US ELECTION 2016

Hillary Clinton, above the law

The American justice system and Donald Trump

August 12th 2016 | Chicago | Xavier Ward

Photograph by Financial Tribune

During the 2016 US Presidential Election, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server has been one of several hot button issues. However, it may be the one that is ultimately glossed over more than any other in the face of her bombastic, demagogic competition.

Clinton has been criticized from both the left and the right. Republicans have gone so far as calling her deliberately dishonest and a criminal, while more left-leaning Democrats have used this as a chance to offer their candidate of choice, Senator Bernie Sanders, a second chance — unfortunately for him, to no avail.


A serious threat to national security

As it stands, Hillary Clinton has officially clinched the Democratic nomination, and she will face no retribution for her failures. This, however, does not make the situation any less interesting.

The FBI investigation began in March 2015, when it was uncovered that her and her staff had been using a private email server, which could have created serious security problems were the server to be hacked.

Clinton’s email server was hosted in the basement of her home in Chappaqua, NY, although this information was not disclosed to the State Department at the time. After its stay in her home, the server was then moved to New Jersey, and then to Denver, where it was finally investigated.

While it is highly irregular for Clinton to have her own server, the investigation concluded that it was not actually illegal. And while many claim that her server was undoubtedly hacked by foreign actors, the forensics showed otherwise.

Photograph by CNN

Whether the server was breached or not, it is difficult to deny that its mere existence posed a real security threat. The question then becomes: why was what Hillary Clinton did so wrong? And what does it say about the United States’ criminal justice system?

The FBI investigation’s final recommendation was not to move forward with any criminal prosecution against Clinton. However, it did shed light on her actions, stating that her private server was a legitimate security risk and calling her “extremely careless”. In a statement addressing the conclusion of the investigation, FBI Director James Comey announced that the FBI identified 7 separate email threads which contained information which had been classified as “top secret”.

Using a private server for such sensitive emails is in fact illegal, and could have given foreign states or actors access to information that could put US national security into a state of turmoil.


Gross negligence, but somehow not criminal

Despite these findings, the FBI’s decision not to recommend charges against Clinton was justified by the lack of evidence that her actions had been intentional, as well as the lack of any evidence that the server had actually been compromised.

During his statements, Comey did say that Clinton had demonstrated gross negligence, and provided evidence which proved that her amended statement that she had “never knowingly sent or received classified emails” was a lie. This is damning information and, by all rights, she could have faced charges, but she did not.

Although Hillary Clinton’s political tenure is riddled with inconsistency, the criticisms against her never seem to stick. A few years ago, she claimed that her private jet had landed under a thicket of sniper fire in Bosnia, yet a video of the landing shows her smiling, waving, and shaking hands with children upon arrival. Despite having clearly engaged in dishonesty, she simply shrugged it off as a misstatement.

Photograph by John Moore

Clinton seems to be bulletproof from the public’s acrimony, and many critiques of her wrongdoings are immediately labeled as false or exaggerated, when it is clearly not the case. Perhaps this is a product of her Correct the Record campaign, which set out to create thousands of fake accounts on social media in order to push the narrative in her favor.

Her history of foreign policy decision-making is perhaps the most damning of all her missteps. Her attempts at state-building in the Middle East have played a direct role in the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS, and she has found herself in league with donors from the Persian Gulf who, while supporting terrorist organizations, were also benefactors of the Clinton Foundation.

During her husband’s tenure as president, she pushed him away from intervening in a genocide in Kosovo to push her healthcare agenda. So why is she fit to be president?


Above the law, or above Donald Trump?

Comey’s testimony illustrated one thing very clearly: Clinton is too big to jail. One could speculate about the multitude of reasons why she was not charged, but the answer is rather simple.

Some have tried to do so by claiming that she has deep-seeded ties to intelligence officials and lies snugly in the pockets of the FBI, whilst others believe she has orchestrated some other grand scheme to avoid the reprisal of the American justice system.

Ruminating on these political motivations would be a fool’s game, and would also be ignoring the larger issue. What this situation really highlights is the way in which the US justice system treats such matters. US politics is somewhat of a “members only” club. Those who are deeply entrenched in it are hard to criticize, and even harder to reprimand. Hillary Clinton is a perfect example of the systematic “armored plating” that exists all over the country.

Photograph by John Moore

Truth be told, in any other election, this may have had more severe consequences for Clinton, but Donald Trump is the best case scenario for her. Throughout the process of the election, his unbridled sexism, racism and mobilization of hate-filled Americans has made him an easy target and a person that this country simply cannot elect. Thus, it is the moral duty of free thinking Americans to keep him out of office, no?

That’s what a majority of Democratic voters would have you believe, and to a certain degree they are right. This dilemma is further explored in Bernie or Bust (TSH).

But, alongside the American justice system, this election cycle has also highlighted the shortcomings of the long-defended American two-party system. Freedom of choice has become the freedom to pick between a sociopathic businessman who represents authoritarian populism, and a self-serving career politician who represents corruption.

These are heavy accusations, but they hold true under any standard of intense scrutiny. Hillary Clinton may be the lesser of two evils in this election, but it is still important to understand who you are voting to lead our country when November comes around.

