’ campaign for Navalny supporters

Despite the sweeping crackdowns, some of Putin’s opponents have vowed to express their opposition at the polls. On March 5, Alexei Navalny’s widow Yulia Navalnaya called the election a “masquerade” and urged Russians to cast protest votes.

“You can vote for any candidate except Putin. You can spoil your ballot paper, you can write ‘Navalny’ in big letters,” she urged.

In an action called “Noon against Putin”, Navalny supporters plan to go to their local polling station on Sunday exactly at midday, stand in line for a voting slip, and then vote in a way that expresses their protest.

Such social mobilisation comes with serious risks. Some Navalny supporters received letters last week warning them that prosecutors had reason to believe they will be participating in an illegal event that “bore signs of extremist activity”, an accusation Russia often levies at enemies of the Kremlin. 

The ‘non-war’ across the border

Although the outcome of the vote is certain, the authorities have gone through great lengths to encourage Russians to go to the polls, dialing up the patriotism and presenting the vote as an essential step towards “victory” in Ukraine.

Over the past few weeks, Putin did several media appearances with the heroes of the “special military operation”, as the Ukraine war is still called in Russia.

But the campaign did not feature any debate on the conflict in Russia’s neighbouring state.

“One might have expected the subject of war to be central to the election campaign,” said Anna Colin-Lebedev, a specialist in post-Soviet societies at Paris-Nanterre University. “However, the debates – which did not excite the Russian public – were mainly devoted to other subjects such as education, culture, the economy, agriculture, demographics [and] housing” in what she called a “framed”, pre-approved narrative.

More than two years after Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin is attempting a tricky balancing act on the subject, according to experts.

“The authorities are caught in a contradiction,” noted de Gliniasty. “They want to talk as little as possible about the war in Ukraine, as if to say that everything is fine, that everything is normal and that it’s just a special operation. But at the same time, it wants this election to serve to legitimise the invasion.” 

Read more‘I know Putin can eliminate me’: Russian opponent speaks out as election gets underway

The turnout barometer

Given the stakes, the authorities are deeply invested in keeping up appearances by holding elections under the guise of a functioning democracy.

“These elections are very important for the Kremlin,” Nikolai Petrov of London-based Chatham House told the AFP. “It is needed to demonstrate that Russians overwhelmingly support Putin” during the military offensive.

Turnout then becomes a critical issue, as it does in most authoritarian countries holding questionable elections.

Some managers at state companies have ordered employees to vote – even asking them to submit photographs of their ballot papers, reported Reuters, quoting six sources who did not want to be named. Cash machines also remind Russians to vote. And in Russian-occupied Ukraine, residents have complained of pro-Russian collaborators with ballot boxes going from house to house looking for voters accompanied by armed soldiers. 

Then there’s the question of vote-rigging.

“Parliamentary elections may be rigged in Russia, but presidential elections are not,” de Gliniasty said. “There are cameras and observers in polling stations. There’s no need for rigging because everything has been cleaned up beforehand so the result will be perfectly acceptable.” 

But given the context of the Ukraine war and the hardening stance of the Russian regime, “we cannot predict what will happen in these elections”, admitted the former French ambassador.

Putin won nearly 77 percent of the vote in 2018, 14 points more than in 2012. At the country’s helm for almost a quarter-century, the indisputable master of the Kremlin has yet to name a successor. Putin signed into law a constitutional amendment in 2021 that altered term limits and will allow him to remain in power until 2036.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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The ‘generals’ elections’ that turned against Pakistan’s military

Pakistan’s 2024 general elections were dubbed the “most rigged” in the country’s history, with the popular Imran Khan barred from running and the military seen as backing former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. That was before results showed Khan-backed independent candidates leading the race. The stage appears to be set for a turbulent period after an irate electorate reacted to the military’s perceived meddling in politics – again.

Voters in the 2024 Pakistani general elections manoeuvred sheaves of ballot papers offering a profusion of symbols including tables, chairs, apples, airplanes, calculators and kitchen appliances. But there was no cricket bat on the ballot. 

With former cricket star and prime minister Imran Khan behind bars, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party was banned from using its signature icon in a country where symbols are important tools for the electorate because of high illiteracy rates. This forced PTI-backed candidates to run as independents, each using different symbols that stretched ballot papers and the national imagination.

