Election (and other news) updates

Tying up loose ends from some recent (and not-so-recent) stories, plus a preview for this weekend.

Israel

It’s just over a month since the Israeli election, and negotiations on the formation of a new government are continuing. Incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu has just been given a two-week extension on the process (as happened last time as well), but there’s nothing to suggest there will be any great surprises in the outcome. In the meantime, however, there’s been movement on a older story that testifies to the state of Israeli democracy.

Almost four years ago, in July 2011, Israel’s parliament approved a law that attempted to prevent Israelis from supporting any sort of boycotts directed against Israel or its policies or products, including those from the occupied Palestinian territories. Such advocacy was not actually criminalised, but anyone who claimed to be hurt by it was given the right to sue for damages.

Apparently the law has never been used, but it has obviously had (as was intended) a chilling effect on political speech. A number of civil rights groups immediately challenged the law, and last week the high court finally decided the case. The section allowing punitive damages was struck down, but otherwise the law was upheld. The judges said that a call for boycotts was not protected speech because it was inconsistent with the purposes of freedom of expression.

It’s one thing to suppress free speech in the interests of a country’s own security, but using such heavy-handed means to protect Israeli rule in the occupied territories shows, as I said at the time, “that the settlers have graduated from fringe troublemakers to being at the heart of Israeli policy.” Last month’s election delivered much the same message.

Alpine grazing

Another old story is the controversy over cattle grazing in Victoria’s alpine country, which I used a couple of years ago to make a general point about the sad state of Australian federalism. Since then there have been two changes of government: the election of a federal Coalition government put grazing back on the agenda, but then the return of Labor to government in Victoria last year took it off again.

There was a very good piece last week at the Conversation by three Melbourne academics, Michael McCarthy, Georgia Garrard and Libby Rumpff, surveying the whole issue. They conclude that the supporters and opponents of alpine grazing are driven by the relative weights they give to cultural and environmental factors, and that while the scientific claims of the pro-grazing lobby are basically bogus, science is unable to adjudicate on the more fundamental conflict of values.

For what it’s worth, that seems right to me. But of course it leaves open the question of which level of government should get to decide what is ultimately a political matter. That’s the question that federalism is supposed to answer; in this case, it was not permitted to do so.

Estonia

The Estonian election, held 1 March (preview here), has finally resulted, after lengthy negotiations, in the formation of a new three-party coalition government. Reform Party leader Taavi Roivas continues as prime minister, but he now relies on a grand coalition including both the centre-left Social Democrats and the centre-right IRL in addition to his own free-market liberals.

This was always the most likely outcome, given that the other major party, the Centre Party (also broadly liberal, but more populist), was regarded as an unacceptable coalition partner due to concerns about its pro-Russian leanings. But getting there required considerable haggling on economic policy and on personnel.

Reuters reports that the coalition agreement promises that the new government will “cut income tax, raise the tax-free threshold on wages and increase child support benefits.”

Finland

Finland’s general election last Sunday produced the expected plurality for the opposition Centre Party (rural-based liberal conservatives), but it was less impressive than the polls had suggested. (See my preview here.) There’s not much doubt that Centre leader Juha Sipilä will become prime minister, but his choice of partners will be interesting.

The same four parties filled the top spots as last time, taking 73.4% of the vote between them. Centre led fairly narrowly with 21.1% (up 5.3%); the other three were close together between 16.5% and 18.2%. Because proportionality in the Finnish system works only within multi-member electorates, not across the country as a whole, small discrepancies can arise, and this time provided a good example: the National Coalition Party was slightly ahead of the True Finns on votes (by 0.6%), but the True Finns won one more seat (38 to 37).

So even if it allies with the True Finns, the Centre Party will only be able to rely on 87 of the 200 seats in parliament. Getting to a majority will mean either taking in one of National Coalition (centre-right) or the Social Democrats (centre-left), or else relying on minor parties: adding the Swedish People’s Party (including the lone Aland Islander) and the Christian Democrats would bring the total to 102, the same as the outgoing government had prior to the election.

The BBC quotes Sipilä saying that the result “will enable several possible coalition combinations.” There will now be a leisurely process of settling on one.

Northern Cyprus

With the usual caveat that it isn’t a “real” country, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a president for the next five years, after the first round last Sunday failed to give any candidate an absolute majority – or anything even close to one.

Northern Cyprus’s unrecognised status certainly doesn’t prevent it from having interesting elections. The first round saw four candidates very evenly matched – a textbook example of the sort of case a two-round election is badly suited for (just like Egypt’s in 2012). Incumbent Derviş Eroğlu from the centre-right led with 28.1%; two centre-left challengers had 26.9% and 22.5% and an independent managed 21.3%. Three also-rans had 1.1% between them. (Official results are here, but I’m using Wikipedia’s numbers

Eroğlu will now face Mustafa Akıncı in the runoff; Akıncı is nominally an independent but is backed by the Communal Democracy Party. Cyprus has a semi-presidential system on the French model, and since parliamentary elections in 2013 Eroğlu has been “cohabiting” with a centre-left government. Victory for Akıncı on Sunday would restore a degree of unity of purpose.

The main issue for any government in Northern Cyprus is of course the future of the divided island. Peace talks with the (Greek) Republic of Cyprus, which the international community recognises as legally representing the whole island, are expected to resume soon, and it’s clear that Akıncı would pursue a much more conciliatory line than the more nationalist Eroğlu. But the north’s electorate has repeatedly shown itself evenly divided, so it would be unwise to bet heavily on either outcome.

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