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    Swedish election: triumph for the nationalist right leaves establishment parties in a quandary

    The nationalist, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats are the major gainers of the 2022 Swedish national elections.

    Votes are still being counted but preliminary results show the party has gained 3.1%. This makes it the second largest party in Sweden, trailing only the the left-wing Social Democrats (albeit only by about 1.5% of the vote). And while the Social Democrats may be the largest individual party, the broader results currently make a right-wing coalition a more likely prospect.

    Importantly, the Sweden Democrats have become the largest party of the right, which will leave other, more established parties on that side of the political spectrum in a difficult position when negotiations over forming a government begin.

    The coalition game

    In Sweden, the parties stand individual candidates but, knowing that coalitions are the norm, they generally make pre-electoral alliances. Smaller parties inform the voters of their post-election plans during the campaign, including which other parties they see as their potential governing partners. They also make it clear which parties they would not consider acceptable partners.

    Sweden Democrats have historically been left out of such alliances. That, however, may have to change.

    Since the 1970s, Sweden has been ruled by minority governments (with a few notable exceptions, such as during 2006-2010). The coalition in power needs the support of other parties in the parliament to pass through legislation, in exchange for concessions on core issues to these parties.

    When looking at the election results, the most important element is the viability of the coalition and the willingness of non-coalition members to support the new cabinet when laws are passed in the parliament.

    A place for the nationalist right in government?

    With votes still being tallied, the race between the conservative alliance Moderaterna and the centre-left alliance Social Democrats is incredibly tight. There are fewer than 50,000 votes between them. It does, however, look likely that the right-wing coalition will secure the majority of seats in the Riksdag (parliament) once postal votes and votes coming in from Swedish nationals living abroad have been counted.

    Votes are still being counted in this exceptionally tight race.
    EPA

    The question, now, is whether the Moderaterna bloc will create a minority government excluding the Sweden Democrats (as they implied they would during the campaign) or whether they will be forced by the results of the popular vote to award the right-wingers a ministerial post. If they do, they risk losing the support of the Liberal party, which agreed to join a governing coalition only if the Sweden Democrats remain outside the cabinet.

    Moderaterna is under extra pressure here since it performed less well in 2022 than it did in the election held in 2018 and has been overtaken by the Sweden Democrats. In fact, all the parties belonging to the conservative alliance have lost votes since 2018. The Social Democrats, meanwhile, performed better this year than in 2018, making them the only right-wing party to have made gains. This makes it all the harder to justify excluding them from a coalition.

    It is too early to call these elections, as negotiations will likely continue to weeks or even months. In 2018, it took until December to swear in a government and this year’s result may deliver similarly protracted negotiations.

    What we do know is that the left-wing Social Democrats did not receive clear support from Swedish voters. The recent prevalence of violent crime and gang activity were top concerns in this election, and Moderaterna has made law and order a core campaign issue for decades.

    And even though the message has not been explicitly framed as such, many voters make an association between crime and the question of migrant integration. This, of course, has been encouraged by the Sweden Democrats, the very people who have come out on top in the vote. More

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    Italian government collapse: the political chess moves behind Mario Draghi's resignation

    Political instability in Italy is nothing new – the country has had 67 governments in less than 75 years. Its politicians are often shortsighted, moved by special interests and career concerns, rather than by the common good. This is what’s behind the collapse of the most recent government – the prime minister, Mario Draghi, resigned after failing to secure the support of his unity coalition.

    To some, sending Draghi packing may appear irrational – his 17-month-old government was backed by all but one of the country’s main political parties. A period of inflation and a war on Europe’s eastern border doesn’t seem an ideal time for political instability. But this development is hardly irrational, or surprising.

    The current Italian parliament was elected in 2018. Its first government was led by a coalition of the two parties that received the most votes – the Five Star Movement and the League. The former is a relatively new populist movement, co-founded by comedian Beppe Grillo. Cashing in on social discontent, the party won support in the south of Italy by running on a combination of anti-elite messaging and promises to increase public spending. The League is an established right-wing populist party with most of its political constituency in the north.

    These two parties had a similar stance on some key issues: anti-immigration, pro-early retirement and the establishment of a basic income. They joined forces to appoint Giuseppe Conte, an unelected professor of law, as prime minister.

    This populist coalition broke down in summer 2019 when the League opted out and was replaced by the centre-left Democratic Party. The new government was still led by Conte, but now held his position thanks to the support of the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party. But this government was brought down during the pandemic in February 2021 and was replaced by a national unity government led by Mario Draghi, an independent and former president of the European Central Bank. This government was supported by all major parties, with the exception of the far-right Brothers of Italy.

