Britain's Incredible Shrinking Electorate

American political scientists and psephologists have spent much of the last five years charting what they dub the Rising American Electorate, the growing voter pool made up of minority, young, and unmarried female voters. On the other side of the Atlantic, campaign planners are contending with the opposite phenomenon - the Shrinking British Electorate, where it is precisely BME (black and minority ethnic), young, and female voters who are most likely to be missing.

British elections have two peculiarities that can confound outside observers. The first is an electoral geography that means the number of seats apportioned is often out of kilter with the votes won. The potential impact of this dynamic on the May 2015 election was outlined for RealClearWorld by Conservative thinker Alex Deane here. The second oddity is a voting system - first past the post on a constituency basis - that means supporters of minor or emerging parties have to be geographically concentrated in order to make breakthroughs into parliament. Katie Ghose, of the Electoral Reform Society pressure group, has laid out what that means for this election here.

Unsuccessful campaigns to change voting boundaries and the electoral system have been waged in this parliament, but it is the successful move from household registration to individual voter registration that is going to do the most to shape Britain's electoral outcomes in the years to come. While the register has been frozen to ensure that nobody currently registered should be barred from voting in May, there are concerns about what will happen in the elections after that, and how registration changes will intersect with existing turnout gaps.

At first glance, the change seems simple. Previously one person in a household could register everyone, but under the new system every single voter must register themselves, and provide verifiable identifying information when they do so. Proponents say this is a helpful safeguard against fraud, but opponents argue that we cannot afford new hurdles to participation when turnout at the last general election was only 65 percent.

The fiercest opposition has come from those worried not just about how many people could drop off the register, but what sort of voters will be absent. U.S. readers will be familiar with similar debates about the partisan implications of changes to voter rules, with accusations that they disproportionately impact demographics with a higher propensity to vote for the Democrats.

In Britain, the latest figures suggest that almost 1 million people have fallen off the register in the last year, with the opposition Labour party claiming that young voters are the hardest-hit. That claim is based in part on changes to how students are registered. In the past, universities and colleges could register everyone living in their dorms, but now each student must register themselves. Even before these changes, Britain's young people were the least likely in Europe to vote, and registration rates were around 55 percent for those under 25 years of age, compared to 94 percent for voters over 65.

Campaigners also fear that the changes will deter black voters. When BME voters are registered, they turn out at roughly the same rates as white voters - but they are significantly less likely to be on the roll in the first place. The Telegraph reported that at the last election, in 2010, BME voters were three times less likely to be registered than white voters, and are now significantly less aware of changes to the registration process. Age and ethnicity intersect with housing tenure in ways likely to compound the issues around exclusion. Only 63 percent of people in the private rented sector are registered, compared to 94 percent of homeowners, and they are the group least likely to be automatically verified as the switchover to the new registration system takes place.

The final group to watch on May 7 is female electors. Recent research from the House of Commons library suggests that 1 million fewer women than men voted in the election in 2010. With women both less likely to vote and more likely still to be undecided, watch for significant overtures made to "the missing million." This election features Obama veterans on both sides, but not yet any sign of the president's skills at widening the kinds of people who think politics is for them. The Shrinking British Electorate may yet be the psephologists' story of 2015, but it is not a phenomena in which any democrat can take much pride.

Marine Le Pen Will Never Be President of France

Marine Le Pen will never be president of France. But if the French political balance moves further toward the fringes in the next decade, her National Front (FN) could end up as a necessary partner in any right-wing coalition. In a more far-flung scenario, the FN might elect so many more deputies than the conservatives that Le Pen couldn't be excluded as a serious candidate for prime minister. But the rules that govern national elections make this highly unlikely, because they are written to exclude the extremes of the political spectrum. Today, Le Pen's strategy involves several elements: She aims to win greater support across the country, influence policy as an outsider, and build toward eventual FN participation in an actual government. Despite anything you read in the American media, there is no possibility that the FN will rule in France. 

Electoral firewalls
 
French electoral rules work against the FN in three ways: First is the presidentialization of the ruling system carried out by Charles de Gaulle in 1962; second, a reduction in the presidential mandate from seven years to five, locking president and parliament into same five-year term; third, the presidential election takes precedence over the parliamentary election, rather than the other way around, as had been the case.  
 
De Gaulle, the founding president of the Fifth Republic in 1958, brought two constitutional reforms into being in 1962. First, the weak presidency constitutionally inherited from the Fourth Republic was given expanded powers in relation to the prime ministerial government. This created a hybrid presidential/parliamentary system in which the president had the upper hand. This new balance of power, with a strong president with a politically compliant prime minister, became permanent, surviving de Gaulle's departure from power in 1969. Second, majority voting became the sole electoral law - a bipolar logic requiring candidates at all levels to seek 50.1 percent of the vote, or at least a plurality, to win. The two-ballot system allowed citizens to vote their hearts on the first ballot and their minds on the second. This dynamic works against the extremist parties.
 
Thus in this weekend's runoffs in local (departmental) elections, the FN's 25-percent takeaway on the first ballot will net dramatically fewer winners on the second ballot than outsiders might expect. The FN will control only a few local councils - those few where its electorate is concentrated, such as certain parts of the old industrial northeast around Lille and in the Mediterranean southeast around Marseilles. This will wrongly be cast as a huge FN setback, but in fact it is already stitched into the fabric of the electoral system. 
 
In the 2017 presidential election, the same dynamic will play out. In his surprising presidential campaign in 2002, Marine's father, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, on the first ballot outdistanced by a whisker the Socialist candidate, outgoing Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. But Jospin was a weak candidate. In the second round against sitting president Jacques Chirac, non-FN voters on the right and left voted in unison, and Le Pen lost 80-20 to Chirac. 

What the FN can do
 
In 2017, Marine Le Pen will perform even better on the first ballot than her father did in 2002. Moreover, if she happens to outdistance the conservative candidate (former President Nicolas Sarkozy, for example), she will presumably face off against a Socialist candidate (sitting president Francois Hollande or a new face). Most of the first round non-FN voters will then become anti-FN voters. She, like her father, will lose by a wide margin to a Socialist in the runoff ballot, even though she will fare much better than her father's 60-percent defeat. Of course, the Socialist candidate could be surpassed on the first ballot by a conservative candidate. The second round would then pit Le Pen against a conservative candidate. She would still lose.
 
On the other hand, the FN could win enough seats to become part of a government coalition. This is also unlikely, if less so - National Assembly contests also work on a first-past-the-post voting system. In theory, as in U.S. congressional and UK parliamentary voting, the FN could get 49 percent of the vote in every district and lose 100 percent of the time, netting no seats at all. (If parliamentary elections were held on proportional voting rules, the FN would win big, because there would be only one round of voting, and the FN wouldn't need allies.)
 
The wild card situation is this: Suppose that in a future parliamentary election, the FN's deputies were necessary to building a conservative majority. In that case, the FN could be brought into a government by a conservative president. This actually happened on the left in 1981, when new Socialist President Francois Mitterrand brought in the French Communist party even though his Socialists had an absolute parliamentary majority. But Mitterrand's strategy was to reduce the sway of the Communists by making them responsible for government decisions, showing they were not revolutionaries, had little power, and could be satisfied with a few ministerial posts. It worked. However, the Communists were a party in decline, whereas the FN is on the rise. That the presidential election now precedes the parliamentary election creates a considerable roadblock for the FN, because French voters will want to give the new president the parliamentary majority needed to govern - not to divide the president from the government, which creates the necessity of "cohabitation" at the top, begetting political uncertainty. (This has happened three times).
 
So what is Marine Le Pen up to today? Basically she wants the French to get used to viewing the FN as a serious political force, indeed a mainstream movement and a plausible partner in a government. In this weekend's local elections, she doesn't expect to overturn everything. She wants the party to increase its local presence across the country and be able to wave its banner. In a far-fetched but not entirely implausible future, she and the FN could be seen as a bulwark against the unlikely rise of a Muslim political force in the party system. This of course is the theme of Michel Houllebecq's controversial new novel, Soumission (Submission, or perhaps better, Surrender). Marine Le Pen's comment on the novel: "It's a fiction that could one day become reality."  In other words, in the ideological struggle, Marine Le Pen continues to mark new terrain. 

(AP photo)

Interview with Jeff Sessions: U.S. and Europe "Have to Unify" Against Russia

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) sounded notes of sharp concern last weekend at the Brussels Forum conference. He chided European states on their defense spending levels, saying plainly that Europe needs to do more. Speaking on a panel about Transatlantic trade, Sessions issued a warning about the unintended consequences of some European countries' decisions to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is widely seen as Beijing's counter to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

We caught up with Sessions on the sidelines of the conference. The senator said that Russian action will teach Europe the lessons about military preparedness that American statements can't impart; and he argued that the U.S. Congress has to push back against the Obama administration on Iran.

Yesterday you made some interesting comments about European countries joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Could you elaborate on that? What are your worries about these countries possibly signing on to a China-led consensus in this respect?

Sessions: Well I though it was unfortunate that it took the United States by surprise and that our government felt obligated to push back and criticize a decision. Number one, if you're going to partner with another nation to provide economic funding and other benefits for development to nations around the world in a charitable way, I would think you'd want to partner with people who share your values first - and we've always done that. The Europeans and the United States have been part of the World Bank and the IMF and have worked together. If Europeans want to give more money to that effort, I would think they'd want to give it through those institutions that are in existence. 

Is this China moving in on U.S. turf, or is it more subtle than that?

Sessions: I think they like to try to spin it that way. Apparently they enjoy rubbing the United States' nose in it, and mocking in their public statements, which I think is offensive. China does not have a record in any way historically of reaching out to distant parts of the world to help them progress. It's always been China-centered. I was offended by China's comments, I thought they were unnecessary, when their history does not justify their claim of moral superiority. But you know, China has become more wealthy and become more internationally sophisticated. It's important to the world that China develops in a positive way. That's one of the major events of the next 20, 30 years: Will China develop in a more positive way, or in a more negative way?

What should the U.S. response be? Should we be openly criticizing the United Kingdom, for example, for going along with this?

Sessions: I think we did. But I don't know if it's worthy of a continuing debate. The UK has every right to join with who they want to. But I presume they'd like to continue to benefit from the American umbrella; our military power. Of the Europe-United States defense budget, the United States spends 70 percent, Europe spends 30, and they just go to bed at night assuming they have the total support of the United States.

