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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


  • 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

Yemen’s Forgotten War

Over 100.000 people killed since 2015

Over 2.2 million children malnourished

Over 19.000 airstrikes

Historical Background

In 1990, the Republic of Yemen was formed through the unification of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South) and the Yemen Arab Republic (North), under the joint governance of Ali Abdullah Saleh of North Yemen and Ali Salim al-Beidh of South Yemen. Since then, there has been persistent political and social unrest, predominantly in the northern provinces.

In 1993, al-Beidh left the new government claiming the latter marginalized and ignored the needs of the southern people, leading, in 1994, to the rise of a Civil War. He tried to cease the unification by reinstating the Democratic Republic of Yemen, an attempt that failed within less than two months and led to his expulsion from Yemen. After the Civil War, national unity was maintained under the presidency of Saleh, until a 2011 Arab Spring’s(1) popular revolution led to his resignation a year later, leaving power to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the vice-president.

The 2015 ongoing Civil War

While peace was expected to be restored, President Hadi faced Al-Qaeda attacks, military loyalty to Saleh, corruption, food insecurity and the South separatist movements. After the 2014/15 coup d’état(2), Hadi became an ally of the separatist movement to fight the Houthis, a broad tribal alliance belonging to the Shia minority, which emerged in the 1980s and later developed into a militia. This militia firmly opposed former President Saleh’s rule up to his resignation in 2012, yet joined forces with him and his troops to depose President Hadi.

The Saudis, who supported the presidency of Hadi, found this transfer of power illegitimate and formed a coalition consisting of nine West Asian and African countries (3).  The main objectives of this coalition were to restore the presidency of Hadi, preventing Yemen from fragmenting under factions, and controlling the growing influence of Iran in the region. The Saudi-led intervention consisted in bombing suspected rebel hideouts. The US and UK have assisted the Saudi led coalition via intelligence briefings, military supplies and some drone attacks. Western involvement has the goal of preventing terrorism. The “War on Terror” has been the US’s main diplomatic goal in the Middle East, with Josh Earnest, Obama’s White House Press Secretary, saying back in 2015:

“… the goal of US policy in Yemen is to make sure that Yemen cannot be a safe haven that extremists can use to attack the west and to attack the United States”

An airstrike hit a school bus filled with children

An airstrike hit a school bus filled with children

UN reports have verified the death of at least 7500 civilians as of September 2019, most of them caused by coalition air strikes. Some estimates indicate a death toll of civilians of approximately 12,000, while 100,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the war. Houthi rebels have also been accused of using banned antipersonnel landmines, recruiting children, killing and wounding civilians by firing artillery indiscriminately at cities such as Taizz and Aden. These numbers, however, do not reflect people who have died as a result of starvation and illness brought on by the on-going humanitarian crisis.

Yemen’s Houthi rebel group has recruited more than 30,000 child soldiers 

Yemen’s Houthi rebel group has recruited more than 30,000 child soldiers

The UN considers Yemen to be the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with 14 million people at risk of starvation, 2.2 million children being acutely malnourished, as well as 462,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, according to UNICEF. There have been repeated outbreaks of deadly diseases such as cholera and all sides in this conflict have blocked and impeded access to humanitarian aid. The Saudi-led coalition has delayed and diverted fuel tankers, closed critical ports and stopped goods from entering Houthi-controlled areas. By doing this, fuel needed to power generators and pump water to homes has not reached its destination, worsening the already dire conditions within Yemen. Houthi forces have also been accused of confiscating food and medical supplies destined for the Yemeni population. Burdensome restrictions on aid workers have also interfered with the delivery of foreign aid.

There are also instances of aid workers being arbitrarily detained, kidnapped and killed while performing humanitarian operations throughout Yemen.

A quarter of all civilians killed in air raids were women and children

A quarter of all civilians killed in air raids were women and children

 Saudi Arabia and Iran’s involvement

Western involvement is not of the same kind as previous military interventions in the Middle East. Therefore, the most important presence in the war comes from the two biggest middle-eastern powers: Iran and Saudi Arabia. The two countries have been bitter rivals since the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. Although they never entered into direct military confrontations, they engaged in various proxy wars.

What is happening in Yemen is similar to what happened in Iraq during the American invasion of 2003. With the power vacuum, the country became a stage for a proxy war between the two regional powers. Yemen is a neighbor and a former satellite of Saudi Arabia. Iran backed the Houthi coup d’état in 2014-2015 and their militias, whereas the Saudis helped the central government.

