Styles and electoral systems

Political styles should reflect the electoral systems of each nation. There are two broad kinds of electoral systems, proportional and “winner takes all.”  Most European countries have typically favoured the former, while Anglo-Saxon nations (Great Britain, USA) have favoured the latter.

Example: Trump knows that he will never win certain states, like for example New York and California. They are hugely democratic, and the chances that a candidate like him will win over democrats, like for example Reagan did in the eighties, is nil. But he knows that he must win big in certain other states, in the south and Midwest, that are traditionally red (republican) and that are more prone to like his rhetoric and policies. Look for him to campaign next year on the issues that his constituents like and ignore or even antagonise the voters that will not vote for him in any case. At the end of the day, as recent elections have demonstrated, the presidency is won by a majority of the electoral college, not of the popular vote. This favours partisan politics.

Other countries using the proportional systems have different dynamics: every vote counts and has a direct effect in the number of MPs a party or candidate wins. Overly partisan politics may backfire.

Take for example Israel’s recent elections. PM Netanyahu ran a very aggressive campaign targeting his voter base. His gambit was that there are enough sympathetic voters around in the country to give him and his coalition a winning majority. This time, however his tactics backfired, energised his opponents, and created enough ‘anyone but Netanyahu’ voters to dilute his coalition from exactly 50% to 46%. Even with his impressive accomplishments on the economic and diplomatic fronts of the last decade, Bibi has learned that indeed in Israel, every vote counts!

Winds of War(s)

When you read a vaguely positive editorial/op-ed on Trump in the New York Times you know that he must be doing something right…

Earlier this year, the NYT had to grudgingly admit that Trump’s position on the China trade issue is correct, needed, and if anything late in implementing from the US’s point of view. Everyone knows that China got away very easy by playing the underdog two decades after it became a top industrial power. Someone had to say stop, and Trump was the only US president that lived up to the obligation to do so.

The other issue is Iran. Though the NYT and most of the liberal press still regret Trump’s abrogation of the “Iran cash for nuclear delay plan,” there is a clear indication that his policy of exerting maximum economic pressure whilst taking a prudent military stance, is a very clever strategy. Perhaps if his predecessors had imposed real biting sanctions like Trump is doing now, Iran would have caved in much earlier…perhaps. In any case, as the ayatollahs are now saying, Trump has boxed them in by a war with economic weapons. Starting a real war is now going to be a choice that Iran will have to make and take the responsibility to start. To paraphrase another NYT op-ed, the US has a great hand and is playing it well!

Europe’s new dawn

Last week’s European elections drew one of the largest turnouts in recent memory. Even in the UK the turnout was higher than at the last elections, in this case probably to mark the protest vote. In mainland Europe however, two distinct results are discernible. Firstly, there still seems to be a small plurality in favour of Europe. Mainstream parties have held their own enough to keep a social democrat majority in Brussels. However, the second takeaway is the continued march of the populists in many European countries such as for example, Italy, France, and of course the UK.

Old institutions are hard to break, and it is still far from certain that the European commission, the only European organ that really counts, will change enough to reflect the new trends in the electorate. Key issues to disentangle include: the fiscal compact that the med nations are looking for and that Germany abhors; a common immigration policy with teeth and resources, the rolling back of some of the more ambitious European dreams of full integration, that fly in the face of the significant rise of local nationalisms.

Populism and Democracy

Today is another big day for UK politics. Parliament is set to vote on the Brexit bill. The unknowns are by how many votes will the bill be defeated. As Mervin King said recently, there is a good majority in parliament against any deal, but no majority for any constructive solution. Britain never believed in popular democracy, hence referenda are not in its DNA. Even the Brexit referendum was purely consultative, but once the people are asked it is difficult for the elected representatives to be seem to flout the will of the people…The problem is that now the genie is out of the bottle and parliament is the only institution that can navigate the UK out this impasse, but it is doing it on probation.

It will be interesting to see how this equation with three unknowns will be solved…

Tria snookered…and the EU?

Italy’s twin vice premiers knew that they had a good hand in their latest round of brinksmanship with their own FM and the EU. One will recall that President Mattarella was instrumental in getting Tria to be the Finance minister, whereas the coalition wanted Savona, a euro sceptic. Faced with tremendous pressure, Tria could have resigned rather than agreeing to a budget that will increase the national debt by 2.4%, rather than the 1.9% agreed with the EU. The problem is that if he did, then the replacement would have been either a ‘yes man’ like Conte, or a euro sceptic like Savona. Mattarella was keenly aware of this, and even though, technically Mattarella could have vetoed a candidate he didn’t like, this would have plunged Italy into an institutional crisis without precedent against a coalition that is still in a honeymoon phase with the electorate. Tria, probably on Mattarella’s advice, had to blink.