You were very pointed about this topic, about the EU not spending enough money on defense. But how do you speak to not just the leaders but the peoples of Europe, and convince them that it is in their best interest to make this a priority?

Sessions: Well, Germany just increased their defense budget, which is noteworthy, and somewhat surprising based on long-term trends. So, more than statements from the United States, actions from Russia I think resulted in that. So world reality probably will have a better prospect of changing Europe. But Europe can't be naive. They can't be naive about the threat and the fact that they need to adequately support their militaries. Now it's also critically important that they spend their money wisely. In the past they haven't. One reason we have such a powerful, dominant military is because we have a total military force. We're able to defend America, project power. We have aircraft, missiles, satellites, bombs, ships, all of which no other nation in the world can compete with. In addition to that we have a battle-hardened leadership. Europe is pretty far away from that.

What do you expect next from Russia?

Sessions: Well, there's a danger that they may continue this overreach. They just solidified power in Georgia, in South Ossetia. That was I think in the last week. Pressure is still on Ukraine. We don't know whether the Minsk Agreement will hold, I don't think it's holding very well now. We have the Estonians, the Lithuanians, the Romanians, they're very worried. This is reality, I wish it weren't, but I'm afraid it is. It needs to be clear that Russia knows that there will be a high price to pay if this behavior continues.

If Minsk breaks down, at what point does the president have to act and supply Ukraine with lethal weaponry? What is the breaking point? We know from what Victoria Nuland said that the administration hasn't decided yet.

Sessions: From what I understand from this conference, I think it's clear that Germany has said publicly that they will support harsher sanctions and more military support if the Minsk Agreement fails. And that will be key. Merkel has worked very very hard to establish a relationship with Putin and Russia. It's been a good-faith effort. If it fails, I would hope that Europe and the United States would have to unify and push back more firmly against Russian overreach.

The letter from U.S. Congressmen to Iranian leadership that you also signed has come in for a good amount of criticism. Do you still think it was an appropriate move?

Well, it reflects a very deep concern by members of the Congress about the nature of the Iranian negotiation, and the fact that the president is working in every way possible to execute an agreement that shuts Congress out of the process. One person yesterday of Democratic political ancestry pointed out how Reagan took bipartisan members of Congress to participate in discussions of treaties and built support that way. These secret negotiations, with the Europeans releasing more information about it than our government has - our government talking with NATO and Europe and other people around the world and not discussing with Congress - this is a very serious error. This is a treaty of huge importance. We are not getting anything but ineffective briefings that have produced no confidence in Congress that we are getting the full story.

It's difficult for me to overstate how dangerous an error in the treaty with Iran can be for the whole world. The Middle East, Israel, the United States - it would be a catastrophe for nuclear proliferation if Iran gets a nuclear weapon. So it needs to be stopped. It's the policy of the United States that they not have a nuclear weapon, as President Obama has repeatedly stated. And yet he's allowed the negotiations to move ever closer to that end, which is unthinkable.

(AP photo)

The Right Peace for Ukraine

"There was never a bad peace nor a good war," Benjamin Franklin once said.  The Russian language version of this is somewhat more direct: Bad peace is always better than a good war. In Ukraine today, we have a bad peace. Although violations of the cease-fire occur daily, full-scale warfare has, for now, abated. But it could start again, and our situation is as precarious as ever. We as Ukrainians need to unify now, before it is too late. The next step to be taken is not on the battlefield - it is in Kiev.
 
The world has seen how unpredictable our adversary is. Yet our fate today depends as much as ever on ourselves, and on whether we learn from past events or repeat mistakes. 
 
One year has passed since Russia annexed Crimea. Let us take stock of the current situation. Two well-armed groups tied to the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics challenge Ukrainian forces, and the zone of recent warfare is located in direct proximity to other regions, such as the Nikolaev and Zaporizhya oblasts, where the reactors of two of Ukraine's four nuclear power plants are located. Civilians are suffering, and residents of Donetsk and Luhansk, who have been deprived of social support from Kiev, have so far borne the brunt of that suffering. 
 
The periodic shooting wears on, despite the Minsk agreements. As it does, the mood in Ukraine darkens. If full-scale warfare resumes in the area surrounding Mariupol - a key industrial center and a seaport - an escalation of the conflict is inevitable. Last week, USA Today reported a story out of Mariupol citing a poll in which more than half of respondents in the Southeast said that what they want most are "peace and pensions.'" Millions more throughout the country agree with them.
 
In parallel, consider what has been delivered against the promise of the "Revolution of Dignity" that preceded the conflict. Corruption has not receded in the last year, and real reforms are lagging. The state financial inspector recently reported to Ukraine's parliament that members of the current government may have defrauded the country of hundreds of millions of dollars.
 
Meanwhile, politically motivated persecution is on the rise: In the last two weeks, three former members of parliament from the former ruling party have committed suicide in the face of pressure from authorities. Inter, one of Ukraine's top TV stations, whose news programs are sometimes critical of the government, has had its signal intermittently blocked during its news broadcasts. Now, the regulators threaten to revoke the channel's licenses on the specious basis that a popular holiday program included Russian showmen.   
 
Political imbalance also threatens a viable peace, as well as the development of the economy in Ukraine. Detached from our industrial heartland, it will be very difficult for our economy to regain its balance. Just as noxious as the separatists, economic devastation and worsening corruption threaten the health of our country. The most effective rebuke of Ukraine's aggressors would be for all sides of the political divide within the country to work together toward democratic stability. Instead of prosecuting the opposition and making examples of former officials, who for the most part have committed no crime, the current government could work with them to achieve reforms that work, aiming its guns against actual, persisting corruption.
 
Our goal today should be to impose a cease-fire that holds, and to end all fighting now, before the damage reaches epic scale. After Maidan, when we got annexation and war instead of EU accession, a deficit in trust widened. Today, when a deputy U.S. secretary of state stops in Kiev, it would be worth his time to visit with both sides of the internal political divide, rather than have it seem like the United States is taking sides. After all, the goal is a united, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine. This goal cannot be achieved if the rights of one group in society are favored over another, nor if the rule of law is applied selectively. 
 
Several months ago, one of my colleagues suggested one of the best bridges to peace so far: the introduction of UN peacekeepers to the conflict zones. Finally, the idea is catching on. It will take the combined efforts of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the United Nations, and other multilateral bodies speaking with one voice to achieve on the ground what the Minsk rounds alone have not yet done.
 
In the meantime, we need to focus on what Ukrainians can do for ourselves right now. The Second Minsk Agreement calls for constitutional reform, and this could be a way to reform the state, decentralize the government, create new incentives for development outside of Kiev, and develop mechanisms to root out corruption in our country. But if we abuse this opportunity, our past mistakes will only compound themselves. An amended Constitution could create a better system - one that would protect all Ukrainians and create a new system of checks and balances. It needs to do that.
 
What the war has obscured is the fact that the new government is operating in much the same way as the one it ousted. It decides which judges are loyal and which are not, which businesses are protected and which are not, and who should be seen in the media versus who shouldn't. A war-weary public senses this. Increasingly it looks at the current government and shrugs.
 
Bad peace is a bad deal for Ukraine, and "good" war is a fallacy. We should reject both. Instead, this is precisely the time to propose the kind of agreement that puts the interests of the Ukrainian people first, including our compatriots on the ground in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. By showing that we're in this together, that we are driving our own economic reform - as  opposed to hoping others will do it for us - we create the best chance to defend ourselves as a united Ukraine.

(AP photo)

Ukraine's Dark Winter, a Century Ago

Through a harsh winter, Ukraine is caught in a massive crisis. Chaos reigns in the capital as one government follows another, each unable to fully exercise its powers and enforce stability. In the east, various Russian forces are moving to control the territory. In the west and the center of the country, Ukrainian nationalist armies and self-defense units are vying among each other and fighting to expel the invading forces in order to establish an independent state. Russia and the Western powers are trying to influence events in order to gain influence and control of land, resources and population. The economy is near the brink of collapse.

That probably sounds familiar, yet these facts are not contemporary - in fact, they were described in 1925-1927 by the famous novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, as he wrote of the events of 1918-1919. Ukraine in these years plunged into civil war as the Russian Empire collapsed following the Bolshevik revolution, and numerous forces competed to shape the destiny of the short-lived and independent Ukrainian Republic.

Belaya Gvardiya (The White Guard) centers around the Turbin family as they try to make sense out of the chaotic winter of 1918-1919. By the end of 1918, Ukraine, an inseparable part of the Russian Empire for several centuries, suddenly found itself at the epicenter of a struggle among numerous competing interests. As the occupying German and Austrian armies withdrew from what became Ukraine following their defeat in World War I, various Ukrainian nationalist forces, anti-Bolshevik "White" armies, and Bolshevik-Communist forces all fought to gain the upper hand and bring all of Ukraine under their control. In Kiev itself, an independent Ukrainian Republic suddenly found itself without crucial international patronage and support.

A multifaceted fight

The struggle went back and forth for more than a year. In the east, "White" monarchist forces under Russian Gen. Anton Denikin were advancing on Kiev, battling with the firm belief that all Russian imperial territories must be brought back into the fold. From the northeast, Bolshevik armies, bolstered by great numbers and using military equipment left over from the war, were also marching on Kiev, while simultaneously fighting Denikin and whatever Ukrainian forces stood in their way. In the west, center, and south of Ukraine, various nationalist forces tried to expel the Whites and the Reds, while at the same time seeking to come to an agreement over who might rule an independent Ukraine once the fighting ended. At the same time, recently victorious Western powers Britain and France were trying to decide who to support in order to further their interests and hedge against the eventual winner.

Belaya Gvardiya concentrates on the Turbin family because their predicament exemplifies the identity crisis gripping Ukraine - they are ethnically Russian military officers living in Kiev, the capital of the suddenly independent and chaotic Ukraine. They believe in and fight for the Russian imperial cause, while in and around the city, Ukrainian nationalism whips up militant, anti-Russian forces. The Turbins and their friends - also former imperial military officers - believe that the White forces will prevail. As the pages turn, their hope gives way to despair and confusion. In Bulgakov's words, "no one in the city knew what was happening in the rest of the country - a land where tens of millions of people lived and worked." The author masterfully relayed the chaos of the civil war in his writing - like James Joyce's "Ulysses," many pages are written in the stream-of-consciousness style, with paragraphs and sentences breaking off, single words filling entire pages, while the narrative jumps back and forth among various characters trying to hold on to small bits of information that may somehow tell them what is really taking place.

