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Latvian PM Resigns Following Supermarket Roof Collapse

The Latvian Prime Minister, Valdis Dombrovskis, has resigned following the collapse of a supermarket roof in Riga, which resulted in 54 deaths.  Dombrovskis, who became Prime Minister in 2009, steered Latvia though a difficult recession after the global financial crisis led to a 25% drop in GDP between Q4 2007 and Q4 2009.

Although Dombrovskis had not been blamed for the supermarket deaths, the 42-year-old Prime Minister tendered his resignation today, accepting “moral and political responsibility” for the disaster.  The Latvian economy has grown at one of the fastest rates in Europe in recent years, but corruption levels remain high.  The tragic supermarket collapse in Riga is likely to be attributed to a breach of building regulations.  Furthermore, the nation’s Building Inspectorate had been phased out, with Dombrovskis’s support, as part of far-reaching austerity measures in 2009.

With the next election scheduled for October 2014, it is likely that a coalition of current parliamentary parties will form a new government.  Parties will begin meeting next week, with the goal of forming a new government by the end of the year.

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Scottish Independence White Paper: The Good, The Bad and the Utterly Deluded

Today the Scottish Government launched a White Paper to set out their arguments for Scottish independence.  Here are just a few of the details to emerge from the 670-page tome.

The Good

The SNP has reaffirmed its support for the European Union, pointing out that an independent nation would not risk being ejected from the EU against the wishes of the Scottish people.  The White Paper also highlighted the damage caused by the current UK immigration regime, particularly to the higher education sector.  The report promises:

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The Bad

One of the more disingenuous passages of the White Paper also referred to the tertiary education sector.  The SNP plans to continue charging students from the rest of the UK full tuition fees to attend Scottish universities.  Yet, an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK would be distinct Member States under EU law.  The Scottish Government must be aware that following this policy would swiftly put them on the wrong end of an ECJ judgement.  Likely they are hoping to stall the question of university funding until after the referendum.

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The Vague

The SNP argues that an independent Scotland would keep the pound, the monarchy and a number of other British institutions.  Yet they have also promised to remove nuclear weapons from Scottish soil as a top priority, which would sour relations with the rest of the UK.  Commentators have long argued that an independent Scotland would have no option but to keep Trident in exchange for constructive cooperation with the Rest of the UK.  So, tucked away in the White Paper, here is the SNP’s get-out clause:

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The ‘Not As Good As It Sounds’

Politicians have a knack of dressing up ‘jam tomorrow’ as ‘a steak dinner today’ and the White Paper launch was no different.  The Deputy First Minister unveiled a new policy of universal childcare.  Just a couple of problems.  First, the Scottish Parliament already has responsibility for childcare, and the SNP have governed Scotland since 2007.  Why must hard-pressed families, suffering under very poor childcare provision by northern European standards, wait for independence before this problem is sorted?  And second, the promise of universal childcare for two-year-olds will not come into force until 2024.

And the Utterly Deluded

On international affairs, the report argues that an independent Scotland would benefit from having ‘a seat at the top table to represent Scotland’s interests more effectively.’  Now, one could argue that a ‘seat at the top table’ is more trouble than it’s worth.  But to argue that a country of five million people will have a place at the top table of international affairs?

Scottish Independence White Paper Offers Little Clarity for Frustrated Scots

The temperature of Scotland’s independence debate has finally started to rise, but sadly the argument continues to produce more heat than light.  Despite the publication of today’s White Paper on Scottish Independence, the narratives haven’t changed on either side: the SNP promises a land of milk and honey, while the Better Together campaign continues to warn that an independent Scotland would be isolated and poor.  Increasingly frustrated voters have resorted to sarcasm, with one joking that an independent Scotland could always use Irn Bru empties as a currency.

The promises in the White Paper largely fall into two categories: (1) things that the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) can already enact under the current devolution settlement; and (2) matters over which the SNP has little control.  Proposing universal childcare falls into the first category. The SNP clearly favours Scandinavian-style public services without Scandinavian levels of taxation.  But unless substantial changes to taxation are needed, there is nothing to stop the SNP, who have a majority in the Scottish Parliament, from introducing universal childcare tomorrow.  Have they been holding back their big announcement as a bribe for independence, leaving Scots to struggle with inadequate childcare in the meantime?  Or will the practicalities of such a scheme require more money than is currently available?

The list of matters over which the SNP has no control, or will have to negotiate, is extensive.  For example, Scotland wants to keep the pound, but this will rely on goodwill from the rest of the UK.  This is unlikely to be forthcoming without compromise from the Scots.  If the UK’s nuclear weapons, currently based on Clydeside, are ordered off Scottish soil immediately, it is hardly likely that a currency union will be forthcoming.  Realistically, an independent Scotland would end up trading these two priorities.

If the SNP’s practical case for independence has more holes than a Swiss cheese, the Better Together campaign is equally aereated.  The SNP have nick-named it ‘Project Fear’, and not unreasonably so.  Plenty of countries smaller than Scotland have forged happy and productive nations within the EU and NATO.  From Ireland in the west to Estonia in the east, none of these countries regret their independence, despite its challenges.