As far as the EU is concerned, they will huff and puff, but at the end they will also have to swallow the Italian pill, based on two considerations. First that it could have been worse…and second, that forcing Italy to the brink would at this time play to the populists’ advantage, and quite possibly provide them with the excuse to renounce the euro altogether.

It is very unlikely that the EU will travel this uncharted territory whilst in the middle of Brexit. Let’s hope that its highly successful bargaining with Mrs May will not give the eurocrats a feeling that they could do it again with Italy…

The Art of the Deal?

Whether you like Trump’s style or not, it is difficult to say that his performance, at least during the press conference in Helsinki, amounted to good negotiating tactics. Agreeing with your opponent and trashing your team isn’t exactly clever.

There are two possible explanations to this bizarre performance. Either the President’s detractors are right and he is in ‘Putin’s pocket’ for whatever sordid reasons…or the face to face meetings and the press conference were different ‘movies’.

 As Trump likes to say, ‘we will see what happens’!

Raising the Ante

Diplomacy is dead. Today’s leaders resemble more carpet dealers in the sook that ask for a price knowing that the buyers will haggle and they will eventually settle for a lot less than the sticker price.

Take Trump. While he certainly has done a lot of what he promised he would do, and this is to his credit, the recent tariffs spat with his allies are probably part of a wider negotiation strategy with a specific endgame. Same with the amateurish Italian duo Salvini/Di Maio. Their rants against Europe are designed to “flatten the battlefield” in order to win concessions from Europe. In this, like Trump, they have the advantage of Street Cred…they just may actually carry through with their threats.

Europe will need to be pragmatic in dealing with them and they just may be able to extract meaningful concessions, because they started with a maximalist strategy.

Trump Trade

Even the NYT had to admit that Trump is ‘on solid ground when accuses China’ of nefarious trade practices, even though that newspaper continues to say that he is going about it the wrong way. Let’s try to translate this. Trump has made the correct diagnosis but is administering the wrong cure. Maybe they have a point, in saying for example that his solutions are half baked.

But perhaps the more interesting question that is not asked, is why did it take so long to realise that the US has been trade-abused for decades, and why has no other more literate, polite, erudite president been able to articulate the problem, and propose a ‘fully baked’ solution?

 Why hasn’t that darling of the liberals, Mr. Obama, done anything about it? Maybe if he did, he would have done much more elegantly? But the truth is that nobody else has. In the same way, previous presidents have chosen to kick the can down the road with the North Korean problem, the Jerusalem capital issue, and most important of all, this president is not going to let the bad deal that his predecessor held up as his chef d’oeuvre, turn Iran into a nuclear nation…just not now, in a few years.

 Trump may not be articulate, elegant, loyal, or politically correct, but he seems to be able to identify big wrongs and start to do something about it.

Trump meets Rocket Man

In another theatrical move, Trump is proving that one underestimates his willingness to do the unexpected at his peril.

Going to the lion’s den is a high stakes move, both from a personal security point of view (secret service nightmare!), and of course politically. Trump will have to ensure that he doesn’t repeat his predecessors’ mistakes in negotiating ad nauseam with someone who may just want to buy more time and fool another commander in chief.

 If the gamble works, however, this could be a great precedent to tackle Iran and the Palestinian conflict. Telling it as it is, speaking tough with all the bulk and power of Uncle Sam and then negotiating a hard deal.

What it takes to make a leader

Would any G-7 nation elect today a president or prime minister who sleeps during the day and works at night, who wakes up by breakfasting on Champagne and continues his day with whisky, and in the meantime nearly bankrupts his own family to finance his addiction for Cuban cigars?

Of course, that leader was Winston Churchill, and the answer is probably no. Incidentally, Churchill lost the elections after winning the war.

With the possible exception of the current occupier of the white house, the western world today couldn’t tolerate or elect a leader that has an outwardly egregious lifestyle even though he or she has the qualities needed to run a nation in a difficult hour. Of course, Churchill wasn’t perfect and his lifestyle is not to be recommended to anyone; however, one wonders if today’s system of values of uber political correctness are conducive to attract men and women who do not just say what the electorate wants to hear, but are able to take personal political risks to back what is right in the face of strong opposition. One last such leader, Margaret Thatcher, when confronted by many including in her own party, that her policies were going to lose the party’s standing in the polls, and asked her to turn around, famously said:”this lady is not for turning.” Leaders like her are sorely missed.