Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Sweden Moves to the Right

 By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, N.B.] Telegraph-Journal

Here’s the main takeaway from the Sept. 11 Swedish election: More than one in five voters cast their ballot for the Sweden Democrats (SDs). And it cost the centre-left coalition that governed the country their power.

The Scandinavian nation, which was once one of the most left-leaning countries in Europe, has made a radical turnaround.

Campaigning on issues like immigration, religion, crime, and the cost of environmental rules, the SDs, a party with neo-Nazi roots founded in 1988 out of the “Keep Sweden Swedish” movement, slowly built its support in a country long noted for its welfare state social democracy.

In the mid-1990s, new party leadership publicly denounced Nazism. The party crossed the four per cent threshold necessary for parliamentary representation for the first time during the 2010 general election, polling 5.7 per cent and gaining 20 seats in the Riksdag.

The party continued to struggle to gain traction and was considered a pariah. That changed after the migration crisis of 2015-16.

Sweden accepted more asylum seekers per capita than any other nation in Europe, most of them from Muslim countries. The nation went full bore on opening up the country, which has changed its demographics dramatically and reshaped entire cities, especially Malmo.

And these refugees have been blamed for a worrisome rise in gangs and gun violence, previously a rarity in this once-homogenous country. The deteriorating security situation even led Germany’s top-selling newspaper, Bild, to label Sweden the “most dangerous country in Europe.” But the center-left Social Democrats, who governed in a coalition government for the last eight years, failed to assimilate the newcomers. As social instability intensified, the elites looked the other way.

For the first time ever in Sweden, voters rated crime the “most important issue” in polls. Sweden now has the highest per-capita number of deadly shootings of 22 European countries, and 47 people have been killed so far this year. Since 2018, there have also been almost 500 bombings.

The SDs almost quadrupled their 2010 result this past Sept. 11, winning 20.6 per cent of the vote and 73 seats, giving them the second-highest number of seats in parliament, after the center-left Social Democrats, whose 30.3 per cent was good for 107, but not enough to form another coalition with its former partners, who lost seats.

The SDs won voters from three main groups: rural voters from the Centre Party, small-business owners from the Moderates Party and workers from the Social Democrats. They also won many young voters.

The Political Party Preference Survey May 2022, a poll published by Statistics Sweden, found that sympathy for the SDs among blue-collar workers stood at 24.5 percent, while with white-collar workers, just 8.3 per cent.

The final election tally showed that the right bloc came in with 49.7 per cent of the vote, while the left bloc secured 48.8 per cent, giving the new coalition 176 seats to 173 for the outgoing government.

Despite being the biggest party in the new four-party coalition, which is also composed of the Moderates, Christian Democrats and Liberals, SD leader Jimmie Akesson did not become prime minister.

Instead, that position went to Ulf Kristersson, the Moderates leader, whose party gained 19.1 percent of the vote and 68 seats. The SDs also did not take any cabinet posts, in large part because another coalition partner, the Liberal Party, rejected the possibility.

Romina Pourmokhtari of the Liberal Party vowed to bring down the government if the SDs were in it. “I ran for office to defend human freedoms and rights. That’s where we Liberals need to put our energy,” she remarked.

But the Sweden Democrats are expected to have a major influence over government policy and will certainly loom large behind the scenes. Sverker Gustavsson, a political scientist at Sweden’s Uppsala University, said that they “want an ironclad agreement with the Moderates and Christian Democrats that will include concrete measures in the area of culture, schools, immigration and criminal justice policy.”

The party is stringently anti-immigrant and is also expected to demand changes in policing, criminal justice, social benefits and environmental regulations. They support closing the country’s borders entirely, and have criticized the previous centre-left government as being soft on migrants, crime and Islamist extremists. Though they are not opposed to Sweden joining NATO, they have a Euroskeptic stance.

Akesson has said in the past that Muslim migration to Sweden is “our biggest foreign threat since the Second World War.” Following the election, he added that “It is time to start rebuilding security, welfare, and cohesion. It is time to put Sweden first.”

Soren Holmberg, a political scientist at the University of Gothenburg, predicted “It will be a very fragile situation for Swedish parliamentary democracy for the next four years,” adding that there were enough political differences among the right-wing parties to make consensus difficult.

