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October 27, 2019

German political centre is melting

There are two connected stories that have been playing out in Germany over the weekend. The first are the elections in the east German state of Thuringia. Something happened there that we feared would happen at some point: for the first time, the extreme parties on the left and the right managed to get a majority between them. Without wishing to over-stretch the parallels, we note this is how the Weimar Republic ended.

Thuringia is the only state in Germany where the Left Party heads a government. It managed to increase its share of the vote to 31%. The AfD, with 23.4%, was the other big winner. What is particularly galling is that the AfD's leader in the state is Bernd Hocke, a man on the far right of the party who has taken part in neo-Nazi marches.

We predicted some time ago that eventually the only way for the German centrist parties - CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP and Greens - to form a government would be through a mega-coalition between all them. 

Since the 2017 elections, polls are registering declining vote shares for both CDU/CSU and SPD. They would longer have a majority nationwide. In Thuringia the situation went even further. If you add the seats of CDU, SPD, FDP and Greens, they are short of a majority together. The most likely scenario in Thuringia is for Bodo Ramelow of the Left Party, the current state premier, to form a minority government.

The over-arching story is the continuing meltdown of the political centre. The SPD has a chance to halt this trend. Over the weekend it completed the first round of its own leadership election, with two victorious pairs of candidates, one from the right of the party and one from the Left. The candidates from the right are Olaf Scholz and Klara Geywitz For the SPD. Scholz wants to stick with the grand coalition to its bitter end, and obviously supports his own fiscal policies. 

If the members go for the other couple - Saskia Esken und Norbert Walter-Borjans - we would expect the grand coalition to end and the SPD to support fiscal expansion. The SPD membership will have a separate poll on the future of the grand coalition in December as part of a previously-agreed mid-term review. But the two decisions are obviously linked. We would expect to see a swing in one direction or the other. 

The outcome is hard to predict. Our hunch is that the SPD's ageing voters tend to favour the status quo. They are not a rebellious lot.

If they surprise us and choose Esken and Walter-Borjans, we would expect to see a consolidation on the Left. This is the only German political scenario we see where a government does not include a CDU chancellor.

And finally, here is a story that encapsulates the SPD's problem more than anything else: the former SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel is about to be appointed chief lobbyist for the car industry. With Gerhard Schröder lobbying for Russian gas the SPD is now clearly the party supporting the industries of the past. The declining car industry and the declining SPD are perfect mirror images.

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October 27, 2019

Train drivers in all-out confrontation with Macron

This is promising to become a hot autumn for Emmanuel Macron, who is facing massive protests against his pension reforms. Trains across France will be disrupted again this week as efforts to defuse the explosive mood among trade unions failed last Friday. On train lines like the one connecting Paris with Bordeaux only 3 out of 10 trains will be running today. This follows the wildcat strikes just weeks ago after a train accident forced an injured conductor to walk miles to get help - an incident we recently reported on. That spurred the trade unions to unite in protests against the one-conductor-per-train policy. But the SNCF management refused last week to go back on this policy. 

The rail unions are also considering to join the RATP, which runs the regional transport for Paris, in their open-ended strikes against the pension reform, scheduled to take place early December. So we are heading for a near-total transportation strike in France for trains and metro during the pre-Christmas period. The government clearly has an incentive to stretch out the pension reform negotiations for so long as possible in order not to inflame the situation. But this is undoubtedly one of Macron’s biggest domestic policy crises yet.

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October 27, 2019

Erdogan makes threats again

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is dishing out threats again. On Saturday he warned that Turkey will resume its offensive if Russia has not removed Kurdish forces from the 30km strip of Syria bordering on Turkey by the ceasefire deadline tomorrow. Erdogan also warned that he would open the borders and send refugees towards Europe if EU member countries do not back his plans for a safe zone in Syria, where he plans to resettle refugees currently residing in Turkey. 

We also note a less well-reported spat with the Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci. Akinci criticised Erdogan's military offensive in northeast Syria, saying it was reminicent of Turkey’s military intervention in Cyprus in 1974. In response Erdogan warned that Akinci should know his place, since he owes his position to Turkey. Akinci’s public response was to remind Erdogan that the Turkish Cypriots elected him. Will this spat escalate further?

Turkey has two open conflicts with the EU at the moment: its operation in northeast Syria, and its gas exploration off the shores of Cyrus. Turkey sent three Turkish drilling ships into the economic zone off Cyrus insisting they were acting on behalf of the Turkish Cypriots. So, why is he turning the Turkish Cyriots against him? If anything this suggests that Erdogan is fighting for domestic political survival. The economic crisis in Turkey and the political pressure since he lost the mayoral election in Istanbul appear to have made him desperate. Is Europe up to facing him or will the fear of another wave of refugees paralyse EU leaders? After the uncoordinated move by the new CDU leader and German defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, we are not hopeful. 

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