Bulgakov's Kiev is filled with rumors and hearsay, gunshots and far-off cannon fire ringing through the night, confusion over who really is in control and may be approaching the characters' town on a quest for liberation - that of Ukrainian nationalist leader Symon Petlyura, or that of Denikin or the Reds. Personal loyalties are tested as Turbin's friends, former military colleagues, and neighbors try to decide which force will emerge victorious, so that they may properly pledge their loyalty. Kiev seems to be split between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian factions, each wishing for their side to end the conflict and the uncertainty. The Turbins begin to realize that their positions, and their beliefs, are getting weaker and weaker as the months drag on. Being an ethnic Russian officer trying to keep Kiev for the the yet-to-be-restored Russian Empire becomes impossible as all manner of supplies - including manpower - grow scarce. At one point, Petlyura's nationalist forces enter Kiev and proceed to extract revenge on the losing side by hunting down and executing ethnic Russians suspected of being officers or of having connections to the previous government. Fear and chaos weigh heavy on the pages as the Turbins' fate hangs in the balance and the life they knew slips ever further under the fog of war and destruction.

Pondering the nature of Ukraine

Bulgakov's genius was in masterfully portraying just that fog of war, while at the same time speaking both through the Turbins' deeds and the broken, unconnected and indefinite actions of others in a city with no real law or government. He argues not just over the "Russian versus Ukrainian" aspect - he poses the question of what an independent Ukraine is supposed to be, and whose homeland it should become. While Bulgakov's work was critiqued in the Soviet Union for its sympathetic portrayal of the anti-Communist forces, the novel was nonetheless well received by the public, becoming a full-feature 1976 film that focused on the Turbin family (embedded above), rather than fully incorporating the developments of the civil war that plunged Kiev, and Ukraine, into chaos. Action takes a backseat to the arguments in Turbin's home as the war rages outside. In 2012, a Russian mini-series (embedded below) was released that put a more accurate spin on the novel. That version portrays heroic Russian officers trying to fight for the cause of the Russian Empire against Ukrainian nationalists. A big-budget production, its not-so-subtle anti-Ukrainian sentiment was not met well by many in modern Ukraine.

One hundred years ago, Ukraine was torn apart. Ukrainian and Russian nationalism eventually lost out to the unstoppable Communist ideology that would subsume and destroy all who rose in dissent. "Belaya Gvardiya" is an incredible glance through time at the worst effects of civil and nationalist wars. That Bulgakov's book would find a contemporary echo in today's fighting is a sad testament to the permanence of geopolitical completion over Ukraine. How this new round of fighting ends depends not just on the internal actors, but on the outside forces that seem to hold the fate of Ukraine in the balance.

Any Game Is Hard to Win When the Rules Are Written Against You

For the first time since the Second World War, Britain has been governed during this Parliament by a coalition of parties - consisting of the Conservative Party, which hold 302 seats in the current Parliament and are led by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Liberal Democrats, who have 56 seats and are led by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. This government will not fight the forthcoming election on May 7 as a coalition - the parties are rather ostentatiously going their separate ways, and have been doing so even while in government for some time.
 
Indeed, splits within that coalition have given rise to the biggest single problem the Conservative Party now face in their attempt to retain government (and, preferably, govern alone). After five long years in power, because the Lib Dems have blocked it, the Tories have failed despite the powers of incumbency to deliver overdue changes to the constituency boundaries on which elections are fought. 

This may sound like an arcane point, but as every gerrymanderer knows, it isn't - it's vital to the outcome at the polls. Labour presently have a baked-in advantage in our constituencies, reliably winning smaller seats in the north of England while the Tories fruitlessly amass piles of votes in more populous southern seats which contribute nothing extra to their standing in the House of Commons. Consider this: At the 2005 General Election, Labour won with a 3-point lead over the Tories - they took government with a majority of more than 60 seats. Five years later, in 2010, the Conservatives had 7-point lead over Labour, but did not gain an overall majority at all.

As the latest polls will show you, the two main parties are presently polling neck-and-neck in national terms. This really means that Labour are ahead. By how much is unclear, as there are so many intangible factors to be considered on a seat-by-seat basis - candidate preference, willingness to vote for a minor party, and so forth - but they're ahead.
 
This is enhanced by the coinciding change in fortunes of the minor parties. The rise of the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party splits the right, harming the Tories. The remarkable decline of the Lib Dems (for reasons brilliantly explained by their former head of press here) splits the left, helping Labour. The Lib Dems face ignominious defeat at the polls nationwide, losing perhaps over half their seats. On the other hand, having won the European elections last year, UKIP are presently polling at somewhere between 12 and 14 percent. As they draw their support predominantly from those who might otherwise vote Tory, anything north of 4 or 5 percent significantly impairs the prospects of Conservative success in marginal seats.
 
Taken together, these points are the challenges for Cameron's Conservatives in May. On the other hand, there are two major advantages in their favor: First, the economy is steadily improving. For an important slice of the population, quality of life has not improved for a very considerable time, producing a disconnect for some between economic numbers and their own sense of how things are going. Yet the country as a whole increasingly feels like things are "on the up" - and this is traditionally the most important electoral consideration in the United Kingdom, as elsewhere. The Conservatives will repeat their messaging about their Long Term Economic Plan, the driving down of the deficit, and the addition of 1,000 jobs per day since they took office, right up until polling day.
 
Secondly, Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party and putative future prime minister, consistently underwhelms with the public. Cameron is consistently preferred as a leader in head-to-head polling - and a desire to avoid disturbing that clarity may explain the apparent reluctance of the Tory campaign team to have head-to-head leader debates. Predictably, these are therefore the twin themes of the Tory campaign. There's a minor party point that harms Labour, too - north of the border, a resurgent Scottish Nationalist Party, or SNP, has rebounded remarkably from its recent defeat in the independence referendum and looks set to capture a swathe of Labour (and Lib Dem) seats. This doesn't help the Tories much though, as an alliance between the right-of-center Conservatives and solid-left SNP just won't happen - although contrary to metropolitan London speculation, their fantastically bitter rivalry with Labour means a Lab/SNP coalition is pretty unlikely, too.
 
Taken together, all this means that the election will be close, and it is unlikely indeed that a single party will form a majority government in its own right. Another coalition of some form is very likely. Ironically, despite their forthcoming shellacking, it is likely in my view that so long as the electoral mathematics add up, the chastened Liberal Democrats will remain the most palatable (or least unpalatable) choice as a partner for both of the major parties. Clegg's party has already demonstrated that they can be a "party of government" rather than just a party of protest. Therefore, in an election which everybody loses - Labour not improving their vote, but gaining seats; the Tories getting more votes, but fewer seats; UKIP getting a pile of votes distributed across the whole country, and almost no seats as a result; the Lib Dems getting savaged, but still having more seats than UKIP - the perverse outcome may well be that the party which loses worst gets to stay in government with a new coalition partner.

(AP photo)

Alex Deane is Managing Director and Head of Public Affairs at FTI Consulting. He is a former aide to David Cameron.

The UK Parliament to Come: Rowdy and Ideologically Driven

With pollsters, pundits and politicians united in describing May's election in Britain as the most unpredictable in a generation, the question of how many MPs each party will get is keeping the talking heads busy. But understanding just who those MPs will be, what they think, and how they relate to their parties and to the people, is also an important guide to the character of the next parliament.

This generation of parliamentary candidates has been selected during Britain's first coalition government since World War Two. The British prime minister is head of government by virtue of his or her leadership of the largest party in the House of Commons and normally enjoys extensive powers of patronage with which to maintain party discipline. The management challenge posed by coalition is that the prime minister has fewer ministerial appointments to play with, since a portion have to be handed over to the junior governing party. As a result, there are fewer incentives for MPs to fall in line with the dictates of party leaders. Indeed, the sitting parliament has been characterized by a rebelliousness unprecedented for the British parliament.

The example set by incumbent MPs may help explain why this year's cohort of parliamentary candidates has been unusually eager to speak out against party lines. Last week three Labour candidates rejected donations from former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, while 75 percent of them have publicly opposed Labour's position on Trident, Britain's nuclear deterrent.

Conservative candidates are posing a similar challenge for the prime minister. In his first conference speech as Conservative party leader, David Cameron warned that the party had lost in past elections because "while parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life, we were banging on about Europe." It seems the Conservative ‘selectorate' disagrees. One retiring Conservative MP told the Financial Times that "in 1992 you had to support the death penalty to be selected, in 2015 you have to be euroskeptic".

A Drastic Decline in Membership

The collapse in membership of the three main parties helps explain why candidates are now more likely to be highly ideological than centrist. Membership in the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties is at a historic low point. The remaining members are more likely to be true believers than casual affiliates, and they are picking candidates who reflect their own partisan positions in much the same way primary campaigns now pull candidates away from the center in the United States.

So we can expect the next parliament to present problems for party whips, not only because of tensions between the parties, but because of fractiousness within them. At a time of widespread public alienation from Westminster, it could be argued that a dose of independent thinking is exactly what is needed to put politics back in touch with people. But that's where another problematic question comes in: Are the next cohort actually any more representative of wider British society than the last one?

Out of kilter with Britain

On some measures the class of 2015 looks set to be a little more diverse than the one which proceeded it. Positive action measures to increase the number of women selected are bearing fruit, with the Centre for Women and Democracy think tank predicting the percentage of women MPs could jump from 23 percent of the House to closer to a third. Figures for Black and Minority Ethnic representation are likewise going in the right direction, with 70 new candidates and 30 incumbent MPs selected to contest the election already. The figures for class background, however, are less encouraging, with 31 percent of the candidates likely to win having been privately educated, compared to only 7 percent of the population as a whole.

These topline figures hide some interesting undercurrents. Few pundits would have predicted, for example, that the United Kingdom Independence Party, whose leader recently called for changes to Britain's anti-discrimination laws and restrictions on immigrant children going to state schools, would have more ethnic minority candidates than the Green Party. Nor has the recent furore about an MP's suggestion that the pregnant Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary be given a job "she can handle" fully exposed the extent of the parental gap at Westminster. Research released earlier in this parliament revealed that 45 percent of female MPs have no children - while the equivalent rate for men is 28 percent. So as the results come in, it will be worth cross-referencing not just the headline figures for ethnic and gender diversity, but also more granular information about the missing mums, and which parties have put ethnic minority candidates into winnable seats.

While the final result from May's election is still very much in contention, it is clear enough that our parliament will continue to be out of kilter with the country it represents. More "pale, male, and stale" than the country as a whole, but also more ideological on both right and left. No matter who wins the election, all parties have a fight on to convince Britain that politicians and those who elect them continue to inhabit the same world.