The country’s real power-wielder, however, was not on the ballot paper, and Pakistanis were never given a symbol or say on the issue.

The 2024 general election was dubbed the most rigged in Pakistan’s history, with wags on social media calling it the “generals’ election”, referring to the all-powerful military in the nuclear-armed South Asian nation.

The consensus ahead of the vote was that regardless of who forms a government, the army would continue to rule the roost. The newly elected civilian administration would simply have to follow the rules of the Pakistani power game to survive.

In the course of its 76-year history, Pakistan has developed a system that some scholars call a “hybrid regime” featuring a mix of civilian politics and military interference in electoral democracy. The tacit agreement sees the generals controlling defence and foreign policies, leaving domestic socioeconomic issues to the politicians.

But the hybrid model has been changing in recent years, putting Pakistan in dangerous terrain. And the man widely believed to be calling the shots in the military has done little to inspire national confidence.

Prospect of a ‘chatterbox’ parliament

With Khan losing military support, and his party stymied at the poll, the military’s chosen candidate, veteran politician Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party was expected to snag an outright win.

An outright Sharif win would see the dynastic Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of assassinated premier Benazir Bhutto – going into opposition. It would see the two establishment parties once again dominating Pakistani politics.

But after a surprisingly strong showing by PTI-backed independent candidates, who led the national election results, Sharif changed tack on Friday, declaring he would form a coalition government.

“We don’t have enough of a majority to form a government without the support of others and we invite allies to join the coalition so we can make joint efforts to pull Pakistan out of its problems,” he said.

Nawaz Sharif, center, addresses supporters in Lahore, Pakistan, February 9, 2024. © K.M. Chaudary, AP

Under Pakistan’s electoral rules, victorious independent candidates can join any party in the 336-seat National Assembly. With the imprisoned Khan facing nearly 200 legal charges ranging from corruption to leaking state secrets, experts predict the popular former cricketer-politician is likely to remain behind bars for several years.

The results of Thursday’s vote point to fractious political period ahead, warns Ayesha Siddiqa, senior fellow at King’s College, London, and author of “Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy”. “If there are many independents in parliament, it will make the house a chatterbox,” she noted. “It will be an unruly, funny kind of parliament with everyone going for each other’s jugulars.”

Khan’s fall from military grace

Overseeing the political turbulence is the man at the helm of the military, Pakistani army chief General Asim Munir. This comes as the country faces major economic and security crises.

Khan may be behind bars, but he remains a political force. The former cricketer-politician maintains that the myriad legal charges against him are politically motivated. Most Pakistanis, including Khan’s opponents, do not disagree. A weak judiciary means Pakistan is ranked 130th out of 142 countries on the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law index.

A poster of Imran Khan on display at his party office in Islamabad, February 9, 2024.
A poster of Imran Khan on display at his party office in Islamabad, February 9, 2024. © Anjum Naveed, AP

Since General Munir was appointed army chief in November 2022, Khan’s legal woes have multiplied. At times, they have taken an absurdly personal turn.

Relations between the two men have been acrimonious since Khan was elected prime minister in 2018 and replaced Munir as chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) spy agency with a loyalist, according to Pakistani media reports.

Read morePakistan army chief’s deepening rift with Imran Khan

On February 3, just days before the election, a Pakistani court sentenced Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi to seven years in jail in a case related to their marriage, which it declared “un-Islamic”.

The verdict was widely criticised by legal experts as a “disgrace” and a “damning blot” on Pakistan’s judiciary.

Sharif rises again

When he stood for elections in 2018, Khan was widely seen as the military’s candidate, “handpicked, groomed and installed” by the generals. But that was until Khan fell out with the army in a fate shared by Sharif, the politician widely tipped to be Pakistan’s new prime minister.

Khan and Sharif’s reversal of fortunes reflects the dramatic shift in Pakistani politics, which has been likened to a “Game of Thrones”. In 2017, Sharif was ousted as prime minister when he attempted to institute civilian oversight of the military. After he was hit with a slew of corruption charges, Sharif went into self-imposed exile abroad to avoid serving sentences. Khan at that time was viewed as the army’s favourite son.

But as the country spiralled into political turmoil last year, with Khan’s supporters storming army residences and bases in unprecedented displays of disaffection with the military, Sharif was back in the generals’ favour.

