Saturday, April 22, 2017

Looking up from our Collective Navel

Yes, I know it's "America First", and as an American I can hardly say that's totally wrong (just mostly), but still that doesn't mean it's "America Only".  So, some thoughts about some events in other countries which may interest some in our self-absorbed populace.  And/or beyond.

The French go to the polls tomorrow in one of the most significant elections--in any country--in decades. The question, in a narrow sense, is whether the French will go down the road of Brexit and Trump, or whether they will thumb their collective nose at that trend toward populist nationalism. Beyond that, the election's outcome could prove decisive for the future of the Euro, and even of the European Union.

France's central government, as mandated in the constitution for its Fifth Republic (since 1958), bears many similarities to the US':  bicameral legislature, independent judiciary, and a strong executive headed by its President.  One area in which the French improved greatly on the US' system is in its election for President. The fairly open contest provides for direct election if a candidate receives a majority in the first round; if not, the two candidates with the highest number of votes have a runoff some two weeks later.

This year's election is wide-open, with the final outcome difficult to predict. The incumbent, Socialist Francois Hollande, decided not to run for re-election, a decision that was almost universally supported.  Both Hollande's center-left party and their major party opponent, the center-right successors of the legacy of Fifth Republic titans Charles deGaulle and Georges Pompidou, were riven with dissension, with surprise candidates emerging from their primaries, but then weakening.  The Repubicains (the Gaullists) rejected both of their establishment leaders, Alain Juppe and former President Nikolas Sarkozy, in favor of Francois Fillon, who promptly got caught up in a nepotism scandal.  The Socialist primary voters rejected their establishment candidate even more dramatically,  rejecting their leaders from the current government in favor of a candidate further to the left, Benoit Hamon.

The collapse of the major parties has opened the way for not one major third-party candidate, but three of them.  The true third-party is the National Front, headed by Marine LePen, the daughter of the party's founder, whose mission has been to bring her party's anti-Semitic (Jews and Moslems), ultra-nationalistic postures more into the mainstream, in order to make her and her party's candidates electorally viable.  She has been surprisingly successful at that, at least as regards her own candidacy.  Then there are two true independents who have risen to be serious contenders:  one is a renegade former Socialist cabinet minister who has never been elected and who espouses a bland, centrist, Gaullist-type message ("Let's Go Forward!"), Emmanuel Macron. The other is Jean-Luc Melenchon, who rejected both the Socialists and Communists for an iconoclastic, anti-EU, left-wing candidacy.  As the campaign has progressed, Melenchon has steadily taken support from Hamon in polling.

The issues driving the election are many:  the future of France's contining in the EU, the Euro, and full participation in NATO, the restive Muslim majority, the reaction against that minority's growth and the militants within it,  the reaction against immigration more generally, the weakness of the parties,  and a general debate about the changing nature of the French economy.  I would say many of these will be addressed more in the parliamentary elections a month or so after the second round of the Presidential elections, when the French will know who their new leader will be--and will either reinforce or choose to restrain that person.  This round seems to be mostly about the personalities of the leaders, and of their parties.

With five candidates sharing significant shares of poll support, there is really no chance one will emerge as the victor in the first round, so the objective in the first of this two-act drama is just to finish in the top two.  Macron captured support from the early leader, Fillon, when his scandal persisted and rose as high as the mid-20's in percentage but has fallen back a bit (many are disgusted by the lack of substance in his platform), while Fillon's support in the polls has stabilized around 20%.  LePen's has been fairly steady in the low 20's, while Melenchon has tracked upward and is in the high-teens, while Hamon's has fallen to high single digits.

Given these poll numbers, which apart from the trends mentioned have shown a lot of stability, there are four serious contenders for the two top spots. A lot of attention will be given to the "winner" who gets the most votes, but the one who finishes second will be exactly equally a winner, and may well be the favorite in the second round.  I will discuss each of the six possible combinations briefly:

Macron vs. LePen - This is the most likely outcome, and would provide a clear decision point for French voters--continue the postwar and EU paths, or reject them entirely for nationalism.  The standard wisdom is that all others would rally around Macron to avoid LePen's winning, but the standard wisdom could be wrong.  In particular, Macron is distasteful to the left.  Still, he would be a substantial favorite going into the runoff.
Macron vs. Fillon - This would be a surprise outcome and would represent a reversion toward normalcy in the final days, surprising because the primaries have suggested anything but normalcy.  Macron would be favored because of Filion's compromised position.
Macron vs. Melenchon - Many of LePen's supporters don't really agree with or care for the National Front's history of antisocial tendencies, so Melenchon, who shares many other positions with LePen, could capture the second spot with a late surge.  This would end up like Macron vs. LePen, but with a more typically French leftward flavor.; I'm thinking Melenchon might pick up some LePen votes and could win.
Fillon vs. LePen - This was the originally-expected matchup, before Fillon's troubles.  It could still end up as a more conventional all-vs. LePen contest, but with many on the left sitting it out it would not be a sure win for him.
Fillon vs. Melenchon - See Macron vs. Melenchon.  This may be the least likely of the six matchups; it would represent the voters' rejection of the standard wisdom that the final choice would end up being Macron and LePen.  That surprise outcome would suggest caution how the second act would play out, as well, though it would superficially appear to be a standard left vs. right contest.  In the Fifth Republic, those have gone to the right in times of crisis--which the current environment suggests may be the case.
LePen vs. Melenchon - This would be a disaster for the European Union and the Euro, as both are opposed to France's continuing its participation in those institutions.  Would both try to exceed each other in their extremist rhetoric or would they try to capture the middle?  Again, the conventional wisdom would suggest the latter, but this is not a conventional year.