Reform Bites the Dutch Government

Voters in the Netherlands on Wednesday punished the governing parties for tough reforms carried out in the past years. The governing coalition parties lost seats in the provincial election that will determine the make-up of the Senate. Instead of a solid win, however, the Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders lost a seat, according to exit polls.

Most opposition parties aside from the PVV gained. Contrary to earlier opinion polls, which predicted that his party would be the winner of the day, Wilders' anti-Islam, anti-EU, and anti-immigration party is projected to lose a seat.

The PVV's loss was not wholly unexpected. Although riding high in the polls up until Election Day, pollsters warned that a low turnout could be Wilders' undoing. That caveat became reality. Turnout this year was well below that of the elections of 2011, causing Wilders' third consecutive electoral loss.

Freedom Party voters are among those who feel most disenfranchised. Getting them to turn once again proved very difficult for Wilders, who lacks a campaign organization as he has chosen not to establish a traditional party system with paying members.

Other parties that could rely on solid membership organizations were able to mobilize thousands of volunteers to get out the vote. The Socialist Party, considered a leftist populist party able to attract the protest vote like Wilders, coupled that ability with a strong campaign machine. While the PVV lost, the socialists are expected to gain a seat in the Senate.

Puzzle

The biggest winner was D66, a centrist, social-liberal party that has in the past years helped the governing parties carry amended legislation through the Senate with the aid of two Christian Democratic parties. Those parties, the Christian Union and the Reformed Party, also gained seats. With these three parties in a supporting role, the coalition parties until now had a slight majority of 38 seats in the Senate. The Senate counts 75 seats, so parties need 38 for a majority to successfully pass legislation.

That majority is gone thanks mainly to the big losses incurred by the two mainstream parties: the center-left Social Democrats, or PvdA, and to a lesser extent the the center-right Liberals, or VVD. Their losses and their minor partners' gains leave the whole lot with 36 seats, forcing them to look for a sixth supporting partner to complete the majority puzzle. In theory the Greens could bring their three seats to the coalition's aid.

Thanks to a campaign strongly focused on regional and local issues, the Christian Democrats, or CDA, bounced back from significant losses in 2011, which saw many voters cross over to the VVD. The CDA is projected to win 12 seats in the Senate. Its leader on election night warned that the CDA's votes in the Senate would come at a high price for the coalition.

Carry on

Despite the losses and increased difficulty to gather enough seats at the Senate table, the VVD and PvdA vowed to continue governing. Both parties had announced before Election Day that they would stay on as they still have a solid majority in Parliament, whatever their losses in the Senate.

On May 26, an electoral college of representatives of the newly elected provincial parliaments will elect a new Senate. This is usually done along party lines, but some independent regional parties have in the past voted in favor of one of the parties currently in Parliament. This may mean a small shift in seats compared to calculated projections.

Nigeria's Critical Election Goes Down to the Wire

Nigerians this month are set to engage in a vote critical to their country's experiment in democratic rule. This year's elections will see voters choose a president and determine the makeup of the National Assembly. The elections were delayed for six weeks. Officials cited security concerns, though some argue the postponement was a strictly political choice. Whatever the case, Nigerians will head to the polls on March 28 - they will return two weeks later to vote for state governors and assemblies.

Nigeria's past is rife with military dictatorships and coups d'état, yet over the last decade the country has made considerable gains in establishing democratic institutions and traditions.

Successful or not, the Nigerian elections will resonate well beyond the country's borders. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, home to an estimated 170 million people. It is also the continent's largest economy, with a gross domestic product of $509 billion as of 2013. What happens in Nigeria impacts West Africa and the broader region.

Credible and peaceful elections in Nigeria will signal a move forward for stable democracy, setting a virtuous example in the region. This year's elections come amid expiring amnesty in the Niger Delta, a violent Islamist insurgency in the Northeast, and the shock of falling oil prices. Despite these and more endemic challenges such as paralyzing corruption, the Nigerian people continue to press ahead. Nigeria's elections in 2011 were deemed by international observers as an improvement to the previous two polls, but still they were messy. More than 800 people were killed in post-election violence.

Picks and priorities

Avoiding violence must remain a top priority. The two main candidates, incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan of the People's Democratic Party, or PDP, and Gen. Muhammadu Buhari of the coalition All Progressives Party, or APC, continue to poll neck-and-neck. Of course, competitive elections only strengthen democracies, but such competition requires maturity from political leaders and their supporters, who must accept the results if the polls are determined to be free and fair. Historically, democracies endure when power transitions peacefully from one democratically elected leader to another from an opposition party. If Buhari wins on March 28 or after a run-off election is conducted (a scenario that remains plausible given the strict requirements for victory established in the Nigerian Constitution), the election would prove an important step in Nigeria's political development.

Buhari is no newcomer to Nigeria's political scene. In December 1983 he led a successful coup, after which he ran the country until August 1985. He was removed from power in a subsequent military coup led by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who actually has endorsed Buhari in this year's presidential race.

Buhari has run for president three times (in 2003, 2007, and 2011), but he has yet to find success at the ballot box. However, the political landscape in Nigeria is decidedly different today.

Since 1999, the PDP has largely controlled the presidency and the National Assembly, as well a majority of the state governorships and Houses of Assembly. Yet the party's stranglehold on Nigerian politics is no longer a given. Under Jonathan's leadership, support for the PDP has significantly waned. Moreover, the APC opposition coalition formed in early 2013 gained significant momentum with the defection of numerous governors and 37 National Assembly representatives.

The partisan tables were balanced through PDP political maneuvering that earned them the support of several APC governors and representatives, but cleavages in the party were exposed in a very public way, leading many PDP supporters to wonder how strong the party really is. Questions continue to linger about the PDP's support network. The most recent cause for doubt came when Olusegun Obansanjo, former president of Nigeria and a foundling PDP member, tore up his PDP card.

Intra-party divisions are avidly reported by Nigerian media, usually in the context of a narrative loosely molded around the country's historic North-South divide - and even more simplistically around the country's regional religious identities. In fact Lagos State - situated firmly in the South - is an APC stronghold, and the Christian minority communities in the North hold significant political sway. Moreover, each candidate's running mate hails from a different religious background. Buhari, a Muslim, is running with Yemi Osinbajo, a Christian. President Jonathan, a Christian, is running with Vice President Namadi Sambo, a Muslim. Jonathan and Buhari both pull significant support from their respective regional bases in the South and the North.

Whatever the results, the Nigerian people must hold their leaders accountable. Winners must be allowed to govern, and losers must refrain from extra-electoral processes to seize power.

Nigeria has come a long way, and the political and economic choices that lie ahead require a credible leader with a mandate to govern. Democratic consolidation requires peaceful conditions to develop and flourish. That must start March 28 at the ballot box.

Charlotte Florance is a research associate in The Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

Likud wins

Polls have closed in today's vote for the Israeli Knesset. 

At stake tonight is a fourth term for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called for the elections in December 2014. At the time, Netanyahu's Likud party enjoyed a strong plurality, but polls tightened as the vote approached, and the last batch of published polls showed the center-left Zionist Union holding an approximately 4-seat lead over Likud in the crowded field vying for the Knesset's 120 seats. All timestamps are local Israel time.

Running updates

Final results are in, and it's a resounding victory for Likud.

11:39 p.m., Times of Israel: Here's why Netanyahu's victory is almost complete. Herzog, though, is in no hurry to concede.

11:27 p.m., Haaretz: Herzog is holding talks with potential coalition partners as part of an effort to form a broad government that excludes Netanyahu and Bennett.

-Jonathan Tobin over at Commentary: "Given that historically these polls tend to undercount the right and don't include the very significant vote of soldiers on active service in the Israeli Army, which also tends to tilt to the right-wing parties, the likelihood is that the Likud will wind up with a plurality."

-As the New York Times reports, the votes of some 250,000 soldiers, diplomats, and other voters won't be reported until Wednesday.

-10:26 p.m., Times of Israel: Likud supporters are celebrating what they say is a win.

-10:25 p.m., Haaretz: Netanyahu and Bennett to start talks on forming a right-wing government.

-Channel 2 and Channel 10 have released exit polls following the close of polling stations in Israel, and they look a good deal different to the last batch of polls released before the vote. Likud stands at 27 seats. That total would put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a stronger position than expected to retain his post. With Israel Beiteinu and Jewish Home adding five and eight seats, respectively, those three center-right parties would hold 40 seats (61 are needed for a majority government), against the 43 seats projected to be attained by center-left Zionist Union (27), Yesh Atid (11) and Meretz (five). The Kulanu party led by Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud MK and minister, could emerge the kingmaker as expected, with 10 projected seats. Netanyahu has offered Kahlon a post as finance minister, were he to join a Likud-led government. UPDATE: This pie chart gives a breakdown of Knesset seats based on available exit polls.

-10:08 p.m., HaaretzPresident Reuven Rivlin says he will push for a national unity government. Rivlin, considered a rival of Netanyahu, decides which party leader to tap to assemble a coalition.

-10:02 p.m., Times of Israel: Likud rallies in exit poll, stands even at 27 seats with Zionist Union.

-Via the New York Times, on social media is challenging the limits of Israel's election laws. 

-8:43 p.m., Times of Israel: The Jewish Home party, which polled at 12 seats and more in the final polls of the election published last Friday, is at risk of dropping below 10 seats.

"We must not let religious Zionism fall," warns the party's leader Naftali Bennett.

-More on the Joint List, from Global Post: "Palestinians still make up 20 percent of Israel's population today. And yet, Arab parties have never held serious political power. That may be about to change."

-Some polling day pictures: 

-Jonathan Tobin on whether Arab votes will decide the Israeli election: "It would be ironic if the supposedly historic win for Israeli Arab voters were to return the man they most dislike to the prime minister's office. But if enough undecided Israeli voters think Herzog really does need Arab votes to govern, that may be what will happen."

-According to Netanyahu, foreign money is toppling Likud.

-Among the stories to watch as results emerge is the performance of the Joint List, an Arab-Israeli party whose leader, Ayman Odeh, could emerge as the first-ever Arab Israeli head of opposition. From Al Monitor: "No one who has toured the Arab communities in recent days needs to wait for the exit polls to realize that a clear-cut and historic turnabout has taken place in this Israeli election, at least among the Arab sector. It is poised to rock and reshape Israel's political map."