US Election 2016

Bernie or Bust?

The decisive embers of a progressive America

June 12th 2016 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez

Photographs by Mark Lyons, Jessica Kourkounis, and Jewel Samad

As the Democratic primaries come to an end, a significant movement has been brewing among Bernie Sanders supporters: Bernie or Bust.

Those who advocate this approach argue that if Hillary Clinton is to win the nomination, voters should either write in Bernie’s name, or vote for a third party candidate like the Green Party’s Jill Stein. A minority of them also believe that voters should turn around and support Donald Trump in order to prevent an “establishment” candidate like Hillary from clenching the presidency, but that debate is for another day.

This piece is neither an argument against Bernie, whose campaign has exceeded all expectations since last year (TSH), nor in support of Hillary. Rather, it is an evaluation of the Bernie or Bust movement.


The flaws in Clinton’s candidacy

At its core, the movement finds its roots in the view that high-ranking officials of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), referred to as the establishment, have forced the election in November to be between “the lesser of two evils”.

Bernie or Bust supporters believe that they do not owe any loyalty to the Democratic Party, and that they are entitled to vote for whichever candidate represents them best. In other words, #sheepnomore.

They also describe the Democratic Party as having engaged in electoral fraud and voter suppression. In their view, the allegations and evidence suggesting manipulation of the primaries, as seen in states like Arizona and New York, represents proof that party elites are bending the will of the people towards their establishment candidate.

Whilst no conclusive investigation has been conducted on this matter, their mind has already been made up.

Photograph by CNN

As far as Hillary Clinton is concerned, the movement has highlighted many aspects of her candidacy that appear rather visibly flawed in contrast to Bernie Sanders.

First, they point to her corporate fundraising networks worth billions of dollars and highlight possible undesirable effects that lobbyists could have on her future administration and policy decisions. This most notably includes her campaign contributions from the oil industry, as well as millions of dollars that she personally received for speeches to financial firms like Goldman Sachs, for which she still refuses to release the transcripts.

As a result, her campaign has been marred with public distrust in her relationship with Wall Street and the question of whether she would be able to regulate the financial industry adequately.

Second, they allocate partial blame to her for the negative consequences of Bill Clinton’s policies in the 90’s, including the controversial 1994 crime bill which increased incarceration rates in the United States disproportionately for African Americans.

Third, they argue that her foreign policy decisions are as “hawkish” as her Republican counterparts. They point to her vote in support of the Iraq War and her actions as Secretary of State as evidence for this assertion.

Finally, they claim that the numerous inconsistencies and policy changes throughout her political career, whether regarding TPP or the minimum wage, show that she is willing to “flip-flop” in order to pander to the electorate and gain more votes.

This suggests that she may not always keep her promises, especially with regards to progressive policy commitments that she made in response to the threat of Bernie’s campaign.


A matter of principle

To many Bernie supporters, Clinton is the epitome of the political elite, a candidate that is overly friendly with corporate lobbyists and inevitably influenced by multinational companies and rich individuals.

They see a United States that is controlled by big money interests, and a middle class that has been shrinking as a result of it. To them, Hillary Clinton is the representative of an America that they want to avoid, rather than a “Future to Believe in”.

Photograph by Matthew Gore

One of the movement’s key objectives is to bring the Democratic Party back to what they view as its rightful place in the political spectrum, the centre-left. They argue that the party has moved towards the right in the last few decades, and that therefore US politics does not have a truly progressive party to represent them.

Hillary Clinton is undoubtedly centre-right in the eyes of Europeans, but now it seems she may even be too centrist for many Bernie supporters. The argument follows that if Hillary wins the presidency, the country will continue to see the Democratic Party shift even further to the right, whereas a Bernie presidency would have a long-lasting progressive influence.

The Bernie or Bust movement doubles down on this idea, arguing that a Trump presidency would be so disastrous that from its ashes and through the movement that is growing at the moment, a genuine progressive party would emerge – a prospect they consider unlikely if Hillary won the election.


The Bernie campaign’s effect

It is important to note at this point that Bernie’s campaign has had a significant impact on public opinion, especially among his supporters.

During her tenure as Secretary of State between 2009 and 2013, Hillary Clinton’s favourability varied between 56% to 62%. It currently holds at 41%. Since Clinton has been in politics for more than 35 years, she is on record about most of her ideas and voters have had plenty of time to research her positions and character (having also run for the Democratic nomination in 2008).

Her decline in popularity can be seen as a result of both the Republican apparatus having demonised her in the wake of both legitimate and cooked up scandals like her FBI email investigation and the Benghazi attacks in 2012, as well as Senator Sanders’ campaign narrative.

Diagram – Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings

Bernie’s message offers a binary version of politics in the United States, an “us vs them” paradigm, which allows him to point out the evils of American politics without being considered complicit. This is further aided by his undoubtedly honest character and the steadfastness of his opinions.

His campaign against what he considers elites that control politicians, and a government that serves the wealthy, has turned Democratic voters against Hillary Clinton. To them, she represents all of these evils and more.

