The Rise of Britain's Female Leaders

When Hillary Clinton tweeted her presidential campaign into being this month, it generated serious excitement among British aficionados of U.S. politics. Despite the imminence of our own general election, Clinton's announcement caused a tidal wave of commentary here, along with particularly intense discussion of whether a female president would automatically constitute a victory for feminism.

The argument chimes with a sudden shift in the visibility of senior women politicians in the United Kingdom itself - a movement prompted by various developments in the substance and the style of British politics. In a country where women's political representation remains among the worst in Europe - 25 years after its first and only female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, left office - that's certainly a trend worth watching.

The trigger point has been the magnified role of televised pre-election debates among party leaders. These are still very new to us; the first took place just prior to the 2010 election and featured the all-male leading cast of Britain's three biggest parties: Conservative leader and subsequent Prime Minister David Cameron, his Labour opponent, incumbent Gordon Brown, and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, the smaller party that is now partner to the Conservatives in the outgoing coalition government.

But on April 2 this year, in an event broadcast on the United Kingdom's major commercial channel, ITV, seven leaders strode out to claim their share of the airtime - and three of them were women. Two weeks later, in the BBC's "challengers' debate" held among the five parties not presently in government, these three women outnumbered the men for one historic moment.

In the intervening five years, change has been effected as much by the extraordinary state of UK politics as by the qualities of the women concerned. The reality of coalition government itself has had an impact: It would hardly have been fair to force Labour leader Ed Miliband to appear as the lone opposition to the two parties of government, meaning another three-way debate was out of the question.

Meanwhile, longstanding dissatisfaction about the convergence of the main parties at the political center has fueled the rise of more radical alternatives on both ends of the spectrum: on the right, the UK Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, and on the left, the Green Party, led by Natalie Bennett, who is the only female leader of a UK-wide political party.

But the most recent and explosive change of all was last year's referendum on Scottish independence, which saw support for the Scottish National Party rocket upward, with mortifying results expected to ensue for UK-wide parties at the upcoming polls - and especially for Labour, which had long dominated Scottish politics. In this climate, the SNP could hardly be excluded from the leaders' debates, and their leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is generally acknowledged to have put in a formidable performance - a revelation only to those south of the border. Sturgeon has since been labeled both as a kingmaker who will decide whether or not to push a liberal-left coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats over the line, and as the most dangerous woman in Britain.

And if one nationalist party was to get their invitation to the debates, that meant an opportunity for another. Step forward, then, Leanne Wood of Wales' Plaid Cymru. The Welsh party has more seats in Parliament than UKIP and the Greens, yet Plaid Cymru had long been treated as a political irrelevance by the United Kingdom's notoriously London-centered media. Wood's contribution in fact produced the most meme-friendly moment in the seven-way debate, when she told UKIP leader Nigel Farage "you should be ashamed of yourself" for his comments on foreign nationals seeking HIV treatment in the United Kingdom.

Change moves to the center

Of course, a few over-egged headlines and some decent YouTube ratings do little to alter the fact that none of these women has the slightest chance of becoming prime minister in an electoral system which will favor the two major parties for the foreseeable future. But change may also be in store from that direction before too long.

When Cameron spoke in March of his possible successors as Conservative leader, naming current Home Secretary Theresa May among them, he merely confirmed what Westminster-watchers had long known, which is that May has used her term in arguably the most challenging ministerial role of them all to shape herself into the first credible female contender for a generation.

Meanwhile, May's opposite number on the Labour side, shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, has been spoken of as a leader-in-waiting for as long as Miliband has occupied the throne, and in fact longer. All of which makes the prospect of a future prime ministerial contest between two women, followed by five years of two female voices raised against each other at the infamously boorish affair that is Prime Minister's Questions, a very realistic one.

We have yet to see what the long-term impact of any of this will be. The Conservatives or Labour may yet win an outright parliamentary majority, or at least enough seats to form a deal with only the Lib Dems. Perhaps the major party leaderships will elude May and Cooper, and all then may revert to business as usual. But as Britain charts novel political territory, the sight of modern-day, politically eclectic female leadership is an important reminder that narrowness and uniformity are not inevitable.

(AP photo)

UK Election: Reading Between the Polls

Beneath the unswerving lines of deadlocked polls in the race to control the British Parliament, runs a strong current of uncertainty. Britain's long-established Labour-Conservative duality, first shaken in 2010, is likely to be shattered this year as codified electoral distortions and voter discontent reveal themselves in full force on May 7. Why will the Scottish National Party sweep into a kingmaker role with dozens of seats despite registering in the single digits in the polls? What kind of coalition will emerge - or will one of the two major parties carry a Queen's Speech and oversee a minority government? Will Nigel Farage fail to win his own constituency, blunting the euroskeptic UKIP's recent rise?

With two weeks left before Britons head to the polls, RealClearWorld caught up with Peter Allen, lecturer in British Politics at Queen Mary University of London, to unpack some of the trends leading into election night. The following interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity:

Our own columnist Alex Deane has written about the problems with the way the UK counts votes. According to Alex, the Conservatives get the short end of the stick. Is he right?

The way it works is we have a first-past-the-post system, with single-member constituency seats similar to the U.S. House of Representatives. People vote for a candidate, and the candidate with the most votes in each constituency wins. So you don't get rewarded for votes that don't make you win. The way the Conservatives are done over is geographical. As a kind of historical rule, Labour seats will be underpopulated compared to Conservative seats. Say you have two blocks of 100,000 voters. Labour might get five seats out of that 100,000 votes, whereas the Conservatives, if they got 100,000 votes, they might only get three or four seats, because more people live generally in Conservative-held seats. if you think about the Southeast of England, that's where it tends to happen.

So seats are not appointed by population, it's geographical. It's also interesting that the more populated areas vote Conservative.

Where we're sat right now (London) is a massive exception to that rule, because this is very densely populated and it's a Labour stronghold. But as a rule, when you think of the North of England , it's very underpopulated compared to the South. And Wales and Scotland historically both lean heavily toward Labour, and are very lightly populated compared to England. They have tried to change this. We have what are called boundary reviews roughly every 10 years, but they don't keep up with what's actually happened. They have a boundary review, and they might implement changes, but by the time the election comes around, the changes are already outdated. I don't think it's necessarily a conscious thing, it's just an accident of the system. But there's a vested interest for Labour certainly in not changing the way the system works.

Do the Conservatives have a realistic outlook of changing the Labour bent of those areas, of breaking out of their strongholds?