And World Post with more: 

-7:53 p.m., Times of Israel: Labor sounds decidedly optimistic. MK Stav Shaffir: We feel the change in every ballot box that we visit, and mainly in the frightened responses of Likud."

-7:43 p.m., Jerusalem Post: Center-Left Yesh Atid party hoping for another election night surprise.

-7:30 p.m., Haaretz: "Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is "panicking," adding that his "lies" earlier on Tuesday prove that he is a "hysterical, divisive, inciting prime minister.""

-6:17 p.m., Jerusalem Post: Herzog slams Netanyahu for issuing a plea to voters to counter Arab Israelis voting 'en masse.' Herzog: "We don't want to suddenly find out tonight that we're getting an extremist government consisting of Netanyahu and Marzel that will tear Israel apart."

-6:00 p.m., Haaretz: Naftali Bennett says foreign funds are sponsoring leftist push: Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Neftali Bennett accused the left of receiving "foreign funds" to finance their campaign, saying "foreign nationals" are present at the polling stations, encouraging voters to cast their ballots in favor of leftist parties.

-4:39 p.m., Haaretz: Shas responded to the Central Elections Committee's injunction against its flyers promising those who vote for the party a "key to heaven."

"Prayers, mezuzot, and talismans are an inseparable part of the tradition of the majority of citizens. We're proud of our tradition, enough with the silencing and incitement!" Shas said in a statement.

 

A Microcosm of the Changes Roiling Europe

Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series about an election easily overlooked outside of Northern Europe. This vote and the circumstances surrounding itprovide keen insight into the broader state of politics on a continent in transition. To read part one, click here.

The two coalition parties in power in the Netherlands are destined for crushing defeats in elections on March 18 that will determine the makeup of the new Senate. Polls show the opposition anti-Islam Freedom Party of Geert Wilders in the lead.

A big loss in the Senate could spell the end of the country's coalition government. More likely, the country's mainstream parties will take one look at the polls and decide not to call for new national elections - which could see formerly fringe parties take firm control - thus leaving an effectively delegitimized administration in charge. We take a look at the major issues in a country that is increasingly seen as a bellwether for Western European politics.

The Netherlands since World War II has been at the vanguard of social welfare reform in Europe. Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in tandem laid the foundations for a true welfare state in the late 1950s and the 1960s.

A pensions savings system, improved collective health care, basic government-financed unemployment insurance, welfare benefits, and state-financed education plans were introduced within a generation. Employers, workers, and the government all picked up part of the tab, and the discovery of huge gas fields in the north of the country removed all restraints.

From the 1970s onward, welfare schemes expanded. New benefits were designed, health care costs ballooned, and education expenditures increased. In the early 1980s, government expenditures had increased to such heights - just as the global economy pushed inflation to unsustainable levels - that the government pushed the major labor unions and trade unions to reach a national labor agreement. Unions would no longer demand outrageous raises; employers would invest in jobs.

In the mid-1980s, government expenditures accounted for more than 60 percent of Dutch gross domestic product. In those days, the Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, and Liberals were the biggest parties in parliament. They formed alternating government coalitions, with the Christian Democrats always being the centrists who pivoted to the Liberals or the Social Democrats depending on the outcome of the vote.

An age of discontent

Since the late 1980s, much has changed - especially for the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. Both parties, formerly responsible for the creation of the welfare state, set about tempering it, cutting back on expenses. Government-owned companies were privatized, markets were liberalized, and expenditures on government programs were cut.

But while parties dealt with the outsized welfare state, many of their voters didn't follow. The year 2002 saw voters revolt. Out of nowhere one man, Pim Fortuyn, galvanized the discontent that part of the electorate had silently carried for years. Much to the surprise of many a complacent politician, it turned out that a sizeable non-voting portion of the population felt deeply disenfranchised and ignored by what Fortuyn dubbed "the establishment" or "the elite."

Many of the discontended voters had grievances that had also been largely ignored. Whereas most of the political debate in the country had for decades centered on socioeconomic issues such as health care, education, social security, unemployment, and economic growth, a great number of these people were also worried about sociocultural issues.

They felt left behind. While foreign refugees were granted houses to live in for free (or at vastly reduced rents), the disenfranchised poor had to wait years for affordable housing due to market shortages. While these voters' old, post-World War II Reconstruction neighborhoods in the cities were drastically altered by the influx of cheap foreign labor, they felt a loss of identity, and they believed that politicians didn't care about them. To protest the influx of foreign labor led more often than not to being publicly dubbed a racist by politicians.

The Netherlands at that time saw the emergence of a PEGIDA movement avant la lettre - one made of people who didn't demonstrate in the streets, but rather voiced their protest in the voting booth. Fortuyn played the identity politics fiddle so well that it was picked up by many other political parties, including the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. Ever since the time of Fortuyn, who was assassinated just before the national elections of 2002, sociocultural issues such as crime, integration, and immigration have sat solidly at the forefront of Dutch politics.

Fortuyn 2.0

Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party has pushed matters further than Fortuyn ever did. Where the latter singled out and took on Muslim extremists, but respected Islam as a religion, Wilders is unabashedly anti-Islam and anti-immigration, combining this with a decidedly leftist socioeconomic program that would overturn the reforms of recent decades.

Wilders is currently in the crosshairs of the country's Prosecution Office for alleged discrimination against Moroccans during an election rally. But the movement that supports him is unfazed; in polls, Wilders looks set to be the solid winner of the elections on March 18, handing him many new seats in the Senate.

Vertical divides become horizontal

Meanwhile, something else has changed. Among voters concerned with predominantly socioeconomic issues, even those on the right - voters usually associated with a strong preference for lower taxes and smaller government - are far less keen on cuts in health care, education, and even social security than they once were.

This has led the government coalition parties (left-wing Social Democrats and right-wing free-market Liberals) to turn the tables on the opposition. After ramming through hard-hitting reforms that resulted in more than €50 billion in cuts in health care and social security, the government parties now accuse the opposition of wanting more budget cuts.

Hardly a day goes by this election season without the Social Democrats accusing their opponents in the D66 party of "wanting to cause new instability" and "calling for even more cuts" in health care and social security. It appears to be working. Some recent polls indicate that D66, which had been riding high in the polls, is gradually losing support.

In the Netherlands, political truisms have been turned on their heads. With even cost-cutting, small government-type voters rejecting austerity, it seems that ideas that were once vilified as leftist tax-and-spend politics have been internalized as schemes you can now take for granted.

Once again, Dutch voters in this respect may stand at the European vanguard.

When Chavismo Wins at the Ballot Box

Vice President Joe Biden may have had dubious ulterior motives for his recent visit to Guatemala - the trip coincided precisely with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the U.S. Congress. Yet the depth, breadth, and relevance of the region's challenges make any high-level engagement worthwhile.
 
Central America's Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) is gripped by violence, stymied by corruption, and, as the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied children demonstrated last year, just a train ride away from the Texas border.
 
Seen through this lens, the importance of Biden's visit, and of the local elections held in El Salvador the day before, comes into clear focus.
 
With a $1 billion aid package at the center of talks, the vice president doubled down on the administration's rhetorical commitment to the region. Moreover, the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras each vowed to use the money to enhance security and create jobs.
 
But in elections just the day before, El Salvador voters seemed to embrace a continuation of the status quo, choosing to endorse the continued rule of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, a leftist party closely aligned with the Venezuela's leadership who loudly denounce America and reject its support.
 
Though official results have yet to be released due to technical glitches, the two major parties' own analyses confirm that neither party achieved a significant victory, save for the FMLN's symbolic win in the capital city, San Salvador. 
 
Making sense of this contradiction - increased American aid and the years-long rise of a party typically hostile to such an intervention - may not be so difficult. After all, money talks. Still, the election helps reveal what makes El Salvador unique, and so important to the United States. 
 
For starters, the country of 6.5 million is no Venezuela. El Salvador was the only Latin American country to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and today it counts on more than $3.5 billion in remittances from the US - nearly one-sixth of El Salvador's gross domestic product. The country is also in the first year of a five-year, $277 million compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which follows the success of a preceding $461 million arrangement that brought new roads and schools to its mountainous north.
 
El Salvador was also the first country to sign the Central American Free Trade Agreement, ensuring for itself a lifeline to American markets. Even its president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who is known best in the United States for leading a pro-al Qaeda march in San Salvador in the days after September 11, 2001, has moderated his rhetoric and promised to be an inclusive leader.
 
But the example of other Latin American countries shows that when Chavismo wins at the ballot box (FMLN party headquarters features a portrait of Hugo Chavez set between Pol Pot and Lenin), radical change is never far away.
 
In Bolivia and Ecuador, democratically elected left-wing governments expelled the United States Agency for International Development, dismissed the value of U.S. trade preference for their countries, and tightened their grips on once-independent institutions such as media, judiciaries, and electoral councils. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega's antipathy toward the United States dates back to the 1980s, and his dismantling of democracy continues apace - Ortega recently eliminated presidential term limits. All three countries, along with Venezuela and seven other nations, are part of the antidemocratic Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America.
 
The FMLN thus faces a choice.
 
That the party was able to win support despite the fourth-highest murder rate in the world, the slowest-growing economy in Central America, and a rising cost of living speaks to the FMLN's staying power. It also suggests the country's right-wing party, ARENA, may have committed a strategic error by avoiding stark warnings of the failure of the Venezuelan state - as well as its repercussions on leftist governments dependent on Caracas' petro-driven largesse.
 
From the U.S. perspective, a Salvadoran government more in sync with burning Venezuela than booming Panama means that children driven out by the drug war and poverty will continue to flee north. In the longer term, it signals a widening of the ideological gap between the two allies.
 
Whether El Salvador walks that fine line or runs with the Chavistas is the $1 billion question.

Michael Inganamort is managing principal at ASG Advisors and a member of the Foreign Policy Initiative's Leadership Network. He traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala with the American Council of Young Political Leaders.

(AP photo)

Dutch Vote a Barometer for the European Electoral Landscape

The two coalition parties in power in the Netherlands are destined for crushing defeats in elections on March 18 that will determine the makeup of the new Senate. Polls show the opposition anti-Islam Freedom Party of Geert Wilders in the lead.

A big loss in the Senate could spell the end of the country's coalition government. More likely, the country's mainstream parties will take one look at the polls and decide not to call for new national elections - which could see formerly fringe parties take firm control - thus leaving an effectively delegitimized administration in charge. We take a look at the major parties involved in a country that is increasingly seen as a bellwether for Western European politics.

