International news you should be paying attention to: Europe and Thailand

worldAs much as this is a blog about Rhode Island, it’s worthy to look beyond our own borders occasionally. So let’s talk about other things than right-wing zealots.

First up, [the?] Ukraine

If you haven’t been paying attention, the Ukrainian government rejected a deal to enter the European Union, causing mass protests from Ukrainians who fear that Ukraine will fall further under Russian hegemony (the Russian Federation is pushing its own customs union). In the capital of Kiev, protestors seized the main square and City Hall and smashed a statue of Lenin. They then defeated an attempt by riot police to clear them out (ironically, they turned a fire hose on the police). The US is thinking about sanctions.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement, containing this gem:

The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kyiv’s Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity. This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy.

I’m not sure where the United States gets off making these kinds of pronouncements. For one thing, when it was Egypt, the State Department was all about “stability” rather than “respect for democratic rights and human dignity.” And when it was our own country, the federal government actively assisted in meeting peaceful protest with riot police and batons (they used garbage trucks instead of bulldozers).

Anyhow, the implications of the Ukrainian protest movement are important. Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution is a used as a watchword among Russia and its client states, which fear having their political orders undone in that manner. It’s also an inspiration to anti-Putin Russians. Furthermore, the Ukraine has been under Russian hegemony since at least 1772. Joining the EU would be one of the most dramatic shifts in its foreign policy, siding it firmly with the states to its west.

Next, Thailand.

Thailand is also experiencing anti-government protests. The inciting action is that the parliament considered an amnesty bill; which the opposition Democrat Party thought was just a way to bring back former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was overthrown by a military coup in 2006. His sister, Yingluck, is currently prime minister from the ruling Pheu Thai Party, a successor political party of her brother’s original one (two incarnations have been banned by authorities). Protestors have been demanding that the current government resign and a “people’s council” take power, selected by the protest movement. Yingluck instead has dissolved parliament and early elections. Pro-Shinawatra parties have not lost an election since 2001, though the Democrat Party was placed in power in 2006 by the military. Protestors have cut power to the P.M.’s office. And now the military is meeting with the protest leader, a former deputy prime minister from the Democrat Party. This is unnerving, because there have been 18 coups or attempted coups in Thailand since 1932.

The situation is intriguing. For one thing, the Pheu Thai Party is popular enough that offering an election isn’t much of a risk. In the international press, Democrat Party members have been suggesting that the choice is between corrupt but popular government in the form of Pheu Thai or enlightened but undemocratic government. They say the government should be run by “good people.” Forgive me if I’m wrong, but that’s generally the goal of democratic government as well. But saying that government should be run by good people isn’t a platform for success, being as “good” tends to be somewhat subjective.

As far as as the international investment community is concerned, it appears it doesn’t matter whether Pheu Thai or the Democrats run the country; this is a momentary blip.

European coalition talks

Three nations in Europe, all bordering one another, have been trying to form governments since their fall elections.

Germany: Germany held an election on September 22nd and some interesting things happened. Incumbent chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union / Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CDU/CSU) won 41.5% of the vote, but her coalition allies (Germany has a mixed-member proportional representation system for its parliament) the Free Democratic Party failed to get the 5% of the popular vote that allows them to hold seats in parliament.

This meant that CDU/CSU had to seek to form a “grand” coalition with its; rivals the Social Democratic Party (SPD). However, the SPD leadership did a noble thing, they threw the decision to their members. One reason is thought to be because the last time the SPD went into coalition with Merkel, it suffered the worst electoral defeat in its history in the subsequent election.

On Saturday, we find out how they voted. However, it looks pretty good for Merkel, so much so, she’s already said she’ll announce her cabinet on Sunday.

The weirdest bit of commentary I read suggested that Germany’s system was broken because a party that won less than half of the vote was unable to form a government. I think it was due to the advocacy in Britain of alternative voting systems from that country’s junior coalition party, the Liberal Democrats. Current polling in Britain shows the Lib Dems falling to fourth place behind the nativist UK Independence Party.

Austria: Keeping in the German-speaking world, Austria also went into coalition talks after its September 29th election, and these are likewise wrapping up. This is slightly different. In 2008, Austria formed a grand coalition led by their Social Democratic Party. The junior party was the conservative People’s Party. They’re pretty much poised to return the same government.

Czech Republic: The Czech Republic doesn’t get much coverage, mainly because people forget it’s no longer unified with Slovakia (I blame out-of-date maps). The previous government appears to have collapsed thanks to a complicated spying and corruption scandal, that included Prime Minister Petr Necas’s chief of staff spying on his wife. Necas has since resigned, divorced his first wife, and remarried to his chief of staff. Necas’ government had consisted of his conservative Civic Democratic Party, a conservative party led by a prince, and an anti-corruption party that expelled three of its members when they accused another of bribery.

The primary benefactors appear to have been a newly-formed party (ANO 2011, translation: YES 2011) led by a billionaire who owns two of the country’s newspapers and the Communist Party (which still uses the archaic “of Bohemia and Moravia”). However, the new coalition, likely to be announced today will be led by the Czech Social Democratic Party and contain ANO 2011 and the Christian and Democratic Union – Czechoslovak People’s Party.

However, this is complicated by the fact that ANO 2011’s leader, Andrej Babis, is on trial in neighboring Slovakia for possibly collaborating with the communist-era secret police.

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A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.

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