27 November 2012

The Struggle for the French Right: UMP

Right after the last French elections, I had a chat with a Parisian friend of mine. He predicted that Marine Le Pen's far right, ultra-nationalistic Front National was going to become the second party (after the Socialists) in the next few years.

At the time, his observation surprised me. But it also struck me as plausible. After all, Marine Le Pen had just obtained a credible percentage of the vote during the first round of Presidential elections. More importantly, I knew that the upcoming winds of austerity and the accompanying economic hardship would constitute a fertile ground for right wing forces.

You could go back to Weimar Republic and see the rise of that Austrian painter with a penchant for tooth brush mustaches. Austerity, check, high unemployment, check, middle classes losing ground, check and of course a well-packaged "other" to be blamed for everything, check.

(Actually, you don't even have to go back that far. You can simply study what happened after Structural Adjustment Policies were imposed in a country, in recent decades. In almost all cases, you will see either a coup d'etat or an authoritarian conservative government coming to power. But the imagery of the Austrian painter is more evocative.)

However, last week's events surrounding the leadership debate for UMP seem to suggest that the French case might not be as straightforward.

20 November 2012

Random Thoughts About the US Elections

After important elections, it is customary to offer incredibly boring platitudes, such as commenting on the nature of the mandate given to the political elite by the people.

After the US elections I read depressingly inane commentary suggesting that the elections showed that the Americans wanted a divided Congress. And they gave both parties a mandate to solve the looming fiscal crisis.

I don't think it is possible to take the final results and extrapolate them into them some global message as if they were willed by a teleological planetary intelligence. People vote for all kinds of reasons and they rarely have some big picture in mind.

My thoughts on the subject are much more pedestrian but at least they are based on tangible facts.

The Republican Party is on a Sliding Path Towards Minority Status

If you read Rick Perlstein's Nixonland or Thomas Schaller's "Whistling Past Dixie" you might know that the GOP was very successful in winning elections by polarizing the electorate. The "other" could be African Americans, gays, women, Hispanics and of course Muslims, depending on the electoral cycles.

But all good things must come to an end: these last elections signaled the fact that their strategy hit a demographic wall. As Lindsay Graham put it in a moment of candor “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

16 November 2012

Dangerous Times in the Middle East

I have been meaning to write a post about the dangerous nexus in the Middle East but I never got around doing it. You could say that recent events forced my hand.

If you are aware of this blog, chances are you know that my working hypothesis is that a Palestinian and Kurdish statehood is a necessity to bring stability to the Middle East. Stability is needed because more than 70 percent of world's oil and gas originates and transported through this region. And whoever controls the distribution of this flow will be in a very good position vis-a vis rising super powers like China and India. Accordingly, I maintain that to achieve these dual goals of stability and control, the US has been pressuring Israel and Turkey to negotiate in earnest with Palestinians and Kurds.

As I noted in the early days of this blog, having a working hypothesis is no guarantee that things will work out according to plan. People of that region rarely act as rational agents and tend to go off script even when it is not in their interest to do so.

Case in point are the recent actions of Netanyahu and Erdogan in their respective countries.

Netanyahu did not have to call early elections as he had a nice majority in Knesset with Kadima as his coalition partner. By linking Likud's fate to Lieberman's Ysrael Beiteinu he more or less guaranteed a much smaller majority after the January elections.  In fact, with Ehud Olmert exonerated and back in politics Kadima may surprise people and could make a decent come back.

Instead of doing all this, Netanyahu could have negotiated with Mahmoud Abbas and sign a peace deal before the regularly scheduled elections in October 2013.  Hamas was weakened considerably because of its internal divisions and Mahmoud Abbas was making very conciliatory noises about Palestinians right to return.

06 November 2012

Changes in Saudi Arabia

Something is happening in Saudi Arabia.

It is barely perceptible but it is definitely there.

In July, I suggested that King Abdullah was introducing a series of cautious reforms in a bid to weaken the grip of the House of Wahhabi. These included the (largely symbolic) right to vote for women and the participation of female athletes to London Olympics. When Nayef, the Minister of Interior and Crown Prince died in June, there was no one left to oppose Abdullah's push for more reforms.