They could do. But they tried to redraw the boundaries in I think 2011, and were voted down in the House of Lords. The argument from people who didn't want to redraw was that it would be gerrymandering in favor of the Conservatives. Generally these things are done by an impartial body, the Boundary Commission. But the Conservatives are trying to force their hand to redraw them in a more fair way. They could try to have a stronger appeal in the north of England, but it's just not a traditional Conservative stronghold.

This election, being as unpredictable as it is, how has it changed campaigners' judgment of marginal (competitive) seats?

If a seat is held by someone with a less than a 5 percent majority, that makes it a marginal seat. That's where the election is won and lost. We have a lot of what are called safe seats where people are just never going to lose, barring some massive seismic shift, which is actually exactly what is happening in Scotland right now. You are seeing a lot of people lose safe seats in Scotland, or we will, in two weeks time, see people lose safe seats. A safe seat being where somebody had a majority of more than 10 percent, for example.

And because the seats are geograhy- not population-based, there are a lot of those seats in Scotland.

Yes exactly, and the SNP can pick up a lot. Scotland was redrawn, with a reduced number of seats, but Wales in particular still has a lot more seats than arguably it should. If you compare what they call the electoral quota between England and Wales, Wales has a significantly lower quota than England. Wales has far more seats than it should, and that benefits Labour.

In a future election, could we expect a Scotland-type phenomenon in Wales?

Plaid Cymru is still the third or fourth party party in Wales, depending on the poll. Labour and the Conservatives are still the biggest parties in Wales. I can't see that changing unless there was a real serious independence movement, which i don't expect any time soon. The Welsh are generally more happy with the settlement, or at least less willing to challenge it, than the Scots.

Let's talk about the losers in this seismic shift. Who are some of the bigger names who might lose their seats? What are some of the most important individual races to keep an eye on?

Well there's some very very famous people. Sir Charles Kennedy, he used to be leader of the Lib Dems, he looks like he might lose his seat. Douglas Alexander, who's currently in the Labour Shadow Cabinet and actually part of the Labour election leadership, he looks like he may well lose his seat. Danny Alexander, who was chief secretary to the treasury, he might lose his seat as well. So you're going to have a lot of very famous high-profile politicians at risk. It's always hard to tell whether people will on the day suddenly change their mind. But it does look like some of them are in real trouble.

I think one really important seat to watch this time is going to be Nigel Farage's seat in Thanet South. That will be tight. There are some seats that are always kind of tight - a lot of the seats in Birmingham are usually quite close. So there's a few Labour MPs, one in particular called Gisela Stuart, I think she won election last time by a few hundred votes. Hampstead and Kilburn in North London - actually one of my friends is running there, taking over from Glenda Jackson, who was a famous actress, she won an Oscar. She won by seven votes last time.

In Scotland, it's not even the case that they're necessarily marginal seats. They wouldn't have been considered marginal (before), they've just come into play. But now a lot of those are marginal. Generally you see it in the outskirts of urban areas, where social change can have an effect - where something might have happened in the social fabric of that area that would have changed the way that people would vote. Those would be the seats to worry about if you're a political party.

What strategy might UKIP follow? Polls have them at 15 percent, yet they aren't going to pick up a lot of seats.

Obviously they want as many seats as they can get. But they are, like you say, in a very difficult position. This is another example where a national swing isn't going to benefit smaller parties, because you really want a concentration of votes as opposed to a national swing in the electoral system. The electoral system is biased against the smaller parties. So the Lib Dems still are the third party, on paper at least. The polls suggest they're going to be in trouble, but they'll probably bounce back.

Why do you say that?

I think their ground support should come through in the end. The polls have them anywhere between 6 percent and 15 percent. I think it will probably be closer to the 15, although you can't really say with any certainty. But they have had a very good ground campaign for years. They were really good at going into constituencies, building up lots of local activists who then go out and knock on doors.

UKIP haven't had that. They're really new, so they haven't been so good at campaigning in the way that someone like the Liberal Democrats do. They're getting better at it, and people like Matt Goodwin, a political scientist at Nottingham, he's looked in depth at how they campaign, and he suggests they're getting better as well. But that's why UKIP will not be able to have that kind of instant effect that the Lib Dems built up over years - they just haven't had the time to build it up yet.

Having said that, they've got Nigel Farage. He's basically a celebrity. It would be a disaster for them if he doesn't win Thanet South. That would probably would be "it" for them in terms of any sort of credible attempt at making a real difference, because he is the party. I don't think many people would even be able to name anyone else, though there are some interesting characters in the party - Douglas Carswell, for example.

If they fail, I think someone else like them will come around, or Conservative or Labour will have to move in a way that picks up the lost votes.

What will things look like on May 8, and what will happen then?

I can't see a full coalition between anyone other than what we have at the moment, probably. And I don't really see the numbers working out on that front. If you look at every projection, it looks like (another Tory-Lib Dem coalition) is a pretty unlikely outcome. The Conservatives may well get more seats than Labour, but it's going to be very close - it could be a 2-or-3 seats difference based on some projections.

And does the party with the most seats get first crack at putting together a government?

It's not entirely clear. The precedent seems to be that the current prime minister will be asked if he can first. So the Queen will ask David Cameron to try. What (a ruling party) would want to be able to do is to carry a queens speech, which is where they outline their policy agenda for the year, and they would need enough votes to get a majority in the House of Commons. And if Cameron can't, which it may well look like he can't, then it goes to the next, which will be Miliband probably. I think it's most likely that Ed Miliband will be prime minister after May 7, simply because he could put together a minority government. Labour with the support of the SNP, maybe on that one vote, or on an ongoing vote-by-vote basis, could do that.

I don't think Miliband would want that, necessarily. Minority governments are generally unstable, for obvious reasons, and it's highly likely that we'll have another election pretty soon if that arrangement doesn't work out.

Even though the rules have changed for calling elections.

We've got this thing called the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. And I must admit it's very confusing, what the different permutations of it are. Basically it means the next election date is set in stone: It takes place five years after the prior election, so we already know that we're going to have an election in May 2020.

The Act removed the power of the prime minister to call an election whenever suits him or her best. It's a bit more boring form our point of view, but a minority government could still collapse. We wouldn't be bound to hobble on for five years. Ed Miliband, I heard a rumour yesterday that he's now considering scrapping the fixed terms act anyway if he became prime minister. If push came to shove, they could remove a government that didn't command the confidence of the House.

So a Labour-led government would probably not be done by coalition?

It'll probably work on a vote-by-vote basis, or by some sort of agreement. It's almost certainly not going to be a coalition - well, it won't be, they've all said it won't be. What it will probably be is on a confidence basis. Labour will only pursue legislation that it knows the SNP will support - and presumably the one or more Green MPs if they are returned.

