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February 05, 2020

Russia and Turkey on collision course

Russia and Turkey have both big geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East and North Africa, but their relationship is far from straightforward and in danger of turning sour. On opposite sides of the conflicts in both Syria and Libya, they have worked together to de-escalate the situation in Syria and to initiate peace talks in Libya. 

But their relationship took a hit in Idlib, the last battlefield of Syria's civil war. An attack by Russian-backed Syrian government forces killed eight Turkish civil and military personnel on Monday. Turkey in return killed at least 13 Syrian soldiers and has also sent an armoured convoy over the border into Syria. 

Rather than the agreed de-escalation in the region we are seeing the opposite. Russian-backed air strikes accelerated since December, with bombardment of hospitals, markets and schools. About 3m people are living in this province, 400,000 already fled towards the Turkish border. This is another threat to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who seeks to send back some of the 3.6m refugees Turkey is currently hosting, to be resettled in the occupied zone in north-east Syria.

A spat between Russia and Turkey may seem trivial compared with the unfolding human tragedy, but it would have serious consequences for the region, writes David Gardener in the FT. After the US retreated from Syria and the Europeans scrambled for the exit too, Russia emerged as the new ally for Turkey. But their goals are not aligned. Russia simply wants to be known as the superpower in the region, and for this it needs the Assad regime to remain intact. Erdogan pursues a neo-Ottoman agenda of re-establishing Turkish glory and controlling land well beyond its current borders. This is a constant threat to its neighbouring countries. This may remain fantasy but, its strategy in Syria is real. Turkey wants to fight the Syrian Kurds with supposed links to the PKK, and is driving them into the arms of the Assad regime to the benefit of the Russians. Turkey also wants to stem the flood of Syrian refugees. The deal with Russia to allow Turkey to enter Syria's north-east to establish a 50km buffer zone was part of this effort. How far will these tensions reverberate through the region? Erdogan said that Russia and Turkey should resolve their issues without anger. Turkey can hardly afford to confront Russia. But Russia can push back easily by pointing out that Turkey that it is not holding its part of the deal in Idlib. 

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February 05, 2020

Politics of rupture - Ireland edition

The Irish show a desire for change. In a final televised election debate last night Leo Varadkar claimed Fine Gael has been leading party of change all along. Fianna Fáil's Micheál Martin promised real change on housing and health. Sinn Féin offered the most rupture with a radically different agenda, but was on the defensive over financing and concrete details. Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin attacked Mary Lou McDonald over her reckless economic policies. She also came under pressure over the alleged murder of a young man by the IRA.

Fear is clearly the driving force in this last round of campaigning, after Sinn Féin surprisingly emerged as the leading party in the Irish Times poll on Monday. Neither of the two main parties had seen this coming, nor had Sinn Féin for that matter. For them it is now all about not tripping up in the run-up to the Sunday elections. Fine Gael resorted to casting itself as the responsible party, warning that Sinn Féin would drive business and jobs away and that Fianna Fáil would end up in a coalition with Sinn Fein despite its denials.  

Will it be enough to remind voters of the costs of Sinn Féin’s programme and the burden of its historic ties to the IRA? Or is this warning just fuelling the desire for change? Fintan O'Toole urged that Sinn Fein should come out of the cold, and argued that a real democratic choice must include the biggest party that stands for radical change. Is Ireland ready for this? Will Sinn Féin master its ascent to power as Syriza did in Greece? Or will we see a blip like we have seen with the Five Star movement in Italy? 

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February 05, 2020

What drives Italian parties to support or reject early elections

Below is a very useful graphic from Corriere della Sera showing the combined effect of three big shifts in Italian politics. These are: the rise in political support for the Lega, the envisaged electoral reform, and the cut in the number of MPs. The chart is based on a recent Ipsos-Mori poll.  

Source: Corriere della Sera

What this shows is that two political parties, Five Star and Forza Italia, will experience a meltdown in their numbers of delegates. The number of their MPs will be reduced by more than two-thirds. Matteo Salvini’s Lega can look forward to an actual increase in the number of its MPs, despite the cut in the total number of MPs from a current 630 to 400. Under this polling scenario the PD will also manage a small increase in its number of MPs. Italia Viva, Matteo Renzi’s new party, is virtually wiped out. 

Those three effects in their combination explain why some parties fear early elections, and others are desperate to have them. The current coalition is Five Star’s only realistic option of government. This is as good as it will get. The PD does not have alternative choices either. It has seen off the split from Renzi, and has become more coherent as a result. But there is at present no majority for a coalition of the left, in which the PD would be the senior partner.

We are less interested in the precise headline numbers of the poll. Lega and Fratelli have a wafer-thin majority, but we presume that this is within the polling error. Moreover, we are less than half-way through the current term. A coalition of the right, however, including a weakened Forza Italia, would appear to be stronger than the combined left. This is a trend we expect to persist.

We have on previous occasions expressed our exasperation about the constant changes in Italy’s voting system. The changes are usually based on parties and political scientists miscalculating the envisaged effects. The newly proposed electoral system is very similar to the German one, where the total number of MPs is determined by proportional representation and there is a minimum national threshold of 5%. Parties that do not clear the hurdle can still be represented if they have strongholds in certain regions. We will explain the precise mechanics in a future article when the law is passed.

Renzi’s role is potentially critical. His party would fail to clear the 5% threshold, but only just, and he would end with only three MPs because of the regional component. If he were to clear the hurdle, he could end up as a power-broker if neither the left and the right had a majority. Or he could end with nothing, as he did in this poll. The final shape of the voting system, in addition to shifts in polling trends, will reveal to us whether any of the government parties have an incentive to pull the plug on their coalition. That does not appear to be the case right now.

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