Monday, 6 July 2020

On the Croatian parliamentary election of 2020

Yesterday, Croatia held its 2020 parliamentary elections, and as with most elections this year the COVID-19 pandemic significantly reduced turnout because many voters around the world still do not feel safe going to the polls even when social distancing measures are tightly enforced in said poll. Consequently, turnout in this Croatian election dropped to 46.45%, the lowest in any Croatian election since Croatia gained independence from the now-defunct Yugoslavia; this mirrors the sharp drop in turnout in the second round of French local elections the week before, and the Polish presidential election's first round last month.

The perceived handling of the COVID-19 pandemic played a decisive factor in this election, allowing the conservative HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union), who were lagging behind the Social Democrat-led Restart Coalition in the year leading up to this election, to achieve a surprise victory, in alliance with the Croatian Liberal Party and the Croatian Demochristian Party, which allied with HDZ in 2016 as well. It recovered well in the opinion polls due to its perceived handling of the COVID-19 situation in Croatia, which whilst not receiving the international attention and praise New Zealand's handling did, certainly kept the COVID-19 numbers down. There have been only 3,220 cases of COVID-19 in Croatia from a population of approximately 5,000,000 and only 118 deaths, compared to 285,416 cases of COVID-19 and over 50,000 COVID-19 related deaths in the UK; the UK has a population of 66 million and rising but this represents a per capita rate of infection 3 times higher than that of Croatia's in this context, and furthermore the UK's death rate amongst COVID-19 cases is 65.9 per 100,000 people compared to Croatia's death rate amongst COVID-19 cases of 2.4 per 100,000 people. The HDZ coalition gained an extra 5 seats, pushing it up to 66, whereas because of not only renewed competence for the current Croatian government but also sharp turnout drops in more urban areas in particular, where COVID-19 infections spread more easily, the Restart Coalition lost 4 seats, going down to 41. They managed this in spite of criticism that the Croatian PM, Andrej Plenkovic, staged the election months before dissolution was necessary to avoid taking the blame for an economic crisis related to COVID-19; their failure to adequately resolve the earthquake damage in Zagreb cost them support there as well. After all, oppositions do not win elections-governments lose them to oppositions.

Other parties who supported the HDZ coalition did not fare so well, however. Most (Bridge of Independent Lists), which initially went into coalition with HDZ but left the government in 2017, lost 5 of its 13 seats and finished fourth; it was lucky not to be pushed into fifth place by the ecosocialist Green-Left alliance. The Croatian People's Party-Liberal Democrats fared even worse, losing all but one seat, which they won in electoral district III just north of the Croatian capital of Zagreb. In most of the other electoral districts they failed  to poll even 1%. Milan Bandic's party, which supported the HDZ coalition, lost its only seat and polled a miserable 0.59%, partly because it only ran candidate lists in six of Croatia's ten electoral districts, which are mainly based on relatively equal populations but do take geography into account. 

Following a trend towards nationalist conservative populism seen in most of Central and Eastern Europe, the Miroslav Skoro Homeland Movement (DPMS) took third place with 10.89% of the vote and 16 seats. However, green and progressive politics saw a substantial revival in Croatia with the Green-Left list winning as many as 7 seats and 7% of the vote, although this was heavily tilted towards Zagreb and more prosperous areas in the west of Croatia. In only half the electoral districts did they win seats, and their vote share in electoral district I (comprising Zagreb itself), 21.12%, was more than double their support anywhere else in Croatia, mainly due to We can!'s base being strongest in Zagreb by far, as well as because of the influence of the ecosocialist Zagreb is OURS! party; We can! won 5 of their 7 seats whereas the main green party of Croatia, ORaH, did not win any due to its candidates' placing on the list. The liberal Smart and Focus party won 3 seats, whereas Human Blockade, which emerged from an anti-eviction movement, polled just 2.26% and was eliminated from Croatia's Parliament, the Sabor, entirely. Each electoral district has 14 seats apiece, but a 5% threshold is imposed for each district. The People's Party-Pensioners coalition (Naradna stranka-Reformisti) won one seat in electoral district III but polled less than 1% in most of Croatia. Amongst smaller parties, the Croatian Labourists, once a significant socialist bloc in Croatia, participated in a coalition that failed to poll even 1% in any Croatian electoral district, and the wooden spoon went to Alphabet of Democracy, who polled just 219 votes despite fielding two candidate lists. 