Saudi Arabia hopes to keep Iran out of the Arabian Peninsula and to stop the increasing influence Iran seems to be gaining all over the Middle East.

Consequences of a forgotten war

The chaos in Yemen has resulted in two migrant flows into neighboring countries, that has spilled violence and refugees into the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.  Refugee flows coming from Africa have reversed, which in turn has only fragilized even further these countries that are already extremely impoverished and dealing with their own internal political conflicts.

The possibility of a break-up of the country is very likely, as the Iranian backed separatists have managed to achieve a strong enough position to force the remaining powers to accept it.

The war has also increased the hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia, worsening the stability of the regions’ security, which was already extremely fragile.

For peace to be a realistic goal, there needs to be agreements among national and international players involved in the war. This political settlement, can only be created through extensive dialogue, not continued warfare. To resolve Yemen’s multi-sided civil war, players with polarizing and conflicting interest will have to compromise for the greater good of the Yemeni population, which does not seem very likely in a near future.

While no compromise is made, the ones who suffer are the civilians in Yemen, specially the children who have been witnessing the terrors of war their whole lives, plagued by famine, diseases, poverty and the constant fear of being hit by an air strike or artillery shell. These people have lived in a continuous state of warfare for the last 5 years, with no foreseeable end in sight, and must continue with their daily lives, hoping one day they can return to normality.

(1) The Arab Spring is the name given to a series of protests and revolts spreading through many North African and Middle Eastern countries, starting in 2011, with the goal of establishing democratic regimes. The revolts lead to several regime changes. However, the outcomes were more instability, war and the persistence of repression in the region.

(2) 2014/15 coup d’état: An alliance between the Houthis and forces loyal to former president Saleh took control of the Yemeni capital Sana’a and deposed the interim president Hadi, who was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia.

(3) This coalition, also called Arab coalition, includes forces from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia made their military bases, airspace and territorial waters available for the coalition, while the US and UK have provided intelligence and logistical support.

Sources: BBC, Yemen Data Project, Anadolu Agency, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Reuters, DW, United Nations, Al Jazeera, Human Rights Watch.

A Modern Tale of Cultural Genocide

Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority from Central Asia. Most of them live in the autonomous province of Xinjiang, in China, while smaller communities can be found in neighbouring countries. Recently leaked Chinese government documents shed light on serious human rights violations performed on the province’s Uighur population, and on the high-scale brutal repression of minorities in China, notably regarding its “re-education” internment camps.

Historic overview

In 1933, Uighurs acquired their own nation, the Islamic Republic of East Turkistan, which would then be later taken over by Chinese forces. The province came under Chinese rule in 1949, following the country’s civil war and instauration of the communist regime. Even though it is officially “autonomous”, there is in fact no self-rule by its inhabitants, firmly controlled by Beijing as any regular province. Many see this as a form of “colonization” of the province and its population. Since its annexation, Xinjiang’s history has been marked by recurrent discrimination against its largest ethnic group, the Uighurs. Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” singled out both ethnicity and religion as obstacles to communist society. The regime prioritized Xinjiang’s economic development and incentivized  large-scale immigration of Han Chinese, China’s largest ethnic group, to the province. In 1949, the Han represented only 6% of Xinjiang’s population, whereas now it constitutes no less than 40%, according to Chinese official statistics. During the same period, the percentage of Uighurs in the province decreased from 72% to 46%.

The latter have been protesting since the beginning of Chinese rule, becoming more vocal from the 90s onwards. Economic discrimination favouring the Han Chinese as well as religious discrimination measures against Islam were at the root of the protest movements which escalated into violence. The recent wave of unrest begun in July 2009 with the Urumqi riots, the capital of Xinjiang, after the Shao guan incident, where at least two Uighurs were murdered by Han Chinese after the alleged rape of a Han Chinese woman by a Uighur. The riots resulted in 200 deaths reported by the Chinese, although independent sources claim higher numbers. In 2014, various terrorist attacks were blamed on Uighur separatists by the government, serving as a catalyst for the current phase of persecution.