Sweden got rich by being a conservative, market-oriented country, and that enabled them to finance their welfare state, so perhaps the formation of a new right-of-centre government is a return to traditional Swedish values. As one person expressed it, “you can have a welfare state or open borders. You can’t have both.”

The equitable Sweden of the late 1970s is now long gone, even though it maintains a phantom existence in the self-image of many Swedes.


Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Why is Democracy in Decline?

 By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Only two decades ago, democracy was the triumphant form of government around the world. Autocracy was in retreat in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, South Africa, South Korea and elsewhere. Today, the global trend is moving in the other direction.

In the late 1990s, 72 countries were democratizing, and only three were growing more authoritarian, according to data from published by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), an independent research institute based at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden that monitors democracy.

By last year, though, only 15 countries grew more democratic, while 33 slid toward authoritarianism. Countries where domestic democratic systems are tilting toward autocracy span the globe, including Brazil, Poland, Niger, Indonesia, Botswana, Guatemala, Tunisia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Guyana, Mauritius and Slovenia. 

In addition to these, V-Dem asserts that countries such as Hungary, the Philippines, and Turkey have already lost the fight.

Not only are long-established democracies turning toward authoritarianism, but autocratic regimes are tightening their grips on power. In countries such as Russia and Venezuela, authoritarian rule has been entrenched and civil liberties further curtailed. 

V-Dem researchers classify countries in four broad categories. In closed autocracies such as China and Qatar, there are no multiparty elections for the chief executive or legislature. In electoral autocracies such as Turkey and Venezuela, there are elections, but they are not free and fair. 

In electoral democracies such as Brazil and South Africa, there are free and fair elections, but inequality and a lack of effective rights for some minority groups. In liberal democracies, such as Germany and Sweden, there are free elections, guaranteed rights for minorities, and functional checks and balances between powers.

The 179 countries classified by V-Dem are almost evenly split between electoral or closed autocracies and liberal or electoral democracies. It has chronicled 81 periods of democratic decay in countries since 1900, half of which have occurred since 2000. In roughly 75 per cent of cases, the crisis resulted in a complete transition to autocracy.

While coups still happen, the current shifts to autocracy are often more gradual, incrementally building to the point where little of the old system remains. They have frequently coincided with the election of illiberal leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Andrzej Duda in Poland, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Narendra Modi in India.

Another measure of political change, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI), an independent foundation based in Gutersloh, Germany, has recorded more autocratic states than democracies around the world for the first time since 2004.

Of the 137 developing and transition countries examined, only 67 are still considered democracies. The number of autocracies has increased to 70.

The rise of digital media, cultural change, and economic stagnation in affluent countries are among the forces that help explain why democracy is struggling. People whose daily lives are threatened by poverty, hunger and social exclusion and do not see any improvement through democratic processes have turned to alternatives.

“This is the worst political transformation result we have ever measured in the 15 years of our work,” reported Hauke ​​Hartmann, BTI project manager. Around the world there are fewer free and fair elections, less freedom of opinion and assembly, as well as increasing erosion of the separation of powers.

Many democracies which had previously been well-established have now slipped into the category of “defective democracies,” the study’s authors note.

“For me, these are the democracies that ten years ago we classified as consolidating, as stable, and which now have major defects in their political processes,” noted Hartmann. In Europe, Hungary and Poland, for example, are thwarting European Union principles of the rule of law.

He pointed to Tunisia, a country that was long considered the last beacon of hope for the democratization movements of the Arab Spring. President Kais Saied ousted parliament and government in July 2021 and suspended parts of the constitution. Most recently, Saied dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council.

Brazil’s upcoming election Oct. 2 pits 76-year-old leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, against the far-right incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, a former congressman and army captain. 

Up for re-election and facing the first possible ballot box defeat of his career, Bolsonaro has suggested several times over the past year that he would not concede defeat if voters choose his opponent. “Only God can remove me from the presidential chair,” he declared.

“The actors that promote ‘autocratization’ are usually the chief executives, and they can have large parliamentary majorities,” indicated Sebastian Hellmeier, one of the V-Dem researchers who examined episodes of backsliding. “In the end, it is a kind of death by a million cuts, with a lot of smaller changes that are difficult to stop until it's too late, he concluded.


Thursday, September 22, 2022

Is There Now An Informal Russo-Turkish Entente?

 By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, N.B.] Telegraph-Journal

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Sept. 16 at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation regional security summit in Uzbekistan.

