Israel’s [uncertain] future

On March 23rd  2021 Israel held its fourth legislative elections in two years. No candidate was able to secure enough parliamentary seats to stay in power, meaning Israel’s political crisis will remain unsolved in the months to come.

Following the 2009 legislative elections, where Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party finished second, Netanyahu was able to create a majority coalition with several other right-wing parties. He formed a new government and was nominated Prime Minister. This was his second term as Israel’s head of government, following his 1996-1999 term that ended with a vote of no confidence by the parliament. Netanyahu managed to win both the 2013 and the 2015 elections, securing his stay in power by forming coalitions with smaller right-wing parties.

In 2016, Israeli prosecutors started investigating Netanyahu on charges of corruption, and on November 21st 2019 the Israeli attorney general formally indicted Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases. If convicted, the sitting Prime Minister could face up to 13 years behind bars.

Netanyahu’s charges

Benjamin Netanyahu is involved in three court cases, known as 1000, 2000 and 4000. Case 1000 concerns the Prime Minister’s relationship with two businessmen. Netanyahu allegedly received from these businessmen a quasi-continuous supply of cigar boxes and cases of champagne. These gifts amounted to almost €170,000, and Netanyahu is accused of fraud and breach of trust.

Likewise, Case 2000 also sees the incumbent Prime Minister charged of fraud and breach of trust, but these charges regard Mr. Netanyahu’s meetings with Israeli media mogul Arnon Mozes. Both are alleged of striking an agreement, where Mozes’s media group would improve their coverage of Mr Netanyahu, in exchange for restrictions on the Israel Hayom newspaper, Mozes’s competitors. The attorney general has also charged Mr. Mozes with bribery.

Case 4000 concerns what attorney general Mandelbilt called a “reciprocal agreement” between Prime Minister Netanyahu, who at the time was also the communications minister, and Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israel’s largest telecommunications company, who also owned the news website Walla. Netanyahu is accused of using his powers and authorities as a public servant to promote matters of substantial financial value pertaining to Mr. Elovitch’s businesses, dealing on several occasions with changes in regulatory frameworks. In exchange, Mr. Elovitch and his wife exerted continuous pressure on the director-general of the news website Walla, to change their coverage to be aligned with Mr. Netanyahu’s demands.

Benjamin Netanyahu in his second court appearance

Israel’s political crisis

With the investigation and indictment of Prime Minister Netanyahu came a clear rise in “anti-Netanyahu parties”, whose main campaign goal centred around deposing the Prime Minister. The largest contender to Netanyahu’s power was Benny Gantz, who had the support of the Blue and White political alliance. Gantz managed to tie Netanyahu in terms of parliamentary seats in the April 2019 elections, preventing Netanyahu’s coalition from obtaining a majority in parliament and forcing renewed elections in September 2019. In the September rerun both main parties lost seats, making considerable efforts to form a new coalition. Netanyahu approached his religious and ultra-orthodox allies, and Gantz the liberal aisle of the parliament. Nonetheless, those efforts fell short, and new elections were yet again scheduled for March 2020.

Benny Gantz managed to secure a parliamentary majority, but his coalition parties failed to agree on a government program and refused to sit together in government. The Covid pandemic led to the need of an emergency coalition, and Gantz felt forced to break his campaign promise and form a coalition government with Netanyahu and other smaller parties. This decision severely affected Gantz’s popularity, both inside his party and among voters. This, together with disagreements between Gantz and other parties in the coalition, led to the collapse of the government, when it did not manage to approve a state budget before the end of 2020. According to Israeli law, this calls for the dissolution of the parliament, and the scheduling of elections within 90 days, resulting in the March 21st elections.

Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu casting their vote

Political deadlock

With all votes now counted, no party can be considered a clear winner. Netanyahu’s opponents hold 57 seats of the parliament, while Netanyahu and his coalition partners solely hold 52. 11 seats are still up for grabs as two parties are yet to commit to either side, the United Arab List and Anthony Bennett’s Yamina. The decisive party may well be the United Arab List, a small Islamist party that won four seats. Their leader, Mansour Abbas, has openly stated his willingness to negotiate with both sides of the aisle. For Netanyahu to secure a majority, he would need his former aide turned critic Naftali Bennett and the United Arab League. However, to balance a coalition with nationalists, ultra-orthodox members and an Islamist party seems like an impossible task.

The anti-Netanyahu camp, however, only needs the United Arab List’s four seats to secure a parliamentary majority and oust Benjamin Netanyahu. Benny Gantz already tried to form a coalition with Islamist parties following the last elections, to no avail, citing disagreements with the Islamist party’s leadership over national and security issues.

President Rivlin is trying to solve this deadlock by holding consultations with each party in the coming weeks, but it is far from clear what the outcome of this stalemate will be. If a coalition fails to be formed, the President will be forced to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections, the fifth legislative elections in two years, leading to further political instability in a country that has been plagued by it throughout the last two years.


Sources: Al-Jazeera, BBC, CNN, Deutsche Welle, Reuters


Hugo Canau

Manuel Barbosa

António Payan Martins

Christian Weber

Myanmar’s Coup d’État

Reading time: 6 minutes

On the morning of February 1st, 2021 several members of Myanmar’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), were deposed by the military, which proclaimed a year-long state of emergency, and handed the power to the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, General Ming Aung Hlang. The military declared the November 2020 General Election invalid, claiming the vote was fraudulent. By February 2nd, 400 members of Parliament had been placed under house arrest, confined to their government housing complex, and guarded by soldiers.  

For some westerners, this coup d’état may have come as a surprise, but Myanmar’s high-ranking military officers have been threatening this for months. 

What led to the coup? 

On November 8th, 2020, Myanmar held General Elections that resulted in a landslide victory for NLD. The military and the Union Solidary and Development Party (USDP), which hold close ties, as many party officials are former military personnel, began making allegations of widespread voter fraud following their defeat. They even threatened to take decisive action if these matters were not properly addressed.  

All allegations were dismissed by the election commission, on January 27th General Min Aung Hlaing publicly announced he would not rule out the possibility of a coup d’état and the abolition of the constitution if the constitution would fail to be upheld.  

Then, on February 1st, one day before the scheduled swearing-in of the new government and members of parliament, the coup d’état was carried out. 

How was the coup carried out? 

The military placed various members of the NLD under house arrest, as well as other civilian officials, such as Ms. Aung Saan Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint. Furthermore, the military quickly gained control of the country’s infrastructure and telecommunication services, suspending television broadcasts, as well as telephone and internet coverage in most major cities. 

As soon as February 2nd, people started flooding the streets in protests against the military. Hospital staff, teachers, and government officials joined civil disobedience movements threatening to strike until the elected government was restored. The protests escalated daily, with information being shared through Twitter and Facebook, leading the military junta to shut down the internet. 

Protestors defying military orders in a mass stike
Source: BBC

By February 9th, the police were using crowd control tactics to disperse the masses, such as water cannons and rubber bullets to clear the streets. This day was also marked by the shooting of Mya Khaing, a 19-year-old protester, shot by police while seeking shelter from water cannons under a bus stop. The shooting was recorded by bystanders. She was declared brain dead on February 12th and was taken off life support on the 19th. Mya’s death sparked national outrage, which further fueled the protests. 

Mya Khaing (20) became the face of the protests after she was shot and killed by the police, while seeking shelter from a water cannon under a bus stop
Source: CNN

The military junta tried to deescalate the situation by promising to hold new elections as soon as the state of emergency is lifted. This promise failed to appease the masses, as they continued to flood the streets by the hundreds of thousands. This defiance of the military’s orders was confronted with an escalation of violence by the police and armed forces, who launched a brutal crackdown.  

