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Month: December, 2011

The Kremlin’s two-faced response to opposition: bargaining in public, repression in private

When authoritarian leaders face protests over ‘stolen’ elections, there are usually two possible responses.  They can bargain with the protestors, hoping to retain power by delivering concessions.  Or they can crack down on dissent, dispersing protests, jailing ringleaders and stifling communications.  The Russian leadership, in keeping with its smoke-and-mirrors system of ‘virtual democracy’, is trying both at once.

With presidential elections due in March 2012, the public tone of Russia’s ruling elite is conspicuously conciliatory towards opposition movements.  The Kremlin’s infamous political strategist, Vladimir Surkov, has hailed mass protests as ‘absolutely natural’.  The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, today submitted draft bills to parliament proposing wide-reaching political reforms, including the return of direct gubernatorial elections and an easing of hurdles for political party registration.  At least seven candidates will compete in March’s presidential election.

Yet behind the scenes, opposition movements are far from basking in the Kremlin’s good will.  Private telephone calls of opposition leaders have been tapped, and disparaging comments made by Boris Nemtsov (co-leader of the Party of People’s Freedom) about fellow oppositionists were published.  The leader of the Left Front, Sergei Udaltsov, received a five-day jail sentence for alleged jaywalking.  As soon as his term was up, he received a further sentence for misbehaviour during his previous arrest.  The editor of a prominent Russian news magazine was fired after publishing a photograph of a ballot paper cast in favour of the opposition Yabloko party with the words ‘Putin Fuck Off’ scrawled across it.

The next three months will be pivotal for Russian politics.  Either private repressions will anger opponents of the Kremlin, reminding them of their common cause.  Or the Kremlin’s divide and conquer tactics will work, with some Russians bought off with promised tax cuts, others placated by long-term promises of political reforms, and the remaining hard-core opponents ground down by repression.  The Russian leadership is clearly banking on the latter to deliver the presidency safely back to Putin next March.


The question the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign wouldn’t answer: “What is AV?”

So it’s official.  The most googled  ‘what is’ question this year was ‘What is AV?’  And, according to a new blog post from a ‘Yes to AV’ campaign insider, James Graham, the Yes campaign made a strategic, but ultimately fatal, decision not to answer this question. The ‘Yes’ campaign was, of course, spectacularly unsuccessful, with almost 70% of the British public choosing to keep the first past the post system during a referendum in May 2011.

Changing Britain’s electoral system was always going to be a tough sell.  The Conservatives wanted no change. Labour was divided on the issue.  Even the Lib Dems, often thought of as the drivers behind electoral reform, were lukewarm, favouring the single transferrable vote system.  Although electoral reform briefly caught the voters’ interest in May 2010, when the General Election produced yet another disproportionate result, public attention soon focussed on the rapidly deteriorating economy.

Moreover, the ‘No to AV’ campaign had snappy messages.  ‘AV will be costly’.  ‘AV will be complex and unfair’.  ‘AV is a politician’s fix’.  So why did the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign decide not to respond with these accusations?   As James Graham, the Web and Social Media Manager explains,‘Yes to AV’ head strategists believed that answering even the simplest explanations risked causing confusion. Graham lobbied strongly for a different approach, but was over-ruled.  In his blog, he wrote that ‘this was a problem that we needed to solve rather than one we could afford to sidestep.’

If strictly applying textbook political campaigning principles, the ‘Yes to AV’ strategists were right.  The received wisdom is simple: ignore negative attacks when the answer is longer than the accusation.  This strategy is effective in election campaigns, where multiple issues compete and the agenda moves quickly.  But ‘Yes to AV’ was a single-issue campaign, and its proponents had almost a year to make their case.  If the ‘Yes to AV’ strategists weren’t prepared to sell their issue, they had reason to be in the debate at all.

As yesterday’s Google results show, the public was ready and willing to give its attention to the pros and cons of electoral system change.  But people needed information in order to make a judgement.  For years to come, political campaigners will use the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign as a cautionary tale of what happens when you don’t at least try to win your argument.


The full text of James Graham’s blog is available here.