Never-ending repression

Through excessive repressive policies, the government stripped the Uighur population of basic freedoms and human rights. Between 2012 and 2017, the security budget doubled in China, while it tripled in Xinjiang. The province became a “police-state”, monitored by one of the most restrictive and intrusive high-tech surveillance systems ever deployed by a state against its own people. The Uighur population lives in fear, constantly tracked through their phones or by facial and voice recognition cameras. More than being controlled, it is seeing its religion being crushed. The attack on Islam materializes itself in the ban of religious associated clothing and grooming, such as  headscarves and long beards,  halal food, and even  giving “Islamic-sounding” names to new-borns. Mosques have been closed or demolished. Religious instruction or speaking any language other than Mandarin at school is strictly prohibited. Uighurs are also victims of tight travel restrictions; their passports were taken away for “safe-keeping”. As their most brutal measure, Chinese government officials resorted to the unthinkable in the 21st century:  reallocating at least one million Uighurs into internment camps.

Area of new security facilities built in Xinjiang province, 2011-2018. Source: BBC

Area of new security facilities built in Xinjiang province, 2011-2018. Source: BBC

Inside the camps

China first denied their existence, but new information has come to light, making the truth irrefutable. Labelled by the Chinese government as “re-education centres” to “eliminate extremist thoughts”, these compounds could easily be prisons. Characterized by high-security features such as watchtowers, barbed wire, and guardrooms, they seem far from being simple schools. Masses of Muslims, including children, disappeared into these facilities which started being set up in 2017.

Why are so many being arrested? Most have been convicted of no crime or faced no trial. In fact, the mildest behaviour can lead to landing in a camp – a woman reported being arrested for as little as having WhatsApp on her phone – and performing any type of religious associated conduct, such as praying, risks getting you interned. Once inside, Muslims are forced to sing songs about the Communist Party, recite laws, and spend long hours studying Mandarin. They are reformatted to lose sight of their cultural identity. Living in precarious conditions, they wear uniforms and up to ten people sleep in the same room, not knowing when they will return home. The length of the “re-education courses” is getting longer and being released becoming rarer. Eye-witness reports from former detainees who managed to flee abroad, detail a non-stop routine of exercise, brainwashing, physical and mental abuse, and even torture.

Facilities also hold thousands of children, separating families. They are forced to speak Mandarin and wear the country’s traditional outfits. Although officials deny it, they are in fact aware of how family separation affects the children’s mental stability, as psychological training is offered in the facilities. Two of the things most central to Uighur culture – faith and family – are being systematically crushed. Accounts of family members disappearing without warning are widespread. Leaked documents reveal how the police should handle questions from students returning home. Policemen are advised to tell them they are in a “training school” from which they cannot leave. Students are also to be told their behaviour could either shorten or extend their relatives’ detention.

What is China’s goal?

The Chinese Communist Party regards any sign of discontent as a threat to both territorial integrity and the regime, claiming the “schools” are a response to decades of sporadic separatist violence from the Uighur population. Moreover, it claims the camps are a “preventive measure” – government officials claim they can predict who is likely to commit a crime, thus making the camps a tool to return the citizens as “law-abiding people”.

However, China’s strong grip on Xinjiang is also largely economically rooted. Home to most Uighurs, the province is not only rich in energy resources such as coal and natural gas, but it also at the centre of one of China’s most ambitious projects to date, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A trillion-dollar spending plan, the BRI aims to strengthen trade, infrastructure, and investment links between China and an estimated 65 countries. Xinjiang sits on one of the main economic corridors of the BRI, so control of this region is crucial to its success, leading China to turn it into a high-tech police state and paint the Uighurs as a separatist and extremist threat.

Xinjiang map. Source: Bloomberg.

Xinjiang map. Source: Bloomberg.

International Response

Denying wrong-doing and urging foreign countries to stop interfering in its internal affairs, China has given limited access and insight to journalists and foreign diplomats as to what is happening in Xinjiang. However, international coverage, such as by the New York Times, or more recently by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), has exposed hundreds of Chinese government documents, increasing public awareness around China’s human rights abuse towards minorities. This resulted in an international outcry from the western world.  This past July, 22 countries including the UK, Germany, France, Japan and Australia, condemned the Chinese government’s actions and urged it to stop the repression against Uighurs and other minorities. In that same month, 37 primarily authoritarian countries wrote a letter to the President of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressing their support for China’s treatment of Uighurs, even defending Beijing’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights”. Amongst these countries were many predominantly Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Jordan. This perhaps surprising behaviour may be linked to fears of being left out of the massive infrastructure investments China has been financing across the world as part of its BRI initiative. Even Kazakhstan, the second-highest Uighur populated country, has supported Beijing, all in dread of economic repercussions from China.

The US House of Representatives has overwhelmingly passed a Uighur Human Rights Policy Act bill to counter the minority’s repression in China, calling on President Trump to impose sanctions on China over the human rights violations in Xinjiang. Furthermore, the release of the leaked documents led Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to call on China to “immediately release all those who are arbitrarily detained and to end its draconian policies that have terrorized its own citizens in Xinjiang.