As of March 20th, the international press reported that over 2100 people were arrested, including 29 journalists, and over 120 have been confirmed dead. The deadliest day was the 3rd of March when at least 38 people were killed during protests, with witnesses saying the police and the military were using live ammunition against unarmed crowds. On the evening of the 6th of March, NLD party official Khin Maung Latt was pronounced dead while in police custody, following his arrest by the military earlier that day. Official sources state he died of a heart, but family members quickly questioned the various bruises found around his head and neck, arguing their family member was beaten to death. 

The historic role of the military in Myanmar 

Following Myanmar’s (then called Burma) independence from Britain in 1948, a democratic system was instituted until the 1962 coup d’état orchestrated by General Ne Win, who ruled the country for 26 years. General Ne Win tried to implement a new ideology, which became known as “Burmese Socialism”, where Marxist views were influenced by Buddhism. 

General Ne Win was ousted in 1988 following a wave of protests against the dire economic situation Myanmar was facing in the 1980s. These protests resulted in 3000 deaths, and Ne Win was forced to resign, being replaced by another military junta, but maintaining an active presence behind the scenes. 

Myanmar’s military junta was officially dissolved in 2011, following the 2010 General Elections, which were widely dismissed as fraudulent by western nations. For a country that, at the time, was celebrating 63 years of independence, this marked the end of 49 years of military rule. However, the military continued to hold a substantial amount of power, as according to the constitution, it has the right of holding 25% of the seats in the House of Representatives, as well as in the House of Nationalities. Furthermore, the ministries of home, border affairs, and defense must be headed by a serving military officer. 

The role of Aung San Suu Kyi 

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San, an instrumental figure in Burma’s independence from Britain and considered the “Father of modern-day Myanmar”, was under house arrest for a total of 15 years between 1989 and 2010, on charges of undermining the community peace and stability. 

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi
Source: The Guardian

In 1991, as the leader of the NLD and under house arrest, she won the national elections but was restrained from assuming power by the military junta. Ms. Suu Kyi was an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression and was therefore awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, while under house arrest. 

After her 2010 release, she contested and won the 2015 general elections, the first openly contested General Elections of the 21st century, by a large margin. As Ms. Suu Kyi was married to a foreign national and has children who have foreign nationalities, the constitution forbids her from becoming president, and she assumed the role of state counselor to President Win Myint. 

Her international image was tarnished by her defense of the military during the Rohingya Crisis, where Myanmar was accused of genocide by the International Court of Justice, for crimes against the Rohingya Muslim minority. 

This support of the military did not save her during the coup, as she was one of the first politicians detained by the military. She is once again under house arrest and faces obscure charges that could land her in prison for up to 6 years. She is accused of violating import restrictions, as six walkie-talkies were found in her villa compound, as well as contravening a natural disaster management law by interacting with a crowd during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ms. Suu Kyi has been denied legal representation during her trial, and this process is widely seen as a pretext to keep her under detention.

 It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it

Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991

The upcoming weeks will be decisive for the prospect of democracy in Myanmar. If the military junta is able to maintain its firm grip on power, we could expect another chapter in the history of military oppression of political and individual freedoms in Myanmar. However, if the masses can resist and depose the increasingly violent military junta, this could be a major step in the development of their freedom, as it could lead to a clear separation of powers within Myanmar’s political system, paving the way towards democracy. 


Sources: Al-Jazeera, BBC, CNN, Nikkei Asia, Reuters, The New York Times

Francisco Pereira

Christian Weber

Afonso Monteiro

QAnon, the far-right conspiracy taking over the mainstream

The Storm is Here

Human Beings love a good story, we crave for narratives that breakdown and explain information in a way we find compelling, sometimes in ways which confirm our own biases. Battles of existential good and evil have long been effective narratives to capture humanity’s attention, from religious myth to sci-fi blockbusters.

QAnon is in a way no different than a typical good versus evil type of story. It has roots in the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which refers to several stories that circulated around the internet alleging that Hilary Clinton and top Democrats were part of a paedophilia ring, that held satanic rituals from the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C.. Later in October 2017, a user by the name Q started posting on 4chan, commenting on a cryptic statement by Donald Trump, “The calm before the storm”.

 The storm in question? A supposed culmination of a battle between evil and good in which the good, will finally triumph defeating thousands of members of the “Cabal”, a group of powerful elites involved in paedophilia and focused on destroying the US, by arresting and executing them or, if they are lucky, sending them to Guantanamo Bay. This was the beginning of a growing internet community that spread theories about a cabal of satanic paedophilic politicians, celebrities and media figures that control the world.

The “Q” is a reference to Q-clearance – the maximum level of access to secret documents in the US government. Several posters on Q boards claim to be government insiders, some in the FBI and CIA, and thus having access to relevant information regarding the conspiracy.

Our Lord and Saviour Donald Trump

There is an intimate connection between QAnon and politics. Every good story needs a hero, a protagonist, in this case it is the current President Donald Trump, who acts as a messianic figure in the conspiracy mythology. He is the saviour of the United States, the one who will stop the Cabal and finally usher a time of peace and prosperity, free of paedophilia, illegal migrants, and supposed Islamic invasions. QAnon supporters study the Presidents words carefully hoping to spot coded language possibly related to this secret mission. For example, in a meeting regarding the North Korea nuclear programme, Donald Trump referred to a “Calm before the storm”, which was interpreted as a “stand-by” kind of comment.

QAnon and Trump supporter at a rally

QAnon and Trump supporter at a rally

QAnon has slowly infiltrated the political discourse and slid its way into national politics. Signs of support for the conspiracy became common in Trump rallies and republican events after 2018. In the 2020 elections, 27 candidates for the House of Representatives (25 republican and 2 independent) reportedly believed in QAnon, two of which were elected.

The conspiracy, except for some specific mythology and coded language, seems to share many of the common tropes of the far-right: paedophilia, Islamic invasion, an anti-system sentiment, and a deep distrust of institutions. Consequently, such movements tend to exhibit huge flexibility and adaptability to any new narrative that becomes relevant, for example, COVID scepticism.

QAnon goes international

QAnon Flag being waved at a Anti-Lockdown protest in Berlin

QAnon Flag being waved at a Anti-Lockdown protest in Berlin

As QAnon grows, so does its Geographical outreach, which found fertile ground within European conspiracy theorists and far-right movements. The Coronavirus Crisis has been a catalyst for the spread of QAnon, having the Q signs appeared in protests over Coronavirus’ restrictions in Germany, Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal.

With the international expansion, QAnon lost its attachment to American politics, and it has adapted its language and narratives to better fit the different international realities. Earlier this year, in Germany (largest QAnon community besides the English-speaking countries), a large-scale joint NATO’s exercise was perceived as an attack, by Donald Trump, to free the German people from the control of the “deep state”. When the exercise was re-scaled this spring due to COVID, it was theorized that Merkel had created this “fake pandemic” to end the liberation plan.

Merkel has become an especially nefarious QAnon character, as her support for refugees led Merkel to be branded as a puppet of the global elite. The community attacks to her range from accusations of being a “Zionist Jew”, part of the Rothchild family, or even the granddaughter of Adolf Hitler.

QAnon supporters in Romania

QAnon supporters in Romania

Social media

With Trump rising in 2016, the expression “fake news” became widespread, and it was popularized the idea that Media institutions were partisan and acted on a political agenda to purposefully manipulate the population, observing that the reliance on social media, as the only source of information has been increasing.

However, social media lacks accuracy by exposing many users to conspiracy theories, clickbait, hyper partisan content, pseudo-science, and even fabricated “fake news” reports. This low-credibility content seems to spread quickly and easily and, because social media’s algorithms act in ways which reinforce pe7ople’s biases, it exposes the users to the type of content to which it previously engaged positively. Therefore, in recent years social media giants have been criticized, being forced to walk on a thin line between misinformation prevention and freedom of speech.