And the Lib Dems aren't in this picture?

There just aren't the numbers for the Lib Dems, the only way it makes sense is for (Labour) to ask the SNP. If the SNP have upwards of 40 seats, that's when they become the ones who decide. And in a best case scenario, the Lib Dems look like they'll lose half their seats anyway, so they'd be down to about 30.

This has precedent in Britain, governments working on a confidence basis. It's not unheard of. In one sense this happens already in a very non-formal way. You get people like the Democratic Unionist Party always voting with the Conservative government - or with the coalition government in this case - on a number of issues. So it'd be more about formalizing something that would probably happen anyway. Because the SNP and a lot of the Labour party are ideological bedfellows, even if some of them can't publicly admit it. Quite a lot of the stuff that Labour want to do, the SNP want to do as well. According the Institute for Fiscal Studies this morning, the SNP and Labour plans are quite close economically. It looks like it would make sense for that to happen.

Why does SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon suddenly have this UK-wide appeal?

It's hard to unpack whether it's because she's an actual left-wing politician who's got a national stage, or how much of it is because she's a woman, and she's refreshing compared to Clegg, Cameron and Miliband. But equally, there is something about her. She's got a lot of charisma, she's very good at giving speeches. But also there is the reality that she's probably popular for a lot of people because she's not really in the mix. It's easier to covet something that you're not necessarily going to have to deal with. Even if they were in a powerful position after the election, which it looks like they will be, her aim is still focused north of the border. So for a lot of English people, their idea would be that eventually she won't be an issue anyway, if she's as successful as she aims to be.

(AP photo)

Obama Dances Alone

After assuring his top diplomat, John Kerry, that Cuba has been behaving well of late, U.S. President Barack Obama scratched the island nation off the list of countries that abet terrorism.

That was foreseeable.

Obama had already announced in Panama that his government would not seek regime change in Cuba. Havana's presence on the list of sponsors of terrorism was part of a regime change strategy - a political dunce cap meant to malign its adversary on the long road to displacement.

Nevertheless, it was a fair description. For decades, the Castro regime worked hand-in-hand with the nastiest people on the planet, from Carlos the Jackal to the adipose royal dynasty in North Korea, as well as Libyan leader Moammar Ghaddafi and the Colombian narcoguerrillas. Obama's clear wish is to forget such grievances and open a new chapter.

Obama will soon return the Guantanamo base to Cuban ownership. As contemplated in the Helms-Burton Act, that exchange was to take place once Cuba was deemed free, but Obama didn't want to wait for such an uncertain milestone. He asked a friendly law firm for a legal report outlining his options to get rid of the territory, and he got it.

The next step will be to receive from the Navy a memorandum explaining that the base is expensive and of scant military usefulness. The Navy will oblige, opining that it can and should be closed.

The third step will be to relocate or release the Islamist prisoners accused of terrorism. It wouldn't be a surprise to see a final accord that includes a guarantee that, for some period of time, the territory will not be used as a military base.

Strictly speaking, little of this matters, but for one key element: It marks an abrupt turn of American will on the global stage. Washington no longer aims to topple enemy regimes and stand firmly behind friendly governments who share the United States' values and interests. This all adds up to a substantial modification of the vision and international mission of the United States.

Seventy years ago in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, Franklin Roosevelt assumed the leadership of a democratic world that believed in free enterprise. That responsibility was defined in economic terms at the outset - that's what Bretton Woods was all about - but later acquired a political dimension under Harry S. Truman after the outbreak of the Cold War.

The primary objectives of that conflict were to change enemy regimes and support friendly governments. It seemed a zero-sum game: What the West lost the Soviet Union won, and vice versa.

Within that scheme, Washington supported Greece and Turkey, reconstructed Western Europe and Japan, halted and neutralized North Korea's invasion of South Korea, kept Italy and France from being controlled by the Communists, but couldn't stop Vietnam from winning a devastating war. It contributed to stage an anti-Soviet coup in Iran, overthrew Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and, from the sidelines, helped topple Salvador Allende in Chile.

Washington lost in Cuba, and because it never reversed that defeat, it lost again in Nicaragua, Angola, and Ethiopia. Cuba was a moving machine-gun nest at the service of totalitarianism and of the adventurous instincts of Fidel Castro, a kind of Caribbean Napoleon, tireless and fecund, who even in old age proved capable of spawning Hugo Chavez, the Sao Paulo Forum, and 21st-Century Socialism.

Obama's abrogation of the U.S. will to change and sustain regimes begets two problems. The first is that almost the entire bureaucratic apparatus devoted to projecting Washington's power abroad was conceived and fitted toward the overt effort to support its friends and replace its enemies. It is not easy to stop the inertia generated by seven decades of institutions and laws dedicated toward a single purpose.

The second, and the more important, is that although Obama may unilaterally cancel his enmity - while he may personally decide that the enemies of the United States have stopped being enemies - the adversaries of democracy, pluralism, and free markets will continue to fight to change the regimes they oppose. We see this happen in the Americas with the neopopulist family called ALBA, or in the Middle East, where Iran destabilizes Yemen, conspires in the Gaza Strip, and threatens Israel with annihilation.

It is possible that Obama has decided to stop changing or supporting regimes. His enemies, delighted, have different plans.

Never Say Never Again

Only after hundreds of refugees perished in the Mediterranean Sea did European heads of state decide to convene and seek solutions to the ongoing tragedy. Alas, the ideas on the table will not even begin to stem the flood of refugees as none address the root of the problem: civil strife and poverty in Africa.

Most refugees trying to flee to safety in Europe hail from wartorn Syria, or are Africans shuttling through the chaos in Libya for a way off the continent. Although many Syrians try to cross into Europe through Turkey, increasing numbers travel to the Libyan coast via Egypt in order to find smugglers who will put them in dodgy dinghies - or worse. And they pay a lot of money to do it.

After hundreds of refugees drowned this week when their boats sank, and video footage captured the tragedies, European politicians reacted. The European Commission proposed a 10-point plan that boils down to improving search-and-rescue operations and basically doing more of the same.

One theory has been thoroughly disproven: Cutting down on sea rescue operations, which is what happened when the EU nations pulled the plug on Italy's Mare Nostrum operation, does not motivate refugees to stay on African shores. Some governments earlier argued that the very fact that European ships perform active search-and-rescue missions encourages refugees to try and cross the Mediterranean.

Undoubtedly the European Union should beef up its operations to rescue people in distress and find ways to evenly distribute them across the EU member states. But Europe should also actively pursue the stabilization of Libya.