China’s internment camps remain in many ways a mystery to the rest of the world, as a lot of their activities are still unknown. Uncertainty surrounds the future of the Uighur population, and the country’s large economic and political influence limits the efficiency of international action. Now aware of a cultural genocide happening right before our eyes, the western world stands powerless. For now.

Sources: BBC, The Economist, Vox, CNN, Wikipedia, Washington Institute, France 24, CSIS, The Guardian, The New York Times

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Merkel – A Legacy Part I

In the last year and a half, Germany has been under two periods of a quasi-recession (a technical recession would happen if their quarterly GDP growth rate was negative for two consecutive quarters). But which long-term legacy will Merkel leave as Germany’s first female Chancellor?

German Legacy

A substantial number of Germans see Merkel as the saviour of the economy. Her economic reforms reduced unemployment to the low levels of the 1980’s, cut public spending and saw GDP grow by over a fifth over the past decade. However, her 2015 open borders policy was deeply unpopular in the eyes of her party’s electorate, many of which found refuge in the right-wing and Eurosceptic party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), now the third-largest political party in the Bundestag and the main party of the opposition (the centre-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) is the second-largest party in the Bundestag, although it is not part of the opposition because it is part of the governing coalition).

According to a poll done in March 2019, 52% of Germans are satisfied or very satisfied with how Merkel is governing the country, but only 30% are pleased with what her government has achieved. The numbers are reasonably good for her centre-right party, even though it is polling 6.9% lower than in 2017 and 15.5% lower than in 2013.

To make matters more serious, if an election was to take place today, the current ruling grand coalition between CDU and social democrats SPD (both historically either the main opposition or governing party) would fall short of an absolute majority. The CDU, while still the favourite to win the general election of 2021, could have the worst electoral result in its history (31% in 1949). However, the decline in the opinion polls of Angela Merkel’s party is a consequence of the low popularity of her likely successor and current head of the CDU, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, to whom polls attribute a 37% approval rating.

The other historical governing party, the SPD could have once again its worst electoral result ever (currently polling at 13%, below AfD) and, for the first time since World War II, no longer be either the first or second-largest party in the Bundestag.

To conclude, with only 30% of voters being satisfied by the work of the coalition, the political future of Germany is highly uncertain. This arises from the fact that the two political parties that have ruled Germany are expected to have all-time low results in the next elections, and also due to the resurgence of right-wing populism in the Bundestag.




European Legacy

Merkel was seen by many, especially in Southern Europe, as the face of austerity. The hard-line enforcement of austerity measures may have popularized her in Germany, but in parts of Southern Europe, it helped fuel support for populist movements, such as the Italian coalition between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and anti-immigration party Lega. In Greece, it led to the rise of the left-wing and anti-austerity party, Syriza. In Eastern Europe, Merkel’s policies regarding the migration crisis were heavily criticised and used by right-wing populists to gain support, such as in Poland or Hungary.


Merkel is widely seen as a trusted politician throughout Europe. According to a Pew Research Center study from October 2019, 57% of people across the EU are confident Angela Merkel will make the right decisions regarding world affairs.

Macron is the runner-up, with 45% of people across the EU trusting his decision-making regarding world affairs. Another Pew Research Center study, dated from June 2017, concluded that 71% of Europeans have a favourable opinion of Germany. The Greek population expresses a different sentiment, where merely 24% of the population expressed a favourable view of Germany. The same research shows a plurality regarding Germany’s influence when it comes to decision making in the EU, with 48% thinking Germany has too much influence, while 44% think it has ‘about the right amount’ or too little.




Some see Angela Merkel as the last strong liberal leader in Europe and fear her absence could lead to a power vacuum that could have as consequence an increase in the influence of the current nationalist leaders in Europe. However, what this data shows, is that Merkel has established herself as a trusted politician for the majority of citizens in the EU. After 14 years as Chancellor of Germany and as the most powerful leader of the union, Merkel is nearing the end of her mandate. Although it is still uncertain who will take her place on the stage, what is known for sure is that the legacy built on 30 years of politics is hard to replicate or surpass.