He praised Erdogan’s efforts to end the war in Ukraine, but asserted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was not prepared to hold peace talks.

In July, Erdogan had been instrumental in brokering a deal between Ukraine and Russia to start up grain exports again. Since the Russian invasion, Moscow had been blocking Black Sea ports, causing a disastrous lack of supply for many countries.

This was one of many signs that Erdogan and Putin were developing an informal entente as the war continues.

Turkey had already been dragging its heels on allowing Finland and Sweden to join NATO. Ankara wants both Finland and Sweden to strengthen their antiterrorism laws and to extradite wanted individuals who have been given sanctuary there but deemed by Turkey to be “terrorists.”

Meanwhile, Moscow was seeking Erdogan’s assistance to bypass restrictions on its banking, energy and industrial sectors. Though a NATO nation, Turkey has not joined other member states in levying sanctions against Russia. In fact, exports to Russia from Turkey are surging.


In a meeting held in the Russian resort city of Sochi on the Black Sea in early August, Putin and Erdogan agreed to boost bilateral trade and take steps to work more closely in the transportation, agriculture, industry and finance sectors.

Turkey announced it would switch part of its payments for Russian gas to roubles and extend the use of Russia’s Mir payment system. Rouble payments help Russia avoid dollar payments and restrictions placed on those payments because of sanctions. 

Russian banks have been cut off from the international SWIFT payments system that banks use to make cross-border payments. It is used by more than 11,000 financial institutions in over 200 countries and territories.

The two presidents agreed that five Turkish banks would extend the use of the Mir system, making things easier for Russian tourists in Turkey, one of the few remaining countries in Europe still offering flights to and from Russia.

Erdogan told reporters on his return flight that he hoped this cooperation would total $100 billion. It was, he added, part of a new “road map” to enhance bilateral relations that will serve as a “source of power between Turkey and Russia in financial terms.”

It is a relationship that angers Washington and the EU, as Erdogan provides Putin a sizable hole in the dam of sanctions the West has constructed. Some wonder where his loyalties lie, beyond his own self-interest.

However, Turkey is not a member of the EU; therefore, politically speaking, “Turkey is not obliged to follow EU decisions,” Huseyin Bagci, head of the Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara, argued.

Turkey also appears to have refrained lately from taking action in Syria due to Russian pressure. Its last full-scale military intervention in northern Syria against Kurdish rebels allied with Bashar al-Assad’s forces was two years ago.

During a Turkish-Iranian-Russian summit in Tehran on July 19, Moscow effectively ruled out a full-scale Turkish ground offensive in northern Syria.

It appears that Russia’s Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation’s plan to send at least $15 billion to Ankara for the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear reactor in the southern city of Akkuyu has had a critical role in Turkey’s choice not to irritate Russia.

The bottom line: Turkey needs Russian cash, gas and business as Erdogan faces presidential and parliamentary elections next June, while Moscow needs friends to try to evade Western sanctions.

Inflation has soared in Turkey since September 2021 amid the slump of the Turkish lira, fueled by unorthodox rate cuts by the central bank. The surge in global energy and commodity prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has only made matters worse. 

Consumer prices in Turkey are rapidly rising month to month, official data showed Sept. 5, with annual inflation surging to an incredible 24-year high of 80.2 per cent. Not surprisingly, Erdogan’s popularity has declined amid the economic crisis.

Polls suggest that Erdogan will face his most difficult contest next year since coming to power, with several opposition politicians beating him in head-to-head races, while his Justice and Development Party (AKP) would lose its parliamentary majority.

Russia is Turkey’s main energy supplier, so any Russian gesture to ease Turkey’s energy bill is important for Ankara as it scrambles to prop up the lira and curb rising foreign currency prices. Russian energy giant Gazprom tossed Turkey a life preserver Sept. 6 by announcing that Turkey will be allowed pay for 25 per cent of the natural gas it purchases from Russia in roubles.

A day later, Erdogan made his views very clear. “I can clearly say that I do not find the attitude of the West right. Because there is a West that follows a policy based on provocation,” he said, according to Turkey’s state news agency. “I say to those who underestimate Russia, you are doing it wrong. Russia is not a country that can be underestimated.”

Although it’s rarely expressed out loud, we’ve always known that Turkey, a Middle Eastern Muslim nation that has effectively been refused entry into the EU, has always been the “wild card” in an Atlantic alliance centred around North America and Europe.