    There are two other factors contributing to the current political climate. First, the parliament that came out of the 2018 election was substantially different from previous ones. The Five Star Movement obtained one-third of the overall seats, bringing to parliament many MPs with little or no political experience and from low-income jobs. The selection of these political amateurs as candidates was done through a private online platform.

    Second, the first Conte government passed a constitutional law, later confirmed by a referendum in September 2020, reducing the number of members in the Italian parliament from 630 to 400 in the lower house and from 315 to 200 in the senate. With the next political election, initially scheduled for 2023, the parliament will shrink by one-third. This has exacerbated each MP’s individual career concerns.

    Political movement and government collapse

    With elections scheduled for March 2023 at the latest, some parties have started to reposition themselves towards their electorate. After nearly four and a half years in parliament, MPs have also secured their parliamentary pension rights and may therefore be prepared to take more political risks.

    Conte, having established himself as leader of the Five Star Movement, was the first to make a move. He criticised Draghi’s government for being shy on social measures and presented him with a series of policy requests – essentially an ultimatum for the government to have the continued support of the Five Star Movement.

    Faced with internal division and declining support in the polls, Conte was clearly trying to mobilise the Movement’s base supporters. He did not expect this to be a risky move, as Draghi’s government held a large majority in the parliament.

    Giuseppe Conte, leader of the populist Five Star Movement, presented Draghi with an ultimatum, kicking off weeks of political chaos.
    Massimo Percossi / EPA-EFE

    Draghi refused to accept an ultimatum and resigned, despite having a majority in the parliament. The Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, refused his resignation, sending him back to the senate for a confidence vote, which coalition partners decided to boycott. Draghi won the vote, but lost enough support from his coalition to make his resignation inevitable. This time the president accepted and dissolved the parliament.

    Looking forward

    Meanwhile, parties firmly to the right of the political spectrum have also been repositioning ahead of the next election. Conte’s ultimatum gave the League (led by Matteo Salvini) and the more moderate Forza Italia (led by Silvio Berlusconi) an unexpected opportunity to drop their support for the government.

    Salvini and Berlusconi are now expected to join their parties together for a snap election, which, following the collapse of Draghi’s government, will take place on September 25. Given recent polling trends, they are believed to have a better shot at coming on top against the far-right Brothers of Italy in an early election, rather than next spring. The Brothers of Italy was the only party not in Draghi’s coalition, and has been rising in the polls at the expense of the other two right-wing parties.

    By withdrawing their support, Salvini and Berlusconi managed to send Draghi’s government home, and send Italy into its first summertime electoral campaign. Current polls predict a right-wing coalition government led by Giorgia Meloni – potentially the first female prime minister in Italian history. In all relevant issues, from economics to social policy to foreign relations, such a government would be a major change from the liberal, market-oriented, Nato-centric view of the Draghi government. Not quite the scenario Conte had in mind. More

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    EU sues Hungary over anti-gay law – what it could mean for LGBT rights in Europe

    The European commission is taking legal action against Hungary at the European court of justice (ECJ), escalating a longstanding dispute over the country’s anti-LGBT laws. This is an unprecedented step for the EU, but it isn’t a sure win for LGBT rights in Europe – and even has the potential to endanger them.

    Hungary (under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s leadership) and the EU have been at odds for years over the wider issue of the rule of law. This intensified in 2021 when Hungary adopted a new law banning the depiction or promotion of LGBT-related material to minors. Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called it “a shame” that goes “against all the fundamental values of the European Union”.

    In July 2021, the commission launched official infringement procedures against Hungary for failing to implement and comply with EU law. Later in the year, it also froze Hungary’s access to the COVID recovery fund. Unsatisfied with Hungary’s responses, the commission has now escalated the matter and referred the matter to the ECJ. This is the first time the EU has taken a member state to court over LGBT rights.

    In recent decades, Europe has seen an increase in the use of homophobia to score political points. Examples include the manif pour tous demonstrations against same-sex marriage in France, and Croatia’s referendum to constitutionally define marriage as a heterosexual union. Hungary’s law has also inspired other countries, like Romania, to try and ban so-called homosexual propaganda.

    The outcome of this case could have far-reaching consequences for LGBT rights in Europe. In effect, the commission is asking the court to enshrine LGBT rights as part of the EU’s fundamental values, on a par with other principles such as freedom of movement.

    The EU and LGBT rights

    Perhaps by taking legal action, the commission is enacting its own LGBTIQ equality strategy, launched in 2020. However, the commission’s claims frame the case as a breach of the EU’s internal market rules, rather than LGBT rights. This should not come as a surprise – the EU has very few direct laws on LGBT rights. By framing the case around core EU rules, the commission has a stronger chance of succeeding. In the past, the court has ruled on LGBT rights by invoking other fundamental EU principles.

    The EU claims that by enacting this law, Hungary is violating both the EU charter of fundamental rights and Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union.