On that account, independently of how positively or negatively Merkel’s legacy is judged either in Germany, in Europe or worldwide, the supreme question remains:

Is the next successor up to the task and able to fill Merkel’s Power Suits?


part II


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João Maria Sande e Castro

Merkel – A Legacy Part II

An unlikely politician with extraordinary political skills – this seems to be the best description of the long-serving Chancellor of Germany and the guiding hand behind much of European politics in the last decade and a half, Angela Merkel, ‘the Chancellor of the free world’ (Times’ Cover, Dec ’15). German Chancellor from 2005 up to this day, she is said to step down in 2021. It is not possible to refer to the 21st century European Union without mentioning the political accomplishments of Angela Merkel and the legacy that shall be historically memorable not only within Germany, but within all of Europe.

Political Ascendance

Despite being born in West Germany, Merkel grew up in the former communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). As a brilliant student, she graduated in Physics and holds a Ph.D. in Quantum Chemistry, later working as a researcher. Throughout her youth, no particular interest in politics was manifested.


In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, the Communist Bloc crumbled, and Merkel joined the small Democratic Awakening party, created in the GDR, taking her first steps towards her long political career. This party subsequently merged with the East German Christian Democratic Union (East German CDU) through which, following the first and only free elections in the GDR, she became a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister.

Finally, on October 3rd, 1990, Germany was once more reunited as a unified country, and so were the East and West German CDU. In the first elections, Angela was elected to the Bundestag (German Parliament), becoming Minister for Women and Youth, and later Minister for the Environment and Nuclear Safety. Rising through the ranks of CDU as a protégé of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, she won the party’s leadership after the loss of the federal government to the Social Democrats (SPD) and a donations scandal involving the party leader, Wolfgang Schäuble, in 2000.

After leading her party in opposition, she won the 2005 federal elections, defeating the SPD and incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, becoming Germany’s first female Chancellor.

Overcoming a Financial Crisis

One of the most defining events for Europe in the last decade was the 2008 financial crisis, which left many people jobless and took a heavy toll on the European economy.

In Germany, to alleviate the financial pressure felt by the automotive industry, which accounts for 5% of German GDP, Merkel introduced the Umweltprämie (Scrapping Bonus): by purchasing a new car and scrapping a used one, one would be granted €2500 by the government, as long as the used car dated at least 9 years.  The measure cost the German government €5 billion but brought a ‘breath of fresh air’ to the industry.


With the imminent threat of Hypo Real Estates bankruptcy in October 2008, Merkel felt the need to act to avoid a mass hysteria that could result in large scale bank run. With this in mind, the Chancellor announced what later would be named by the media as the Merkel-Garantie, a deposit protection for German savings accounts, backed by the German government. The consequent bailout and eventual nationalisation of the German investment bank managed to appease the general public. Despite the opposition claiming this bailout was extremely irresponsible, it marked an end to the mass withdrawals of savings accounts.

Overcoming a Humanitarian crisis

Starting from 2012 onwards, a massive influx of asylum seekers, predominantly from war-torn countries in the Middle East, was recorded. This crisis peaked in the fall of 2015 with a recorded arrival of 890 thousand refugees during that year.


During the climax, Merkel decided, after consulting the Austrian and Hungarian Heads of State, to allow the entrance of unregistered refugees, mostly Syrian and Afghan, into national territory. Hereby she launched the Willkommenskultur (Welcome Culture), which promoted the integration of migrants and foreign culture in German society. However, Merkel faced strong backlash for this measure, even from her coalition partner Horst Seehofer, who did not approve of Merkel’s policies, instead supporting an upper limit on the number of asylum seekers entering Germany. Regardless, Merkel managed to withstand her critics and maintained an openness towards migrants, in contrast to most Heads of State across Europe.

From 2015 to 2016, around 1.5 million migrants were registered in the database of the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. This number only decreased in 2017.


Merkel argued on the importance of a homogenous Migrants Agreement for the EU, that should prioritize the integration of said refugees and speed up the process of the acceptance or denial of their request for international protection. Due to her stance on the refugee and Crimean Crisis, Merkel was nominated Times’ Person of the Year in 2015.

But which legacy did Germany’s current Chancellor leave its country?

part I


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João Maria Sande e Castro

The November 2019 Spanish Elections: What to Expect

In December 2015, the conservative Popular Party’s government of Mariano Rajoy, while it won the general election, lost its absolute majority in the Congress of Deputies and had the party’s worst result since 1989. From that year onwards, no party has been able to form a long-lasting government. This political instability has led Spain to hold its fourth general election in four years tomorrow. Will this election finally relieve Spain from the ongoing period of political crisis?