When the polls closed in the Dutch parliamentary elections of September 2012 and it turned out that two centrist parties had won massive victories, it was optimistically dubbed the "Defeat of the Extremists." Despite being ideological adversaries, the two winning parties - the center-left Social Democrats (PvdA) and the center-right conservative Liberals (VVD) - smoothly and quickly formed a coalition government. A bit too smoothly, according to many of their erstwhile voters.

The social-democratic PvdA and free-market liberals of the VVD sorted their coalition not by compromising on the issues, but by exchanging items on their political wish lists. The VVD, which had campaigned on a right-wing platform of crime-fighting, immigration, and integration, got what it wanted in those areas, while the PvdA was able to carry out its reformist agenda on health care, social security, and education.

Judging by recent polls and the 2014 municipal elections, voters of both parties seem not only disappointed - they are deeply disgusted.

PvdA

The PvdA is trying to rearrange the welfare state to adapt to the globalized economy while at the same time hewing close to its social-democratic roots. The PvdA was largely responsible for the establishment of the welfare state in the 1950s and 1960s. The reforms it is undertaking in health care and social security may seem necessary in order to create a financially manageable welfare state, as the party leadership has said, but these reforms are highly unpopular among the PvdA-voters of 2012. 

Polls show that on average, a staggering two-thirds of them will vote for an opposition party to the left or right of the PvDA, or will simply stay home come March 18.

VVD

The VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte is a classic free-market liberal grouping on socio-economic issues. The party's main goal is to lower taxes by cutting the size of government and privatizing many of its functions. In this sense, the VVD is the classic rival of the social democrats. In recent years, thanks to a sense of disfranchisement among right-wing voters and the surge of right-wing, anti-Islam parties such the PVV of Geert Wilders, the VVD has been faced with a formidable opponent to its political right. Whenever the VVD veers to the right to stem its electoral losses to Wilders, it loses voters to centrist competitors, and vice versa. Now that the VVD is in government with the left-wing PvdA, it is hemorrhaging voters to Wilders. The VVD looks set to lose half of its 2012 voters, many of them to the PVV, but also to D66 and the CDA.

D66

In 2006, the social-market liberals of D66 received but a few seats in Parliament. Now D66 is vying with the PVV to become the biggest party in the Senate. D66 on one hand stands for classic economic liberal policies, emphasizing socio-economic reforms toward smaller government, and thus appealing to VVD voters. On the other hand it supports leftist socio-cultural policies (immigration, arts, green policies) that appeal to PvdA voters. It's working: the party is drawing large numbers of voters from both coalition parties while at the same time supporting the government through what it calls a strategy of "constructive opposition," helping carry amended reforms through the Senate.

PVV

Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party (PVV) is poised to make a big electoral comeback after performing poorly in the past two elections. The PVV stands to become the biggest party in the Senate by standing by Wilders' fiery anti-Islam platform and uncompromising opposition to the coalition government, according to polls. Whenever the VVD turns right with a new tough-on-crime, tough-on-immigration proposition to lure back voters, Wilders simply outflanks them with an even tougher approach, moving into terrain where the VVD dare not tread. 

Wilders' only problem is turnout. In the past two elections (Parliament in 2012 and European elections in 2014), the PVV underperformed compared to polls. Quite a number of PVV voters, many of whom feel disenfranchised by the political elite, on Election Day prove their disenfranchisement by staying home. 

SP

The Socialist Party (SP) is positioned to the left of the socialdemocratic PvdA. The SP entered Parliament in the 1990s on what was essentially an anti-PvdA platform, accusing the Social Democrats of pandering to the right and betraying socialist ideals. In the past 20 years, the SP certainly made strong gains at the expense of the PvdA but it never was able to outnumber the Social Democrats. This is the year the SP seems destined to finally trump the PvdA in the Senate, albeit by a small margin.

CDA

The Christian Democrats have come a long way. From 1980 until 1994 the CDA, a federation of multiple smaller Christian Democratic parties, was always the biggest party. It took power again from 2002 until 2010, when it was decimated. The CDA is a party with a Christian identity in an increasingly Atheist country. 

Yet it is still strong in the eastern, rural areas of the country where it hopes to lure back voters who crossed over to the VVD in the last elections. Railing against taxes and budget cuts to health care, the CDA is looking to make a strong comeback, possibly lining itself up to rule alongside the VVD and D66, should the Senate elections spark the collapse of the current government, and bring about new parliamentary elections.

(AP photo)

Does Britain Still Have a Voice Beyond the Channel?

The United Kingdom retains a powerful hand in international institutions, with seats at the top tables of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, NATO, the European Union, and the United Nations - but you wouldn't know it from listening to the candidates for Britain's highest office.

Prime Minister David Cameron recently decided to skip Ukraine cease-fire talks to visit Leamington Spa. The electoral calculation of the move was helpfully underscored by a senior aide who noted "there's a general election on. You wouldn't expect the prime minister to spend much time on foreign policy now." Cameron's challenger, Labour's Ed Miliband, is yet to give a major foreign policy address. How has Britain, one of the world's global powerhouses, produced an election campaign with so little to say about how we might best secure our interests and advance our values in turbulent times?

On one level, the answer is obvious: the voters' minds are elsewhere. The idea that there are no votes, only controversies, to be found in foreign policy holds sway at the highest levels of strategy development for the governing Conservatives and their Labour opposition alike. That is what lies behind the prime minister's desire to avoid defense debates, despite the traditional lead Conservatives enjoy on questions of national security. Labour likewise has skirted around questions about the purpose and capabilities of Britain's armed forces, focusing much more on what they should not do than what they should.

There is some evidence, however, that the parties have misread the public mood. Just because an individual voter doesn't want to devise their own answer to a complex policy dilemma doesn't mean they don't want their leaders to have one.

The most recent polling from think tank Chatham House reveals majority support across both general public and elite audiences for the idea that Britain should act to retain great power status. Meanwhile Britain's commitment to spending 0.7 percent of national income on overseas aid still commands majority support in the midst of spending cuts elsewhere. Even the European Union is enjoying something of a polling revival.

Britons are also swift to show support for overseas issues in myriad softer ways. On Friday hundreds of schools and businesses will raise money for Comic Relief, the development charity behind Red Nose Night, the TV telethon that raised a record £75 million in 2013, and more than half a million people donated to Unicef's appeal during the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

We are, in other words, profoundly persuadable of the links between our own lives and those of people beyond the border. That is in part because foreign policy questions are starting to feel incredibly close to home. In the last few months we've had stories of Russian planes flying around the English coast, a British taxi driver being murdered while delivering aid, and a Scottish nurse contracting Ebola. The distinctions between us and them, here and there - if they ever existed at all - are being washed away by the very thing party media and message planners hate most: events.

The chances of Britain making it through to May 7 without facing at least one unexpected international event with serious implications for our national interests are slim indeed. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband should be planning to give over at least a day between now and polling to lay out how they intend to shape world events and not just react to them. Even if they remain unpersuaded that the electorate is hungry for answers now, it is difficult to see how they could claim a later mandate for tough decisions if they don't hint at their direction of travel on ISIS, Russia, China, the Transatlantic relationship, Syria, reform of the European Union, and prospects for this year's critical summits on sustainable development and climate change. It surely can't be too much to ask that we learn, in advance of casting our votes, how our leaders intend to protect and project the power our country has worked so hard to achieve. 

Kirsty McNeill is a strategy consultant to some of the world’s leading campaigning organisations and a former Downing Street adviser. She tweets @kirstyjmcneill

Love and Hatred for a Classic Soviet Car

In the latest season of House of Cards, the main character, fictional U.S. President Frank Underwood, meets his equally fictional Russian counterpart, President Viktor Petrov. The two are negotiating European security when they hit a wall. Petrov accuses Underwood of "trying to sell him a Lada, when what Russia wants is a Lexus." Petrov then proceeds to describe the Lada, a "crappy Soviet car" with minimal conceissions to comfort and limited amenities, in contrast to the luxurious Lexus.

If House of Cards were streamed in Russia, President Petrov's statement would strike a loud minor chord with the tens of millions of people who once had the chance, or, if you prefer, the misfortune, of owning a Lada, the Soviet Union's flagship mass-produced small sedan. Based on an Italian Fiat model from the late 1960s, the Lada - or Zhiguli as it was known within the former Soviet Union - was manufactured by the Soviet car maker AvtoVaz after 1970. The company eventually sold tens of millions of units across former Soviet states as well as in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and even the United Kingdom and Canada. A no-thrills model, it featured a simple, square design, spare creature comforts, and notoriously unreliable engines and mechanical and electrical systems. In a country where the meaning of the term "auto service" was heavily circumscribed, and where spare car parts became treasures due to endemic industrial shortages, the vehicle nonetheless provided a powerful symbol of Soviet middle-class success and independence.

AvtoVaz have continued to manufacture Lada sedans throughout the 1990s and into the present day. The car retains huge popularity with price-conscious buyers around the world, and the company tries to compete with other global automakers. Despite new models and changing designs, it is what is inside Lada sedans that has always defined the car - and not always in a good way, as the poor manufacturing quality of the vehicle brought woe to many a driver. In Soviet times, one of the most glaring features, though, was the car's price. Rather than pricing the vehicle at a level within ready reach of the millions of potential buyers earning around 150 rubles a month - or 3,600 rubles annually for a two-income household - the Soviet government created a pricing basement for the car of around 5,000 rubles, making it virtually impossible for most families to buy the car outright. There was no financial credit system comparable with what exists in the West, so would-be buyers had to pay for the car in full. That meant that people wanting to own a vehicle either had to cut into their household spending in order to save, or borrow heavily from family and friends. There was also a long wait for purchasing the vehicle. Due to shortages, families had to wait years for the chance to own a Zhiguli. In the absence of alternatives, all buyers were ecstatic to finally get their own vehicle.