By no means is there a lack of arguments against Hillary Clinton, but clear heads do not always prevail during political campaigns, and especially one with such a strong narrative and polarised voter base.

One might wonder what Hillary’s likability would have been if Sanders had fixated less on her Wall Street speeches (which he was initially reluctant to bring up) and more on her policy flip-flops.


If not pro-Hillary, then anti-Republican

The Bernie or Bust movement has rightfully shined the light on some of Clinton’s disagreeable aspects. However, if Bernie’s supporters are revolting against a plutocracy as they say, then they should not stay at home in November.

If the United States is a plutocracy, it is quite clear whose fault that is. It is not the mere consequence of an elite class plotting to screw over the middle class. It is a direct result of misguided economic policies and regressive social ideology adopted by conservative administrations, at both the state and national level.

Bernie points out that the level of inequality is extremely high. It was Reagan’s administration that gave immense and disproportionate tax cuts for the rich in the 80’s and set inequality on an upward trajectory. It is also Kansas’s Republican governor who did the same in 2014, even though trickle-down economics had already been disproved many years ago. It is Republicans that have cut social programs to help the poor such as Medicare and food stamps.

Photograph by Tom Williams

He argues that Wall Street’s reckless behaviour was the cause the financial crisis. It is still part of the Republican Party’s platform today that deregulation of financial markets is beneficial for the economy.

He talks about campaign finance regulations and the corrupting influence of money on politics. It is Republicans who want to appoint a Supreme Court judge like Antonin Scalia, who himself voted in favour of “Citizens United v. FEC”, resulting in the complete removal of limits on political donations.

He argues for universal healthcare and points to the power of insurance companies over government. Republicans not only oppose universal healthcare, but they want to actively repeal the arguably modest scheme that is Obamacare.

He opposes the United States military apparatus and reckless spending. Republicans want to increase military spending and advocate for its frequent use in international operations.

He wants to give a path to citizenship to all illegal immigrants in the country. Republicans want to deport them.

As a campaign message, it may be easier to portray the state of affairs in US politics as the consequence of a greedy elite of officials and corporations, but it must also be understood as the consequence of several decades of flawed policies.

Bernie or Bust voters may rightly believe that Hillary Clinton has too many flaws to gain their vote. Yet, if they really do want to end corruption and elitism in US politics, a Republican, even if he is a muttering buffoon with an anti-establishment agenda, should be the last person they want to see in office.


Democratic platform or Trump presidency?

The Bernie or Bust movement is thus presented with two options: (a) vote for Hillary and attempt to influence the Democratic Party’s platform, or (b) vote against her and endure four years of Trump presidency for the opportunity to fight again in 2020.

Not voting for Hillary in November would inevitably result in a Trump presidency. However, the movement argues that Trump has proven himself to be as ineffective as he is inconsistent. The chaos that exists within the Republican Party, together with expected wins by Democrats in mid-term elections, could be enough to make a Trump presidency powerless and thus with little negative consequence. Then, after four years, the progressive movement would be able to take over the 2020 election and cement a permanent foundation.

The problem with this option is that Trump has aligned himself with very conservative officials, and he is running as the Republican nominee. So even if he himself is not as regressive in real life as his colleagues, the institutions that will carry him to the presidency and help him run the country definitely are, and they will want to see their policies turn into reality.

Photograph by Charlie Neibergall

The other option is to influence the Democratic Party platform and push Hillary towards the centre-left. Sanders has already been given some influence over policy at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this July, and there is growing pressure on Clinton to pick progressive hero Senator Elisabeth Warren, a darling of the Sanders movement, as her candidate for Vice-President.

Bernie’s voters would rejoice at the idea of influencing the Democratic candidate, her future administration, and the party platform to introduce their ideas of economic, social, and environmental justice. However, the problem with this option is that the Democratic establishment might not be willing to change it self so easily in order to accommodate Bernie Sanders’ concerns.

If Bernie or Bust voters find themselves unable to trust the Democratic Party to fulfil their progressive objectives, their decision becomes rather complicated.


The November trade-off

There is no doubt that Bernie voters have raised legitimate issues about Hillary Clinton, but come November, he will most likely endorse her candidacy against Donald Trump in the general election.

Some of his supporters must now decide whether they will vote against their conscience and try to influence the party platform, or go through a Trump presidency in the hope of a better Democratic Party in the next election.

Is the cost of a Clinton presidency really higher than that of a Republican one, or does the importance of Supreme Court nominations for progressive legislation supersede all other considerations?

Catalan Independence

Catalonia declares itself a sovereign state

The past and future of Spain’s north-eastern separatism

January 17th 2016 | Barcelona | Martin Rogard

Photograph by AFP

In recent months, the possibility of an independent Catalan Republic has been rapidly materialising.

The election of a separatist coalition by a slim 51.7% majority on September 27th was shortly followed by the passing of a resolution on October 27th, by the regional parliament, which declared “Un Estat Català Independent”, essentially declaring Catalonia a sovereign state. Growing political salience for independence has pushed political parties to form a majority coalition in the regional parliament called Junts pel Sí, or ‘Together for Yes’, which now claims it has the electoral mandate for secession.