In the short term, all the ‘No’ campaign needs to do is plant seeds of doubt in the minds of undecided voters.  Better Together is in the lead, so there is no need to give hostages to fortune.  However, if they are to put the independence debate to bed, at least for a generation, they need to make a positive case for the future of the UK.  An apathetic discussion, followed by a close result, will only keep the issue of independence on the agenda, resulting in an indefinite limbo for Scotland and an ever more snarky relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK.  That is in nobody’s interests.

Polling One-Off Events: How Reliable are the Polls on Scottish Independence?

The 24th of March 2016 could be Scotland’s Independence Day if Scots vote ‘Yes’ in next September’s referendum.  However, the skirling of bagpipes to herald the birth of a new nation can barely be heard in the far distance.  The most recent poll shows the ‘Yes’ campaign continuing to trail the ‘Better Together’ campaign by 9%, with 38% of voters intending to vote ‘Yes’, 47% inclined to vote ‘No’ and 15% undecided.   With almost half of voters remaining in the ‘No’ camp, the future of the union looks secure.   However, demographic complexities behind this once-in-a-generation referendum may make standard polling techniques unreliable.

The left-wing Radical Independence movement has presented the referendum as a ‘class conflict’ in which the rich promoted a ‘no’ vote to maintain their privilege.  In reality, the battle lines are less clearly drawn.  Research conducted by the eminent psephologist, Professor John Curtice, found that middle class people needed more reassurance than their working class compatriots that independence would not have an adverse effect on the country’s economy.  However, if citizens could be guaranteed that they would be £500 a year richer under independence, the results would be turned on their head.  If the ‘Yes’ campaign can make a better economic case for independence, or if fear of the UK leaving the EU becomes real, the economic calculus may change.

A further demographic curveball is the inclusion of 16 and 17-year-olds in the franchise. Standard opinion polls do not include under-18s, and little is known about their voting intentions.  Traditional polling shows high levels of support for independence amongst 18-24 year-olds, but an Aberdeenshire Schools Referendum found that a large majority of secondary school pupils opposed independence.  It is unknown if these results would be replicated in other regions.  Overall, however, there may be one million people voting for the first time in the 2014 referendum, introducing an unprecedented level of uncertainty.

Furthermore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael MP, has warned that there are large numbers of undecided former Labour voters in the “urban post-industrial belt of Scotland”.  This group of voters became dissatisfied with the Westminster government during the Thatcher era, felt forgotten by New Labour, and voted Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) en-masse in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election.  Their loyalties to Labour, and possibly also the UK, have loosened over time, but this phenomenon may be under-represented in the polling data, which has focussed on voters who claim that they will definitely vote.  As acknowledged by the polling company Panelbase, “all pollsters are in pretty unchartered territory.”

Tomorrow the Scottish Government will publish its long-awaited White Paper on Independence.  Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister, has promised to “answer a range of detailed questions that we have been asked.”  However, many of the biggest questions remain unanswerable.  How would the rest of the UK react to a ‘yes’ vote?  Would they agree to the high levels of cooperation proposed by the SNP?   And what of the forthcoming ‘in-out’ referendum on European Union membership, which may result in the UK leaving the EU against Scotland’s wishes?  And most importantly, do Scots believe that they would thrive, rather than simply survive, outside the UK?

At the current time, many Scots are simply hoping that the quality of the debate, which has so far been pitiful, will improve.

Alison Smith is a Tutor in Comparative Government at the University of Oxford.

Follow her on twitter @AliFionaSmith

The Return of Local Democracy to Russia?

Today’s news (10th September 2013) has reported promising developments in Russia, where an opposition candidate, Alexey Navalny, won 27% of the vote in Moscow mayoral elections.  An anti-drugs activist, also without Kremlin approval, won 33% of the vote in Ekaterinburg to become the new mayor.  The Kremlin’s tentative steps towards restoring elements of local ‘democracy’ are not going entirely to plan.

Although some news outlets, including the FT, have hailed the ‘return of real politics in Russia’, no-one underestimates the scale of the task ahead.   Through the combined use of patronage and coercion, the Kremlin’s ‘power vertical’ remains very much in-tact.  It does not hesitate to use repression, making it very difficult for genuine oppositionists to organise.  Obstacles stand in the way of coordinating public gatherings, registering political parties and nominating opposition candidates. Without access to the mass media, opposition parties must win 7% of the vote across Russia in order to gain representation in the Duma.  That would be a formidable task even if the votes were counted fairly, which they often are not.

Therefore, while Putin’s grip on power looks shakier than it has done in the past, it is still a force to be reckoned with.    The Kremlin has tended to respond to challenges to their power by increasing repression.  In the worst case scenario, the minor breakthroughs of these local elections may point to even more challenging times ahead for Russian democrats.

What Next for Britain’s Pro-Europeans?

One of the problems with political science is that publishing books and articles takes time, but events move quickly.  In 2005, Stefano Bartolini wrote an influential monograph, Restructuring Europe, which  argued that the ‘Europe issue’ had complicated the internal politics of Member States, but had not yet fundamentally changed party competition.