With its steady growth, QAnon  changed from forums like 4chan, to social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, increasing its access to millions of people. Between March and June 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, QAnon activity nearly tripled on Facebook and doubled on Instagram and Twitter, which also serve as a platform to radicalize milder conspiracy theorists, such as anti-vaxxers, into full QAnon believers later linked with far-right movements.

Some social media companies currently imposed tougher restrictions on their platforms. In 2019, Twitter removed several accounts that were supposedly connected to the Russian Internet Research Agency that had been disseminating a high level of QAnon content. Later, in July 2020, Twitter initiated an all-out ban on QAnon’s affiliated accounts and promised changes in the algorithm in order to mitigate the spread of related conspiracies. Facebook also announced measures that limit the presence of QAnon contentment across its platform.

The calm after the Storm

There is nothing unique about the narratives spread by QAnon, they share many of the typical conspiracy tropes prospered in a time of political and social instability, using COVID as a powerful tool to increase its reach. More worrisome is that unlike at any other historical time, conspiracy theories now enjoy near unlimited access to huge social media platforms, where information can be spread widely with no accountability. In these platforms, there is an increase in the promiscuity of some of these theories with political movements, which use each other and social media, to leverage their popularity. It remains yet to be understood if Social Media companies have the technical capacity to restrict these movements and have the moral authority to assess which movements deserve to be restricted.

Joe Biden, the 46th President of the United States

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. won the 2020 US Elections, becoming the President-elect, with his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States of America being planned for January 20th, 2021.

After a turbulent election week, delayed by prolonged counting, due to an increased number of mail-in ballots and early votes, as well as allegations of voter fraud. The fog eventually cleared, and Joe Biden has come out victorious, with decisive upsets in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia. Some results have been highly disputed, and the Trump campaign has already called for a recount in Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona. Despite all this, everything points towards Biden beating Trump, 306 to 232 Electoral College votes.

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Senate and House of Representatives

Joe Biden is experienced for the office, having already served two terms as US’ Vice-President under the Obama administration, as well as six terms as Senator of Delaware.  His presidential campaign was based on being an experienced, traditional American politician, with an old-fashioned appeal and charismatic honesty.

With Biden at the helm, it feels like Washington’s future will be predictable and optimistic, unlike the last four years of Donald Trump’s erratic presidency.

The first two years of Biden’s mandate, however, will highly depend on the outcome of Georgia’s Senate runoff race. If Democrats can secure both seats, the Senate will be split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Kamala Harris, the Vice-President, serving as tiebreaker. As the House of Representatives is already held by Democrats, it would be considerably easier for Biden to pass some of his more ambitious policies, that stem from a more progressive wing of the party if both chambers were held by Democrats. Biden managed to gather the support of these progressive members of the Democratic Party, following his nomination for the Presidency. The impact of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s and Bernie Sanders’s policies, if passed, could bring a substantial shift not only to American politics, but also to its socio-economic structure.

On the other hand, if Democrats are unable to secure both Senate seats, Biden must wait until 2022 to try to obtain a Senate majority, when 34 Senate seats will be up for election. Until then, Biden would have to strive for Bipartisan measures, that would be less ambitious than his proposed measures, especially regarding a new tax plan and healthcare bill.


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What can we expect of Biden’s Presidency?

Biden has already stated that on his first day in office, he will rejoin both the Paris Climate Deal and the World Health Organization, following Trump’s unexpected withdrawal from both these agreements, in 2017 and April of this year, respectively.

It has been made clear by the elected President, that he will tackle this pandemic with a science-based approach, appointing a task force of scientists led by Dr. Anthony Fauci. The Biden administration will also have to face the current crisis that was brought forth by the Covid-19 pandemic. This will be one of the major hurdles to surpass, as restructuring the economy will be vital to ensure that the American Economy overcomes this crisis. The plan is to primarily help low-income families, as they were the most affected by the current crisis, by encouraging the creation of small businesses and their expansion to economically disadvantaged areas. These areas are predominantly inhabited by minorities, and these measures would allow for greater racial equity throughout all social classes and ethnicities.

In the long-run, Biden plans to take concise action towards fighting Climate Change, seeking to invest $2 trillion to boost clean energy and rebuild deteriorating infrastructure. According to Biden, the US is currently facing “A Child Care Emergency”. To tackle it, he plans to invest $775 billion to lower the cost of and expand the access to healthcare for Americans. To raise funding to apply these measures, the Biden administration plans a tax increase on people earning over $400.000 a year, as well as multi-million dollar companies, who benefited from tax cuts under the Trump Administration. However, as mentioned before, these highly ambitious, but ground-breaking measures, are extremely difficult to be approved in a Republican-controlled Senate.


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Biden’s plan on Foreign Affairs

Biden has clearly stated that he intends to revitalize the Iran Nuclear Deal, following Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from it, correcting the subsequent unforgiving economic sanctions that plummeted the Irani economy into a deep recession with soaring inflation and shortages of basic goods.

The election of Biden for President was not the desired outcome for Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as Biden announced he would reassess the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia. He further declared he will demand accountability over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist murdered inside the Saudi consulate, in Istanbul. The military support provided to Saudi Arabia by the US government in the Yemeni Civil War has also been questioned due to the increased death toll of civilians by Saudi Air and Drone strikes. This contrasts Mohammed bin Salman’s relationship with Donald Trump, who in 2019 referred his Saudi counterpart as “a good friend of mine”, after deciding not to confront the Saudi leader following the murder of Khashoggi.

During his tenure as Vice-President, Joe Biden was highly critical of Putin especially following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. He maintained this rhetoric after Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, was poisoned. However, Biden commented encouragingly the extension of START, the latest nuclear arms reduction pact between Russia and the US, that is set to expire in February.

Regarding China, Biden plans to take a more measured and multilateral approach to “pressure, punish and isolate China”, than the Trump administration’s barrage of sanctions on Beijing. 

“This is the time to heal America”

In his victory speech, the President-Elect displayed empathy and tried to reach out to those who did not vote for him. Essentially, Joe Biden attempted to convey a positive message that sought to reunite the American people, following a tumultuous election.

“To make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies. They are Americans. They are Americans.”

— Joe Biden in his victory speech

For now, one must wait until the Electoral College meets to officially declare Joe Biden the President-elect, as Donald Trump has not yet conceded, and is still trying to fight a legal battle to annul what he deemed to be “illegal votes”. Only time will tell if Biden will be able to unify and heal a country deeply split by polarizing issues, that range from police brutality and institutional racism, to gun control and immigration. Without this unity, it will be even more demanding to ensure the US can come out of the current crisis stronger, as they did many times before, as a country.


Sources: Aljazeera, CNBC, EuroNews, Financial Times, Futurism, Reuters, The New York Times.


Christian Weber - Christian Weber João Oliveira - João Oliveira

João Sande e Castro - João Sande e Castro

Trump vs Biden Clash – The Illusions within US Politics

Reflecting on 2016-2020

In January 2017, Donald Trump took the office of the United States presidency, carrying with him the promise to “Make America great again”. Somehow, it feels like Trump has been there for a lifetime, while simultaneously having arrived just yesterday. Four years have passed since the 2016 elections and, in retrospect, it surely feels like it was a decisive moment in time. Brexit had just happened, right-wing populism was gaining traction throughout Europe, and Donald Trump seemed to be going all-in on his presidential campaign; overall, there was a huge wave of uncertainty, a collective feeling that something big was about to happen, and that nothing would ever be the same. In November, Trump’s victory pointed towards this change. The defeat of the Democrats was supposed to mean a greater landmark – the categorical rupture of the status quo, a definite breach in the politics of the establishment – or so it was portrayed by Trump and his team.