However, although separatists won a majority of seats, they did not receive a majority of the popular vote. Due to the way constituencies are divided, just under half of the electorate actually voted for the pro-independence coalition.


Spanish reaction

In light of these developments, Spanish president Mariano Rajoy maintains that “Catalonia is not going anywhere, nothing is going to break”.

In fact, the independence resolution was immediately followed by an extraordinary meeting of the Spanish Council of Ministers, which approved an appeal to the Constitutional Court for the nullification of Catalonia’s parliamentary ruling.

In its report, the advisory body suggested that “there is sufficient legal basis” to challenge the claim before the Constitutional Court since it “disregards the core of the Spanish Constitution by declaring disobedience to the sovereign Spanish state”. Whilst such quarrel between regional Catalan and federal institutions has not been infrequent in the past, the pressure for independence has been rapidly escalating in the midst of national elections.

Diagram by The Economist

This rising tension is difficult to ignore when walking the eclectic streets of Barcelona. A couple of days ago, a middle-aged man who was standing with a separatist flag in front of the Town hall told me that an independent Catalonia had been the dreams of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, but that it would now be him, his children and grandchildren who would finally see it happen.

In his mind, the current “oppressive” and “corrupt” Spanish Monarchy is fighting the same losing battle as the Spanish Empire had with its former colonies. “We, Catalans, are no different than Columbians or Cubans” alliterated the interviewee


Historical roots

When did this zeal for separatism actually begin? And why?

Well, the Catalan separatist movement can be traced back to the creation of the Estat Català revolutionary movement in 1922. Historically, Catalonia has always been a notorious critic of unitary and monarchical power, advocating for greater regional autonomy and a Republican nation-state.

When a Second Spanish Republic was attempted in 1931, the independence movement died down with the creation of the self-administrative ‘Generalitat de Cataluña’, still under Spanish authority, but enjoying unprecedented levels of self-rule. In fact, when the Civil War erupted, following Franco’s coup in July 1936, Catalonia was actually one of the strongholds in defense of the Spanish state.

As described by George Orwell, who fought in Barcelona, the ‘Generalitat’ in 1937 was a place of “no boss-class, no menial class, no beggars, no prostitutes, no lawyers and no priests”.

Photograph by AFP

Today, Catalonia remains disconnected with some of the most traditional Spanish values in its commitment to progressive politics. Such cultural differences are mirrored in their use of the ‘Catalan’ as the official regional language, instead of Spain’s ‘Castellano’.

Having won the conflict, Franco immediately reinforced national unity, thus curtailing the region’s autonomy. Under the dictatorship, separatist movements were silenced, but Catalonia remained tacitly critical.

In 1975, after Franco’s death, the proclamation of a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic sparked a revival of the independence movement, which continues to this day.


Economic considerations

Recently, ‘Junts Pel Si ’ has been arguing for independence so that Catalonia is no longer required to provide funding for other regions as part of the fiscal redistributive policies imposed by the Spanish government.

In keeping all tax revenues to itself, the Generalitat would enjoy a larger budget for infrastructure, education, and healthcare, estimated between 5% and 9% of GDP. As such, the past seven years of fiscal austerity have intensified the population’s eagerness to secede, demanding a different recipe for economic growth.

On the other hand, being a part of Spain allows it to export local products such as its ‘Cava’, a form of sparkling wine, anywhere in Spain and in the EU. Catalonia greatly benefits from Spain’s membership to the European Union, which offers low export costs, consistent tourism, and infrastructure funding to the region.

Photograph by David Ramos

As a result, the economic argument for independence is entirely dependent on Catalonia’s ability to negotiate favourable relations with the Spanish state and the EU on a bilateral basis if it becomes a sovereign state.

Such issues are reminiscent of similar conflicts in Scotland, which faced many of the same debates over the last few years. Indeed, while EU accession laws may grant temporary membership to a seceding territory, any new member must be unanimously vetted by all member states, including Spain, which puts separatists in an awkward bargaining position.


Corruption and democracy

Beside the long-term explanations for Catalan independence, it appears that the recent escalation in separatism has been catalysed by an ongoing democratic crisis in Spain, and Europe in a wider context.

Indeed, for the past ten years, the Spanish political landscape has been plagued with corruption scandals of illicit party funding, such as the infamous ‘Bárcenas affair’, tax evasion scandals, and abuses of executive legal immunity provisions. The Monarchy has also been engulfed by scandals as Spain’s former King Juan Carlos I engaged in elephant hunting in Botswana, as well as the ‘Urdangarín affair’, which found him accused of embezzling large sums of public money.

If the general lack of transparency, rule of law and accountability of public officials has resulted in great dissatisfaction for the general electorate, this has been exacerbated even further for Catalans.

Photograph by Paul Hanna

This democratic crisis can be statistically illustrated by a Transparency International report, which found that 74% Spaniards felt that their government’s efforts to fight corruption are ineffective. An even higher percentage of people felt that from 2007-2010, the level of corruption in the country had actually increased.