The tsar, the oligarch and the blogger: who’s who in the new Russian politics

The fallout from Russia’s ‘stolen’ parliamentary election ten days ago has barely subsided, but both the Kremlin and the opposition have their sights set on March’s presidential race.  For the first time since 1999, there are new faces on the scene.    Here’s your latest guide to who’s who in Russian politics:

The Tsar: Despite demonstrations contesting United Russia’s victory in the parliamentary election, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader for the last twelve years, remains the man to beat.    Many Russians have tired of his authoritarian style and action man image, but independent pollsters still put his popularity ratings in the high forties.  Between now and next March, he is sure to announce new state initiatives to attract voters – perhaps an increase in pensions or a lowering of fuel duty.  If all else fails, Putin controls Russia’s ‘administrative resource’, which can arrange everything from bribery to ballot box stuffing.  Although March’s elections will be intensely scrutinised, Putin can still count on 99% support in regions like Chechnya and Ingushetia.

The Oligarch: Russia’s increasingly surreal political scene wouldn’t be complete without a 6’ 8” nickel magnate who owns the New York Jets.  Mikhail Prokhorov made a brief foray into politics in the summer of 2011, joining the pro-business political party, Right Cause. He picked up considerable support but resigned in September 2011, disillusioned by Right Cause’s  role as a ‘Kremlin puppet party’.   However, the dynamics of Russian politics have changed since last summer.  Although Prokhorov’s presidential candidacy is unlikely to be directly adversarial to Putin, he will be permitted a much longer leash this time.  Presidential elections are winner-takes-all affairs, so anything that splits the vote of liberal-leaning voters will be to Putin’s benefit.

The Blogger:  A lawyer and social activist, Alexey Navalny, has been thrust into a leadership role after his blog inspired protestors to dub United Russia ‘The Party of Swindlers and Thieves’.     Using his twitter feed (135,750 followers) and his blog (61,184 followers), he called on ‘nationalists, liberals, leftists, greens, vegetarians and Martians’ to protest the against electoral irregularities, unifying Russia’s disparate opposition in a way that hasn’t been seen since 1993. Navalny is currently serving fifteen days in prison for his role in the post-election protests, further enhancing his anti-regime credentials. However, if street protests give way to regular political debate, Navalny’s views are likely to prove divisive in liberal middle class circles; he was kicked out of the Yabloko party for his strong Russian nationalist opinions, including hostility to people from central Asia and the Caucuses.

Height Matters?  Mikhail Prokhorov is 6’ 8”.  Alexey Navalny is universally described as being ‘very tall’.  Vladimir Putin is only 5’ 7”, and is famously touchy about his height.  Somebody get the poor man a box to stand on!

Mythbusters: three things Cameron’s EU veto didn’t achieve

David Cameron’s EU veto has, according to opinion polls, given a warm fuzzy feeling to 60% of the British population.  Sticking two fingers up at Brussels might feel good, but what has it actually achieved?

Cameron has not saved the City of London from EU regulation:  Indeed, EU regulation was never even on the agenda at Thursday’s EU summit.  Britain has genuine concerns in this area, particularly over the proposed ‘financial services tax’.  These are issues for another day, and Britain had better find some allies fast if it wants to achieve aims like locating the new European Banking Authority in London.

As a non euro-zone country, Britain had no vital national interest in Thursday’s treaty anyway: The treaty was flawed because the austerity it imposes on euro-zone states will probably be unworkable.   However, Britain was not being asked to adopt these regulations itself, merely to agree to euro-zone countries adopting new fiscal rules.  Under these circumstances, a veto is the diplomatic equivalent of using an industrial crushing machine to squash a tonka toy.

Britain has lost sight of its real vital national interest i.e. helping to stabilise the euro-zone:   Even the most ardent pro-European would accept that the euro is in mortal danger.  Even the most ardent anti-European would accept that this poses grave risks for the British economy.  There are no easy answers to averting the looming economic catastrophe.  But if we haven’t got any better ideas, it would at least be polite to get the hell out of the way and make supportive noises while others try to sort the problem.

What’s going on with the Lib Dems and Europe?

In the small hours of the morning, David Cameron’s negotiating team crashed out of talks aimed at finding a co-ordinated EU-27 response to the euro-zone’s problems.  The discussions ended in rancour, with the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, accusing the British of behaving like a “man who wants to go to a wife-swapping party without taking his own wife.”