Four years have passed, and we recognize a fragile, divided America. A nation fiercely hit by the Coronavirus pandemic, disrupted by boiling racial tensions, alarmed by the uncertainty of a perilous recession and, amidst all, the distressing political environment over in D.C.. Once again, the American people will go to the polls and decide who will lead them in the next four years. The questions to be raised should reflect an interrogative posture toward the change that Trump promised, whilst reflecting on the economic achievements of the current administration, the social attainments to better the lives of the population, which encapsulates the management of the pandemic outbreak.

Supporter of Trump’s 2020 campaign

Supporter of Trump’s 2020 campaign

The purpose of this article is to provide an insight on Trump’s time in office, whilst simultaneously analyzing his and Joe Biden’s campaigns, the ideological contrast between the two, reflecting on the decisiveness of the result. Has Trump’s America experienced a structural shift, when taking into account the political history of the US, or is a hitch-like phenomenon present, where a country reminisces over a past that never was?


The Promises and Misadventures of Donald Trump

President Trump has been rather consistent regarding his controversial character and erratic persona. He has been able to remain in the spotlight throughout his four-year term, whether we take into consideration cases like his 2020 impeachment process or his contentious posture towards the media, his opponents, and his political counterparts. Economically, the US has achieved some important goals, from drastic tax cuts to historically low unemployment rates. Trump has been somewhat successful at putting his protectionist agenda into practice, renegotiating trade deals, and positively impacting domestic manufacturing industries. However, Trump’s action towards healthcare, environmental policy, social matters (gun laws, abortion), immigration measures, have all been subject to severe criticism and have induced concern from national and foreign politicians.

One should question if the USA is any different from when Trump took office or, in other words, whether America has become great again. The impact of the Trump presidency has been felt, but did it really disrupt the political paradigm? Has the swamp been drained? In many crucial issues, the President has been unable to reverse the position in which America is placed. The US has gravely increased its trade deficit with China. It has not cemented a particularly stronger position regarding foreign policy. It has yet to make a strong reform on many issues Trump committed to, concerning health, crime and justice, among others. The President’s campaign this year emphasizes the major improvements of his term, while continuing to promise big boosts in employment, tax cuts and American foreign affirmation, mainly concerning his Chinese counterparts. Is this enough?

All the turmoil that hit the US in 2020, from the Covid-19 pandemic, to the racial division, which caused riots all over the country, indicates that we should understand the direction in which the country is moving. In 2016, America felt it needed Trumpism – it craved for disruption. Has that necessity been expanded, or is it time to return to normalcy?

A cartoon by Joe Heller on Trump’s America

A cartoon by Joe Heller on Trump’s America


The Case for Joe Biden

Former Vice-President Joe Biden is the embodiment of this return to normalcy. In a way, he is the representation of a traditional American politician. He rose to the Senate at a very young age, held numerous important public positions and he has to him an old-fashioned appeal and a charismatic honesty, which has always allowed him to connect with the working-class, blue-collar community. His politics serve as an ideological alternative to Trump, leaning towards a moderate approach to solving the problems of the USA, to water down these turbulent times and to heal together. Incidentally, these bases are the ones which the Democratic Party intends to present as the Trump alternative. We must analyse what a Biden presidency would really represent for America.

Biden’s campaign has placed focus on Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic. The USA has the most cases and deaths across all countries, and the Democrats have pointed to the President’s recklessness and late action as a major cause of such impact. Furthermore, Biden is focused on improving and building upon the Affordable Care Act, ensuring an equitable solution for the health and the economic crisis and is overall aligned with the usual Democratic Agenda. This comes to show Biden is not proposing anything particularly innovative or different from the usual politics of the US. His campaign is far more ideological, emphasizing a message of rebuilding the country and “soul of America”, starting over and starting better.

The Trump vs Biden Debate, on the 29th of September

The Trump vs Biden Debate, on the 29th of September

However, Biden has had quite a controversial side to his demeanour. For once, his age is being pointed out as a major drawback, as his health conditions, regular gaffes and blunders are often in the spotlight. Besides, he has been under a number of controversies. Past ones include sexual harassment allegations and conflicts of interest in his action in the Ukraine involving his son. Presently, he stirred turmoil by questioning the identitary legitimacy of African-Americans who failed to cast a vote for the Democrats.

Joe Biden has an appeal to him. Many consider him to be “the lesser of two evils”. However, it should be enquired – is he truly offering something that America has never had?


A Final Note of Hopelessness

Many Americans are questioning how it got to the point where they have to choose between two unloved figures. One can blame the whole structure of American Politics and the two-party system. Some say the ruling party changes whilst nothing else does. Others say these tendencies lead to extreme and populist positions. Yet, the truth is that there is a sense of hopelessness in the politics of America. These sentiments are strikingly reflected in the reactions to the first Presidential Debate, as the majority perceived it as a circus-like show displaying the absurdity of politics.

Polls are suggesting a Biden victory, not only on the popular vote, but also in the majority of the so-called “swing states”, fundamental to win the Electoral College. The Senate polls also give a good chance of a Democrat win. Should they be able to conquer the Presidential position and the Senate, while maintaining the House, the Democrats would have a clear upper hand in the decision-making process within the US.

Whether we take into consideration the populism within Trump’s “Law and Order” rhetoric, or the “return to normalcy” approach by Biden, it is crucial to comprehend the lucid limitations of these elections. The structural shift Trump promised is rather questionable, whilst his campaign has been lacking the strength and efficiency we witnessed in 2016. On the other hand, we must look at the America Joe Biden is promising to heal. Surely, one should question – isn’t the status quo politics what caused the US to hurt in the first place?

If America is constantly facing a cycle of booms and contractions, an unwanted loop in the socioeconomic core of the country, Americans may be questioning not only their politicians, but also their political system. Nonetheless, the American people shall make themselves heard on the 3rd of November.

Stay-at-Home protests in Denver, Colorado, demanding the ceasing of the pandemic restrictions                                                           

Stay-at-Home protests in Denver, Colorado, demanding the ceasing of the pandemic restrictions

Protests in Minneapolis, following the death of George Floyd by an act of police brutality

Protests in Minneapolis, following the death of George Floyd by an act of police brutality

joao.sc João Sande e Castro

Socialism and chaos in the land of oil

Venezuela’s resurrection

The 1990s were a time of great instability and unrest in Latin America. The recovery from the debt crisis of the late 1980s forced South American governments to adopt neoliberal policies, opposed by many social and political movements. Despite the economic growth brought by the increase in oil prices after 1973, Venezuela was unable to escape an economic and political crisis. In this context, Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez attempted twice to topple Venezuela’s government in 1992, as the head of the armed socialist movement which he created in the prior decade (MBR-200).

None of the attempts were successful and Chávez was arrested in the last one. However, all imprisoned members of MBR-200 were pardoned in 1994 and had their political rights reinstated. This allowed Chávez to run for President, in 1998, promising to get rid of corruption, help the poor and reduce the power of the elites. These promises turned Chávez into the favorite candidate, and for the first time in the democratic history of Venezuela, a candidate outside the traditional party system won the elections.

On election night, Chávez declared: “Venezuela’s resurrection is underway and nothing and nobody can stop it”. The so-called “Bolivarian Revolution” began. A Constituent Assembly was formed to rewrite the country’s Constitution in line with the illiberal, populist, and socialist ideals of the new government, paving the way for Chávez’s consolidation of power.