According to the independent NGO, the most corrupt institution in Spain are the political parties. The mistrust of established political parties has created an electoral vacuum in Spain, which rapidly gave rise to newer parties such as the socialist and anti-austerity Podemos, and the mostly neo-liberal Ciudadanos.

Both parties call for profound political reform, and stand to the respective political left and right of the two largest parties, PSOE and PP.


Un Estat Catala independent?

The rise of new parties, coupled with general mistrust of institutions in Spain, have produced largely fragmented results in the national elections held in December 2015, crippling the ability of any party to form a coalition government.

In fact, many in Spain now believe there will a re-run of the elections, and a large portion of the electorate seems to be calling for political change.

In Catalonia, this surely means the independence movement will continue pushing forward until serious political reform is achieved.

US Election 2016

Donald Trump leads Republican polls with 28% 

What ever happened to the GOP?

November 15th 2015 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez

Photograph by Mark J. Terrill

Anyone following the US Presidential Elections 2016 has no doubt heard the name: Donald Trump.

To the surprise of many, the real-estate mogul, TV personality, and professional controversy artist entered the Republican race in June. The media, and especially comedians across the US and the world, were all excited for what was to come.

However, as time flew by and summer continued, jokes became comments, and comments became policy. Trump’s rallies started increasing in size, his interviews became more frequent, and his endorsements started piling up. Now, he is leading the polls, with 28% percent of Republican primary voters supporting his candidacy.

Although there may be no need to worry about his national electability, the situation is somewhat concerning. The fact that a candidate who claims he will build a wall between Mexico and the US is leading the polls, followed closely by Dr. Carson who described Obamacare as “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery”, says something about today’s Republican Party. Really, what ever happened to the GOP?


The Republican Party

The answer is two-fold. The current situation the party finds itself in is a direct result of its response to Obama’s nomination and policy agenda.

The President’s healthcare bill, his stimulus package, and his general liberal stances and charisma, have cast an unbearable burden over the relationship between his administration and the GOP.

As Mitch McConnell, Republican majority leader of the Senate said: after Obama’s nomination, “the GOP’s top political priority should be to deny Mr Obama a second term”.

That statement best summarises the party’s stance today. Rather than focusing on a genuine conservative agenda, the Republicans have adopted an anti-Obama agenda, causing a political gridlock that has crippled Congress throughout the Obama years.

Photograph by WFP USA

This unwillingness to compromise and cooperate with the President culminated in the United States federal government shutdown of 2013.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives had tried to delay and defund Obamacare by strong-arming the Democratic-led Senate and Obama administration on the federal budget. With neither side backing down, the government was unable to agree on a budget in time and was forced to shut down for 16 days.

The GOP was, in a way, pressured to follow this strategy by the Tea Party movement. Having emerged in the aftermath of Obama’s plan to give financial aid to bankrupt homeowners (a sin in Republican ideology), the Tea Party movement quickly spread and became a loud minority within the Republican Party.

Its followers divided the GOP by pushing mainstream politicians (usually dubbed “the establishment”) and members of congress further to the right, or rather, more anti-Obama, by threatening to challenge their seats in congress (which 40 congressmen lost in 2010).


Trump and Carson

It is in this context that Trump appeared. By calling politicians “losers” and “all talk but no action”, he touched the minds of many disillusioned citizens, especially Republicans who saw their party as incompetent.

The Republican Party had spent the good part of these last 8 years picturing Obama as a dangerous president whose policies would ruin the entire country.  Their depiction of an evil Obama administration made Republican voters see their party as incapable of standing up to fight this “danger”, especially when Obama continued pushing his policy agenda despite the gridlock in Congress.

Trump and Carson, seen as “outsiders” of the political spectrum, carry a simple, yet powerful message: “I will get the job done”. Their campaigns have proven to be entertaining, and it seems unlikely they will receive the nomination, but their success says a lot about today’s Republican Party.

As Bill Maher said when addressing Republican commentators, “this is the Frankenstein monster that was created with the Tea Party, this is your worst nightmare”.

Diagram by Fox News

This diversion, however, follows a long-term trend within the party and its policies. Indeed, the GOP has greatly diverted from what it was, or what it could have been, in the last decades. Many commentators, including conservatives in the US, have argued that legendary Republican figures like Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower would have no place in today’s GOP.

The Republican Party’s most prominent politicians have lost touch with the party’s supposed core values, and in doing so, they have been losing many voters.


Climate change

Most Republican congressmen are climate change deniers, consistently doubting the proven facts and unanimous scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is a man-made phenomenon.

Last February, Sen. James Inhofe even threw a snowball in Senate to prove that since there is still snow, the planet is clearly not becoming warmer. This issue is one where the Republican Party diverted, and made a huge mistake by doing so.

Photograph by Fox News

It was President Nixon, a Republican, who established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the hope of enforcing stronger environmental protection laws. That same agency is now frequently attacked by the GOP.

Had the Republican Party stuck to the message that we must take care of our environment and react when it is in danger, instead of spreading misinformation, they would have more credible amongst voters today.


Drug policy

The Republican Party, at its core, believes in “small government”: the idea that the federal government has no business intervening in your private life.