After four years of exile, Sharif returned to Pakistan last October.  Within weeks of his return, his convictions were overturned, leaving him free to seek a fourth term in office.

A businessman and former chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and prosperous province, Sharif has a record of pursuing economic growth and development. During his previous stints as prime minister, the billionaire politician sought closer trade ties with India, Pakistan’s giant neighbour and arch-foe.

Sharif’s return to Pakistan was widely viewed as a sign that the military was seeking a safe pair of hands to handle the country’s crippling economic crisis. But over the past few months, the military has been increasingly encroaching on the economic turf.

Army takes top seat on economic council

More than seven decades after independence, Pakistan is facing its worst economic crisis. Inflation has hovered around 30 percent, sending the currency, the rupee, into freefall. Last year, the impoverished South Asian nation narrowly escaped a sovereign debt default when the IMF approved a $3 billion bailout package.

While it was provided a band-aid from the brink, Pakistan still has to tackle major structural problems since it is seeking a new IMF bailout programme after the current arrangement expires in three weeks.

As the crisis deepened last year, Pakistan established an apex economic body, the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC), to coordinate economic and fiscal policies. 

The formation of the SIFC was touted as a key move to raise international investor confidence and uphold democratic governance. But then the army secured a top seat at the economic policy table, raising eyebrows in fiscal circles with the announcement that the co-chair of the new SIFC was none other than army Chief General Munir.

When ‘dangerous duffers’ call the shots

The 2024 vote saw the army playing an exceptionally heavy card, even by Pakistani standards. The tactic appeared to have failed, with voters overcoming the odds to elect PTI-backed candidates. But this could spell a period of further turbulence, analysts warn.

“Assuming most of the independent candidates are PTI, if [Sharif’s] PML-N has to form a government, it will have to form a coalition,” said Siddiqa. “The weaker the coalition, the stronger [the] military.”

The military’s meddling in politics has long earned the wrath of Pakistani democratic rights defenders. Nearly 15 years ago, one of the country’s leading human rights lawyers, the late Asma Jehangir, created a stir when she called the country’s military leaders “duffers” on a live TV show.

Jehangir subsequently modified her monicker to “dangerous duffers”, noting that the term implied the military top brass was “not only incompetent, but incapable of learning”. 

The latest election has shown that Jehangir’s verdict still holds, according to Siddiqa.    

“They haven’t changed that much, they’re still dangerous duffers because they think they have a role in governance,” she said. “But the military is a strong pole, and so are the political parties. With this election, the political parties are back in play. It now depends on how they conduct themselves.”

In the past, Pakistan’s political parties have formed common cause with the army in a bid to unseat rivals. The lack of civilian unity to relegate the military to the barracks has enabled the generals to periodically meddle with the ballots. Following Thursday’s vote, social media sites were awash with messages by Pakistanis calling for dialogue and national unity. If their calls are ignored, it will not be for the first time in Pakistan’s troubled history.

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Senegal’s democratic record on the line as presidential vote delay sparks crisis

Violent protests have roiled Senegal since President Macky Sall abruptly called off a planned election at the weekend, with just three weeks to go before the high-stakes vote. The crisis puts one of West Africa’s most stable democracies to the test at a time when the region faces democratic backsliding and a surge in military coups.

Senegal’s parliament voted on Monday to delay the country’s presidential election until December 15, two days after President Sall stunned the nation of 18 million people by calling off a planned February 25 vote.  

The bill adopted by the National Assembly effectively extends Sall’s 12-year tenure, which was due to end on April 2. It was passed near-unanimously, with 105 votes in favour and just one against, after several opposition lawmakers were forcibly removed from the chamber. 

Its passage came as police used tear gas to disperse protesters gathered outside the parliament building and as mobile internet services were suspended nationwide to counter the threat of “hateful and subversive messages on social media”. 

The controversial move marks the first time a Senegalese election is postponed since the introduction of multi-party democracy in 1974. It has triggered fierce protests in the West African nation, seen as a democratic bastion of stability in a volatile region roiled by successive military coups. 

‘Constitutional coup’

The decision to delay the vote, just hours before campaigning was officially set to begin, has exacerbated an already tense political climate, with Sall’s critics accusing him of cracking down on opponents and seeking to hold on to power.  