The current situation in Libya is reminiscent of Lebanon during its civil war. Several groups are at once trying to take control of the country. What remains of the national government is powerless. Government services such as the border police and customs have collapsed. It is in this chaotic vacuum that people smugglers find the freedom they need to strip desperate refugees of their money - and all too often, their lives.

Aside from this, the vacuum is also giving rise to Islamofascist groups like ISIS. The self-labeled Libyan chapter of ISIS likes to engage in the slaughter of innocents. What they carry out is the kind of butchery Europe last witnessed during World War II, when Nazi extermination squads enjoyed killing those they deemed lesser beings.

When that war ended and the world came to know the truth about the horrors inside the Third Reich, Europeans said: never again. Then came the mass killings in the Yugoslav civil war, which Europeans were not able to stop without U.S. help. After that war, Europeans said: never again. Then came Rwanda, after which Europe again said: never again.

Just a few years ago, Europeans and Americans removed the murderous dictator Moammar Ghaddafi. The Europeans made the same error they had accused Americans of after toppling Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 2003: neglecting to engage in proper nationbuilding, or even having a strategy for it. Now as Libya descends into civil war, it presents a gateway to Europe not only to refugees, but also to ISIS terrorists.

It is time to own up to Europe's mistakes and stem the tide in Libya. The European Union should engage with the United Nations to set up a large peacekeeping force with a tough mandate, and go to Libya to restore stability, separate the warring factions and disarm them - by force if necessary. Then organize a conference with the factions and establish a democratic federal republic that restores border patrols and law and order.

It will not be easy. It will cost money, it may cost lives. But at least it's a lot better plan than trying to mop the floor dry while the water keeps flowing from an open faucet.

Britain's Watershed Moment Approaches

With less than three weeks to go until polling day, the overall picture remains unchanged in the UK general election campaign. The two main parties are polling neck-and-neck nationally, which translates to a small advantage for the opposition Labour Party given the long-unchanged and outdated constituency boundaries on which the election will be fought. A TV debate for party leaders - which, unlike the earlier contest, was not attended by the prime minister - saw Labour leader Ed Miliband emerge reasonably well, with the Scottish National Party's Nicola Sturgeon continuing to shine. (While most UK voters can't cast a ballot for Sturgeon, much of the country that can is dead-set on doing so.)
 
But below the deadlock in headline polling, things are moving fast. Miliband - judging, perhaps rightly, that he's doing well enough that he won't require their support in the next Parliament - has announced that he won't join an "anti-Tory coalition" with the SNP, explaining that he will not put the future of the United Kingdom in jeopardy. Here an insight in the British political lexicon is perhaps enlightening: The Conservatives, the party to which your correspondent belongs, are currently the largest party in the House of Commons. The party evolved in the early 1800s from an earlier party labeled "the Tories" by opponents. The Irish word for "robbers," Tories is a term which has stuck with the party ever since.

A more likely coalition would pair Labour with the Liberal Democrats, the minority party in the coalition that governed the last Parliament with the Conservatives; but Miliband will not commit to that, either. Prime Minister David Cameron has said that he would "feel a failure" if the Conservatives don't acquire an overall majority in the Commons - a result that looks very unlikely. Boris Johnson, the high-profile, charismatic mayor of London and the object of frequent speculation as a future leader, is conspicuous for his absence from the Tory campaign trail and his almost ostentatious lack of association with it. Polling shows that the SNP's rise north of the Tweed means that Labour's strong leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, may lose his seat.
 
If the election delivers a hung parliament as expected, a formal multiparty coalition is not the only path toward forming a government. To move into 10 Downing Street and staff the offices of state, a government is only required to have "the confidence of the House of Commons" - which in practice simply means defeating a vote of no confidence. This requires Members of Parliament to vote with the ruling party on one issue alone. So the largest party might try to run a minority government.

Instead of compromising and splitting power with potentially unreliable allies who would certainly dilute their ideological focus and drive, the ruling party in this way would at least be able to act decisively, occupying all ministries with its own MPs, and then wrangling votes from other parties to pass bills into law - through informal coalitions, ad-hoc deals, on a case-by-case basis, or a mix of all such measures.
 
The tricky bit - for the British Constitution and people, if not for the eventual ruling party - is that we now have fixed-term parliaments. A minority government, once appointed, might fail sooner or later, but without the ability to call an election, that failure would only be met with more failure. Such a government might limp along for months before being put out of its misery, perhaps even being forced to vote against itself or at least abstain from any vote of confidence about its ability.

Despite also ruling through fixed-term governments, the American system has avoided these troubles. But then again, despite occasional intruders and interlopers, America's remains a binary system, with two parties hoovering up most of the votes. In the United Kingdom, we have at least six significant parties contesting the 2015 election. In fact, this may be regarded in future years as the watershed moment in which Britain moved from what might be called the Anglo political system toward a more frankly European model.
 
Such are the things we think about as this election drags on - at least, those of us who are still interested. The fixed term means that this election date has been known and anticipated, and campaigned toward for years. The remaining weeks won't be an eternity - but for much of the election-fatigued British electorate, they'll feel like it.

Diplomacy Now: Isolationism and Endless Concessions

I was wrong when I wrote that for the first time in its history, U.S. diplomacy lacked a coherent framework.

I had been led to that mistaken belief by gratuitous concessions to the Cuban dictatorship, the awful preliminary agreement with Iran, tolerance of the excesses of Chavez and Maduro in Venezuela, and the contradictory manner in which U.S. diplomats had handled, for example, the crises in Ukraine, Honduras, and Egypt.

A crass mistake, as historian Diego Trinidad pointed out to me. There is a frame of reference, rarely utilized these days. It is a book, titled How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace, written by Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and member of the National Security Council, which directly serves the White House.

The work, published by Princeton University Press, can be purchased very easily through Amazon.com. I'll refrain from giving a detailed description of its contents - full of erudite historical references - but it's worthwhile to summarize its central theory because it's very simple: The way to transform foes into friends and sustain peace is to give them big unilateral concessions, to expect or demand nothing in return, to cancel all hostile action, and not try to change the nature of those adversarial governments.

Kupchan's premise is the burial of the traditional diplomatic logic that prescribes carrots for one's friends and allies, sticks for one's enemies and nothing for the indifferent. It is the end of the active diplomacy developed after World War II and aimed at turning the world into a peaceful and prosperous place dominated by democratic regimes where the market economy and human rights and freedoms are respected.

It is a mixture of goodliness and neo-isolationism. It is also the end of the idea that the United States, as the hegemonic power in the economic and military fields, tries to bring the planet stability and to promote good government - the latter defined as the administration of peaceful, democratic, and productive societies that are open to international trade.