    Here is where the case becomes interesting. Although the charter of fundamental rights has clauses that explicitly protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, it only applies to Hungary when it is implementing EU directives. Article 2, on the other hand, has much broader applicability, but does not refer to LGBT rights at all. By submitting this court case to the ECJ, the commission is not only asking the court to determine when EU rules have primacy over member state rules but also to clarify that the rather ambiguously defined European values explicitly include LGBT rights.

    European commission president Ursula von der Leyen has made her views on Hungary’s anti-LGBT law clear.
    Francois Walschaerts / EPA-EFE

    How the case could play out

    There are three possible outcomes of this case.

    First, the ECJ could rule (for the first time) that the values outlined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union also include LGBT rights. This would be the more activist ruling – going beyond established case law for a more political statement. Hungary would then be required to adjust the law and remove its discriminatory nature. More widely, this would also be a watershed moment in European LGBT politics – it would not only provide a strong mandate for the commission to take bolder steps on LGBT rights, but it might also lead to more challenges of discriminatory laws across Europe.

    Second, in a (unlikely) doomsday scenario, the ECJ could side with Hungary. This would provide nearly free rein for anti-LGBT actors in Hungary, and across the EU more widely, to enact more homophobic laws. This would leave the gains made in the last 50 years for LGBT people in Europe on shaky ground.

    Finally, in the most likely scenario, the ECJ would deliver a ruling that sits somewhere in between. Based on previous case law, we might expect that the ECJ would rule that the Hungarian law violates EU rules, but only to the extent where the law has cross-border implications. In this scenario, the ECJ ruling would signal to Hungary (and other countries) that is it acceptable to discriminate against homosexuality, as long as they are smart in their wording.

    Such a ruling would not clearly and unequivocally clarify that LGBT equality is a fundamental EU value, but rather leave LGBT rights as a secondary principle, subject to the more established EU principles of the internal market and freedom of movement. This would create ambiguity as to when homophobic laws are a matter of
    member state policy, or when the EU has to (or can) intervene, giving homophobic governments license to enact more laws like Hungary’s. More

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    Italy heading to snap election as unity coalition crumbles: Explaining the nation's fragmented party system

    Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi resigned for a second time in a week on July 21, 2022, after his earlier attempt to step down was rejected by the country’s president.

    _This time, President Sergio Mattarella responded by dissolving parliament. A new election is set for late September. In the meantime, Mattarella asked Draghi to carry on as caretaker leader. His resignation comes a day after Draghi won a vote of confidence in parliament, but in a way that signaled that the broad ruling coalition was fractured beyond repair.

    It’s a lot to unpack. So The Conversation called on Carol Mershon, an expert on Italian politics at University of Virginia, to explain the situation and what may come next.

    What is going on in Italian politics?

    It’s been an interesting few days. Mario Draghi, who was not elected to Parliament but was invited to form a government in February 2021 by the president, resigned twice. Draghi has been serving as a nonpartisan prime minister leading a broad coalition of parties that made up a unity government. But that coalition has crumbled. First, members of the populist 5-Star Movement refused to vote on a government bill over concerns that cost of living relief measures were insufficient, prompting Draghi’s first resignation.

    That led to a vote of confidence on July 20. Draghi won the ballot in the Senate with 95 votes in favor and 38 against. But it was by no means a ringing endorsement. The Senate has 315 seats – which means that many lawmakers opted to vote “present not voting, “abstain,” or were just absent for the vote. Thus, Draghi resigned again.

    Why did Draghi step down if he won the confidence vote?

    Although Draghi technically survived the confidence vote, it was not the sort of result he needed to stay on as prime minister. In addition to 5-Star, other members of the ruling coalition, including the rightist parties Forza Italia and League, were in dissent.

    Draghi has long emphasized that as a nonparty leader, he needs the support of a broad coalition, especially at a time when the country is facing serious economic and social challenges. He leads a unity government – and without unity among the parties, it would be hard for him to govern.

    Both the withdrawal of backing by parties and the fracturing of the parties themselves, with some members of parliament leaving coalition partners, suggest that the coalition is now past the point of being able to operate in unity.

    How many parties are in the coalition? Do they broadly share the same politics?

    As with much in Italian politics, that isn’t a straightforward question to answer. When the Draghi government was launched in February 2021, it had cabinet ministers from six parties – the populist 5-Star Movement, the right-wing League and Forza Italia, Democrats and its splinter party, Italy Alive, and finally the progressive Article One. But six became seven when former 5-Star members created another party, Together for the Future. Then, if you count junior ministers in the coalition, three more parties were included.

    Now you have more splintering of parties and departures of members as politicians maneuver for advantage with an election on the horizon, making it even more difficult to say just how many parties are in the coalition.

    Coalition governments are not uncommon in Italy; in fact, they are the norm. But the one under Draghi was particularly broad, going from progressive parties to far right groups.