In a televised address on Saturday, the president cited a dispute between the parliament and the country’s Constitutional Council over the disqualification of some candidates, arguing that this had created a “sufficiently serious and confusing situation” to justify delaying the vote. 

His opponents, however, suspect the postponement is part of a plan to extend Sall’s term in office or influence whoever succeeds him. They claim he feared his chosen successor, Prime Minister Amadou Ba, was in danger of losing the election. 


Opposition figure Khalifa Sall, who is not related to the president, denounced “a constitutional coup”, while two opposition parties filed a court petition challenging the election delay. The president’s announcement also sparked the immediate resignation of cabinet minister Abdou Latif Coulibaly, who expressed his dismay at Sall’s move. 

“Maybe it’s just that when you’re in power, you think anything is possible,” Coulibaly told FRANCE 24’s sister radio station RFI. The president “cannot extend his term, it’s impossible”, he added.  

Senegal’s democratic credentials now hang in the balance, said political analyst Gilles Yabi, head of the Dakar-based think tank Wathi, pointing to a constitutional crisis brewing. 

“The situation is alarming because the Constitutional Council, which upholds the constitution and the separation of powers, has come under attack,” he said. “I fear we are entering a period of uncertainty and weakening of our institutions, starting with the one that is most important for protecting freedoms and the fundamental principles of democracy.” 

Echoes of deadly unrest 

Senegal’s political crisis has led to fears of the kind of violent unrest that broke out in March 2021 and June 2023, which resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of arrests.  

The catalyst for the unrest was the arrest and later sentencing of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko in a rape case his supporters claim was politically motivated. Sonko and other prominent opponents have denounced a drift towards authoritarianism and accuse the government of manipulating the justice system.  

In the run-up to the last presidential election in 2019, legal woes prevented opposition figures Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade from challenging Sall. Sonko was likewise barred from the forthcoming vote, though his back-up candidate Bassirou Faye is on the ballot. 

Speculation that the incumbent might seek a third term in office, despite a constitutional two-term limit, had further stoked unrest, until he announced in July that he would not stand again. 

“On April 2, 2024, God willing, I will hand over power to my successor,” Sall confirmed on December 31, in what should have been his final New Year address as Senegalese president. 

Accusations of hanging on to power mark an ironic twist for the incumbent, who had led the challenge against his predecessor Abdoulaye Wade in 2012, arguing that the latter’s bid for a third term in office was unconstitutional.  

“Sall himself had warned Wade that he could not stay one extra day as president,” said Yabi of the Wathi think tank. “Back then, he was very clear that any attempt to extend a mandate was contrary to the constitution.” 

A ‘democratic model’ for the West  

Sall eventually ousted Wade, his former mentor, in a run-off vote in 2012. Twelve years on, Senegal’s fifth president since independence prides himself on having transformed the country during his two terms at the helm. 

Sall has introduced sweeping reforms and launched major infrastructure projects, including motorways, industrial parks and a new airport. He has also sought to position himself as a respected and influential player on the international stage, championing the respect of constitutional order even as a wave of military coups swept the region, toppling democratically-elected governments one by one. 

His standing as the leader of a bastion of democracy in the region explains why Senegal’s international allies have expressed concern at the current crisis – but refrained from condemning Sall’s move. 

As a “model of democracy”, Senegal is of extreme importance to the West, said Douglas Yates, a West African politics expert at the American Graduate School in Paris.  

“American presidents visit Senegal precisely because it is a model of democracy,” he said. “And for France, it is one of the most democratic French-speaking countries left standing.”


In a statement on Monday, the US State Department said it was closely monitoring the situation in Dakar. It urged “all participants in Senegal’s political process to engage peacefully in the important effort to hold free, fair and timely elections”. 

On Tuesday, West African bloc ECOWAS, of which Senegal is a key member, expressed its “preoccupation”, encouraging Dakar to “urgently restore the electoral timetable”. 

Rights groups were more alarmist, with Human Rights Watch warning that the country’s status as “a beacon of democracy in the region (…) is now at risk”. 

The advocacy group wrote in a statement: “Authorities need to act to prevent violence, rein in abusive security forces, and end their assault on opposition and media. They should respect freedom of speech, expression, and assembly, and restore internet, putting Senegal back on its democratic course.” 