That Cameron’s Conservatives’ have taken an isolationist stance in Europe is not surprising: the party’s ever-present euro-sceptic wing has gained strength in recent months, feasting on the euro-zone’s misfortunes.  But more of a fight might have been expected from the British government’s junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Led by a former MEP, Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems have long been the most-consistently pro-European party in Westminster.

Yet the Liberal Democrats’ response today has been muted.  Nick Clegg stated that Cameron’s demands at the summit were ‘modest and reasonable’, and that the coalition was ‘united on the issue‘.  Senior colleagues publicly supported this view, with former leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, telling the Today programme that the development was ‘inevitable’.

So what is driving the Lib Dems to abandon their traditional pro-European stance?  It is clear that senior Lib Dems now share the moderate Conservatives’ view that, while the fire in the euro-zone rages, the safest place to stand is next to the emergency exit.  Although this disloyalty (in the eyes of other Europeans)  will leave Britain isolated if the euro-zone successfully douses the fire, there is a growing consensus amongst Britain’s leaders that the euro is doomed.

There is good basis for their fears.  The euro-zone still faces daunting debt-mountains and the dilemma of how to make the peripheral countries competitive.  Can the Greek government really deliver on its undertaking to keep its structural deficit below 0.5% of GDP?  When leaders return to their own countries and face electorates exhausted by austerity and frustrated with low economic growth, will these latest plans prove unworkable?  And the European Central Bank still resists taking the role as lender of last resort, which many think is the only guaranteed way to fix the euro.  In short, the Lib Dems are no longer willing to risk any of their considerably diminished political capital defending the EU or the euro-zone.

However, even if the result of last night’s meeting was inevitable, the negotiations were carried out with a shocking lack of tact and diplomacy.  The Tory euro-sceptics’ appetite is unsatiated, since now they want a referendum on whether the UK should be a member of the EU at all.  They would do well to tone down their gloating, for the Liberal Democrats’ acceptance of Friday night’s developments is an indication of just how serious the euro-zone crisis has become.

Russian election: Medvedev hints at partial re-run as 30,000 prepare to protest

The Russian President,Dmitry Medvedev, has raised the possibility that some voting stations in Russia may hold re-runs where electoral violations are proved.  His comments came as the Moscow government authorised a rally of up to 30,000 protestors to take place on Saturday.

The Kremlin is likely to resist any large scale re-running of elections.  However, Russia’s leaders may, if protests continue, make a very public show of repeating the vote in some specific areas where electoral violations have achieved notoriety through youtube.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin, in keeping with his usual good cop/bad cop division of labour with Medvedev, remained defiant, visiting the Central Election Commission today to lodge the paperwork for his presidential bid.  He accused the USA of fomenting dissent in Russia, arguing that, “they want to shake us up so we don’t forget who is boss on this planet.”

Putin Ponders How to Win Back His People’s Affections.

As Russians take to the streets of Moscow for the second night in a row to protest the conduct of Sunday’s election, Putin ponders how to get his triumphant return to the presidency back on track.  Here are his top three cunning plans:

  1. Blame it on Medvedev: Putin is a fair-weather friend to the political party that he created, which is apparently now the brainchild of his hapless number two.  As Putin’s spokesman said today, “Dmitry Medvedev always associated himself with United Russia, and so he agreed to head its list in the elections.”
  2. Fire the cabinet:  According to Reuters,  Putin told members of United Russia (a party which, after all, he has little to do with) today that ‘there will be a significant renewal of personnel in the government.’
  3. Build a new liberal party: Vladislav Surkov, a senior Kremlin official, thinks that Russia needs a ‘popular new liberal party’.  Just as long as it’s not independent of the Kremlin.

Russian, Slovenian, Croatian elections: Final Results

Russia: The ruling party, United Russia, finishes with 238 seats in the 450 seat Duma.  Shares of the vote: United Russia, 49.54%; Communist Party of the Russian Federation, 19.6%;  A Just Russia, 13.22%, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, 10.66%.  Although United Russia narrowly maintains its majority in the Duma, significant election violations were reported and the party’s real level of support is likely to be much lower.  Russia’s presidential elections in March 2012, when Vladimir Putin looked set for a coronation, may yet turn out to be interesting.