They aren't all bad

Lada sedans were loved, hated, derided, sought after, cherished and silently cursed. They were the butt of jokes and a source of enormous pride for the fortunate few capable of owning one. But not all Lada cars had such a questionable reputation - unlike the "crappy sedans" hated by Petrov, AvtoVaz managed to produce a vehicle that is still a source of technological and social pride. Lada Niva is a small off-road vehicle, a crossover between a sedan and a small SUV, and the only car of its kind available in the Soviet Union. In a country where the quality of the roads was as questionable as the reliability of food in the stores, Niva was a boon for those who could afford it. Built as a four-wheel-drive vehicle to navigate harsh terrain, it made its debut in 1977 and achieved immediate popularity in the Soviet Union, the nations of the Eastern Block, and other global markets. Soviet manufacturing was never known for producing reliable consumer products - including cars - yet Niva stood head and shoulders above Soviet and even global competition. It became an unquestionable export success, as its price was beyond the reach of many Soviet citizens. Even America's Chevrolet bought a stake in the the car after 1998 in order to manufacture a sedan called Chevy-Niva for sale in former Soviet and global markets. Production is set to continue well into 2016. In fact, American movie audiences were briefly introduced to Lada Niva in Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, when the lead character is rescued from an erupting volcano by an Icelandic local driving a 1999 model.

So next time House of Cards President Petrov wants to take Frank Underwood for a ride - figurative and literally - maybe he can drive a Niva to show that some off-road vehicles can stand the tests of time and mother nature, even if they originate from a country not known for good cars or compromises.

The Troubles that Await Europe

Andy Langenkamp is a global policy analyst for ECR Research.

We at ECR Research didn't think a Grexit was on the cards even before the recent deal struck between Greece and its eurozone partners, and we are now even more confident about this assessment. However, we do see troubles on the road ahead:

• Creditors are probably hoping that growth in Europe will pick up enough in the coming years to allow them to write off Greek debt without the public taking much notice. However, if European growth continues to underperform for a length of time, the moment may arrive when Europe and Athens can no longer pretend that Greece is solvent without having the political and economic cover to implement a huge haircut.

• Most experts doubt the sustainability of the current Greek coalition - the two parties are far apart on the left-right political continuum. A government collapse would usher in a new period of political and economic instability that may be too much for the Greek economy to handle, resulting in the much-feared Grexit.

• Strong performances by populists in coming national elections around Europe could complicate politics in Brussels and undermine future deals on eurozone integration. European politicians often have little political room for maneuver in negotiations as a result of the growing populist, nationalist electoral threat.

• Europeans have increasingly discovered that globalization, aside from being a force for prosperity and progress, can also cause political and economic havoc. Greece has experienced firsthand the ways globalization undermines democracy. It's an illusion to think that economic policy can be decided on a national level. But the more voters experience this - the more they harbor the idea that outside forces are hurting them, and their respective governments can do nothing about it - the more anti-establishment, anti-EU parties will thrive. Their nationalism and focus on sovereignty will impede Continental cooperation right at the time when economic risks and geopolitical dangers make it essential.

• What's more, in France, President Francois Hollande and his government are trying to circumvent democracy in order to push through economic reforms. This will probably please markets. However, spurned voters could strike back against mainstream politics, in this case by supporting Front National. It doesn't help that Hollande and opposition leader Nicolas Sarkozy are both very unpopular.

• Inside and at the edges of the European Union, we are witnessing the maturation of authoritarian tendencies in Hungary, Ukraine, Turkey, and Russia, to name a few. This illiberal trend can only be countered by a united front, and that unity is nowhere to be found right now. 

Dutch journalist Caroline de Gruyter recently wrote that the Greeks have been the first to discover that globalization and democracy make uneasy partners. They won't be the last nation to discover this, and this will cause big troubles in the years ahead.

For now, we expect the eurozone to stay afloat, and we would not be surprised if the euro strengthens as the Greek crisis is put to rest for the coming weeks and months. But the coming talks will surely be difficult. As the Financial Times wrote: "It is a sign of low expectations in the handling of the Greek debt crisis when a deal to keep the country from chaos for four months at the most and only 72 hours at the least is hailed as a great breakthrough."

The events of recent weeks have done absolutely nothing to improve the personal ties between the Greek government and its European counterparts. Grandstanding, mutual accusations of bad faith, and needlessly confrontational politics have eroded much political goodwill. This is likely to make the coming talks even thornier than those that recently concluded.

In the end, a choice will be made between the amputated leg theory (the view that cutting off the gangrenous Greek limb will save the body of the euro) or the domino theory (the idea that a Grexit would cause other vulnerable economies to follow, destroying the monetary union). We subscribe to the latter, but some of our financial analysts are starting to doubt this. We all do agree with the analysis of Eurasia Group that "the politics of Europe" is the number one global risk this year, and it will remain so if Europe keeps playing these political and economic games. 

(AP photo)

The Age of the Petty Nuclear Tyrant

Are you a world leader with dictatorial aspirations? Need cash quick? Want the world to listen? Would you like an embargo scrapped, or to invade a country without drawing immediate condemnations and threats of war from the other neighborhood toughs? Then build yourself some nuclear weapons, pronto.

That seems to be the message the West's diplomats are sending the world. Whether you're terrorist-supporting Iran, a tinpot dictator in North Korea or a would-be czar with aspirations to reunite Russian-speaking territories by force, the path to getting your heart's desire involves possessing and developing a nuclear weapons program.

At least you'll get the West's undivided attention. Russia is the perfect example: Vladimir Putin controls as many as 8,000 nuclear weapons, ranging from artillery shells to the latest SS-25 intercontinental ballistic missiles equipped with truly devastating nuclear warheads. Ever since Putin started his Special War in Ukraine, as specialist John Schindler termed it, NATO countries have done their best not to irritate him too much.

Russia has made sure the world understands that it is willing to use nuclear weapons. Just last year, a large military exercise involved a mock strategic nuclear strike aimed at Warsaw. More recently Russian bombers known for carrying nuclear missiles feigned an attack against a Swedish target following a typical nuclear delivery scenario. Weeks ago, British fighters escorted a Russian bomber that may have been carrying a large nuclear anti-submarine torpedo.

All Putin needed was just that little hint that he may not be so rational a decision-maker as his Western peers hope he is. "When a leader is 100 percent rational, you can develop policies to deal with that leader, adapt to him", former NATO Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said on Dutch TV some weeks ago. "However, when you have to assume that maybe that leader is just 95 percent rational - well, that's when things get difficult." A 95 percent rational autocrat with a serious grudge sitting on a huge pile of nukes seems enough for NATO's leaders to take a careful approach.

Then there are the Kims in North Korea. Whenever the dictators in Pyongyang need something from the West, they detonate a dirty bomb in a cave, reactivate a reactor, send an intercontinental ballistic missile crashing close to Japan, or threaten to build more nuclear bombs. Whatever Kim Jong Un wants from the West, all he needs to do is rattle North Korea's would-be nuclear sabre, and he gets it. Well, most of it anyway.

In fact, all you need to do is let the world think that you're making nuclear weapons. Doing so might convince your powerful opponents to drop their economic embargoes. This is what Iran is trying to do: trade its nuclear program for normalized relations with the West. Whether such a deal would also involve Iran dropping its support for Hezbollah or Syria's murderous dictator, or stop threatening its neighbors across the Persian Gulf, remains to be seen.

If you want a seat at the table, all you need to do is build nuclear weapons. That makes non-proliferation a pretty tough sell.

Germany's Economic Mannschaft Prevails

The German soccer team, the Mannschaft, four times a World Cup winner, has built its reputation not so much on theatrics, but on two less flamboyant qualities: team spirit (Mannschaftsgeist), and endurance. It so happens that these selfsame qualities helped the German government prevail in the standoff with the government of Greece, led by hard-left Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, over the bailout program under which Greece is committed to implement austerity measures and structural reforms in return for a €240 billion ($273 billion) bailout. Germany has contributed €80 billion itself to the bailout.
 
Showing true team spirit, German leaderships assigned roles to Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble. While the latter adopted a tough line, Merkel's conciliatory tone countered accusations that Germany was being a spoilsport.
 
The German government also took took pains to play collectively. Berlin worked with other eurozone partners to stress the importance that each of them attached to Greece's compliance with the provisions of the rescue program. The team comprised a wide array of eurozone members, ranging from financially healthy Finland and the Netherlands, to debt-burdened countries such as Portugal, Spain, and Ireland, to tiny Lithuania and Slovakia.
 
By acting in concert with these partners, Germany thwarted the Greek government's attempts to scapegoat and isolate Berlin. As a matter of fact, it was Greece, rather than Germany, that found itself short on allies.
 
The Greek government carries a share of the responsibility for that. Had it narrowed its requests to a loosening of restrictions on government spending, Athens would likely have rallied the support of debt-stricken countries - and more important, of France - that have warned against the anti-growth effects of fiscal austerity.
 
Yet instead of narrowing Greece's demands, Tsipras launched an all-out war against the bailout agreement and expected the equivalent of an unconditional surrender from Greece's official creditors.
 
Indeed, in line with electoral promises, Tsipras demanded his country's official creditors write down a chunk of Greece's sovereign debt and give back the yields derived from their holdings of Greek government bonds. He further decided unilaterally to reverse public spending cuts and to roll back the structural, pro-market reforms (privatizations, labor-market liberalization and wage restraint) stipulated in the rescue package.
 
He went even further, declaring the bailout program dead and refusing to deal with the so-called troika, namely the three institutions that supervise the implementation of the program (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund).
 
To make Greece's official creditors abide by its terms, the Greek government took to theatrical posturing, promising Greece's own version of Cold War-era mutually assured destruction. Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, sent a message to Greece's creditors: If you don't accept our conditions, Greece might go bankrupt, which would provoke a Continent-wide financial crisis and put in jeopardy the very existence of the euro.
 
In other words: Play on our terms, or we will all sink together.
 
The problem is, the Greek government had no way to intimidate its official creditors. The worst-case scenario, namely a Greek default followed by Greece's departure from the euro, has ceased to be perceived by Greece's partners as a catastrophe - the eurozone has put in place institutional firewalls to cope with that eventuality.
 
A recent note prepared by Standard & Poor's indicates that Grexit would have little impact on the sovereign ratings of other debt-ridden eurozone countries.
 
As a matter of fact, Greece's partners worry more about the political contagion of an eventual Tsipras success against creditors than they do about the financial repercussions of a Greek default or of a Grexit. Indeed, to yield to Tsipras' demands would bolster the electoral chances of Syriza-like populist political parties across Europe - this is something that eurozone members are keen to prevent.
 
Endurance was the other key feature of Merkel's strategy.
 
Every day that elapsed without an agreement between Greece and its partners entailed an outflow of several hundreds of millions of euros from Greek banks - €20 billion have left the country since December.
 
Add to this the fact that tax collection has fallen dramatically (20 percent below official projections in January after a fall of 14 percent in December), with arrears rising by €1.1 billion per month, and it becomes clear that the Greek government was in a desperate need of a deal with its official creditors so it could obtain fresh funding. Germany and its allies only had to wait for the Greek government to wave the white flag.
 