Despite the alarm, analysts have played down fears of a military takeover akin to the ones witnessed across West Africa in recent years. Senegal has never experienced a coup since gaining independence from France in 1960, making it a rare outlier in a troubled region. 

“Coups are a real concern given the pattern in the region, but Senegal is a unique case,” said Yates. “It’s had three peaceful transitions of power. It’s a consolidated democracy. Elections really are the only game in town.” 

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Venezuela’s highest court upholds ban on opposition presidential candidate Machado

The prospect of a free presidential election in Venezuela was dealt a heavy blow Friday when the country’s highest court upheld a ban on the candidacy of María Corina Machado, a longtime government foe and winner of the primary held by the opposition faction backed by the United States.

The ruling came months after President Nicolás Maduro and the U.S.-backed opposition reached an agreement aimed at leveling the playing field ahead of the election later this year. The deal led Washington to ease economic sanctions on Maduro’s government.

Machado, a former lawmaker, won the opposition’s independently run presidential primary in October with more than 90% of the votes. Her victory came despite the government announcing a 15-year ban on her running for office just days after she formally entered the race in June. 

She was able to participate in the primary election because the effort was organized by a commission independent of Venezuela’s electoral authorities. She insisted throughout the campaign that she never received an official notification of the ban, and said that voters, not ruling-party loyalists, are the rightful decision-makers of her candidacy.

After the court issued its ruling, Machado tweeted that her campaign’s “fight to conquer democracy through free and fair elections” is not over. 

“Maduro and his criminal system chose the worst path for them: fraudulent elections,” she wrote. “That’s not gonna happen.”


She did not offer any details of her next steps, and her campaign declined to comment.

Machado had filed a claim with Venezuela‘s Supreme Tribunal of Justice in December arguing the ban was null and void and seeking an injunction to protect her political rights.

Watch moreVenezuela opposition leader Machado: ‘The Maduro regime is in its weakest position ever’

 

Instead, the court upheld the ban, which alleges fraud and tax violations and accuses her of seeking the economic sanctions the U.S. imposed on Venezuela last decade. 

The U.S. eased some of the sanctions on Venezuela’s oil, gas and mining industries in October after Maduro’s government and the opposition group known as the Unitary Platform signed the agreement addressing electoral conditions. The accord also led to a swap of prisoners between Washington and Caracas in December. 

The deal signed on the Caribbean island of Barbados narrowed the scheduling of the presidential election to the second half of 2024 and called on both sides to “promote the authorization of all presidential candidates and political parties” to participate as long as they comply with the law. The latter provision prompted the government to allow candidates to appeal their bans.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has threatened to reverse some of the sanctions relief if Maduro’s government fails to lift bans preventing Machado and others from running for office, and if it fails to release political prisoners.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately comment on the court’s action.

Geoff Ramsey, senior analyst on Venezuela at the Atlantic Council think tank, said Maduro’s government was never going to let Machado be a presidential candidate because “her popularity makes her too much of a threat.”

“The timing of this will make it almost impossible for the U.S. government to ignore,” he said. “The problem for Washington is that it’s essentially run out of ways to pressure Maduro. How do you threaten a regime that’s already endured multiple coup attempts and years of crippling sanctions?”

The harshest sanctions were imposed after Venezuela’s last presidential election, which was widely considered a sham and cost Maduro international recognition as the country’s legitimate leader. 

The U.S.-backed opposition stunned its allies and adversaries when more than 2.4 million people voted in the primary, including in neighborhoods long considered strongholds of the governing party. The high turnout came amid Venezuela’s continuing economic struggles and despite government efforts to discourage participation.

After the vote, Maduro and his allies called the opposition’s primary fraudulent. Attorney General Tarek William Saab opened criminal investigations against some of the organizers and later issued arrest warrants for some of Machado’s collaborators.

Over the past two weeks, Maduro, Saab and Jorge Rodriguez, the leader of the National Assembly and the government’s chief negotiator, have linked opposition supporters and people close to Machado to a number of alleged conspiracies they claim were devised to assassinate the president and his inner circle.

Rodríguez, without mentioning Machado, tweeted Friday that “despite the serious threats from far-right sectors against the peace of the Republic,” referring to the alleged conspiracies, “the mechanism established within the framework of the Barbados Agreements has been met.”