    Why so many parties? And why coalitions?

    Italy has a fragmented party system. I have done research that shows the average number of parties represented in Italy’s parliament between 1946 and 1992 was 12 – more than most democracies. Since then, the country has gone through a series of electoral reforms, but the multiparty system has stayed in place.

    There are three factors behind Italy’s fragmented parliament. First, Italian post-World War II elections have always had a strong component of proportional representation – that is to say, the number of seats each party has is proportional to the number of votes it receives. So in Italy, a party that gets 5% of the national vote can reasonably expect to get 5% of the seats. Compare that to the U.K. system, in which a party that gets 5% of the national votes would likely get zero seats.

    One parliament, many parties.
    Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

    Under Italy’s proportional representation laws, a party cannot manufacture a majority of parliamentary seats out of a plurality of votes. And with so many parties, it is very unlikely that any one party can muster up a majority outright. So instead, the largest non-majority party must find alliances to form a coalition government.

    Second, electoral law reforms of 1993 created an incentive for Italian politicians to form or found new parties. After those reforms and the disintegration of the once-dominant Christian Democratic Party – which until that point had been the largest party in every post-war Italian government – political entrepreneurs found they could get noticed more by forming new parties, or splintering off from existing parties. We are seeing some of this now with high-profile departures from 5-Star. It tends to happen when politicians are looking to position themselves for the next election.

    Third, the creation of new parties was also encouraged by the breakdown of traditional politics in Italy. It used to be the case that what voters cared about was where a party stood on two areas: left-right politics, and whether they were secular or religious.

    That has changed. Now, voters are motivated by not only left-right politics but also a range of factors, such as whether a party is pro- or anti-European Union, or whether it is tolerant of immigration or is anti-immigration. So you get parties like 5-Star that are anti-immigrant and anti-EU, but don’t fit so neatly on the left-right political axis.

    Are coalitions prone to failure?

    Not necessarily. Italy has experienced a number of relatively stable coalitions. Romano Prodi’s coalition government lasted from 1996 to late 1998. It faced a lot of problems during that period, but Prodi managed to keep that coalition going. And back in the 1980s, the coalition put together by socialist Benedetto Craxi lasted four years. Craxi’s coalition faced a brief hiccup – it fell apart, then was quickly reconstructed – but was composed of the same parties.

    And if you scan the European horizon, coalitions are a fairly common form of government. A coalition is the norm in Germany, and they are fairly common in Scandinavian countries as Norway. And they are often long-lived.

    I don’t think coalitions are inherently unstable. Draghi is a relatively popular figure, but his coalition faced a host of challenges ranging from economic problems and Italy’s response to the pandemic, to an immigration crisis that will not go away. The tipping point was a fight over the government’s response to a cost of living crisis – 5-Star had been pushing Draghi to do more to support hard-pressed Italians. And Draghi has said he won’t govern without the support of 5-Star, the largest party in Italy’s parliament when parliamentary elections were last held in 2018.

    So what happens next?

    Elections are now expected in late September. Until then, it looks like Draghi will continue as prime minister in a caretaker capacity. In the meantime, it is likely that there will be some more splintering within the parties represented in parliament as politicians maneuver for electoral advantage. Yet politicians at this point also have to consider the risk of seeming irresponsible and fickle, with the parliamentary election sure to occur quite soon. More

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    Albanese should adopt a collaborative, European approach to governing – not the take-it-or-leave-it Anglo style we're used to

    The Australian Labor Party is edging towards 76 seats and possible majority government after the electorate abandoned the Coalition at the federal election.

    But regardless of whether it can reach a majority or not, Labor needs to learn the right lessons from the Morrison government – as well as from its last two terms in power between 2007 and 2013.

    These experiences could point to adopting either a more take-it-or-leave-it antagonistic approach to politics, prevalent in the Anglosphere countries of the US, UK and Australia, or a more European, collaborative style.

    Politics is the art of compromise – nobody gets exactly what they want. But adopting a European approach to parliamentary negotiations could usher in an enduring golden era of stable and progressive government, with more generous and compassionate national politics.

    Read more:
    Labor likely to get a friendly Senate and still hoping for House of Representatives majority

    The take-it-or-leave-it Anglo approach

    The first term of Labor’s previous government between 2007 and 2010 was dominated by Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership and his attempts to pass his climate change legislation.

    The Greens considered the package too generous to polluters and ineffective in addressing climate change, so they blocked it in the Senate where they held the balance of power.

    Despite Labor’s rhetoric that the Greens are therefore largely to blame for Australia’s subsequent history of climate inaction, the reality is far more complicated.

    Bob Brown, then leader of the Greens, wrote to Rudd after the first vote on the legislation in late 2009 seeking talks but received no reply. The Greens then put a compromise plan to Labor after the second vote, but it was again rebuffed.