Slovenia: A brand new political party, Positive Slovenia, run by Ljubljana’s millionaire mayor, Zoran Jankovic, won Slovenia’s election with 28.53% of the vote.  The centre- right Slovenian Democratic Party, which was expected to win the election, received 26.26%.  The governing Social Democrats won just 10.5% of the vote, crashing from 30.5% in the 2008%. Another new party created by former government minister, Gregor Virant, came fourth with 8.4%, while several smaller parties crossed the 4% threshold.  The electoral arithmetic means that forming a coalition is likely to be difficult: Positive Slovenia has promised to improve the welfare state, while the Slovenian Democratic Party pledged to balance the books and there is also a history of personal animosity between the party’s leaders.  Early elections cannot be ruled out.

Croatia: The opposition coalition won 83 of the 151 seats in the Hrvatski sabor, while the outgoing government, HDZ, won only 40 seats.  Seats also went to a number of small parties.

Election Update: Dramatic Upset in Slovenia, Victory for Opposition in Croatia, Result as Expected in Russia

Slovenia: Exit polls suggest that today’s Slovenian election will be won by a new centre left party led by the Mayor of Ljubljana, Positive Slovenia.  This is a major upset because the centre-right opposition party, the Slovenian Democratic Party, had expected to be the biggest party following the election.  The Slovenian economy has faced major austerity measures in recent years, but Positive Slovenia has promised to create a safe and successful welfare state, an election promise that will be hard to fulfil should Positive Slovenia form a government.

Croatia: As expected, the centre-left opposition Kukuriku party has won an overall majority, winning 83 seats in Croatia’s 151-seat parliament.  HDZ, which has ruled Croatia for 16 of its 20 years of independence, won only 40 seats.

Russia: Exit polls suggest that United Russia has won 45% of the vote in the Duma elections.  This has been reported in some sections of the UK media as an upset but, in fact, the result is precisely as predicted by Russia’s Public Opinion Research Centre, VTsIOM, which produced a ‘forecast’ indicating that United Russia would win 45% of the initial vote but 59% after votes were ‘redistributed’ to account for the 7% threshold.  Some of the less democratic vagaries of Russia’s electoral system were discussed in this blog earlier this week.

Election Profile: Croatia

Tomorrow’s Croatian elections are taking place on schedule, a novelty for European countries in these turbulent times.  However, the campaign has been far from dull. Opposition parties have joined forces against HDZ (Croatian Democratic Party), Croatia’s governing party for sixteen of its twenty independent years.  HDZ’s fall from grace has been dramatic.   Charged with corruption, its assets were seized and its former Prime Minister put on trial in early November.

Meanwhile, the opposition coalition, Kukuriku (‘cock-a-doodle-doo’), looks set to win a comfortable governing majority in parliament.  But victory will be the easy part.  Kukuriku is emphasising its anti-corruption platform, effectively highlighting HDZ’s main weakness.  But the country’s main weakness is its economy, which has been slow to recover from the 2008 downturn. Unemployment is stubbornly high at 17.4%.  Austerity fatigue has already set in, with social discontent rising.

Kururiku’s manifesto, Plan 21, makes for interesting reading.  Unfortunately, as a blueprint for governing in difficult times, it is weak and contradictory.  For example, it bemoans Croatia’s lack of industry, proposing investment to create export-oriented growth production, as if reversing decades of de-industrialisation were that easy.  Manifestos are always optimistic documents, but Plan 21 lacks a sense of realism.

Although decrying neo-liberalism, Kururiku has indicated that an IMF loan may be sought to obtain lower interest rates on Croatia’s debt.   IMF loans come with string attached, and many of Kururiku’s ideas for economic stimulus are unlikely to find support amongst the bean-counters, who have been notoriously dismissive of spend-to-save innovations.   Similarly, plans to create a ‘fairer’ society by increasing state pensions are unlikely to be implemented.

While the Croatian political system will benefit from finally having a strong challenger to HDZ, it will be interesting to see how Kururiku copes with the harsh reality of governing in times of externally-enforced austerity.  The process of turning Plan 21 into a programme for government will be fraught with disagreement and tense negotiation. Unfortunately, party coalitions like Kururiku are notoriously unstable, often struggling to compromise after achieving their unifying aims of ousting the common enemy.

The Croatian elections will be held on Sunday 4th December.

To read Kururiku’s manifesto, click here: http://www.kukuriku.org/plan21

To read HDZ’s manifesto, click here: http://www.hdz.hr/program/