Rodríguez vowed to hold the presidential election this year. Maduro will be seeking to add six more years to his decade-long presidency marked in its entirety by political, social and economic crisis. Under Maduro’s watch, millions of Venezuelans have fallen into poverty and more than 7.4 million have migrated.

A U.N.-backed panel investigating human rights abuses in Venezuela in September determined that Maduro’s government has intensified efforts to curtail democratic freedoms ahead of the 2024 election. That includes subjecting some politicians, human rights defenders and other opponents to detention, surveillance, threats, defamatory campaigns and arbitrary criminal proceedings.

Election campaigns in Venezuela typically involve handouts of free food, home appliances and other goods on behalf of governing party candidates, who also get favorable state media coverage. Opposition candidates and their supporters struggle to find places to gather without harassment from government activists and to get fuel to travel across the country. 

A common government practice for sidelining adversaries is to ban them from public office, and it is not limited to presidential contests. 

Such a ban was used retroactively in 2021 to remove gubernatorial candidate Freddy Superlano when he was ahead of a sibling of the late President Hugo Chávez but had not yet been declared the winner. Superlano’s substitute was also kept off the ballot via a ban. 

The court on Friday also upheld a ban on former governor and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who dropped out of the primary race before the vote.


“What they will never be able to ban is the Venezuelans’ desire for CHANGE,” Capriles tweeted. “… Today more than ever, let nothing and no one take us off the electoral route.”

(AP)



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Airstrikes are unlikely to deter the Houthis

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

TEL AVIV — In a preemptive bid to warn off Iran and its proxies in the wake of Hamas’ October attacks on southern Israel, United States President Joe Biden had succinctly said: “Don’t.” But his clipped admonition continues to fall on deaf ears.

As Shakespeare’s rueful King Claudius notes, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” And while exasperated Western powers now try to halt escalation in the Middle East, it is the Iran-directed battalions that are bringing them sorrows.

Raising the stakes at every turn, Tehran is carefully calibrating the aggression of its partners — Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, and the Houthis in the Red Sea —ratcheting up to save Hamas from being destroyed by a vengeful Israel. And out of all this needling, it is the Houthis’ more then two dozen attacks in the Red Sea that crossed the line for Western powers — enough to goad the U.S. and the United Kingdom into switching from a defensive posture to launching strikes on dozens of Houthi targets.

As far as Washington and London are concerned, Western retaliation is meant to give teeth to Biden’s October warning, conveying a clear message to Iran: Stop. But why would it?

Privately, the U.S. has reinforced its warning through diplomatic channels. And U.K. Defense Minister Grant Shapps underscored the message publicly, saying the West is “running out of patience,” and the Iranian regime must tell the Houthis and its regional proxies to “cease and desist.”

Nonetheless, it’s highly questionable whether Tehran will heed this advice. There’s nothing in the regime’s DNA to suggest it would back off. Plus, there would be no pain for Iran at the end of it all — the Houthis would be on the receiving end. In fact, Iran has every reason to persist, as it can’t afford to leave Hamas in the lurch. To do so would undermine the confidence of other Iran-backed groups, weakening its disruptive clout in the region.

Also, from Iran’s perspective, its needling strategy of fatiguing and frightening Western powers with the prospect of escalation is working. The specter of a broadening war in the Middle East is terrifying for Washington and European governments, which are beset by other problems. Better for them to press Israel to halt its military campaign in Gaza and preserve the power of Hamas — that’s what Tehran is trying to engineer.

And Iranian mullahs have every reason to think this wager will pay off. Ukraine is becoming a cautionary tale; Western resolve seems to be waning; and the U.S. Congress is mired in partisan squabbling, delaying a crucial aid package for Ukraine — one the Europeans won’t be able to make good on.

So, whose patience will run out first — the West or Iran and its proxies?

Wearing down the Houthis would be no mean feat for the U.S. and the U.K. In 2015, after the resilient Houthis had seized the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, Saudi Arabia thought it could quickly dislodge them with a bombing campaign in northern Yemen. But nearly a decade on, Riyadh is trying to extricate itself, ready to walk away if the Houthis just leave them alone.