    Despite these overtures, in April 2010 Rudd announced his government had abandoned the legislation, which was the beginning of the end for his tenure as prime minister.

    In retrospect, perhaps the Greens should have just passed the bill. But the government’s take-it-or-leave-it approach was extremely unhelpful in progressing the legislation. This approach is somewhat typical of the aggressive style of parliamentary politics in Anglosphere countries.

    Most Anglosphere parliaments, including Australia’s House of Representatives, have single-member electorates, which generally results in having two combative parties that take turns in governing.

    This is very different to the more cooperative European models of government.

    The collaborative European approach

    After the 2010 election, Julia Gillard’s Labor entered minority government in a power-sharing agreement with Adam Bandt of the Greens and two independents in the lower house.

    This approach was more reminiscent of European politics, where most parliaments have multi-member electorates. In these electoral systems (also employed in Australia’s Senate) small parties have a greater chance of entering parliament and the large parties rarely achieve a majority.

    It’s therefore common for European parties to enter post-election negotiations to form ad hoc coalitions or power-sharing arrangements.

    This happened in Germany in 1998, when the left-leaning Social Democrat Party formed a national governing coalition with the German Greens, with the latter supplying the foreign minister.

    A similar arrangement resulted from German national elections last year, with the addition of the liberal Free Democrats to create a three-party coalition. The Greens again supplied the foreign minister, as well as the economy minister.

    In South Australia, Labor has adopted aspects of this approach by strategically offering independents in regional and traditionally conservative seats – and even a Nationals MP – ministries in its governments, even if Labor doesn’t require their votes. This collegiality has been continued by the recently elected Malinauskas government, even though it has a governing majority. This canny strategy will have contributed to Labor being in power for 20 out of the previous 24 years by the end of this term.

    The Gillard government’s minority position forced it to adopt this more European-style consultative posture and it resulted in the most productive parliament in Australia’s history, measured by acts passed per day.

    It legislated a price on carbon, which, if it hadn’t been repealed by the Abbott government, would have resulted in 72 million tonnes less carbon emissions according to research in 2020 by the Australia Institute.

    Which style will Albanese take?

    Labor must learn the right lessons from its last stint in office.

    It will face a parliament unlike any previous government, with a significantly enhanced third force comprising the Greens, the “teals” and other independents.

    Labor could entrench a progressive majority in parliament for the foreseeable future by rejecting the antagonistic, duopolistic Anglo approach to parliamentary politics that characterised Labor’s first term of government last time around. Instead, it should shift towards the more negotiated, collaborative Euro approach of its second term from 2010 on.

    Negotiating in good faith with the crossbench will show teal electorates their MPs are making real progress in the halls of power on the issues they were elected to pursue – primarily climate change, an integrity commission and gender inequality. These electorates would therefore be more likely to vote teal again in future.

    Single member electorates make it difficult for independents or small parties to win elections, but once they’re in they can be hard to dislodge, as the experience of Adam Bandt, Andrew Wilkie, Rebekha Sharkie, Bob Katter, Cathy McGowan and Helen Haines demonstrates.

    If the teal seats continue to elect independents, the Coalition will struggle to regain majority government again.

    Whether Labor manages to achieve a governing majority in the lower house or not, it will still need support from the Greens and progressive independent David Pocock in the Senate to pass legislation.

    Fortunately, Albanese seems to have the temperament that would favour a Euro approach. On election night, he promised to promote “unity and optimism, not fear and division”.

    Nevertheless, both Albanese and other senior Labor members have already been out in force since the election stating they have a mandate from the electorate to deliver their election policies, including a 43% cut in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 – but no more. This is despite the ALP receiving less than 33% of the primary vote.

    Most of the teal independents have policies of a 60% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. And the Greens, who received almost 12% of the primary vote, want a 75% cut. A significant chunk of the electorate therefore voted for much stronger action on climate change.

    Labor would do well to compromise with the crossbench in those areas where common ground can be found to build and consolidate an enduring progressive future for Australia. More

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    Germany's €100-billion army fund: a remarkable change in post-war policy in response to the Ukraine crisis

    If you’d asked experts just a fortnight ago what the key features of Germany’s approach to foreign and defence policy were, there would have been several strands. Alignment with the west, and of course membership of the EU and Nato would have been a feature. Striving for strong transatlantic links would be another, not least because the country was bruised by its regular, public and bellicose criticism from former president Donald Trump.

    But a third strand would have been extreme caution, in its dealings with the EU but especially in defence policy matters. Germany has long preferred to avoid committing troops to joint operations or indeed sending weapons into situations of active conflict. It has instead focused on diplomatic and economic contributions.