Naturally, the regimes in Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran surely will watch with enormous satisfaction as the United States gives up trying to stop them, because that leaves them an open field. But this won't change the basic perception that those nations have of the government and free-trade economic system that U.S. society puts on display.

After all, Havana and Caracas are not ethnic enemies of the United States, but rather ideological adversaries of the liberal democracies and the free-trade system that this nation leads. If the United States were a communist nation or shared the vision held by the countries espousing so-called 21st-Century Socialism, anti-Americanism would cease at once.

We need to remember that Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez did not choose anti-Americanism or communism as a reaction to Washington's policy, but - as Fidel Castro has made clear a thousand times - because they believed in the virtues of collectivism, central planning and social control exercised by a single party. They are anti-American by dint of being pro-communist.

Somehow, ironically, this new way to handle diplomacy (which to me seems harebrained) adopted by the United States is not a consequence of weakness but of success. The United States produces one-fifth of what the world generates with less than 5 percent of the world's population and has unbeatable armed forces that consume more than $600 billion a year. That gives it a dangerous feeling of invulnerability.

With those elements in his favor, Obama believes that he can afford to ignore friends and foes. Can he? I doubt it. The international vision of the United States since the era of Franklin Roosevelt and the Bretton Woods accords of 1944, when the German Army was still on a war footing, was conceived to place on Washington the responsibility of leading the so-called "free world" until it achieves the defeat of the enemies of democracy.

That tradition, which is more than 70 years old and has seen the triumph of the West in the Cold War, has generated an entire bureaucracy (today disconcerted) devoted to achieving those objectives.

The inertia of these organizations is very heavy, and Obama has less than two years left in the White House. Fortunately, I don't think he will manage to impose his ideas, which are, it seems, those of Kupchan. A world without a head is a much more dangerous world.

(AP photo)

Europe's Leftist Dinosaurs Are in Trouble

The moderate left is faltering in many countries in Europe. From Spain to France, to Denmark and the Netherlands, and down in Greece and the Czech Republic, mainstream leftist parties are either languishing in opposition or lagging in opinion polls. Part of the problem is the mainstream left's lack of new ideas.

Take French President Francois Hollande as an example. When he was appointed president, his Parti Socialiste was riding high in the polls. These days, however, the French socialists are losing election after election while Hollande suffers in opinion polls.

At first glance, Hollande's main problem would seem to be his inability to deliver on promises made to voters, especially after a failed tax scheme on high earners spread disillusion among his base. But the old socialdemocratic way of taxing and spending the economy out of the doldrums wasn't working, and Hollande had no plan B.

Hollande's plight is mirrored throughout the European moderate left. In Denmark, the coalition government of Helle Thorning-Schmidt looks set to lose the next elections. In the Netherlands, the ruling PvdA has dropped to record-low levels in polls. In Spain, the PSOE, which sits in the opposition, is lagging behind the new, radical-left party Podemos. In Greece, Pasok has become a political zombie, while the ruling radical-left Syriza performs well in the polls.

Complaints among leftist voters seem to be the same everywhere. Their parties are either undertaking highly unpopular reforms that are associated more with the austerity policies of right-wing parties, or they are trying to implement half-baked Keynesian tax-and-spend policies. Either way, the disillusionment among left-wing voters is the same.

It is no coincidence that most of these troubled parties are in highly developed European countries with costly government-run welfare schemes. With treasury coffers empty after the destructive credit crisis of 2008, and tight budget rules constraining governance in eurozone countries, replicating the expansive policies of Japan and the United States (which under President Barack Obama spent a total of $4.7 trillion in direct and indirect stimulus) is nearly impossible. U.S. national debt stands at almost 100 percent of gross domestic product, while Japan's is well north of 200 percent. The U.S. economy is growing, while Japan's is showing signs of life after flatlining for almost two decades.

European left-wing parties are well aware of the problem. Leftist think tanks, economists and political scientists have for years sought the Holy Grail of new progressive politics. Should the focus be on what is called pre-distribution (higher wages, a living wage, lowering the burden of health care costs) or classic redistribution through progressive tax systems? Or perhaps a mix of both?

In countries where taxes are already high, progressive-tax redistribution is increasingly unpopular, including among leftist middle-class voters who realize that they too are in the higher income brackets. Pre-distribution policies, meanwhile, are unpopular in business circles, as higher wages will reduce competitiveness.

If the moderate left wants to prevent being crushed between right-wing parties and the radical left, it needs new ideas. Plans and concepts that keep welfare systems alive through reform without adding too much to the burden of taxpayers and keeping people in the low income brackets out of poverty at the same time.

It is a tough challenge, but one the moderate left has to face.

The World of 2050: More Muslims, Fewer Buddhists

If demographics truly are destiny, the world is destined to have nearly as many Muslims as Christians, fewer Buddhists, and a declining share of agnostics and atheists by the year 2050, according to a new demographic survey from Pew Research.

Between 2010 and 2050, Pew expects the global population to rise 35 percent to 9.3 billion people. During this period of global growth, the Muslim population will grow 73 percent, owing to "comparatively youthful populations with high fertility rates." The number of Christians will also rise, but at a slower 35 percent rate that keeps pace with the overall trend in global population growth.

The religion with the worst growth prospects is Buddhism, which is the only faith that Pew expects to actually lose adherents in absolute numbers by 2050.

Interestingly, Pew is projecting that agnostics, atheists, and those not formally aligned with any religion will lose share globally by 2050, falling from 16 percent of the global population in 2010 to 13 percent in 2050, despite a growth in absolute numbers. The relative decline of a group typically associated with modernization reflects the "vivid geographic differences in the patterns of religious growth in the coming decades," Pew noted.

"Religions with many adherents in developing countries - where birth rates are high, and infant mortality rates generally have been falling - are likely to grow quickly," Pew wrote. "Much of the worldwide growth of Islam and Christianity, for example, is expected to take place in sub-Saharan Africa. Today's religiously unaffiliated population, by contrast, is heavily concentrated in places with low fertility and aging populations, such as Europe, North America, China and Japan."

Muslims win the baby-making race, with a global fertility rate of 3.1 children per woman. Christians come in second, producing 2.7 children per woman while Hindus place third with 2.4 children per woman.

The report also studies how the net age of a given population and global migration patterns will impact religious rates. What Pew did not take into account was whether economic modernization would alter the growth of religious identity. While the study acknowledges that economic growth has been cited to explain why North America and Europe have a higher percentage of atheists and agnostics, the authors discount this as a factor when making their global projections, pointing out that Indians, for instance, have retained their affiliation to Hinduism despite rapid social and economic growth. 