Mr Plenkovic does not face an easy task of forming a new government in Croatia by any means despite gaining 5 extra seats for his alliance. With the Bridge of Independent lists not being in a position to help form a new coalition nor willing to do so, Mr Plenkovic's only options are a grand coalition with the SDP-led Restart Coalition or a more conservative alliance with the aforementioned Mr Sorko and his DPMS. 

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

On the French local elections of 2020: Vive le surge de vert!

The French local elections finally concluded yesterday, having been originally scheduled to take place on 15 March; they were postponed due to the effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

The most sensational story of these elections was the many triumphs by the main French Green Party, Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV). In major French cities (those with more than 100,000 people), EELV captured the mayoralties of Annecy, Besancon, Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille, Strasbourg, and Tours. They also performed impressively in the munciipal elections for those cities as well. However, in the midst of all this triumph there was one notable setback for them: Eric Pollie, the first Green Mayor of a major French city, decided to contest the mayoral election there as an "Independent Left" (divers gauche) candidate instead. Furthermore they narrowly missed out on unseating former PS leader Martine Aubry from her post as Mayor of Lille; in the second round she held on by 227 votes, a sigh of relief for the beleaguered PS (Parti Socialiste). Whilst a pressing need for environmental action and a greener way of living, especially given the causes of the coronavirus crisis, was a key factor in their surge, they also won a lot of disappointed LREM (Le Republic-En Marche) voters in more prosperous French communes in the south of France. 

LREM, which was formed by current French President Emmanuel Macron as a means of obtaining the presidency and breaking through the red-blue merry-go-round, had little support locally to begin with since at the last French local elections it simply did not exist, and had acquired the defections of only a few mayors since then. None of them were re-elected and LREM failed to win any other mayoralties of any major French cities either. In the three years since M. Macron was elected President of France, LREM, whilst building up support nationally, has not been able to acquire a substantial local base since France does not hold local by-elections and party defections (other to "Independent Left" or "Independent Right") are not as common in France as in Britain despite a wider array of political parties at a local level in France. In Paris where it had hoped to win the mayoralty from Anne Hidalgo (PS), it was undermined by an Independent LREM list, which split the LREM vote enough to deny it even the runner-up spot, which was won by Les Republicans (LR), France's main liberal-conservative party. The Radical Movement (Mouvement Radical, a liberal movement similar to NEOS in Austria and the Radical Liberal Party in Denmark), which aligned with LREM, lost both its main mayoralties as well, mainly since its recent alliance with LREM caused a significant split in MR. involving its former president Sylvia Pinel and her allies. 

LR and PS did relatively well, managing to recover support they had lost in the 2017 Presidential election and subsequent National Assembly elections to LREM and to a lesser extent the extreme nationalist Rassemblent National (National Rally) party led by infamous racist Marine Le Pen. One of PS' most notable scalps of the election was winning the mayoralty of Saint-Denis, one of the most socialist and ethnically diverse parts of France in the "centre rouge" (red belt) of Parisian suburbia, from the French Communist Party who had held it since 1912; this happened mainly because of the changing demographics there and gradual deindustrialisation which is undermining the PCF's core base in the same way that the decline of traditional industry has been a key factor in the decline of the long-term fortunes of the Dutch Socialist Party. The PCF's ally in Reunion (an overseas department of France near Madagascar), the PCR, did win the mayoralty of Saint-Paul from LR in compensation. Apart from the Green gains LR endured two notable losses during these French local elections; the Prime Minister of France, Edouard Phillippe, gained the mayoralty of Le Havre in a rare piece of good news for M. Macron, and RN's Louis Aliot, a former partner of Marine Le Pen, won the mayoralty of Perpignon, located near the Pyrenees, from LR. The localist liberal Union of Independent Democrats (UDI) mayor of Amiens, Brigitte Foure, was re-elected, as was independent conservative mayor of Angers Christophe Bechu. 

The coronavirus pandemic led to the highest abstention rate in French local elections ever-60%, meaning only 40% turned out to vote, although this is better than local elections in the United Kingdom, especially since French local elections have proportional representation whereas English and Welsh local elections still use first past the post. This however represents a drop of 12.4% from the last French local elections of 2014. Without this factor, turnout would have remained similar to that of 2014.

Thursday, 25 June 2020

On the 2020 Serbian election: Why a boycott will only worsen things there

First of all, I apologise for the recent hiatus; however elections are still postponed or on hold in many countries, including the UK.

