Paraguay

Paraguay goes to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president and legislature (the two are separate on the American model). Presidents are limited to a single term, so incumbent Horacio Cartes is retiring, and his right-wing Colorado Party has nominated former Senate president Mario Abdo to replace him.

There are ten candidates, but Abdo’s only serious rival is Efraín Alegre, from the opposition Liberal Party (centrist). Alegre lost by almost ten points to Cartes last time (see my report here), and this time is running under the banner of “Ganar”, an alliance including several smaller centre-left parties.

There’s no sign of much opinion polling, but Abdo appears to be a strong favorite. With the exception of the period 2008-13, the Colorados have governed the country for the last 70 years, not always as a democracy.

Turkey

The week’s surprise announcement was the calling of early presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey for 24 June. Last year’s controversial referendum introduced an executive presidency with full separation of powers; the new system will take effect after the election, which otherwise was not required until late next year.

In reality, however, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, nominally just a figurehead, is already the ruler of the country, and has been since his first election as prime minister in 2003. In recent years, and especially since a failed military coup 2016, his rule has become increasingly authoritarian, and there are serious doubts as to whether anything approaching a fair election can now be held. If Turkish democracy has a last chance, this is it.

The election is a standard two-round system; parties that won more than 5% in the last election are entitled to nominate a candidate, which otherwise requires the collection of 100,000 signatures. The main opposition party, the centre-left Republican People’s Party, will certainly nominate someone against Erdoğan, but of the other two opposition parties, one, the hard right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has entered an alliance with Erdoğan (this has produced a split, and the dissenters will try to collect the signatures to field their own candidate), while the other, the largely Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), is handicapped by the imprisonment or exile of several of its leaders.

Cuba

Cuba got a new president this week, after the National Assembly, with just one dissenting vote, chose vice-president Miguel Díaz-Canel to replace the 86-year-old Raúl Castro.

To describe this as the election of a new leader would be doubly misleading. Firstly because there was nothing democratic about the process – the members of the National Assembly are all backed by the Communist Party, which has a legal monopoly of power, and all elected unopposed. And secondly because, as most of the media seem to have forgotten, the formal institutions of power in a communist system are different from the real ones.

Castro remains first secretary of the Communist Party, and in that capacity he will continue to wield ultimate power in the country. With Díaz-Canel now clearly marked as the heir apparent, no doubt a gradual transfer of power is intended. So while it’s quite right for commentators to talk about Cuba’s future without the Castros, it’s premature to suggest that era has already begun.

United States

With recent developments making the Trump administration look more and more like a mafia family, don’t miss this piece by Ed Kilgore at New York magazine, drawing on research from the Public Religion Research Institute.

The headline finding is that there is one, and only one, major demographic group among which Trump’s approval rating is consistently high, namely white evangelicals. Kilgore draws two lessons from this; firstly that the president is heavily dependent on the goodwill of that group, and secondly that anti-Trump feeling is much more mainstream than is often suggested:

Perhaps Americans who dislike Donald Trump aren’t just living in some coastal elite bubble separated from the Real America, where the president is taken seriously but not literally, and is warmly admired. Perhaps Trump’s most avid fans are living in their own bubble of white Evangelical culture, while disdain for the mogul is so common elsewhere that it’s the prevailing (if hardly unanimous) sentiment.

I think that’s all true. But it also suggests to me a third point: that in a large part of America, religion is not what it seems. The evangelicals are not defined by anything that in the rest of the world would be recognised as religious belief, but by a tribal identification whose primary markers are political rather than religious.

That’s why I think that the answer to Kilgore’s question as to whether “there’s some tipping point … after which these fine church folk freak out and head south on the president” is “No”. For the evangelicals to abandon Trump would be to abandon their own identity – more so than if they were to give up on any piece of purely religious doctrine.

United Kingdom

Finally to the wonderful world of Brexit, where the British government this week suffered its first two defeats in the House of Lords on its Brexit legislation. Such defeats were always on the cards, but the margins were very impressive: 348-225 on an amendment requiring the government to investigate remaining in the EU’s customs union, and 314-217 on one to prevent protections embodied in EU law from being removed without legislation.

Bills can be passed without the concurrence of the House of Lords, but the process is difficult and takes a minimum of twelve months, making it impractical for this purpose. The government will probably just have to live with these amendments, and possibly with worse to come.

Its big problems, however, are in the House of Commons. Inspired by the Lords’ vote, a cross-party pro-European group in the Commons has promised to force a vote on a motion calling for “an effective customs union” post-Brexit, directly contrary to the government’s plans. The motion itself will not be binding, but if the government loses – and particularly if it loses badly – it will cast serious doubts on its ability to get ultimate parliamentary approval for a “hard” Brexit.

 

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