This libertarian concept has many positive aspects, and is even used by some advocates of marijuana legalisation. Yet, the GOP consistently criticises and attacks this stance, claiming that marijuana is as dangerous to society as any other illegal drug.

Republicans have enacted and supported harsh laws against its use, putting thousands of people behind bars. In fact, 55% of federal and 21% of state prisoners found guilty of drug offences are incarcerated due to marijuana, and some are even sentenced to life in prison.

Diagram by Kegler Brown

This, along with other drug policies, have increased the amount of prisoners in the US to a point where it is now the largest prison population in the world and second highest per capita.

Some republicans like Rand Paul have rightly pointed out the hypocrisy behind the Republican Party’s support for such policies regarding drugs, since they have greatly expanded the intervention and cost of federal government.

The average cost of incarceration for federal inmates in 2014 was $30,619 – money that could be much better spent elsewhere.


Separation of church and state

The GOP has always been the conservative party which believes in traditional values. However, it has also been the constitutional party.

Republican politicians have argued that the Constitution should be followed as narrowly as possible, and that by following the Constitution the country would avoid dangerous and harmful policies.

Yet, the Party has diverted from this clear and (somewhat) reasonable stance, by consistently ignoring the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.

Photograph by Bartu Kaleagasi

This amendment, established in the 18th century, clearly states that the US government is never allowed to identify with one religion.

Despite this fact, The Republican Party has time and time again proclaimed that the US is a Christian country, and that government must abide by traditional Christian values.

They have argued against the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion, criticised the idea that a Muslim could be president, and consistently cited the bible and their Christian values as an argument against marriage equality.


Mass surveillance

Another deviation relates again to the idea of “small government”.

Instead of sticking to the message that the American people are better off if the government does not interfere in their lives, the GOP has supported the NSA in the national debate regarding their mass surveillance program.

As Rand Paul said, “Republicans don’t like big government until they like big government”.

Photograph by Dado Ruvic

According to most Republicans, it is not right for the government to expand in order to provide entitlements to the American people, yet it is right to expand in order to provide greater powers to the NSA and other intelligence agencies, allowing them to spy even on their own citizens without needing approval from a judicial entity.


Republican nomination

In any democracy, in order for the national debate to progress, all sides must indulge in rational discussions, arguments, and policies. It is not enough for Democrats to laugh at a possible Trump nomination or look at current Republican policies and feel relief.

If the country is to go forward, a real debate must happen during these elections. This is unlikely to happen when one of the largest parties cares more about appealing to a loud minority within its voters than about representing its core values. Doing so simply alienates the majority of Americans and reduces the potential for national debate.

As to us Europeans, we are left watching and enjoying the race. However, we should not get too comfortable either, since we all know what happened the last time America elected a questionable President.

Singapore Election Results

Singapore’s ruling party wins by landslide 

PAP: 83 seats (70%) – WP: 6 seats (12.5%)

September 12th 2015 | Singapore | Godwin Tan

Photograph by SPH

In our previous article, we analysed the changes, divisiveness and prospects of the Singapore General Election (GE). Now, we take a look at the scorecard.


Strong mandate for the PAP

Today, the nation has spoken, bringing about a massive electoral swing in favour of the ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP). Despite the massive crowds at opposition rallies, Singapore’s silent majority continues to trust and support the PAP.

The PAP won 83 out of 89 seats, just six seats shy from being the only elected party in Parliament.

The Workers’ Party (WP) took the remaining six seats and will be the only elected opposition party in the upcoming Parliament. Three of the best performing candidates among those defeated may also serve as non-constituency Members of Parliament.

Diagram by The Straits Times

Mr Lee Hsien Loong, leader of the PAP and Prime Minister of Singapore, won 78.6% of the votes in his Group Representation Constituency (GRC), Ang Mo Kio. This was the second-highest percentage of votes won in the election. Notably, the PAP team in Tanjong Pagar GRC, which was previously helmed by the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), also won a landslide victory over Singaporeans First, garnering 77.7% of the votes.

These large victories suggest that Singaporeans remain confident in a post-LKY PAP and firmly support younger PAP leaders like Mr Chan Chun Sing and Mr Tan Chuan-Jin.


The Opposition: injured but alive?

On the other side, the WP lost its seat in the Punggol East Single Member Constituency (SMC) and narrowly retained its coveted Aljunied GRC (by a margin of 2%). Even in Hougang SMC, a long-time WP stronghold, votes for the WP dropped from 62.1% to 57.7%. All in all, the WP faced a big setback to its ambition to expand its political clout to constituencies in the East.

Unsurprisingly, many supporters of the WP were visibly disappointed and shocked. WP candidates, however, remained confident that more constituencies “will be Blue one day” (blue being WP’s political colour).

Mr Chen Show Mao, MP for the Aljunied GRC, stated “we will reflect, introspect and better ourselves.” Another WP member, Mr Gerald Giam, said “we have done our best, and we will continue… to fight for Singapore.”