The most emblematic reform during his first mandate was the creation of the “Bolivarian Missions”, a series of programs that focused on social justice, social welfare, anti-poverty, and education, which effectively lifted millions of Venezuelans out of poverty and granted them new opportunities in life. This conceded Chávez an enormous popularity-boost, and a re-election by landslide in 2006. The government then started a program of nationalization, taking control of the oil industry, telecommunications, electricity, steel, and cement companies.


A slow-motion catastrophe

Hugo Chávez won his third straight presidential election in 2012. However, he was unable to attend his Presidential Inauguration due to advanced illness, and in March 2013, two months after the ceremony, he perished. His right-hand man, Nicolás Maduro, succeeded him as president, by winning the presidential election in 2013. This election, however, showed Maduro was not the charismatic leader Chávez was, as he only managed to win by a narrow margin of 1.5%, contrasting Chávez’s victory over the same opponent by 11%.

Hugo Chávez’s funeral procession, 2013

Hugo Chávez’s funeral procession, 2013

The economic problems existent during the final years of Chávez’s presidency were aggravated during Maduro’s mandate. With an economy over-reliant on the extraction and exportation of oil, the decrease in oil prices and the internationally imposed sanctions weighed heavily on the economy. To add to these issues, in 2014 the government was faced with student protests in several cities that escalated to armed confrontations, fuelled in part by the scarcity of basic goods, such as toilet paper and food items.

In 2016, the increasing contestation and frustration of the people towards the government led to the largest defeat of the Chavistas in the ballots, when the opposition gained control of the National Assembly. In the same year, 1.8 million signatures were collected in a petition for the removal of the President. Receiving a rejection, the opposition took the streets in mass protests throughout the country. By then, it was clear that the country was split in half.

Following the protests, Maduro’s government lost the popular support that masked Chavéz’s autocratic exercise of power, turning Nicolás Maduro into a full-blown dictator. In 2017, the Supreme Court (packed with judges aligned with the government), dissolved the opposition-controlled National Assembly, and the government proceeded with the election of a Constituent Assembly, boycotted by the opposition. Using increasingly fraudulent methods, and with the support of Maduro’s enthusiasts,  the Constituent Assembly was tasked with drafting a new constitution.

In 2018’s presidential election, the opposition, again, called for a boycott and for clean elections, following the arrest of several opposition leaders. Their demands, however, were not conceded and Maduro was re-elected. Yet, these results were rejected by the EU and the United States, due to their concern over the aforementioned irregularities.

Perceiving the actions of the government as illegal, the opposition turned its support to the leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, who proclaimed himself as president in 2019, and a diplomatic crisis arose when several other countries recognized Guaidó as President. Nevertheless, he was unsuccessful in ousting Maduro from power, and as long as the army remains loyal to the Bolivarian Republic, Maduro will maintain a firm grip.

Protests against the Constituent Assembly in 2017

Protests against the Constituent Assembly in 2017


A failed-state

It can be argued that some policies conducted by Hugo Chávez successfully improved the quality of life of the Venezuelan people. Health, literacy, and poverty indicators show good results for the first years of chavismo, as well as some economic indicators. Chávez delivered on most of his initial promises, cementing his power and popularity among large sections of the country, however, his socialist reforms created a handicapped economy, overly dependent on oil exports, and turned Venezuela into a centralized state undermined by corruption and incompetence.

Ideologically driven, nationalizations resulted in a crippled economy, unable to produce even the most basic goods, due to the lack of investment throughout nearly all industries. By the time of Chávez’s death, the falling oil prices were already destabilizing the regime, but nowadays, Venezuela is highly susceptible to swings in the international oil market.

Chávez left an extremely polarized country, with a fragile economy, high rates of crime and violence, but a political and military class loyal to the regime, allowing Maduro to remain in power without making any meaningful reforms. While the country’s economy collapsed, the opposition grew, and living became surviving.

Ever since Chávez took power, Venezuela became increasingly isolated internationally. An anti-imperialist rhetoric aimed at the USA, and an alignment with countries like Cuba led to successive international sanctions that have been an important factor in the economic destruction of the country.

In the last years, the continuous effect of all these problems led to the exacerbation of economic struggles. In 2019 the real GDP is estimated to have declined 35%, while the inflation rate was 65037% in 2018, and 19910% in 2019. The poverty rate of households reached 87% in 2017, and the unemployment rate, in the same year, attained 27.1%. The impact on people’s lives is easy to understand. Close to 80% of Venezuelans do not have access to continuous clean drinking water and basic sanitation, which are now a privilege of the wealthy. Ironically, in an oil-rich country, even fuel is scarce. Since 2009, blackouts have become common and widespread in Venezuela with increasing frequency. Blackouts place the whole country in a stand-still: Businesses are unable to operate as telecommunication networks and public transportation cease to function properly. Adding to this, extended periods of blackouts damage food and medicines, which is critical in a country that is already experiencing shortage of these goods.

In 2016, a survey by the Bengoa Foundation discovered that nearly 30% of children were malnourished, while in 2017 another study found that 64% of Venezuelans experienced a reduction in weight, and 61% slept hungry. The lack of medicines and medical items has led to deaths from otherwise preventable diseases. This shortage of basic supplies is even more problematic with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Life is so unbearable that millions of Venezuelans have fled the country in the last years, mainly to Colombia, as well as to other South American countries.

Venezuela is a “failed state”, as former Mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma said. A prosperous country destroyed by incompetent politicians. The regime failed in every aspect other than its own survival. Maduro is still able to command the loyalty of a corrupt political and military class, control the elections, and fend off international pressure.

Unfortunately, for the Venezuelan people, the end of their misery is unforeseeable.

People try to rescue packages from a humanitarian aid truck set afire in the border to Colombia in 2019

People try to rescue packages from a humanitarian aid truck set afire in the border to Colombia in 2019

Sources: The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Conversation, BBC News, Macrotrends, Público, NPR, Al Jazeera, The Next System, CNN, The Washington Post, CSIS, France24, The New York Times, The New Yorker

EU’s Black Sheep: The False Prophets of Poland

Freedom, democracy and the rule of law. These were the three most important principles upon which the European Union was founded, as stated by Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union. In May 2004, when Poland and nine other countries accessed the EU, these were the beliefs they sought to comply with, to their people. However, never have these values suffered from such blatant and dangerous violations, as of today. Sixteen years after the largest expansion of the Union, the Polish state constitutes a major threat to the ideals that cement and define Europe. But how have we come to this point? And most importantly, how will this mayhem be turned around?

Context and History

The Polish “European Project” dates back to its notable economic performance in the 1990’s and its desire of convergence and dissociation with the eastern bloc. Years of negotiation led to a national referendum, in which 77% of voters were in favour of Polish accession to the EU. In 2007, charismatic pro-EU politician Donald Tusk became prime-minister, ensuring a somewhat successful ruling alongside his party, Civic Platform. The following years marked a significant period of growth in Poland, with the reinforcement of its infrastructures, schools, industries and highways, the financial support of the EU and remarkable economic development.


Image 1 - Poland’s GDP per capita growth rate (1992-2019), compared with other European counterparts. The Polish growth has been considerably superior.

Image 1 – Poland’s GDP per capita growth rate (1992-2019), compared with other European counterparts. The Polish growth has been considerably superior.

Although the approval rates of the EU were indeed favourable in Poland, the rise of the nationalist, conservative and Eurosceptic party, PiS (Law and Order) was imminent. Founded in 2001 by the Kaczyński twins, two enticing politicians, this party claimed that the Polish government had become representatives of a corrupt and elite institution, submissive to the European Union. This narrative was appealing to a conservative mass of Polish citizens. It is important to highlight Poland’s issues with its independence, as the country has faced numerous attacks and invasions in the past centuries, often having its own sovereignty withdrawn. The impact of all these devastating decades was a collective trauma and insecurity of losing independence and identity. PiS were very successful in portraying this image to the Polish people, promising to retrieve Poland to its fellows citizens. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the moderate coalition was unable to secure a victory, after Tusk, its main figure, left to preside over the European Council. As a result, PiS formed a majority government, following its crushing victory.