    Almost overnight, these established tenets of German foreign policy have been demolished. On Sunday, in a powerful speech to the German parliament, Chancellor Olaf Scholz took the country in a different direction, stating that the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s war “in cold blood” was a “watershed” moment for Europe.

    The most significant element of Scholz’s response is an immediate and massive boost to defence spending. A €100 billion fund is being proposed for the renewal of Germany’s (increasingly dilapidated) armed forces.

    Scholz is committing to take Germany’s defence spending up to 2% of GDP (compared to the current level of 1.4%, noisily criticised as inadequate by Donald Trump but also more quietly resented by Germany’s other Nato partners). Armed drones will be purchased, and a commitment to buy new planes to carry US nuclear weapons as part of “nuclear sharing” was made.

    Germany will also supply defensive weapons to Ukraine (having been heavily criticised for not doing so just days before, and indeed even blocking the export of such weapons from Estonia). And, having procrastinated, Germany will now support the exclusion of Russian banks from the Swift payment network. It will also invest immediately to reduce reliance on Russian energy.

    Scholz had been criticised for Germany’s sluggish response to the Russian threat. As recently as December he had been calling the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany a “private sector project” – the implication being that it needn’t be stopped. But his speech to the Bundestag went further than even seasoned observers thought possible.

    Historical reticence

    Germany’s foreign policy caution, notably towards Russia, of course runs far deeper than its reliance on Russian energy supply. Today’s Germany is acutely conscious of its history as the aggressor in two world wars in the 20th century, and as perpetrator of the Holocaust. Its invasion of multiple neighbouring countries led to utter destruction, as well as very different borders, and the determination to avoid war.

    Its relations with Russia are shaped by that heavy burden of history too. Over 2 million Russian lives were lost in the first world war, and over 20 million from Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union (including Ukraine) in the second.

    After the second world war, Germany was divided, with eastern Germany initially called the “Soviet Zone of Occupation”, before becoming the “German Democratic Republic”, a communist state and part of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact group of countries. The two halves of Germany were separated by an internal border most powerfully symbolised by the Berlin Wall.

    In this period, dialogue with Russia seemed to pay dividends: in the 1970s, under Chancellor Willy Brandt, relations thawed and more contact was permitted between the two Germanies. Extensive negotiation with the USSR enabled agreement on German reunificiation to be reached in 1990.

    Ukraine itself is a case in point in illustrating the way Germany approached foreign policy, given its history. Back in 2014, Germany helped get the (now obsolete) Minsk agreements between Russia and Ukraine over the line, and since then has paid substantial sums in development and other assistance. While being somewhat ready to challenge Russian aggression, it saw itself as a mediator in a division of labour, leaving sharper military tasks to other countries, and trying always to keep lines of dialogue with Russia open.

    Domestic support

    While the changed policy on military spending represents a dramatic shift, Germany’s mainstream political parties are broadly united on the matter. Scholz’s SPD has in fact been the most cautious of the German government’s three coalition partners when it comes to Russia but the party is supportive of the chancellor’s decision.

    Liberal and Green coalition partners had in any case been pushing for a firmer line on Russia, but it is striking that fiscally hawkish liberal finance minister Christian Lindner has backed the increased defence spending being paid out of new debt– and that the Greens have not demurred at arms exports. The Christian Democratic opposition has quibbled at the financing of defence spending, while endorsing the principles.

    The aftermath of Russian shelling just outside Kyiv.
    EPA

    Public opinion has also shifted: a snap poll shows 78% of Germans support the arms exports and investment in the armed forces. Germans are shocked at Putin’s behaviour, and it also feels close to home: 69% fear that Nato will be drawn into the conflict. Yet views are more divided on whether Ukraine should be allowed into Nato or the EU, and rejection of that remains particularly strong in eastern Germany.

    A step change for Europe and the world

    With the situation fluid, the longer-term implications of Germany’s changed position are not yet clear. Putin’s attack on Ukraine seems to have united Nato and also brought about much stronger EU foreign policy co-ordination, both in terms of sending defensive weapons to Ukraine and deciding on sanctions against Russia. As Scholz put it, “Rarely have we and our partners been so resolved and so united.”

    Together, these changes might lead to greater assertiveness towards other potential aggressors on Germany’s part, rather than staying in its comfort zone of diplomatic engagement and economic support – the additional military capacity, while aimed primarily at the Russian threat, could have wider uses. Either way, this decision from newly installed chancellor Scholz has, in one move, completely transformed Germany’s global role. More

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    US troops head to Eastern Europe: 4 essential reads on the Ukraine crisis

    American troops are heading to Eastern Europe in the latest countermove by the U.S. to Russia’s military buildup on the country’s border with Ukraine.

    The development, announced on Feb. 2, 2022, will see around 3,000 additional U.S. service personnel deployed to NATO member states Germany, Poland and Romania.