Serbia, however, was able to proceed with its 2020 general election amidst this crisis. Its overall result proved reminiscent of Hungarian elections under Viktor Orban's tenure (2010-present), since the leading national-conservative coalition, the SNS (Progressive Party of Serbia) coalition led by Serbian President Aleksander Vucic (Ana Brnabic is the Serbian Prime Minister, and the first woman and openly homosexual person to hold that position), polled 61.6% of the vote, giving them as many as 191 seats out of 250 and a majority of as high as 132, almost unheard of in any country with proportional representation.

Press freedom has endured significant curbs since President Vucic first came into power as Serbian PM in 2012 (he became President of Serbia in 2017), as have civil liberties of Serbs in general. Nepotism and corruption in the Serbian public sector have become more problematic, with employees often pressured to support President Vucic. This led to the largest opposition alliance, the Alliance for Serbia, to boycott the election altogether, which culminated in a sharp drop in turnout to just 50.32%, by some measure the lowest turnout in modern Serbian history.

The more progressive and socialist Socialist Party of Serbia-United Serbia coalition, which also included the Green Party of Serbia, did participate and in the absence of the Alliance for Serbia polled 10.37% of the vote and increased its seat total to 32, making it the new main opposition in the Serb National Assembly. It acquired a lot of votes from those determined to vote against President Vucic's coalition and who knew that boycotting elections almost never works. With the threshold for entry into the Assembly lowered from 5% to 3%, a move criticised by election observers, the populist Serbian Patriotic Alliance won 11 seats despite only polling 3.64%. The only other political parties to win seats in this Serbian election represented ethnic minority groups in Serbia: the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, Straight Ahead (representing Macedonians in Serbia), the Albanian Democratic Alternative, and the Party for Democratic Action of Sandzak, representing Bosnians in Serbia. They won 10, 2, 2, and 2 seats respectively.

One surprise in the election was that the pro-monarchist For the Kingdom of Serbia party came fourth, only missing the new threshold by 0.32%, even though there is little support for the restoration of monarchies anywhere in Eastern Europe. The last King of Yugoslavia, Peter II, was forced to abdicate in 1945, and the majority of Serbs have no memory of his reign. Liberal parties other than the main opposition fared badly, with neither Enough is Enough nor the Movement for Free Citizens in Serbia managing to win any seats, which is also attributable to the excessive pro-Vucic bias of the current Serbian media. The Russian Party was the winner of the election wooden spoon in Serbia, although in all fairness there are only approximately 3,300 Russians living in Serbia according to recent census data.

The boycott exposed internationally how much democracy is under threat in Serbia, but for now President Vucic's rule will continue meaning Serbia is well on its way to having a regime similar to that of Hungary or Poland.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Five things the Green Party's next leader(s)/deputy leader(s) really need to do

The Green Party leadership election of 2020 begins next week when nominations open.

In the last two years alone there has been a pressing need for green politics and green ideas to have a more universal appeal,one that goes above and beyond the outdated "left-right" divide which is only mentioned in academic and media contexts and is rarely if ever mentioned by voters on the doorstep. In British local government elections in the last half decade in particular, Green councillors have been elected in all sorts of places, from inner-city council estates to suburbs to spa towns to villages (usually in the boundaries of National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty).

So here are five things the Green Party's next leader(s)/deputy leader(s) need to do:

1. Go above the "left-right" divide and think forwards instead. "Left wing" and "right wing" are no longer meaningful in political context; the divides are more city vs. country, graduates vs. non-graduates, and liberals vs. authoritarians. Green economics is fundamentally forward thinking, concentrates on holistic, wellbeing related measures like happiness and contentedness which cannot be accounted for in old-style economics, and therefore goes above and beyond "left" and "right". 

2. Push for the environment to be as near to the top of the national agenda as possible. Environmental issues are by far the most important issues we face in the long-term, whether they be global warming, soil erosion, water shortages, rising sea levels, or any other phenomenon linked to climate change. They need to be at the top of the British political agenda because the sooner action is taken on environmental issues, the better we will all be in the long run and the more lives will be saved.

3. Do more to emphasise the importance of green values to everyday living. For example, a greener diet means less meat which in turn means better nutrition, a longer life expectancy, and much less risk of getting cancer or heart disease later in life. Recycling also means more materials available for re-use meaning that money can be saved and consumer costs can be kept down long-term.

4. Reach out more to town and country. Rural areas and coastal areas are more vulnerable to the effects of man-made climate change and its consequences than inland cities. Small and large towns have been suffering greatly from over-centralisation and the lack of support for localised economies; localised economies will be crucial for cutting greenhouse gas emissions due to agriculture and transport being two of the most significant contributors to man-made climate change, if not the most significant. Everyone can benefit from green economics and a green society, wherever they live.