Predicting the Outcomes - My preferred site to play the odds,, does not have "markets" on those six outcomes; instead they have ones for the first-place person in the first round, the margin in the first round, the eventual President, and then for the chances of each of the four major candidates of making the second round.  That betting shows a clear expectation that Macron or LePen will finish first, a slight preference for a 3%+ margin for that candidate, and 85% and 81% chances for LePen and Macron, respectively, to make the second round.  There is decent respect for the odds of an upset in second, though:  with Fillon and Melenchon each at 19% to make the second round (doesn't quite add to 100% because of the gaps betwen yes and no prices), with each having 10% or better chance of being ultimately elected if they make it through.

My own betting is on either Macron or, to get a good return on a very small investment, the longer-shot Melenchon (I bought his shares very cheaply, early).  I think some Fillon supporters will ultimately be disheartened and drift to the safer alternative, Emmanuel Macron, and . that it will be very close between Melenchon and LePen for second place.  I have some money on the second choice in the betting to finish first (Macron stands at 41% there, vs. LePen's 56%).
My pick: Macron 27%, LePen 23%, Melenchon 22%, Fillon 18%, Hamon and others 10%.  I will hold off on second-round prediction until after this one, but if these are the results, I would think Macron will be a big favorite to win ultimately.

Finally, on this topic:  An avowed ISIS supporter killed a police officer on Paris' famous Champs d'Elysees the other day and was then killed.  Continuing on the Islamic terrorist theme, the incident could play into LePen's candidacy, as Donald Trump kind-of suggested; however, he hedged on it, perhaps perceiving that it might also play exactly in the opposite way, as the French may react toward rejecting the isolation of the Muslim majority and tend toward one or more of her opponents.

The German elections will not be until late-September, but it makes sense to follow the discussion of France with this one, because the French election will provide signals that should directly affect the German ones.  If France takes an anti-EU turn, Germany (and Italy, in its next Parliamentary election, probably in 2018) will have to decide whether to rally around the multinational flag or go in a nationalistic direction.  Germany has its own major immigration issue--less terrorism, but large numbers of Turkish workers and the largest share of refugees from the Middle Eastern bloodbaths.

The German election may become a referendum on the fate of the EU, but it is also likely to be a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has served since 2005 and is seeking an unprecedented fourth term. Merkel's stances in favor of a united Europe and providing refuge have drawn great praise globally--in the wake of Trump's election many consider her the de facto Leader of the Free World--but those stances are widely unpopular at home, even in her own center-right party.

The current German government is a "grand coalition" of the two major party groupings, Merkel's center-right CDU/CSU (Christian Democrats) and the center-left SDU (Social Democrats).  The SDU pulled a clever move in leading up to the elections by bringing in as their leader Martin Schulz, former head of the European Parliament and a well-respected political operator.  The selection of Schulz brought an immediate lift to the SDU in polling, and it is now about at parity with Merkel's party.  There is a long way to go, but Merkel is now threatened on both sides, with also the possibility that voters may have wearied of her as head of the government after such a long reign.

If the election ends up being Merkel vs. Schulz leading the major parties, there may be a big opportunity for some anti-EU party (could be on the left or the right), and that may end up being the big story as opposed to whether Germany tilts center-left or center-right. Still, Merkel and the future course of her career remain the critical aspect in the broader, historical sense.  She remains a very impressive figure, the face of the country's great success in the past decade or so.   I am making some small bets against her--I bought Schulz as Prime Minister after the election at 3%, and it rose after his selection as high as 36%, but I've been taking profits recently, waiting to see what dynamic the French elections' results will have there.

Prime Minister Theresa May made a move last week that surprised all, but in retrospect does not seem at all irrational.  By calling for early Parliamentary elections in June, she put her brief government at risk when she did not need to do so; however, the conditions appear extremely favorable for her.  She is looking for a strengthened majority for her Conservative party to be able to pursue more confidently a difficult negotiation for withdrawal from the European Union, and she is likely to get it.