    U.S. officials framed the move as one that would reassure countries in the NATO military alliance of U.S. support in the face of a possible invasion of Ukraine, which is not a member. But it is likely to anger President Vladimir Putin, who has demanded that NATO pull back troops from Eastern European countries that were once members of the Soviet Union. Putin has accused the West of ignoring Russia’s security concerns and trying to lure the country into a war.

    Behind the rhetoric and troop movement is a very real – and complex – crisis. The Conversation’s bank of experts has been on hand to explain what is at stake, and why Ukraine has become a flashpoint between Russia and the West.

    1. What it means to have US boots on the ground

    The deployment of thousands of American troops to Eastern Europe wasn’t unexpected. The Pentagon had already said that it was prepared to send up to 8,500 additional members of its armed services to the region.

    It marks a reversal of a trend in Europe that has seen America’s military presence dwindle over the past few decades, say Michael Allen of Boise State University and two scholars from Kansas State University, Carla Martinez Machain and Michael Flynn.

    The three scholars note that U.S. troop numbers in Europe stood at a high of over 400,000 in the 1950s. But this dropped sharply after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

    US military deployments to European states, 1989-2021.

    In the post-Soviet era, U.S. troop presence in Europe has been a delicate matter, the scholars note: “The U.S. and Russia have historically been cautious in not placing troops in places that would be considered a provocation. They generally avoid each other’s sphere of influence, even when responding to the other’s deployments. Yet the NATO allies in Eastern Europe, many of which were once Soviet satellite states, provide a gray area that both the U.S. and Russia may view as within their own sphere of influence.”

    Read more:
    The US military presence in Europe has been declining for 30 years – the current crisis in Ukraine may reverse that trend

    2. What it means to be a NATO member

    The reason U.S. troops are heading to Germany, Poland and Romania, and not to Ukraine itself, is that the former Soviet country isn’t a member of NATO. As Alastair Kocho-Williams at Clarkson University writes, this isn’t out of a lack of desire on Ukraine’s part.

    “Membership with NATO would significantly increase Ukraine’s international military backing, allowing for NATO military action within Ukraine and alongside members of its military. This guarantee of military might would act as a firm deterrent to Russian aggression,” Kocho-Williams writes.

    In fact, NATO’s principle of “collective defense” – under which an attack on one member is considered an attack on all – is, the U.S. says, the very reason American troops are heading to Poland and Romania. It is out of the NATO commitment to protect members – the implication being that an invasion of Ukraine could possibly mean that NATO states bordering Russia could be next.

    But Kocho-Williams cautions that allowing Ukraine to join the military alliance now may pose a problem. “The threat of an imminent conflict between Ukraine and Russia would commit NATO to take military action against Russia,” he writes.

    Read more:
    What’s NATO, and why does Ukraine want to join?

    3. How the Russian media might view this troop move

    The U.S. stated aim in deploying troops to Eastern Europe – to reassure NATO members – was reported faithfully by the American media. It is unlikely that Russian newspapers and TV news broadcasts will present it in the same way.

    Cynthia Hooper at College of the Holy Cross says that the Russian media have portrayed the U.S. as being “hysterical” in its insistence that Putin is hell-bent on invasion. Writes Hooper, “Joe Biden, Russian reporters claim, is building up a false sense of threat from Moscow to deflect attention away from domestic problems.”

    Whether the Russian public is buying this line from state-controlled media is, however, another matter. For many, there are bigger things to worry about. Hooper quotes a Russian friend who told her that people “are sick and tired of those endless political TV shows about the Ukraine; they are absolutely indifferent to international issues.”

    Read more:
    It’s just a ‘panic attack’ – Russian media blames US for escalating Ukraine crisis

    4. Will deployment deter Putin?

    The question is whether the U.S. troop buildup in Eastern Europe will succeed where international agreements have failed; will it deter Putin from transgressing Ukraine’s border?

    In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula. It was an illegal military land grab – and one that contravened the Budapest Memorandum, a 1994 commitment in which Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. pledged to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

    [Over 140,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletters to understand the world. Sign up today.]

    Part of the the problem, as Lee Feinstein of Indiana University and Mariana Budjeryn at Harvard Kennedy School note, is that the memorandum is not legally binding. Even if it were, it might not have been enough to stay Putin’s hand.

    “International law matters, but it does not determine what states do.
    Strong deterrence, diplomacy and international solidarity can influence Russian decision-making. … Ultimately, however, the de-escalation decision is Russia’s to make,” Feinstein and Budjeryn write. All the U.S. can do is make clear to the Kremlin the consequences of its actions.