Capitulation finally took place on Feb. 20, when Tsipras and his finance minister backtracked on practically all the contentious points.
 
The debt write-down was shelved. The Greek government conceded to requesting a four-month extension of the rescue package. The troika will continue to exercise its functions, but under a different name. It will henceforth be called "the three institutions." And the policy reforms the Greek government intends to introduce or change will have to be agreed to by these institutions.
 
Adding insult to injury, the eurozone bailout fund will take back €10.9 billion that had been earmarked for the funding of Greek banks facing financial difficulties. The bailout fund will now directly administer that money.
 
The Greek government would be well advised to do some intensive training in negotiating techniques, and most of all in political lucidity, in preparation for the next match. That contest is scheduled for April, at which time a detailed list of austerity measures, including budget cuts, will be examined by the institutions before these decide whether to grant Greece access to the €7.2 billion of the rescue package that remain to be disbursed.

(AP Photo)

Israel's Military Politicians

Military politicians have played a major role in Israeli politics, defense policy, and foreign policy since the mid-1950s.

These figures - former generals elected to the Knesset and then serving in Cabinet-level roles - have negotiated all of Israel's peace agreements with its Arab neighbors. From June 1967, when Israel finally had something that it could trade with the Arabs for peace, until the collapse of the Oslo process in February 2001, six military politicians had a major influence on Israeli defense and territorial policy: Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon, Yitzhak Rabin, Ezer Weizman, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Barak. The first three played major roles from 1967 to 1977 - the last decade of that era's Labor Party rule. Dayan and Weizman played major roles in the first Begin government (1977-80), and Rabin and Barak were leading contributors in the Labor governments of the 1990s. Sharon was a key actor in the second Begin government (1981-83) and in the first Netanyahu government.

If we examine the attitudes of these six toward Palestinian statehood in the first instance, and then to peace agreements with neighboring Arab states, we can gauge the relative difficulty today of pursuing various avenues for regional peace - and whether the Syrian or Palestinian track, specifically, might be seen as more viable.

Allon, Dayan, Weizman, and Sharon all opposed a Palestinian state. Weizman favored a policy of genuine liberal autonomy for the Palestinians that would have stopped short of independence. It's fair to speculate about whether Dayan would have changed his views on the Palestine Liberation Organization, as Rabin did, had he lived for another decade. But he did not, and we have little proof that he would have. Rabin's change of mind in the early 1990s led to his approval of the famous Oslo deal that Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin were negotiating in secret. Rabin never publicly supported the creation of a Palestinian state - though close associates report that he was privately reconciled to Palestinian statehood. Sharon opposed Palestinian statehood until he became prime minister, and even then he only supported a state that would have covered some 42 percent of the territory of the West Bank - an idea that was completely unacceptable to any PLO leader. Barak agreed to a Palestinian state covering about 95 percent of the West Bank, but then spent the last decade of his political career claiming that he had shown Yasir Arafat was completely inadequate as a peace partner for Israel.

In short, only two of the six key Israeli military politicians were anywhere near reaching a viable deal with the Palestinians. When Rabin was in power, both Sharon and Weizman opposed the Oslo process. President Weizman called on Rabin to halt the peace process, and Sharon inveighed against Oslo and argued with Rabin privately to end Israel's involvement.

On the other hand, all six of these statesmen supported deals with Israel's Arab neighbors under the right conditions. Dayan negotiated separation-of-forces agreements with Egypt and Syria in 1974, as well as the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979. He publicly opposed the Sinai II agreement with Egypt in 1975, possibly because he was not the negotiator.

Allon supported the separation-of-forces agreements as part of the Israeli negotiating team and helped negotiate the Sinai II agreement. He also invented the plan for a peace agreement with Jordan based on a partition of the West Bank - a plan that in fact bears his name, but that Jordan always found unacceptable. In 1979 he opposed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty after visiting Egypt and speaking to members of the Egyptian intelligentsia who opposed the peace. He also preferred negotiating with Jordan in 1974 to negotiating with Egypt a second time.

Rabin negotiated the Sinai II agreement with Egypt in 1975; voted in support of the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 in the Knesset; and negotiated a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. He agreed to a full Israeli withdrawal from Golan in the event that Syria came up with acceptable peace terms. Sharon opposed the separation-of-forces agreements and Sinai II, but supported the Egyptian peace treaty in 1979 as part of the government. He later opposed Netanyahu's negotiating a peace treaty with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in 1998. Weizman supported Dayan in negotiating a peace treaty with Egypt in 1977-79, as minister of defense under Begin. As a Labor minister in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he supported making peace with Syria. Barak nearly negotiated a peace agreement with Syria in 2000, but public opposition caused him to hesitate. He offered slightly less than a full return of Golan to Assad, who was dying and worried about his son's accession.

Given this record, is it any wonder that the Clinton administration favored the Syrian track over the Palestinian track in the 1990s? The Syrian track lacks the complex issues of the Palestinian track: Issues such as the partition of Jerusalem and control of the Temple Mount; the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees; and politically sensitive settlements. The West Bank is also of much greater strategic value to Israel than the Golan Heights. While the West Bank borders Israel's capital and would bisect the country, Golan only commands the settlements in its shadow in the eastern Galilee.

Since 2001, former chiefs of staff have turned to Likud rather than Labor. Likud opposes giving up the West Bank for reasons tied to its core ideology. The best chance for peace is that a former general raised in a Labor home joins the Likud for opportunistic political reasons and then after gaining a major position and following in the party defects with his followers as Sharon did in 2005. As for the Syrian track, it is on hold until the Syrian civil war has run its course and a new government is consolidated. That could take a decade or more.

Thomas G. Mitchell is the author of Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution (McFarland, 2013) and Israel's Security Men (McFarland, 2015)

Paleoconservatives Are Wrong About Putin

The American Conservative prides itself on paleoconservatism, an ideology which quite rightly rejects the neoconservative worldview of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and the military adventurism of the George W. Bush administration. Unfortunately, the publication gets a lot of other things wrong.

One of the magazine's writers, Daniel Larison, authors a blog whose raison d'etre appears to be less about proposing solutions to complex foreign policy problems than about characterizing the statements of others as "nonsensical," "dishonest," "pitiful," "absurd," "comed[ic]," "ignoran[t]", "reckless," "desperate," "cheap," and (my personal favorite) "muddle-headed."

Last year, I drew ire from Mr. Larison due to an article I wrote about how to deal with the Russian annexation of Crimea. True to form, Mr. Larison wrote, "Alex Berezow's approach to foreign policy might be summed up as 'doing stupid things because Russia won't like them,'" but he proposed no solution of his own.

His criticism was in response to my proposal of five non-mutually exclusive options for the West: (1) Economic sanctions and asset freezes; (2) Diplomatic isolation; (3) Fast-tracking Ukraine to NATO and EU membership; (4) Deploying NATO troops to western Ukraine; and (5) Surrounding Kaliningrad (a Russian exclave buried within the European Union) with NATO troops.

Mr. Larison took particular exception to options 3, 4, and 5. He wrote: 

If one wanted to come up with quick ways to escalate and widen the conflict, these would be a good start... [I]t is still remarkable that anyone can look at the crisis in Ukraine and ask, "How can we possibly militarize the situation more and get many more countries involved in a war?" This is the sort of mentality that would take a regional crisis and potentially turn it into a major war if enough Western governments were insane enough to share it.

Despite the fact that Western governments did not share my "insane" opinion, Vladimir Putin turned the regional crisis into a war, anyway. Russia has been sending weapons and soldiers into Ukraine. Russian-armed rebels murdered 298 innocent civilians on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The death toll in eastern Ukraine has likely surpassed 5,000. In the face of little to no provocation whatsoever, Mr. Putin conducted military drills in Kaliningrad. Recently, British airplanes intercepted Russian bombers off the coast of England. Furthermore, Mr. Putin has flagrantly violated and even mocked the recent ceasefire agreement. And according to The Economist, to boost support at home and abroad, Russia's extensive propaganda network, which includes the English language channel RT, "churn[s] out lies and conspiracy theories."

In short, Mr. Putin never had any intention of seeking peace. Irrespective of the West's response -- which did include some nontrivial sanctions and the ejection of Russia from the G8 -- Mr. Putin appears to have planned for an invasion of Ukraine and a ratcheting up of tensions with Europe. Thus, what Mr. Larison and other paleoconservatives fail to appreciate is the fact that Mr. Putin is perfectly capable of escalating conflicts all by himself.

Surely, Mr. Larison, who is also opposed to economic sanctions partially on the grounds that they may exacerbate tensions, would claim that these recent events constitute proof that sanctions do not work. That may be true for the moment, but Mr. Putin cannot flout basic economics forever. The Russian economy is supposed to contract by 3 to 5 percentage points this year due to, as the International Energy Agency claims, a "perfect storm of collapsing prices, international sanctions and currency depreciation." Sanctions, combined with good luck, appear to be working. And more may be coming.

The most damaging economic sanction likely would be banning Russia from using SWIFT. This would, essentially, shut Russia out of the international banking system.

Incidentally, damaging Russia's economy is the best reason to send arms to Ukraine. Few observers are disillusioned enough to believe that Ukraine would defeat Russia in a war. But, arming Ukraine could greatly increase the cost for Mr. Putin. As wallets shrink and soldiers return in body bags, Russians may start to think twice about their support for him.

Yet, Mr. Larison believes arming Ukraine is futile. (How Mr. Larison can believe that sanctions are simultaneously futile and escalatory is perhaps left as a paradoxical thought experiment for the reader.)

Finally, Mr. Larison claimed that "NATO and EU membership are farther away for Ukraine than ever."

That is only partially correct. Ukraine is unlikely to join NATO anytime soon, but the prospect of EU membership appears enhanced. According to the German Marshall Fund, a majority of Europeans want Ukraine to join the EU. Amazingly, two-thirds also want stronger sanctions against Russia, even if it provokes a confrontation.

It is unclear to me what Mr. Larison believes is a proper response to Russian aggression. All retaliatory measures carry a risk of escalation. However, few people want to live in a world where Russia is allowed to misbehave with impunity. Still, if it is true that my foreign policy can be summarized as "doing stupid things because Russia won't like them," then it is equally true that Mr. Larison's foreign policy can be summarized as "sticking one's head in the sand and hoping that Putin goes away." Alas, Mr. Putin will not.

(AP photo)