Elections Affirm the Fixed Truths of Poland's Foreign Policy

Poles head to the polls this autumn to elect a new parliament, and one of the foremost questions on the minds of international observers will be how and whether Poland's foreign policy could change as a result.

Poland's geopolitics, though complex and historically fraught, can today be boiled down to a relatively simple system that comprises relations with three external actors: Russia, the United States, and the European Union. These three relationships will be the main focus for any Polish foreign minister, and will to some degree determine Warsaw's relations with every other country.

The contenders

Currently, it seems unlikely that any party other than the ruling Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) or the main opposition party, Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, PiS), could win those elections. Both are nominally conservative parties, though the PO has tacked hard to the left and now sits at the Polish political center, while the nationalist PiS's economic policies favor heavy government intervention. 

The Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, SLD), a leftist, social-democratic party founded by and still including many former communist politicians, has been in a tailspin ever since it fell out of power in 2005. At this point the SLD, which received about 10 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections four years ago, cannot be considered a contender to win. The rural-oriented Polish People's Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, or PSL) is also unlikely to collect more than some 5 percent of the vote. The PSL traditionally plays the kingmaker role. The party, which is part of the PO-led governing coalition now, typically focuses on domestic issues, and if they do join a coalition after the elections, they are unlikely to vie for the foreign minister's seat.

Turning up the heat

Any changes to Poland's foreign policy are thus likely to be a matter of volume - the fundamentals will not change much, especially with Poland's diplomatic options subject to the constant pull of the three big planets in its geopolitical solar system. Poland must remain on guard for possible Russian aggression; that will force it to rely more on NATO, and specifically on American guarantees of intervention. With three-quarters of its trade occurring with other EU member states, and billions in structural funding heading Poland's way from Brussels through 2020, Poland will have no choice but to remain pro-EU, doing whatever it can to keep the bloc from dissolving under the threat of a British or Greek exit, while also looking to increase its voice on the European stage and its clout within the union.

Polls have been close, but the ruling PO has retained a slight edge over the PiS in recent weeks. Late last year, after former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Poland's first ever premier to win re-election, was appointed president of the European Council, Ewa Kopacz took over to lead the government. The Cabinet shakeup that ensued moved Radosław Sikorski from foreign minister to speaker of Poland's lower house of parliament (nominally a promotion for him). Sikorski is a foreign policy stalwart with a strong reputation throughout the Continent, while his replacement, Grzegorz Schetyna, has little foreign policy experience. Yet Poland's foreign policy remained consistent even after Tusk departed. Poland criticizes Russian aggression, but that criticism doesn't shape policy. Warsaw continues to see the United States as its main defense guarantor, with a strong emphasis on drawing as much U.S. support - especially troops - to Poland as possible. And the European Union is treated as a significant, positive driver of economic prosperity. 

If Kopacz wins her first parliamentary election as prime minister, little will change in the way Poland looks to the world. If she wins big, she may feel able to rid herself of Schetyna, who was handed the foreign policy portfolio in exchange for the votes of a large faction he leads within the party.

The broad strokes of Polish foreign policy will remain the same if the PiS wins the parliamentary elections and forms a government. Warsaw's rhetoric, however, will heat up. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, will vent sharper anti-Russian views and will be more vocal in courting the United States, while de-emphasizing cooperation within the European Union.

Kaczynski and his party have always played on anti-Russian sentiment in Poland. But since the 2010 plane crash that took the life of his twin brother Lech - Poland's president at the time - and 95 others just outside of Smolensk, Russia, he has made that strategy the centerpiece of his party's foreign policy positions. Many PiS members still believe Moscow downed the plane. Still, beyond making angry political speeches or instigating the odd diplomatic spat, there will be little that a PiS government would do differently than the PO when it comes to Russia. While it might feel protected by the guarantee of NATO's Article 5, PiS does not want war with Moscow.

What PiS will do, however, is make a more concerted effort to lock in strong relations with the United States. The party will do even more than the PO has so far to insist that the United States place a large, permanent contingent of troops on Polish soil as a guarantee against Russian aggression. Were the Americans to decline, relations could sour somewhat, though Poland has no choice but to abide by Washington's decisions. There is no other ally that could step in to offer Poland serious defensive aid.

Under PiS stewardship, relations with the European Union would deteriorate. The party's Catholic base dislikes what it sees as EU-imposed secularism, so social reforms mandated by the European Union on issues such as gay rights or women's equality would not be a priority. PiS leaders of course know how crucial trade with Warsaw's European partners is, and they recognize the importance of the billions of euros in EU funding that Poland receives. Challenges to Brussels from a PiS-led government in Warsaw would therefore be limited to countering EU social reform efforts, and seeking to undermine German leadership of the bloc. 

Poland's parliamentary elections this year will be a turning point: Will it continue with the same ruling party led by a new prime minister, or will it swing back to a conservative-nationalist party whose leadership garnered a reputation for being prickly and petulant during the middle part of the last decade? Whichever of the two leading parties wins, the main tenets of Poland's foreign policy will remain the same, with fluctuations possible in the strength of the rhetoric and the policy emphasis. Any major transformation, if it comes, will be the result of outside events rather than internal politics.

(AP photo)

Grexit: The Moment of Truth Is Nigh

Andy Langenkamp is a global policy analyst for ECR Research.

Five years ago, Greece became the first member to endanger the survival of the eurozone, and now, once again, the Hellenic nation challenges the fundamental political, economic, institutional, and legal assumptions of the common currency's framework. Yet markets don't seem especially worried about a Grexit (partly because the European Central Bank's quantitative easing program has perverted markets).

Some respected analysts at banks and other research houses, however, are increasingly starting to worry. Barclays' Philippe Gudin wrote: "The risk of an accident is still very high in our view, which could imply a Greek default and even possibly a Greek exit from the single-currency union." Macropolis analyst Wolfgang Piccoli said "Greece's moment of truth is inexorably approaching...It is difficult to see how the situation could improve in the crucial weeks ahead."

So are Athens and its European counterparts on their way to a clash that will break up the currency union, or are the fears of Barclays and others overblown?
All parties need to reach a deal in the coming weeks. Otherwise Greece will run out of money, and institutions will no longer be allowed to help them out.

End the blame game

The eurozone and Greece can no longer simply trade accusations over who is to blame for the crisis. Athens' creditors must admit that eventual debt restructuring is inevitable. The Greek government, led by the Syriza party, cannot go on stalling. Greek leaders must prove that the administration can indeed be radical - but radical in the sense that it breaks with previous governments and starts battling corruption head on. This means improving tax collection, making real progress on privatization efforts, etc. In fact, Syriza has so far moved away from radical form while in office - but in the wrong direction. The party is emulating its predecessors by foot-dragging over reforms while blaming the majority of  Greek suffering on outside forces.