Even before the untimely demise of Nayef, in January, Abdullah replaced the head of the "Mutawa" or the "Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" also known as the religious police corps of Saudi Arabia. These are the Salafist officers who did not allow 15 girls to leave a burning school because they were not wearing proper Islamic dresses and let them burn alive.

The new chief, Abdul Latif Abdul Aziz al-Sheik, was a very unusual choice in that he believed that the Mutawa had too much power.
The new chief of the Mutawa
(Credit Al Arabiya)
Two weeks into the job, Mr Sheikh banned volunteers from serving in the force, and in April warned that those found to have harassed people would be punished. 
He has publicly dressed down officers deemed to have applied themselves overzealously to their duties.
Once Nayef was out of the way, Sheik could move much more decisively:
Now Mr Sheikh has announced a new raft of measures to curb their powers.

Arrests, interrogations, house raids and searches will now be carried out by other police or judicial bodies, he told al-Hayat.

Elsewhere he promised his officers would be forced to adhere to a new code of practice.

He said he would target the practice of preventing women unaccompanied by family from entering shopping centres.
This last item was both a major preoccupation for the Mutawa and a source of significant resentment. Hence, his reforms were received warmly by the general public (but not so much by the Salafists).

A couple of weeks ago, he did the unthinkable and announced that the Mutawa was going to hire female officers. When you consider that women cannot drive by themselves in Saudi Arabia, giving them such a responsibility is mind boggling.

I was sure that Sheik was going to lose his job quickly as the Salafist groups and religious establishment would put a lot of pressure on the King to get rid of him.

Then a third thing happened.

03 November 2012

The US Elections: The Contrarian Perspective

I find the pre-election focus on polls rather boring.

In my contrarian universe, voting behavior is usually guided, manipulated and shaped by societal forces. Forces that can bring a specific narrative to the forefront, change the agenda, modify and enforce talking points. I pay attention to them.

I am not talking about people like Koch brothers and their crass attempt to influence the political preferences of their employees by threatening them with mass layoffs in case Obama wins. There are always a few cranky billionaires like Sheldon Adelson who will bankroll Newt Gingrinch or replenish the coffers of Karl Rove's Super P.A.C.

I am talking about the US business classes who managed to turn the American Dream into a massive scheme of income redistribution. You know, the famed 1 percent.

When people refer to 1 percent they don't realize the enormity of the disparity: do you know that the net worth of just 6 members of the Walmart family is larger than the entire bottom 30 percent of the US population? (Apparently, if you take the entire family that figure goes to 40 percent).

Can you say Banana Republic?

Warren Buffet famously said that "there has been class warfare waged and my class has won."

In my humble opinion, it is this class that wants to see Barack Obama back for a second term. And this is not idle contrarian speculation on my part. It is a rational choice as they have excellent reasons to want him win.

The First Obama Presidency: Income Redistribution Redux

You may be vaguely aware that, thus far, the Obama presidency was a resounding economic success for that  lovely class of 1 percent, as it solidified all the trends that began four decades ago.

01 November 2012

The US Elections: The Standard Perspective

If you have been following the US presidential race, you know that there has been breathless commentary about the statistical dead-heat that makes it impossible to predict who the winner is.

Even Sandy could not stop this non-stop discussion of countless opinion polls.

Predictably, Fox News predicts a Romney win, as does the right leaning Real Clear Politics. Gallup is also convinced of a Romney win.

The rest of the pollsters seem to favor Obama.

Nate Silver gives Obama 3 to 1 odds or anywhere from 70 to 79 percent change of winning. So does Sam Wang of Princeton Election Consortium. Ditto for Votamatic, which gives Obama 332 electoral college votes.

Interestingly, the majority of Americans seem to agree with the latter group of pollsters. According to Gallup 54 percent of Americans believe that he will get his second term and only 34 percent predict that Mitt Romney will win.

I am not a big believer in polls. They are surprisingly crude tools with very few safeguards against people making false statements.

But from a purely electoral math point of view here is my take.