April’s Elections

Image 1: Pedro SanchezImage 1: Pedro Sanchez

A minority government, Pedro Sanchez’s Spanish Socialist and Worker’s Party (PSOE) took office in June 2018, following a motion of no confidence1 that took down the government of Mariano Rajoy. The ousted prime-minister’s Popular Party (PP) was involved in a corruption scandal involving several of its high-ranking members, leading to a severe drop in its popularity. However, Sanchez called for a new general election in April of this year, after he failed to gather support in the Congress of Deputies to pass his budget for 2019.

In the last elections, the PSOE gathered a substantial 29% of the votes, but although it was the party’s first win since 2008, it was short of a majority to govern2. Vox, a far-right party opposing unrestricted migration and multiculturalism, won 10% of the votes and entered the Chamber of Deputies for the first time. The Popular Party (PP) met a historical defeat (16.7% of the votes).

Since the PSOE failed to win an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies, it needed backing from other parties. Once again, Sanchez’s inability to secure support this time to form a government is what led to the new November 2019 elections. He called for the elections after failed discussions with Unidas Podemos (UP), a coalition of left-wing parties and Sanchez’s most obvious choice, after disagreements over government ministers and the amount of involvement of the UP in the new government.

Polls: analysis of most likely results 

The latest polls by the Office for Social Studies and Public Opinion (GESOP) for the newspaper El Periòdic d’Andorra suggest that we will not see a significantly different political landscape with the November elections, and even report increasing fragmentation, with a smaller win for the PSOE at 26.8%. The PP is expected to see its share of the vote increase to 19.9% after successfully stealing votes from Ciudadanos, a center-right party who surprisingly gathered 16% of the votes in the April elections, and will now see its share more than halved, with the polls predicting a result of 7%. The far-right party VOX is met with a significant increase and should obtain 15.6% of the vote.

Más País, a new far-left splinter party, founded on September 25th, has decided not to run in the constituencies where it could not gather enough support to win seats but could contribute to the loss of seats by other left-wing parties, such as PSOE and UP. Más País is expected to obtain 2.6% of the votes, which has led to the further decrease of the far-left coalition Unidas Podemos to 13% of the vote.

All in all, the PSOE wins without an absolute majority, and probably with fewer seats in the Cortes. The PP will come second, followed by the UP. Ciudadanos will suffer a considerable decrease in votes and seats, as Vox will achieve the opposite. Regarding regionalist and nationalist parties, we do not expect meaningful changes from the previous results.

Graphic 1Graphic 1

What’s next? 

After the elections, we can expect that King Felipe will ask Pedro Sánchez to be the next Prime Minister, and a new round of negotiations among the parties will follow. In order to be PM, Sánchez needs the majority in the Cortes3 to be able to win the investiture vote or at least have most of the opposition MPs abstain during that vote. As for now, it is not expected that those negotiations will produce a different outcome than the ones that followed the elections in April. 

PSOE’s best hope to achieve a majority in parliament is to partner with regionalist parties and the left-wing coalition UP. Even though this might be plausible in mathematical terms, the disagreement points between the PSOE and UP from the last round of negotiations are still valid, making achieving a different outcome unlikely. It does not seem that left-wing parties are ready to make the necessary concessions: the UP wishes to have some ministers of their own, whereas the PSOE wants to form the government alone but backed by parliamentary support. Furthermore, Sánchez recently pointed out that even if an agreement had been reached to form a PSOE-UP government, it would have crumbled during the Catalonian crisis, amid which the UP and its Catalonian coalition Comú Podem have criticized the government’s actions and police intervention. The PSOE is also dependent on the unlikely event that the PP and Ciudadanos do not vote against Sánchez’s investiture. This seems improbable, as the Catalonian crisis accentuated the parties’ differences, and total support from the moderate right-wing opposition to a socialist minority government in the Cortes seems to be an almost unimaginable scenario.  

Without concession, diplomacy and statesmanship, the path to a stable government will be hard to find.

Either a PSOE minority government will be formed, unable to count with a majority and likely to fall at the first difficulty, or Spain will have to face yet another General Election in a few months.  

Image 2Image 2

1 Vote about whether a person in a position of responsibility (government, managerial, etc.) is no longer deemed fit to hold that position.

2 It won an absolute majority in the senate for the first time since 1989, but to govern, they would need 175 out of 350 seats in the Chamber of Deputies

3 Bicameral legislative chambers of Spain – Congress of Deputies and Senate.


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  • Vox 

Article Written By:

Ana Catarina Salgado

Ana Maria Terenas

Christian Weber

João Maria Sande e Castro

Rui Ramalhão