Photograph by Alphonsus Chern

None of the other political parties, including the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), came close to defeating the incumbent. The SPP’s showing in Potong Pasir SMC (33.6% of the votes) was the highest among the rest of the Opposition, but it was still a definitive defeat in spite of the popularity of veteran opposition leader, Mr Chiam See Tong, and his wife, Ms Lina Chiam.

Surprisingly, even though Dr Chee Soon Juan of the SDP managed to reconnect with the public and gained a large number of followers on social media in his short campaigning period, his team only won 33.4% of the votes. Undoubtedly, the strength of the Opposition has greatly wavered in this election.

Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam, leader of the Reform Party, was particularly displeased with the national swing against the Opposition. According to Mr Jeyaretnam, “all this is a mandate for authoritarianism and brainwashing”. A more measured Dr Chee warned that the current political landscape is “undemocratic”.


Status Quo?

Similar to GE 2011, in GE 2015, PAP won all but six seats. But this is not status quo per se: PAP’s votes have increased significantly across the board, winning more than 70% of the votes in many constituencies. The last time Singapore saw such a high level of support for the PAP was actually in 2001.

Make no mistake about it: Singapore GE 2015 was hard fought. And it was won spectacularly.

With such a strong mandate, PAP’s representatives will naturally be more confident about future policymaking and implementation. Thus far, in almost every victory speech, PAP politicians have been using a markedly different tone, one that speaks more of humility than arrogance.

The PAP has promised policy adjustments and improvements, and candidates have been working hard to communicate with the people and understand the ground. Only time will tell whether or not Singaporeans have made the right choice.

The full results can be found here.

Singapore Election 2015

The most contested election

A look at the prospects of Singapore’s GE 2015

September 9th 2015 | Singapore | Godwin Tan

Photographs by Financial Review, Reuters, and The Straits Times

Update: Our look at the election results can be found here.

In the upcoming Singapore General Election (GE), for the first time ever, all 89 parliamentary seats will be contested.

On 11 September 2015, every eligible Singaporean will be able to vote at a polling station, and most will be deciding between the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and alternatives like the Workers’ Party (WP). For the past 50 years, the PAP maintained a stronghold in Parliament, steadily winning the vast majority of seats in every GE until 2011.

The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who led the PAP until the 1990s, was a charismatic and strong-willed leader who believed that ruling leaders “must have the iron” in them. His foresight in economic matters and foreign affairs has been hailed as the key reason for Singapore’s rapid growth from third world to first. With Mr Lee’s passing earlier this year, GE 2015 will officially usher in a new political era and be a major testing ground for current Prime Minister and PAP leader, Mr Lee Hsien Loong.


Recent changes in the political landscape

In GE 2011, Singapore’s most recent “watershed election”, the dominant opposition party, the Workers’ Party (WP), won 7 seats including 1 group constituency, creating an unprecedented crack in the PAP’s strong walls.

GE 2011 also saw the retirement of Mr George Yeo, former Minister for Foreign Affairs and PAP candidate, from the local political scene. It was a difficult decision for Singaporean voters in the Aljunied constituency, not unlike the decisions that may be made in this GE’s “hot” constituencies, including the East Coast and MacPherson constituencies. Was choosing WP the right move? With rigorous debate over the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council saga dominating the early stages of GE 2015, the jury is still out.

Although the political scene in Singapore is relatively young, it is evolving. In GE 2015, there have already been some obvious changes. Opposition parties, including smaller ones like the Singapore People’s Party and Democratic Progressive Party, are now fielding more educated candidates with distinguished professional backgrounds than ever before, touting them as competent spokespersons for the people.

Diagram by Channel NewsAsia

Certain opposition candidates, such as SDP’s Dr Chee Soon Juan, have also been emphasising that their parties offer many viable alternative policies to those currently in place by the PAP. A more regular use of statistics and studies to back up such policies has given the impression that they are well researched, albeit not tried and tested in Singapore yet.

Compared to previous elections, the number of credible alternative media websites has increased substantially, allowing the electorate to have a more informed understanding of all political parties and candidates.


Divisiveness and debate 

At the end of the day, the PAP’s narrative is simple. The PAP is a cruise ship: vote for the PAP, and the party’s competent and incorruptible leaders will continue to make Singapore an exceptional nation. Vote for the Opposition, and you will get “a mouse in the House”.

In response, WP’s leader, Mr Low Thia Khiang, agreed that the PAP is a cruise ship, but “[its] name is Titanic” (alluding to its fallibility). In this regard, the PAP has repeatedly emphasised in its manifesto and rallies that it has a strong track record and has delivered on its promises to the people.

Photograph by Wee Teck Hian

Opposition candidates have also said that it is ludicrous to expect the PAP to check itself (“students cannot mark their own scripts”), and that more can be done to help Singaporeans who have fallen through the cracks. While Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the Deputy Prime Minister and a PAP candidate, called the Opposition’s policies “false promises” that require a high amount of spending which will compromise the country’s reserves, opposition parties like Singaporeans First and the SDP have firmly defended their positions.

Regardless of who is correct (or wrong), this divisiveness in politics and policies has generated great interest in opposition rallies, and accordingly, the crowds have been large.


What lies ahead?