The United Arab Emirates was more successful in the country’s south, putting boots on the ground and training local militias in places where the Houthis were already unpopular. But the U.S. and the U.K. aren’t proposing to follow the UAE model — they’ll be following the Saudi one, albeit with the much more limited goal of getting the Houthis to stop harassing commercial traffic in the Red Sea.

Moreover, Western faith in the efficacy of bombing campaigns — especially fitful ones — has proven misplaced before. Bombing campaigns failed to bring Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to heel on their own. And Iran-aligned militias in Iraq and Syria have shrugged off Western airstrikes, seeing them as badges of honor — much like the Houthis, who, ironically, were removed from the U.S. terror list by Biden in 2021. They seem to be relishing their moment in the big leagues.

War-tested, battle-hardened and agile, the Houthis are well-equipped thanks to Iran, and they can expect military replenishment from Tehran. They also have a firm grip on their territory. Like Hamas, the Houthis aren’t bothered by the death and destruction they may bring down on their people, making them particularly difficult to cajole into anything. And if the U.S. is to force the pace, it may well be dragged in deeper, as the only way to stop Iran replenishing the Houthis would be to mount a naval blockade of Yemen.

Few seasoned analysts think the Houthis will cave easily. Tom Sharpe, a former Royal Navy captain and specialist anti-air warfare officer, said he’d suggest “just walk[ing] away.”

“Make going round the Cape the new normal,” he wrote last week, albeit acknowledging he’d expect his advice to be overruled due to the global economic implications. But degrading the Houthis enough to make the Red Sea safe again, he noted, would be “difficult to do without risking a wider regional conflict in which the U.S., U.K. and friends would be seen as fighting on the Israeli side.”

And that is half the problem. Now ensnared in the raging conflict, in the eyes of many in the region, Western powers are seen as enabling the death and destruction being visited on Gaza. And as the civilian death toll in the Palestinian enclave mounts, Israel’s Western supporters are increasingly being criticized for not doing enough to restrain the country, which is determined to ensure Hamas can never repeat what it did on October 7.

Admittedly, Israel is combating a merciless foe that is heedless of the Gazan deaths caused by its actions. The more Palestinians killed, the greater the international outrage Hamas can foment, presenting itself as victim rather than aggressor. But Israel has arguably fallen into Hamas’ trap, with the mounting deaths and burgeoning humanitarian crisis now impacting opinion in the region and more widely.

A recent poll conducted for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that 96 percent of the broader Arab world believe Arab nations should now sever ties with Israel. And in Britain, Foreign Secretary David Cameron told a parliamentary panel he feared Israel has “taken action that might be in breach of international law.”

Meanwhile, in addition to issuing warnings to Iran, Hezbollah, and others in the Axis of Resistance to stay out of it, Biden has also cautioned Israeli leaders about wrath — urging the Israeli war Cabinet not to “repeat mistakes” made by the U.S. after 9/11.

However, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 75 percent of Jewish Israelis think the country should ignore U.S. demands to shift to a phase of war with reduced heavy bombing in populous areas, and 57 percent support opening a second front in the north and taking the fight to Hezbollah. Additionally, Gallup has found Israelis have lost faith in a two-state solution, with 65 percent of Jewish Israelis opposing an independent Palestinian state.

So, it looks as though Israel is in no mood to relent — and doesn’t believe it can afford to.



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Taiwan’s new president: Five things you need to know about William Lai

TAIPEI — Forget Xi Jinping or Joe Biden for a second. Meet Taiwan’s next President William Lai, upon whom the fate of U.S.-China relations — and global security over the coming few years — is now thrust.

The 64-year-old, currently Taiwan’s vice president, has led the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to a historic third term in power, a first for any party since Taiwan became a democracy in 1996.

For now, the capital of Taipei feels as calm as ever. For Lai, though, the sense of victory will soon be overshadowed by a looming, extended period of uncertainty over Beijing’s next move. Taiwan’s Communist neighbor has laid bare its disapproval of Lai, whom Beijing considers the poster boy of the Taiwanese independence movement.

All eyes are now on how the Chinese leader — who less than two weeks ago warned Taiwan to face up to the “historical inevitability” of being absorbed into his Communist nation — will address the other inevitable conclusion: That the Taiwanese public have cast yet another “no” vote on Beijing.