But can Syriza yet be Greece's radical savior? The news that Greek authorities are escalating a criminal investigation against the head of the nation's official statistics office (Elstat), Andres Georgiou, doesn't bode well. Critics of Georgiou accuse him of inflating Greece's budget deficits to help justify Greece's bailout. The investigation bears all the hallmarks of a witch hunt. The outcome of this case will indicate how serious the current government is about setting Greece along a sustainable political and economic path.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras still underestimates the magnitude of the problems his country is facing right now, if he meant what he recently wrote to German Chancellor Angela Merkel: "I am urging you not to allow a small cash flow issue, and a certain ‘institutional inertia,' to turn into a large problem for Greece and for Europe." Those "small" issues could herald an unprecedented blow to European integration.

Fortunately, within his own party, Tsipras increasingly embodies a willingness to compromise to save his country. Tsipras realizes that most voters did not elect Syriza out of ideological conviction, but because they were fed up with the old parties. In other words, the overlap between Syriza voters and the party is small, as Dutch journalist Marloes de Koning puts it. This also implies that there is room for compromise if Tsipras manages to keep the radicals in his party in check.

This was clear during the recent discussions between Tsipras and Merkel. Both leaders succeeded in accomplishing the purpose of the meeting: to defuse tensions and prevent public acrimony from impeding the search for a way to keep Greece financially solvent, and to keep the country in the euro. But just because the air has cleared a bit, it does not mean that a solution is inevitable.

The moment of truth

Tsipras can no longer hesitate; he has to choose. Will he seek to please the technocrats and politicians of the eurozone, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, or will he instead acquiesce to the real radical-left elements in his Syriza party (not to mention his coalition partner, the rightwing-nationalist Independent Greeks)? He has so far played for time, putting off the moment of truth. Unfortunately for him, time and money have run out.

From the creditors' perspective, many are convinced that the eurozone would be able to cope with a Grexit economically, especially having fortified the eurozone architecture with measures such as the banking union. However, political considerations will get the upper hand - these are national-electoral, and they are geopolitical. There are numerous European elections coming up, and politicians would prefer relative stability in the eurozone so as not play into the hands of populist parties. Moreover, with the Ukraine crisis, and volatility in countries neighboring the European Union, geopolitics has regained a prominent place in the minds of European leaders. If they were to decide to cut Greece loose, Athens could turn to Russia and China for help. Nobody wants that.

So as a result of Tsipras' lack of actual left-wing radicalism, the life-threatening condition of the Greek financial sector, and the electoral considerations of European politicians and geopolitics, we still think that Greece and the eurozone will hammer out a deal in the coming weeks.

The British Election Debate Scorecard

We were unsure for months, during the lead-up to the election campaign that officially kicked off on Monday, whether a debate between party leaders in the United Kingdom would take place at all. Discussions over rules and participants broke down at every turn, with Conservative Party negotiators in particular playing hard to get.

Faced with the genuine possibility of missing out on an evening of cheaply produced televised drama with viewing figures in the millions, the British networks went into overdrive on the issue - perhaps overlooking the fact that the debate stands as an inside-the-beltway discussion of little interest to the voting public. After all, in the history of the Mother of All Parliaments, debates between leaders occurred at all of one previous election - to skip them would have been no break from longstanding precedent or rich tradition. In the heady debate about the debate, Ed Miliband declared that he'd legislate to ensure that these debates, "which belong to the people," would take place by law, an interesting example of speaking before thinking. What might that mean, exactly? "The leader of the Opposition won't go to a TV studio to debate - clap him in irons and compel his attendance!"

Well, anyway. A compromise was fudged and on Thursday, we in Britain were treated to a grand, seven-way, all-in leaders' debate featuring the Conservatives, the Greens, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru (the Welsh nationalist party), the Scottish Nationalist Party, and the United Kingdom Independence Party.

In any such fight, with gunfire flying in all directions, casualties are more likely than winners and a clear result is all but impossible to declare. That said, here is my entirely personal and subjective scorecard:

David Cameron (Conservative Party, serving Prime Minister): 8 out of 10. No flash and nothing fancy, a solid performance. The prime minister had the most to lose and not much to gain from this debate, so emerging without a pratfall was apparently the whole of his playbook for the night - and it worked.

Nicola Sturgeon (Scottish Nationalist Party): 8 out of 10. Long known for their streetfighting qualities, the SNP turn out tough, charismatic performers such as Sturgeon and their past leader, Alex Salmond. But they can also be charming and smart - as Sturgeon was in the debate, making a clear play to side with Ed Miliband, continuing the manoeuvring for a place in a post-election coalition that increasingly characterizes the tenor of this campaign.

Ed Miliband (Labour Party, serving Leader of the Opposition): 7 out of 10. In an earlier non-debate "debate" where the two main party leaders were grilled by a presenter and studio audience one after the other, Miliband exceeded low expectations and emerged a clear winner. This time, public expectations were more realistic - he's not a no-hoper as he'd been portrayed, he's just uninspiring. Miliband turned in a creditable but rather narrow performance. He reached out to his base more than seizing the chance to speak with the wider audience that should be the focus of rare occasions like this. That said, post-debate snap polling shows that Miliband was (by a narrow margin) viewed as the victor by the public, and more general election polling shows that his present strategy is standing him in good stead for election day, so maybe this base-warming wasn't bad tactics.

Nigel Farage (UKIP): 7 out of 10. Farage is among the most charismatic politicians of his generation, but his style is more suited to the stump and the hall rather than the multi-participant, stop-and-start debate format. He's known for "telling it like it is" and landing blows. The fact that there emerged no memorable Farage quip from this debate is telling. That said, he needs to get out his core vote, and the more he is seen on terms of parity with the prime minister et al, the better for him - so it was a winning night for him all in all.

Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats, serving Deputy Prime Minister): 5 out of 10. That the serving deputy prime minister and darling of the debates held before the last election ranks fifth here is pretty remarkable. Clegg is a smooth operator, but he has somewhat lost his way, and in fact may yet lose his seat. He seems tired and uninspired.

Natalie Bennett (Greens): 5 out of 10. Way off the pace, Bennett has never recovered from a very poor media interview prior to the formal campaign period in which she seemed not to know the details of any of her own policies. Bennett failed to make much of an impact. Her star rose quickly earlier this year, and it has fallen with equal speed.