Cameron’s ‘Europe speech‘, finally delivered on 23rd January 2013, and the anaemic response of Britain’s other major parties, whose leaders ostensibly support the EU but are not willing to expend any political capital making a positive case, have finally forced the issue.  Polls show that, while 40% of the British population would vote to leave the EU, 37% would vote to stay.

Britain already has an influential anti-European party, UKIP.  Having, until now, benefited from the tacit (if unenthusiastic) support of the existing political elite, the pro-European lobby has had less incentive to create a formal political movement.

The first-past-the-post electoral system inevitably acts as a straitjacket during Westminster elections.  However, if the anti-European jungle drums continue to beat louder, it seems only a matter of time before the pro-Europeans organise, perhaps in advance of the June 2014 European elections.

Alison Smith is a lecturer in Comparative Government and tutor in European Politics at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford.  You can follow her on twitter @AliFionaSmith.

Czech Presidential Election: The Count is Almost Finished

With more than 90% of the vote counted, it now looks certain that the second round of the Czech Republic’s presidential election will be a battle between the veteran leftist, Milos Zeman, and the country’s aristocratic foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg.  Zeman currently has 24.67% of the vote. Schwarzenberg is hot on his tail with 22.12%.  Former Prime Minister, Jan Fischer, who was long tipped to make the run-off against Zeman, but had a torrid final week after poor debate performances, trails with 16.72%.

The run-off will be held on 25/26 January.

The Race for Prague Castle Heats Up

For months, the Czech Republic’s first presidential election looked like a straight fight between two former Prime Ministers, Jan Fischer and Milos Zeman.  However, the field has opened up in the final week.

While Zemen, a veteran leftist, looks certain to make it through to the final round, Fischer, a technocratic former statistician, has looked lacklustre, spectacularly underperforming in the public debates.  As one commentator put it, ‘emptiness surfaced behind trained gestures‘.

The Czech Republic bans opinion polls in the closing days of the campaign, making predictions difficult.  However, the final poll on Monday suggested that Fischer’s support had fallen to 16.2%, while the support of Karel Schwarzenberg, the country’s aristocratic foreign minister, had risen to 14.2%.

Although still in third place, Schwarzenberg’s campaign has gained momentum, having picked up support from two quarters: those who like neither Zeman nor Fischer; and those on the centre-right who now doubt whether Fischer will be a viable candidate against Zeman in the second round, which is due to be held on 25th-26th January.

Political Developments will keep you informed as the results come in.

Countdown to First Czech Presidential Elections

Lithuania’s Semi-Presidential Stand Off Reaches its Endgame

Almost exactly a month after the second round of the October 2012 parliamentary elections, Lithuania is in the final stages of appointing a new government. As predicted prior to the election, the two centre-left parties, the Labour Party and the Social Democrats (LSDP), gained enough votes to form a coalition with a third party, the populist Order and Justice.  The Conservative Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats, who led the country through the financial crisis, performed better than expected, but were left in second place with no obvious coalition partners.

Given the pre-election maneuvering that had already taken place, the formation of a centre-left coalition should have been straightforward. But it was not to be. The second round of the constituency campaigns was marred by allegations of vote-buying, particularly in prisons, aimed primarily at the Labour Party, which already had a reputation for corruption.  The complaints were referred to the Constitutional Court for adjudication, and Lithuania’s president, Dalia Grybauskaite, refused to approve any government that contained the Labour Party.

The result was a classic semi-presidential stand-off, with President Grybauskaite and the would-be Prime Minister, the LSDP’s Algirdas Butkevicius, locked in a battle of wills.  Meanwhile, the Conservative leader, Andrius Kubilius, continued to run the country.  The deadlock was finally broken when Butkevicius recruited an additional coalition partner, Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania, a small party representing the country’s Polish minority.  This gave the coalition a three-fifths majority in Parliament, sufficient to over-ride any presidential veto.

President Grybaukaite backed down, but not before making two demands.  Firstly, she has asked that the immunity of the MPs implicated in criminal dealings be revoked (Lithuanian MPs have immunity from prosecution).  Secondly, and somewhat bizarrely, the President requested a personal meeting with each proposed minister to confirm their fluency in at least one of the EU’s languages, English, French or German.  President Grybauskaite is a former EU commissioner, and Lithuania will hold the EU Presidency from July to December 2013.  However, the President’s gesture was only partially inspired by respect for Lithuania’s international partners.  Its primary purpose was to exclude certain individuals, viewed by the President as corrupt, from ministerial office.

This month’s stand-off may be healthy for Lithuania’s democracy in the long term. Most significantly, the prosecution of electoral violations is an important step in tackling corruption.  Even better if immunity from criminal prosecution is lifted, since the guarantee of such immunity tends to attract the wrong sorts of candidates to politics.

Although an extra coalition partner can make disagreements more likely, the inclusion of Lithuania’s long-marginalised Polish minority in the governmental process is arguably long overdue.  Lithuania’s relations with Poland have been poor in recent years, largely as a result of disputes over the treatment of this minority.

Therefore, despite the unexpected drama, Lithuania’s 2012 elections have provided an opportunity to tackle problems that have persisted since its transition to democracy twenty years ago.