1. Beijing doesn’t like him — at all

China has repeatedly lambasted Lai, suggesting that he will be the one bringing war to the island.

As recently as last Thursday, Beijing was trying to talk Taiwanese voters out of electing its nemesis-in-chief into the Baroque-style Presidential Office in Taipei.

“Cross-Strait relations have taken a turn for the worse in the past eight years, from peaceful development to tense confrontation,” China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Chen Binhua said, adding that Lai would now be trying to follow an “evil path” toward “military tension and war.”

While Beijing has never been a fan of the DPP, which views China as fundamentally against Taiwan’s interests , the personal disgust for Lai is also remarkable.

Part of that stems from a 2017 remark, in which Lai called himself a “worker for Taiwanese independence,” which has been repeatedly cited by Beijing as proof of his secessionist beliefs.

Without naming names, Chinese President Xi harshly criticized those promoting Taiwan independence in a speech in 2021.

“Secession aimed at Taiwan independence is the greatest obstacle to national reunification and a grave danger to national rejuvenation,” Xi said. “Those who forget their heritage, betray their motherland, and seek to split the country will come to no good end, and will be disdained by the people and sentenced by the court of history.”

2. All eyes are on the next 4 months

Instability is expected to be on the rise over the next four months, until Lai is formally inaugurated on May 20.

No one knows how bad this could get, but Taiwanese officials and foreign diplomats say they don’t expect the situation to be as tense as the aftermath of then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in 2022.

Already, days before the election, China sent several spy balloons to monitor Taiwan, according to the Taiwanese defense ministry. On the trade front, China was also stepping up the pressure, announcing a possible move to reintroduce tariffs on some Taiwanese products. Cases of disinformation and electoral manipulation have also been unveiled by Taiwanese authorities.

Those developments, combined, constitute what Taipei calls hybrid warfare — which now risks further escalation given Beijing’s displeasure with the new president.

3. Lai has to tame his independent instinct

In a way, he has already.

Speaking at the international press conference last week, Lai said he had no plan to declare independence if elected to the presidency.

DPP insiders say they expect Lai to stick to outgoing Tsai Ing-wen’s approach, without saying things that could be interpreted as unilaterally changing the status quo.

They also point to the fact that Lai chose as vice-presidential pick Bi-khim Hsiao, a close confidante with Tsai and former de facto ambassador to Washington. Hsiao has developed close links with the Biden administration, and will play a key role as a bridge between Lai and the U.S.

4. Taiwan will follow international approach

The U.S., Japan and Europe are expected to take precedence in Lai’s diplomatic outreach, while relations with China will continue to be negative.

Throughout election rallies across the island, the DPP candidate repeatedly highlighted the Tsai government’s efforts at diversifying away from the trade reliance on China, shifting the focus to the three like-minded allies.

Southeast Asia has been another top destination for these readjusted trade flows, DPP has said.

According to Taiwanese authorities, Taiwan’s exports to China and Hong Kong last year dropped 18.1 percent compared to 2022, the biggest decrease since they started recording this set of statistics in 1982.

In contrast, Taiwanese exports to the U.S. and Europe rose by 1.6 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, with the trade volumes reaching all-time highs.

However, critics point out that China continues to be Taiwan’s biggest trading partner, with many Taiwanese businesspeople living and working in the mainland.

5. Lai might face an uncooperative parliament

While vote counting continues, there’s a high chance Lai will be dealing with a divided parliament, the Legislative Yuan.

Before the election, the Kuomintang (KMT) party vowed to form a majority with Taiwan People’s Party in the Yuan, thereby rendering Lai’s administration effectively a minority government.

While that could pose further difficulties for Lai to roll out policies provocative to Beijing, a parliament in opposition also might be a problem when it comes to Taiwan’s much-needed defense spending.

“A divided parliament is very bad news for defense. KMT has proven that they can block defense spending, and the TPP will also try to provide what they call oversight, and make things much more difficult,” said Syaru Shirley Lin, who chairs the Center for Asia-Pacific Resilience and Innovation, a Taipei-based policy think tank.

“Although all three parties said they wanted to boost defense, days leading up to the election … I don’t think that really tells you what’s going to happen in the legislature,” Lin added. “There’s going to be a lot of policy trading.”



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