    Read more:
    Ukraine got a signed commitment in 1994 to ensure its security – but can the US and allies stop Putin’s aggression now? More

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    Péter Márki-Zay: Hungarian opposition's 'non-political' candidate may not be enough to beat Orbán

    Hungary’s parliamentary elections in spring 2022 will give illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a chance to continue his Fidesz government for a fourth term. An unlikely opposition candidate could disrupt these plans.

    Orbán will face Péter Márki-Zay, mayor of the Hungarian county town of Hódmezővásárhely. Márki-Zay’s win in the opposition primaries came as a surprise. The former manager of an electricity company is married with seven children, and does not align himself with any political party. He has lived in Canada and the US, and has spoken about his admiration for how former US president Barack Obama financed his campaign with small donations.

    He entered the race without any party affiliation, beating Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony and European Parliament vice-president Klára Dobrev. Dobrev won the first round of primaries and has the support of a major opposition party, Democratic Coalition.

    However, she is also the wife of former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány – a socialist – which tarred her campaign. Her rivals argued that the electorate demanded a new candidate without any association with existing parties and politicians in Hungary.

    Márki-Zay’s victory at the 2018 mayoral byelection in Hódmezővásárhely was a surprise as well. A self-described right-wing Christian candidate and an opponent of Orbán’s Fidesz, he consolidated the opposition vote to win in Hódmezővásárhely – where Fidesz strongman János Lázár served as mayor from 2002-12 and an MP after 2014.

    Márki-Zay’s win set the stage for the 2019 local elections in Budapest, where putting forward a joint candidate was a successful tactic for the opposition in defeating Orbán.

    Political landscape

    A major fault line in Hungarian politics has been Budapest – representing left-liberal politics – versus the rest of the country. Liberal politics resonate in county towns as well, but with less momentum and regularity.

    Hódmezővásárhely is an interesting town to this extent. It is located in the county of Csongrád, where former Fidesz parliamentary group leader Lázár is MP – a testament to the popularity of the governing party.

    It is situated in between two major left-liberal centres of power, Budapest and Szeged. Both of these have seen civil action in support of refugees crossing into Hungary, and protests against Orbán’s anti-LGBTQ+ law. Szeged is the only town where the left has continuously held control since 2006, but its mayor failed to transform his success in local politics to become a national rival to Orbán.

    Márki-Zay’s biggest success as mayor appears to have been decreasing the debt of the city. Opposition mayors tend to portray debt accumulated under their predecessors as a result of endemic corruption, but ultimately voters expect investment in infrastructure, rather than austerity.

    In a way, having a non-Fidesz but a conservative and Christian mayor has benefited Hódmezővásárhely, even though the mayor himself has not delivered much. To consolidate support for Fidesz, Lázár has promised Hódmezővásárhely the biggest tramline extension for a century in Hungary.

    Non-political politics

    Rather than focusing on big projects and substantial political goals and slogans, Márki-Zay takes pride in being non-partisan. He is the founder of the Everybody’s Hungary movement, which “welcomes every decent Hungarian who is interested in change”.

    Its primary goal is to present joint candidates against Fidesz mayors in mayoral elections, but it does not propose any policy platforms to show the electorate why their candidates should be elected over Fidesz ones.

    Its vague platform purports to fight corruption and nepotism with new political faces in county towns, but among its founders are some old, rightwing intellectuals, economists and politicians. The movement echoes earlier dissident reformist circles from the 1980s, promoting a clean new beginning that moves away from old politics.

    Radek Pietruszka / EPA-EFE

    Yet claiming to not have any politics is still a political position – and not a very promising one. To have any chance of defeating Orbán, Márki-Zay needs to present alternative policies and projects to those of Fidesz, and will have to rely on a party machine for campaigning support.

    He has already suggested establishing a new parliamentary faction for his own movement after the election, with “civil [society] candidates without any party affiliation”.

    It looks as if Márki-Zay has already realised that not having any party association will hinder his chances in the election. Yet no candidate is “civil” once elected an MP, and some opposition parties already expressed scepticism about whether they could jointly support candidates from another faction beyond the six parties already in the opposition bloc.

    Can having no politics bring political success to Márki-Zay? There is a legacy of successful dissidence movements in the region that displaced ex-communists, but fell apart at subsequent elections. The region’s current politics are much more complex, and vague anti-corruption platforms cannot meet the challenges of Europeanisation, climate change, nationalism and identity politics.

    Márki-Zay attempted to take a stance on the contentious issue of LGBTQ+ rights, with an April 2021 press conference alongside his family. His suggestion that he was ready to stand with gay Hungarians, (including those in Fidesz) raised the ire of Orbán’s party, but signalled Márki-Zay’s appeal for both conservative and liberal voters.

    Márki-Zay will certainly affect the course of Hungarian politics. This ex-manager of an electricity company and avid follower of American politics cannot be underestimated as a political tactician, but whether his strategy will be enough to beat Orbán is less certain. More