After PiS gained control of both houses of parliament, they also took over the presidency, with Andrzej Duda’s victory in 2015, who stands in office as of today. His voter-friendly appearance and posture allows the party to appeal to the more moderate voters, while Kaczyński operates behind the curtains. The next step for the party was to take over the judicial system.

 

Democratic Threats and the European Response

Firstly, Law and Order neutered the constitutional court. What was supposed to be an unbiased judicial body to assess the legislation according to the fundamental laws of the country, was now a servant of the main party, packed with loyalist judges and lacking any sort of independence.


Image 2 - Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS. This politician has been successful for the rise of a nationalist, conservative movement throughout the Polish territory.

Image 2 – Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS. This politician has been successful for the rise of a nationalist, conservative movement throughout the Polish territory.

Following this, the government set a number of laws that threatened the whole independence of the judicial branch. For instance, in 2017, a law was passed that set different retiring ages for male and female Supreme Court judges and giving the minister of justice discretionary power to prolong the mandate of some judges. Furthermore, a Disciplinary Chamber was created to review the decisions of the Supreme Court. Many questioned the independence of this body, whose members were appointed by the government. The Rule of Law was under imminent threat. Political rule reigned amidst Polish Courts, a pattern that followed through the next years, illustrated by various new laws. One of which was a recently appointed act which determined that judges may be punished for implementing a judgement of a supranational court. This represented a flagrant attack on the prevalence of European Law over domestic mandate. A further infringement occurred over a 2018 law that lowered the retiring age of all Supreme Court Judges. It resulted in the dismissal of 27 of the 72 justices, one of which was the President of the institution. The tension between the Supreme Court and the government had risen tremendously as an attempt of judicial takeover was on sight and European action was urgent.

“It is with a heavy heart that we’ve decided to initiate article 7.1”

— Frans Timmerman

These were the words of Frans Timmerman, the then European Commission First VP, in late 2017. The article in question is a punitive clause seeking to discipline countries that breach the core principles of the EU, and if needed to sanction them or even suspend their EU voting rights. The Union viewed the recent laws passed by the Polish government to disrupt the necessary independence of the judicial structure of the nation and an evident violation of the Rule of Law. It was not only a threat to the Polish people, but to the whole foundation of the European Union.


However, the case of Article 7 is still ongoing. Europe seems to be incapable of resolving the rule of law issues in Poland and the main cause of such irresolution is the need of unanimity from the remaining member-states for the European Commission to apply punishments. Poland is being backed by Hungary, another nation dangerously sliding onto autocracy and illiberalism. These two have formed an unofficial partnership which empowers their continuous breaches on democratic values through the need of unanimity vote to implement the punishments the EU seeks to apply. The constant mutual support of the two governments endangers all the values that shape the EU, since every time one ruptures the rule of law, it has the pat-on-the-back-like comfort of the other, which perpetuates the cycle to this day.

Freedom in Peril

The attack on judiciary independence doesn’t stand alone in the repertoire of the government’s attacks on democracy. Despite the democratically legitimacy of both parliamentary elections and a rule marked by intensifying nationalism and strong economic growth, Poland is holding a questionable position on humanitarian and progressive causes. During the refugee migration crisis, Poland was one of the nations who bluntly refused to receive migrants and blocked a deal on the redistribution of refugees within Europe. Kaczyński and PiS have adopted an Islamophobic, anti-immigration stance in their phenotype, despite the ECJ declaring their refusal to be against European Law.



Images 3 and 4 – Throughout the last decade, Poland has been marked by a number of protests from conservative to progressive ones. The most notable ones were the manifestations on Poland’s National Day in 2017, carried out by nationalists and white-supremacist groups.


Moreover, last year Poland declared the creation LGBT free zones, where almost 100 municipalities adopted an unwelcoming stance on the ideology. Whilst the declarations were local and unenforceable, the ruling party has often supported homophobic stances, further enhancing the Christian rhetoric of PiS. Poland is still a considerably homophobic country, as same-sex marriage and civil union are still not permitted. Freedom of press is equally in danger, as a growing tendency to criminalize defamation has pushed the expression of media and news outlets to an increasingly restricted ethos. Poland is the third worst-positioned EU country in the World Press Freedom Index, only behind Greece and Hungary.


Image 5- Map of Poland, with the LGBT ideology-free zones in red. Almost a third of the country territory has declared these statements

Image 5- Map of Poland, with the LGBT ideology-free zones in red. Almost a third of the country territory has declared these statements


Image 6- Poland’s data regarding the 2020 World Press Freedom Index

Image 6- Poland’s data regarding the 2020 World Press Freedom Index

The future is rather unsettling for Poland. If on the one hand, Poles are aware and willing to protest against the undemocratic decisions of the government, on the other, the residing feeling of Polish identity, the Polish family and Polish patriotism is boiling up through the masses, fevered by Kaczyński and his party. The certainty is the following: one must not overlook Poland’s situation. To say this is just a regular right-wing ruling would be an understatement, for we are witnessing the endangerment of European democracy right before our eyes.

Europe must stand its ground and fight the rise of illiberalism, or continue to dig an endless hole of bureaucracy and futile irresolution.


Sources: Financial Times, POLITICO Europe, World Bank, EuroActiv, Deutsche Welle

Teams: Global Politics, European Affairs

EU’s Black Sheep: Orbanism

Almost two months ago, Hungary made news all around the world after the country’s National Assembly voted to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree for an unspecified amount of time. He can now bypass the legislative body if deemed necessary, to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The parliament can repeal this at any time, but the current two-third majority Orban’s party, the Fidesz, holds on the National Assembly makes such a repeal without the government’s approval unlikely. As it was probably predicted, this sedation of Hungary’s democratic institutions resulted in widespread condemnation from all over the western world, but the authoritarian tendencies of Orban’s government have been making headlines for decades.

Hungary is a fairly new democracy, having only had its first free election after a smooth transition from a socialist soviet bloc country into a western-style democracy 30 years ago. Prior to this, the country has an extensive history of authoritarian domination. After breaking away from the Austrian-Hungary Empire at the end of WWI, Hungary became a totalitarian state and lost two-thirds of its territory as a result of the Treaty of Trianon. The humiliation of having lost a majority of its country and having more than three million Hungarians living in neighboring countries lead the government to eventual join sides with the Axis powers in WWII. The war was devastating for Hungary and after the Nazis surrender, the country was turned into a one-party socialist republic under the influence of the Soviet Union for the next 50 years. The lack of a long history of democratic institutions in Hungary could explain the insouciant feeling of the electorate towards Orban’s style of governing, but democracy is also fairly new in the Baltic States, and we do not see this sort of attacks on democracy in those three countries. The success of Orban seems to lie on his talent to appease to the nationalistic and conservative electorate that still dream of unifying the Hungarian people under one great country. 