Leanne Wood (Plaid): 5 out of 10. Good exposure for her on the wider stage, but Wood really didn't take any chances. Her tactics - praise the NHS, criticize Farage at every opportunity - were predictable and don't take her beyond the slice of Wales that already likes her.

Now that it is over, what - if anything - did the debate really mean for who will run the United Kingdom after the election? In a debate that ICM polling found nobody really "won," the more the public sees Miliband, the more it does not dismiss him as a potential prime minister. The simple fact that the debate happened and that he is the visible alternative leader in this forum was vital for him. For Cameron, not slipping up was key; for Miliband, showing up was. They both succeeded.

There's one final, telling point. In a political system becoming increasingly presidential in style, there is more focus now than ever on the leaders. When asked in the flash poll to choose who was impressed most between the two candidates likeliest to be prime minister - Cameron and Miliband - the electorate was split exactly 50/50. There's a lot of life in this campaign yet.

(AP photo)

Is Russia Losing Competitiveness on Arms Markets?

Despite recent reports that Russia, along with the United States and China, is a top military exporter, "Russian military equipment manufacturers are becoming less competitive in the global arms market and have been forced to withdraw from key sectors."

That at least is the view of Alexander Brindikov, chairman of the advisory group to the general director of Rosoboronexport, Russia's main arms export entity. Global competition from countries using technologies analogous to Russia's, such as Ukrainian and Chinese exports, challenges Russia in arms markets that are increasingly crowded. Prior to the fighting in Eastern Ukraine and the conflict over Crimea, Ukraine used to deliver technical components and technology to its Russian counterparts, maintaining the relationship established in the Soviet era, when certain key military industries were based in Ukraine. According to Brindikov, there are "internal problems" with specific Russian industries, such as electronics and high-tech equipment. Russian daily Svobpodnaya Pressa (SV) decided to verify these conclusions and investigate the outlook for Russia's military exports in 2015. "For example," continued Brindikov, "Russian armored vehicles face increasing competition from Germany, China, and even Ukraine. We have become uncompetitive, we had problems with the industry, with the delivery of the equipment. Among the industries where Russian arms manufacturers are facing difficulties to compete are artillery systems. We are in a bad position there."

Despite such pessimism, there is little reason to think that Russian arms exports are going to suffer. Alexander Fomin, head of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC), recently said that over the past 11 years, the supply of Russian arms abroad tripled. Russia's arms exports in 2014 exceeded $15.5 billion. The current portfolio of military orders amounts to $48 billion, according to Fomin. Responding to global instability and the proliferation of conflict, Russia has re-established military-technical cooperation and concluded contracts with Nigeria, Namibia, and Rwanda. "Our Asian portfolio accounts for about 60 percent, Africa for more than 30 percent," said Fomin. Russia is also keen on expanding military exports to Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil.

However, this year, according to Fomin, exporting weapons will be more difficult, due both to sanctions and to violations of industrial integration, primarily with Ukrainian enterprises, and the resultant scarcity of parts. Svobodnaya Pressa asked several military experts whether Brindikov's statements are reason for real concern; whether Russian industry is indeed becoming less competitive; and whether Ukrainian and Chinese technology could in fact oust Russia from global arms markets.

Vladimir Shvarev, deputy director of the Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade (TSAMTO), told Svobodnaya Pressa that he believes Brindikov exaggerated - Russia was already uncompetitive in certain arms markets. "When it comes to unmanned aerial vehicles, various types of electronic equipment, communications, etcetera, we have been traditionally poorly represented in these markets. However, recently the situation concerning domestic UAVs is quietly changing. For example, we entered into several contracts for light drones, including with Vietnam. When it comes to field artillery systems, Sweden was and remains the traditional leader, as well as the US and UK, although we are not conceding our small market share."

Shvarev further noted that Russia has to address gaps in precision electronic equipment and indigenous production. "Our country has actively pursued a program of import substitution. In particular, the domestic VK-2500 helicopter engine will replace its Ukrainian counterpart in all helicopters. Of course, such a transformation is not possible without certain delays."

Competition and quality

Addressing Chinese competition, Shvarev noted that Beijing actively competes with Russia in the market segments where Russian exports are most competitive. "China strengthens its presence in certain markets due low cost of their equipment, and by providing easy loans for the purchase of this equipment," he said. "This is the power of China, and I consider them our main global competitors."

Viktor Murakhovski, chief editor of Arsenal of the Fatherland and a member of the Expert Council to the Chairman of Russia's Military-Industrial Commission, disagreed with Brindikov. "Russian naval artillery ammunition of the 130mm, 100mm and 76mm calibers is popular in the global markets," Murakhovski said. "India alone purchased an extra batch of our ammunition for their T-90S tanks. We are quite confident when it comes to international markets that have traditionally used Russian ammo and supplies."

Murakhovsi added that Ukrainian situation had almost no effect on Russian exports.

SV further asked whether Ukraine really offers serious competition to Russian arms exports. "I strongly doubt that," said Murakhovski. "Now everyone prefers to break all contacts with the Ukrainians. Judge for yourself - Kiev recently decided to terminate a contract with the Democratic Republic of Congo for the delivery of 50 modernized T-64BM1M tanks. As I understand it, their contract with Thailand for the delivery of the Oplot main battle tank is on the rocks - the Thai army was supposed to replace its outdated M41 American tanks with Ukrainian machines. Then there is the story of the 42 armored personnel carriers which Iraq sent back to Ukraine, refusing even to unload military equipment from the vessel."

Murakhovski said Ukraine's military industry has dried up. Clearly it has indeed suffered considerably since the start of hostilities with Russia-backed rebels, although there is still hope that Kiev can rebuild its domestic and export capacity following the cessation of hostilities. Military industry accounts for a good percentage of Ukrainian gross domestic product and involves large segments of the country's economy.

To be fair, Russia's defense industry has had its own issues securing sales on the global market. A few years back, Algeria refused delivery of Mig-29 Russian fighter jets due to the poor quality of the aircraft. In fact, such quality issues were severe enough that the Russian government began purchases of these aircraft in order to keep Mig manufacturers from going bankrupt. Russia also faced difficulties with its long-term client India when it came to the sale and modernization of an old Soviet aircraft carrier for Indian use.

Murakhovski further commented on China: "Despite the fact that Beijing came in third place in the export of arms and military equipment, by our own indicators they are still very far behind. We are close competitors, but mainly in those markets where buyers have limited budgets. Yes, Beijing is actively dumping and refuses to enter into a variety of offset agreements. But I must say that China agrees to the terms to which Russia will never agree. We are working with foreign customers for real money."

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.