In all likelihood, the PAP will continue to form the next government. The election is more a matter of how many opposition members and parties, if any, Singapore will see in its new Parliament. Will the people continue to trust and support the PAP, or will the desire for cross-party checks and concerns over pensions, cost of living, and immigration policies prevail?

GE 2015 will be hard fought. In three days, Singaporeans will either witness yet another renewal of the PAP’s legacy, or a continuing shift in the tides of political control. However, to many, these are empty words; perhaps the bread-and-butter issues are the only real concerns.

Ultimately, to vote for the Opposition is to take on a certain risk – it is to depart from the familiar and enter new territory. Whether this is a risk worth taking remains squarely up to the judgement of Singapore’s increasingly vocal and astute electorate.

Russia and Crimean Tatars

Russia shuts down opposition in the new Crimea

The hardships of an ethnic minority facing an uncertain future in their homeland

April 15th 2015 | Netherlands | Melih Uzun

Photograph by Max Vetrov

“This blatant attack on freedom of expression, dressed-up as an administrative procedure, is a crude attempt to stifle independent media, gag dissenting voices, and intimidate the Crimean Tatar community.”

Those were the words used by Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia, to state his concern for the wellbeing of Crimean Tatars – and compliance with their rights and liberties – as Russian authorities abruptly shut down their media outlets.

The formal annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, with the signing of a treaty between Crimea and Russia at the Kremlin on March 18th, sparked global controversy in 2014. NATO, as well as numerous prominent world leaders, condemned Russia for their conduct during the conflict that was dubbed the ‘Crimean Crisis’. Besides their disputed unconstitutional referendum, which was held to manifest Crimea’s supposed desire to join the Federation, the Russians also used persistent military intervention in order to seize control over the Ukrainian territory.


Tatar media shutdown

Crimean Tatars, now subjected to Russian legislature, have no choice but to comply to Russia’s demands that media outlets in the region must obtain a new broadcasting license. Whilst Russian-speaking media channels met the requirements with ease, newspapers and TV channels that broadcast in Crimean – a Turkic language spoken by the Tatars – were denied their permits and forced to shut down their services.

Only a single Crimean Tatar medium, the newspaper Yeni Dünya, successfully applied for their broadcasting permit. All other Tatar media have been indiscriminately rejected by the Russian authorities, often without a specified reason. In some cases, applicants were turned down multiple times or even plainly ignored. Such was the case with Crimean Tatar-language television channel ATR. Their efforts of registering under Russian legislation were arbitrarily denied three times, whereas their fourth application did not even earn a response.

“They can shut down the channel, but they can never curb the desire of the Crimean Tatar nation for truth and freedom” declared Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Twitter, strongly condemning the move against ATR.

Photograph by Vasily Fedosenko

Lilya Budzhurova, ATR’s Deputy Director for Information Policy, stated that the channel had no choice but to pull the plug. “We will be prosecuted according to Russian law. There could be severe consequences, including hefty fines of up to half-a-billion roubles (approximately $9,000), confiscation of equipment, and criminal charges against the management.”

And, just like that, an entire community was rendered speechless. By essentially turning Crimean Tatar journalism into a criminal offense, Russia is depriving this ethnic minority of their freedom of expression, and possibly much more. This is not the first time Amnesty International raised concerns for the wellbeing of Crimean Tatars. In May 2014, shortly after the Crimean peninsula was annexed, they had already predicted that the community would be at the risk of persecution and harassment under Russian rule. “Despite assurances made by the de facto Crimean authorities to protect the rights of Tatars, since the annexation of the peninsula by Russia in March this year, the Tatar community has faced increasing violence and discrimination” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme Director.

“The Russian authorities have allowed armed groups that have been behind some brutal attacks against the Tatars to operate freely in Crimea” he adds. “They have alienated Crimean Tatars by harassing Tatar leaders, threatening to dissolve their highest representative body, and restricting their rights to freedom of assembly and expression.”

Furthermore, Dalhuisen states that Crimean Tatars are being pressured into renouncing their Ukrainian citizenship in order to be granted a Russian one, with the only alternative to be doomed as stateless ‘foreigners’ in their own homeland. This unenviable scenario has already pushed thousands of Tatars to flee Crimea, as their outlook at home is far from reassuring.


Geopolitics of the past and future

Given the history of the two nations in conflict, these concerns are certainly not out of place.

During the Second World War, Stalin commanded atrocious acts of ethnic cleansing against Crimean Tatars, forcefully deporting their entire population – nearly a quarter million at the time – to remote parts of the Soviet Union such as the Uzbek SSR. During the journey, almost half of them died from starvation and disease, and it was not until 1989, during Perestroika, that the Tatars were allowed to return to their homeland.

Nowadays, after decades of oppression from Soviets and Russians, only one tenth of the original population remains.

Only time will tell how the future of Crimean Tatars unfolds, but the political setting in Russia provides a valid reason to remain sceptical.

United Russia, the ruling party of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin, is as conservative as it is statist, and embodies a whopping 238 out of the 450 seats of Russia’s State Duma. This represents a vast amount power, one which is not expected to fade anytime soon.