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Road to Power

Viktor Orban was born in 1963 in a rural zone near Budapest. He studied Law after his compulsory military service. His time in the military is said to have molded his opposition to the communist regime in Hungary, and soon he became very outspoken, with his master thesis being about Poland’s Solidarity Movement, which opposed communism in Soviet-controlled Poland. In 1988 he co-founded Fidesz (an acronym for “Federation of Young Democrats”) with other young opponents of the regime and demanded free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. In these early years, Orban was seen as a young liberal icon behind the Iron Curtain. In the late 1980s, Viktor Orban’s career was symbolic of the democratic and western leaning transformations of Eastern Europe. On the first free elections in 1990, Orban was elected as an MP for the National Assembly for the first time, transforming Fidesz from a youth political movement into an important party in the new democratic Hungary. Orban took over control of the party three years later, and under his direction, Fidesz moved away from the liberalism ideas that originally defined it to a more right-wing ideology. First, he rebranded it as a center-right Christian democratic party, and then later in 2002, as the nationalist and authoritarian party it is today. Orban thought that assuming an empty space on the political spectrum was the best way to have success against the left and liberal parties. Gradually, it became the dominant right-wing party in Hungarian politics. Fidesz’s changes are best understood as responses to Orban’s pursuit of power than as driven by ideological evolution. In 1998, Orban was elected prime minister, the youngest ever in the country’s history. His first term was a regular center-right government. Under his leadership, the foundations for Hungary’s membership of the EU and NATO were laid, and his performance was mostly praised. In 2002, Fidesz lost power to the Socialist Party, and Orban lead the opposition until 2010, when he was once again elected as prime-minister by using the Hungarian’s discontent with the Great Recession and widespread corruption charges against the socialist government to win in a landslide.


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The second term of the new Orban government would start the demolition of democratic institutions in Hungary. After the win in 2010, Orban’s party had a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, and it used it to approve – and then later amend to his benefit – a new constitution that reduced the power of the courts and severely diminished the freedom of the press. Under the new constitution, the number of MPs in the National Assembly was reduced by almost half. The now reduced number of MPs would be elected in redrawn constituencies that are believed to favor Orban’s party, the Fidesz. The new constitution also ended the requirement that judges for the Constitutional Court needed the support of the majority of the parties’ in the National Assembly to be elected, which means judges can now reach the court with a two-thirds majority despite objections from opposition parties, allowing Fidesz to pack the court with allies of the government. As for local courts, the government reduced the retirement age of judges, which forced hundredths to retirement and allowed the government to pack all levels of the judiciary system with Orban sympathizers. With government control of the media, the vanished power of the courts, and a political ally as President, Viktor Orban has created a fortress of power that allowed him to win once again a two-third majority in the National Assembly in 2014 and 2018. With this new coronavirus emergency bill granting Orban the power to rule by decree and to suppress what little remains of the free media in Hungary, the elections of 2022 will likely not be any different.

Can Europe do anything?

The European Union’s reaction to Orban’s recent power grab has so far been diplomatic and deemed “modest”. Although Orban has been suspended from the European People’s Party on his conduct, he has openly characterized the outcome as being “mutually agreed”, instead of a punishment. However, former EU chief Donald Tusk is urging the largest party in the European Parliament to expel Orban’s party, the Fidesz. A statement by thirteen EU countries reminded the risks to fundamental rights and the rule of law but did not directly name Hungary. President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen urged governments to take strictly proportionate measures, without specifically targeting Budapest, although then mentioned it would analyze the newly passed law and monitor its application. The Council of Europe, the European Commission, Reporters without Borders and the European Parliament all have expressed that the law would pose a threat to democracy in Hungary.

The options the EU has to tackle a case like Hungary are limited. The sanctions process in Article 7 can end up in a member state losing its EU voting rights, but another member can block it – in this case, Hungary could most likely count on Poland’s vote. A proposal to include the rule of law into EU budget negotiations has not been conclusive. The most effective move the European Commission could make might be taking Hungary to the European Court of Justice, as non-compliance with the latter’s rule may lead the country’s first step to exiting the Union. Nonetheless, this process takes time, and for the time being, we have a de facto dictator in the European Union.


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Sources: Euronews, Politico, New York Times, Institute Montaigne, The Atlantic, Kim Lane Scheppele on Hungary’s new constitution – the full lecture at CEU



Ana Salgado - Ana Salgado Christian Weber - Christian Weber


Ana Terenas - Ana Terenas João Sande e Castro - João Sande e Castro
Rui Ramalhão - Rui Ramalhão

Teams: Global Politics, European Affairs

Africa’s Endless War

The Sahel is a narrow semi-desert region located south of the Sahara Desert. It stretches from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea. The region comprises parts of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea. In broad terms, we can think of the region as consisting of authoritarian states, with great difficulties to assert their authority inside their borders – in some cases, they are simply failed states.

Although all these countries suffer in various degrees from terrorism and related problems, our piece will focus on the key geopolitical security threat faced by the  more western countries. We will also explain how and why the USA and some European countries have been involved there.

Map of the Sahel region

Map of the Sahel region


Conditions for violence

The entire  region offers the same suitable conditions to the spread of terror. Being one of the poorest in the world, the countries located there are impoverished and underdeveloped;. Furthermore, it is subject to severe food shortages and the effects of climate change, which deepen the problems.

Although these countries are, theoretically, democracies, mistrust in the political classes is widespread, and rightly so. As it is frequent in many African countries, corruption is common and the institutions are generally frail. Governance is poor, agriculture will continue to have problems and security forces and foreign military are as feared as they are welcomed. The states are ill-prepared to meet the challenges their populations face.

All  governments failed to have a meaningful presence there,  as these zones are far away from their capitals. Islam being the dominant faith, Islamist radicals have no difficulties in spreading their violent message coupled with solutions to some basic problems, such as water supply and food administration. The region’s chronic poverty and poor education system helps it gain new recruits. Terrorists and radical groups exploit every local problem and conflict in order to expand their reach. The same logic applies to the expansion of terrorist groups in other zones, like Somalia or Mozambique.


Examples of terror

The countries in this part of Sahel have been the stage of various forms of violence in the past decades, described as a “fireball of conflict” that involves multiple armed groups, military campaigns by national armies and international partners as well as local militias. Conflicts have been constant, arising for many different reasons. The recent peak in violence has drawn the attention of both al-Qaeda and ISIS, among several local groups who fight between themselves as well as against local governments. There are constant news and reports of military operations and attacks, and 2019 was the deadliest year so far, with over 4000 deaths.

We will focus on the most recent events, starting with the most important Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram. It is the strongest and deadliest, but by no means the sole actor in the conflict.

Boko Haram’s roots can be traced back to the early 2000s, but it started gaining attention in 2009, with a series of attacks in Nigeria. At the same time, the Arab Spring in the northern African countries and the violence that ensued further destabilized the area. Later in 2014, the group pledged allegiance to ISIS and proclaimed a caliphate in the region. This led to the intervention of a regional military coalition in 2015, (Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, backed by the US, UK, and France) which regained the Nigerian territory previously controlled by the terrorists.

Following this, Boko Haram’s new core presence was in the Lake Chad region, one of the poorest regions of Africa and an ungoverned territory in the frontiers of Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger, where it still operates and was able to extend its reach in other anarchic frontier regions.

Following Boko Haram’s example, jihadists in northern Mali also proclaimed a caliphate in 2014. A quick military intervention led by France, authorized by the United Nations and supported by several non-African countries, regained the territory they controlled. France is the region’s former colonial power, and even though there is a pervasive anti-French sentiment,, it has been long involved.

In 2013, the French government expected to conduct only a short intervention in Mali. Seven years later, it remains there. The United Nations, the African Union and the European Union have also intervened, engaging many countries, with western military operations expected to increase in number and dimension in the next years. This will likely happen even though the Trump administration, that last month nominated a special envoy to the Lakes Region, seems keen to reduce their presence there, in contrast to its European allies.


UN forces in Mali

UN forces in Mali


European and American involvement

João Gomes Cravinho, the Portuguese Defense Minister, said last January:

“It is absolutely fundamental to be present in Sahel. We cannot let the deterioration of the situation in Sahel continue because the result will have an impact on Europe […] It would be irresponsible to turn our backs.”