5. Put forward a green socioeconomic vision which everyone can enjoy. Fundamental systemic change is necessary for significant green changes to be implemented and to last; our current neoliberal system is broken. The next Green Party leaders need to emphasise the importance of fundamentally shifting to a green vision worldwide and how this will benefit all of us.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

The importance of protecting decent food standards

Recently, the Agriculture Bill passed through its third reading in a virtual Parliament session, and crucially an amendment by Neil Parish (Conservative MP for Tiverton & Honiton since 2010) which would stop food imports that did not meet existing British food standards failed despite the rebellion of 22 Conservative MPs, most of whom represented rural constituencies. As it stands, this Bill if passed unamended could mean that quality food standards in the UK, and UK agriculture, are severely undermined to the detriment of the environment, public health, and animal welfare.

Why is it important to protect our high food standards, you ask?

1. To make sure the food we consume is fit for human consumption and does not have lingering side effects. Chlorine is fundamentally poisonous even in small amounts-this is why only small amounts of chlorine are used in swimming pools and this is why you should shower after going swimming (the fact this is not possible amidst the COVID-19 crisis at present notwithstanding). For the same reason it should never be used to wash chicken or any other food, which is why food washed using this method is banned throughout Europe and needs to remain banned in the UK. Hormone-fed beef is banned for similar reasons-hormones added to meat have been shown to mimic naturally occuring hormones and thus cause long-term health problems as a result. Other food additives are banned in Europe because they have been shown to be carcinogenic, such as potassium bromate (used in bread of all types in the USA).

2. To ensure British producers' livelihoods are protected. Post-transition period, our agriculture will be vital in reducing our reliance on imports and ensuring we can reliably afford quality food. Floods of cheap substandard imports could bankrupt British farms, even relatively large ones, and destroy the livelihoods of smallholders and those wanting to grow ethically sourced food. A greater availability of locally sourced food will not only be more ethical but also cheaper in the long run as transport costs will be much lower, and its environmental impact will be lower as well.

3. To minimise the environmental impact of agriculture. It is already clear how damaging current methods of food production are. There needs to be a move towards smaller farms and lower reliance on meat and fish, which will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also result in better animal welfare. Agriculture is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, especially in the northern hemisphere. The Agriculture Bill does not help achieve this and will in fact make the impact worse in practice.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Alternative topics 5: Was Vincent Van Gogh autistic?

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) is one of the most famous artists of the 19th century, and ties with Rembrandt as the best Dutch artist of all time. Mr van Gogh's life was rather chaotic, though, even for an artist: two years after severing his right ear during a psychotic episode he committed suicide aged just 37, and most of his art did not achieve international recognition until after he died. 

He also had significant social problems throughout his life. He never married, and in fact he unknowingly alienated several people, including relatives and mentors, in his attempts to pursue marriage. In 1881, he tried to persuade his cousin, Cornelia "Kee" Vos to marry him, but she adamantly refused; not only was it completely inappropriate for him to pursue her because they were closely related but also she was 7 years his senior and his lack of income put her off; Vincent Van Gogh was unaware of these barriers and drove her away with his obsessive pursuit.  His only romantic relationship of note was with a prostitute called Sien (Clasina Maria Hoornik) who whilst pregnant posed for much of his artwork, some of which is now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

He also had substantial trouble finding and keeping stable employment despite his talents, and frequently relied on his brother Theo for financial support during his lifetime. He felt uncomfortable in environments that did not pertain to his talents, and found building relationships with other artists very difficult; the fraught relationship between him and French post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin is the most prominent example of this.

The main issue with retrospective diagnosis here is that Vincent Van Gogh died long before autism was even named, let alone widely known. He was merely seen in his time as eccentric and strange, although he also had mental health issues. However in his case there is enough detail about his life to make a useful analysis.

Arguments for Vincent Van Gogh being autistic:

Clearly poor social skills in comparison to his artistic and intellectual abilities.
Particularly repetitive nature of his art.
He had significant difficulties with communication, which is partly why he corresponded by letter so often. As a direct result he was unable to get the recognition his artwork masterpieces deserved whilst he was still alive.

Arguments against Vincent Van Gogh being autistic:

Some of his social problems can be attributed more to mental illness than autism.
Many aspects of his mental health can be explained by other conditions.

Arguably, it can be said that Vincent Van Gogh was indeed autistic with co-morbid mental health issues, given that his social communication problems stemmed from childhood although they did not become prominent until he actually became an artist.