The main reason she is likely to succeed is not the popularity of Brexit, for which she has become the chief executor (after having opposed it in the referendum).  If there were a new referendum, it would probably lose, but there is not going to be one for the U.K, much as some opponents of the policy might wish. Instead, it is the weakness of the main opposition party, Labour, which gives her reason for confidence.

Jeremy Corbyn was supported strongly by the Labour party's membership, but his staunch old-left positions have little support beyond there (and there's plenty of grumbling from party colleagues who have to run behind his leadership).  Corbyn has taken the ineffective posture of grudging support for Brexit as the will of the electorate, though he was opposed (and his constituency's opposition to Brexit was lukewarm).  On the contrary, the Liberal Democrat party, almost wiped out as a parliamentary faction in the last election, has ridden its opposition to Brexit as a new raison d'etre, and stands to multiply their quota of MP's by a factor of 5-10 (which will still leave them as numerically unimportant).

The other major party which has opposed Brexit is the Scottish National Party; their stance, which is in line with the overwhelming majority of Scots, should help preserve their foothold in Parliament (and continue to undermine Labour's representation from one of their former strongholds).  The big question for the Scots is whether the SNP, and the Scottish parliament, will move to demand a new referendum on leaving the U.K. this year, or Scotland will wait until 2018 to decide, once the terms of the U.K.'s withdrawal from the E.U. should be more clear.

Middle Eastern Affairs
We start with Turkey, which had a referendum on a new constitution approved by a slender 51-49 margin last weekend.  This was a big victory for President Erdogan, giving him a lot more potential control over the political system and allowing him to remain in power another 10 years or so.  Erdogan, ever more Putinist in his methods, had stacked the deck nicely for this outcome; the voting was challenged for alleged irregularities, but the final authority on the election result was a council that Erodgan had packed with his supporters (or more precisely, purged of his opponents).  I think the best hope for Erdogan opponents is to be patient, wait for the nationalistic surge which followed last fall's coup attempt to fade, and build a never-Trumpian kind of national resistance to Erdogan, voting him out at the next opportunity by such a wide margin that he can not hope to "trump" the outcome.  They would be a long long way from that today.

I have read that President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has been approved to run for re-election by the religious council, as he would require under their constitution.  This suggests that his relatively moderate regime, which counter-balances the aggressively expansionist Revolutionary Guard faction, is meeting with the continued approval of the country's Supreme Leader Khamenei, who has shown surprising ability to outlive his potential successors.  Iran has so far stayed within the terms of the multi-party agreement which prevents it from developing nuclear weapons for ten years, though the ballistic missile test they did recently was a provocation which could easily have flared up all kids of retaliation and counter-retaliation.  So far, not a disaster.

Somewhat to my surprise, I would say the same about the US policies toward Iraq and Syria thus far in the Trump administration.  Admittedly, my bar is low--to get through four years of Trump/Pence without entering massively into a new stupid war--but we are now about one-twelfth of the way through, somewhat safely.  The attack on the Syrian airfield after the chemical weapon attack on civilians was, although contrary to international law, a reasonable warning to the Russians:  they need to perform their role as guarantor against Syria using those weapons (as was agreed during the Obama administration), and the Russians should not feel they have a free hand to do absolutely anything they want there (though it's pretty close to that).  In both Syria and Iraq, the war against ISIS is proceeding, steadily, toward military victory.  The key will be what happens in the aftermath of freeing Mosul, in Iraq, and Raqqa, in Syria, from the Islamist tyrants.

This is the area where I think we have the greatest danger of falling into that massive, stupid war.  If that happens, it will be through a miscalculation, either by our side or by North Korea's--probably not by China, Japan, or South Korea, all of which would just wish the problem (of nuclear-armed, psychotically-ruled North Korea) would just go away.

I actually agree to some extent with the Trump national security team that the policy of trying to engage North Korea constructively, which has been pursued for over 20 years, by administrations of both parties, has not worked well, and that the reason is that the North Koreans have broken every agreement. That does not determine what the policy should be, though, and one could fear the worst.

In the case of the recent US naval maneuvers and the North Korean failed missile launch, though, I think the danger was not as great as it may have seemed.  In my mind, the mission of Secretary of State Tillerson to China to discuss the North Koreans had a specific purpose:  is it your turn to cyberhack their missile launch, or is it ours?  Whichever was decided, it seemed to work.  I would suggest that we and they take turns--that way both know who's doing it, both get practice, the North Koreans will be confused by the two different attack strategies being applied to their systems, and then both China and the US can apply all their methods when the real crux of the matter comes, as it eventually will.

1 comment:

Chin Shih Tang said...

I was pretty close on the French.
I was wrong on the comment about how much of Drumpfenreich we have endured--it is 1/14.61, not 1/12.
My grade is a D- (for Drumpf). It's not an F because he has so far avoided engaging us in a new, stupid war. But it's early yet, and he has good opportunities to fail in Syria, Iraq, Korea, Eastern Europe, and no doubt elsewhere (Mexico?)