— João Gomes Cravinho

The support is indeed needed because the military of these Western African countries lacks resources, material, training, and education. They could not win the conflict only by themselves,  and stability in the region is the main goal for Europe. Endemic violence and no state control will increase the flow of drugs, arms and human trafficking, illegal migrants and refugees and  terrorist threats against the continent. European countries would pay a high price for not intervening.

The western countries have the resources to militarily destroy much of these groups, but as recent interventions in the Middle East and Afghanistan proved, strength is insufficient. A full-out war would in the middle run fail to fill the power vacuum in the Sahel, and other Islamist groups would likely arise. There is a political and diplomatic front as well in this war, and the European Union starts to be aware of that, with commissioner Borrell repeatedly asking for a greater diplomatic and military involvement in  Sahel.

There is a broader political mission to face, which constitutes the hardest challenge. It is about stabilizing communities with a basic step that simply has seldom been undertaken: broad, local dialogues among community groups, police forces and officials can prevent radicalization. Local governments and institutions, the civic groups and the foreign actors should all step in this task. At the same time, poverty has to be mitigated and economic development aided.

However, the prospects are not good. In fact, European presence is vital to defend the European countries from security reasons and can mitigate various threats to the continent. Nevertheless, there are no easy ways to counter the underlying challenges that bolster terrorism and violence in Sahel. As The Economist put it: “unless local governance improves, [the military interventions] will not eliminate the jihadist threat”. Poverty and anarchy seem to be there to stay, and where they are, terrorist groups will too.

Sources: ABC news, Al Jazeera, BBC, Financial Times, Guardian, Institute for Security Studies, jornal I, New York Times, Observador, Politico, Reuters, The Economist, The Telegraph, United States Institute of Peace, Vox.

Political Polarization in the U.S.

Aftermath of Antifa protests that led to the cancellation of right-wing Milo Yiannopoulos’s talk at UC Berkeley on the 1st February, 2017.

“(…) each individual among the many has a share of virtue and prudence, and when they meet together, they become in a manner one man, who has many feet, and hands, and senses (…) Hence the many are better judges than a single man of music and poetry; for some understand one part, and some another, and among them they understand the whole.”

— Aristotle, Politics

In his work Politics, Aristotle, while discussing whether the supreme power in the state should belong to the multitude or to the few, argues that the principle of predominance of the many, as opposed to an oligarchy, is, even with all its flaws, grounded in an idea which often presents itself almost self-evidentially to us: that good-faith deliberation of many people is worthwhile since individuals can share knowledge and incorporate the best arguments of every side and, thereby, reach a conclusion/judgement which is more in accordance with reality.

Is it reasonable to expect that all deliberation will have this constructive, moderating effect on what people believe? In a group of people in which participants are exposed to a plurality of views and opinions, the necessary weighing of different arguments can occur.  However, groups can be homogeneous in opinions; what will be the outcome of deliberation then?


An interesting study by the University of Chicago Law School on group polarization had several groups of individuals from two counties in Colorado (one majority conservative and one majority democrat) deliberate on certain issues (such as affirmative action and global warming) and ranked their pre- and post-deliberation opinions. It found a consistent tendency for individuals to move toward their group’s pre-deliberation tendency, i.e. liberals became more liberal and conservatives more conservative.

The researchers argue, for instance, that informational influences are one of the factors that can explain this behavior. These come about due to the fact that, in any group with an initial pre-disposition, the number of arguments presented in favor of that the initial tendency will be bigger than those in the opposite direction; due to this biased argument pool, individuals are more likely to polarize and, with that, become more confident in their views. Adding to this, corroboration by like-minded people further increased individual’s assurance in their world-view. Factors like reputational concerns are likely also at play; usually, people care about being perceived favorably by others and may adjust their beliefs, even if only slightly, to better fit in with the group. (see Asch Conformity Experiment)

What are the implications of these results?

As it turns out, the geographical political segregation we see in the U.S. would seem to indicate that polarization will, as a matter of course, occur. Indeed, with large proportions of democrats in urban centers and with republicans dominating less densely populated areas, the above-described dynamics will occur and we would expect to see an increase in the opinion divide between liberals and conservatives. The data bears this out:

The Pew Research Center publishes many polls and reports on U.S.’ public opinion, political polarization and partisan divide; In addition to their 2017 report, which shows many metrics detailing the increasing divide between parties and people, they published an interactive chart very clearly corroborating our expectations.

Source: Pew Research Center. If you have trouble viewing the chart please visit the original website.


While geographical political segregation is undoubtedly a large potentiator of these tendencies, and certainly worrying due to the vicious cycle it creates, there’s another more recent factor worth mentioning: The Internet. At a first glance, one might think that, by freeing people’s interactions from the shackles of distance, the arrival of the world wide web could work against polarization. However, this effect will be lessened and perhaps completely nullified if people choose to isolate themselves on partisan lines online.

The question arises:

Are human beings’ homophilic tendencies observed online?

We should first understand that, with the spread of the Internet came the ability to access inordinate amounts of information; thereby, its selection became all the more vital. Of course, even before the arrival of the web, you could select what newspaper to read but information personalization was exponentiated greatly in the digital age. It is, as such, possible for individuals to cocoon themselves in informational and ideological bubbles where polarization can occur, just like what was observed in Colorado. Let’s look at a real example:

A study on Twitter’s political polarization gathered data on many users’ political interactions and analyzed the retweet and mentions networks that existed. It found two separate communities in the retweet network with a high degree of partisan division:

A    2019 poll from Berkeley IGS    shows that conservatives living in California (a very democrat-leaning state) are much more likely to having considered leaving the state than liberals; one of the most stated main reasons for this is the state’s political culture. Conservatives leaving the state, therefore, will make it more likely that other conservatives also move out.

A 2019 poll from Berkeley IGS shows that conservatives living in California (a very democrat-leaning state) are much more likely to having considered leaving the state than liberals; one of the most stated main reasons for this is the state’s political culture. Conservatives leaving the state, therefore, will make it more likely that other conservatives also move out.

On the other hand, when analyzing mentions, they found that this network did not reveal, as seen in the case of retweets, an obvious political division. Instead, there was a higher degree of heterogeneity. However, the researchers contend that, even though ideologically-opposed individuals interact with each other through the mentions network, this should not be interpreted as a cure for the issue of Twitter polarization. Indeed, since political discourse on the platform is already highly partisan and disconnected from normal, face-to-face interactions, they argue that “these interactions might actually serve to exacerbate the problem of polarization by reinforcing pre-existing political biases”.

The potential consequences of an increasing ideological divide between members of a society might warrant worry. For example, animosity between republicans and democrats in the U.S. has been increasing, as shown by a recent Pew Research Center report.


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This, combined with the occurrence of events such as the Charlottesville protests or the UC Berkeley protests, hints at a weakening social fabric as a symptom of the widening chasm.

Considering what we’ve seen so far, it would seem that polarization is fated to continue its course, especially since it is not clear what can and should done at an institutional level to face this problem. However, one thing is for sure: fomenting a culture in which individuals understand the benefits of learning from each other and, therefore, value meaningful, mutually-advantageous discourse can certainly go a long way in countering the above-described trend. Furthermore, crisply distinguishing between political disagreements/arguments and normal social interactions is of the utmost importance if we want to maintain cohesion in a society afflicted by a large ideological split.


Sources:

  • CNN

  • abc News

  • Pew Research Center

  • FiveThirtyEight

  • What Happened on Deliberation Day, University of Chicago Law School Chicago Unbound, Journal Articles

  • Political Polarization on Twitter, M. D. Conover, J. Ratkiewicz, M. Francisco, B. Gonc¸alves, A. Flammini, F. Menczer

  • Leaving California: Half of State’s Voters Have Been Considering This, Berkeley IGS Poll