Two Lessons from the Tunisian Election

The victory of the secular party Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes) in the parliamentary election on Sunday carries two lessons for observers of transitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The first one is broadly optimistic, but the second one should be a cause for concern, heralding economic, social, and political troubles ahead.

1. The Arab Spring was not a one-way street to religious fundamentalism.

In spite of the unexpected and often violent turns that political events have taken in countries such as Syria or Libya, the revolutions across the MENA countries were not just thinly disguised attempts to impose theocratic rule on Arab societies. While Islam is an important cultural and social force, most people in the region have little appetite for a government by Islamist extremists. In fact, much of the headway that Islamist politicians made shortly after the fall of authoritarian regimes in the region can be explained by their track records as community organizers or providers of public services.

Tunisia is a case in point. Already in 2011, the country’s leading Islamic party, Ennahda, featured numerous women candidates in the election, and following a political crisis last year it negotiated a peaceful handover to a caretaker government that led the country to yesterday’s election.

Tunisia’s new leading political force, Nidaa Tounes, may have gained as many as 80 seats in the 217-seat parliament. It describes itself as a ‘modernist’ party. It unites secular politicians of various stripes, including labor union members, or former officials of the regime of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The leader of the party, the 87-year old Beji Caid el-Sebsi (who served as interim prime minister in 2011) had a long political career prior to the revolution, including an ambassadorship in Berlin after Ben Ali’s ascent to power.

2. Don’t expect radical economic reforms.

For those who feared that democratization in the MENA region could bring about theocracy and extremism, the status-quo nature of Nidaa Tounes is probably good news. At the same time, however, it seems unlikely that the party, whose sympathizers largely overlap with those of the country’s influential labor unions, will bring about the deep institutional and economic changes that Tunisia needs in order to extend access to economic opportunity to ordinary Tunisians by dismantling Byzantine red tape and corruption and freeing up its economy.

For example, while it is certainly praiseworthy that the party has promised to improve the economic situation of women, one should worry that it plans to do so by what are likely to be popular yet ineffective measures: creating a new government bureau fighting discrimination, investing in social housing for young female workers, and extending statutory maternity leave.

More importantly, in many areas the exact economic platform of Nidaa Tounes remains blurry. The party promises to foster consensus among the government, civil society, labor unions, and employers. It also promised to cut public spending – in part by reforming the system of fuel subsidies – increase industrial exports and promote industries with high value added, most notably hi-tech and renewable energy, and to subsidize economic development in poorer regions by an amount of 50 billion dinars ($28 billion) over the next five years, 30 billion of which would be coming from the public budget.

Heavy on clichés and light on specifics, these promises are reminiscent of electoral manifestos of social democratic parties of Europe. Regardless of whether that would be a good thing under normal circumstances, what Tunisia needs now is a bold agenda of economic liberalization, as well as a Leszek Balcerowicz-like figure to implement it. With a mushy economic program and Mahmoud Ben Romdhane – former deputy head of Tunisia’s ex-communist party, Ettajdid –as the key economic policy figure on the party, Nidaa Tounes offers neither.

Top Ten Reasons You Should Attend Cato’s Conference on the Halbig Cases This Thursday

Here are ten reasons everyone should attend this Thursday’s Cato Institute conference, “Pruitt, Halbig, King & Indiana: Is Obamacare Once Again Headed to the Supreme Court?

  1. The very next day – October 31 – the Supreme Court could grant certiorari in King v. Burwell. Reporters who attend will be able to write their stories in advance.
  2. Our luncheon keynote speaker, Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, filed the first Halbig-style challenge in September 2012. (Does that mean I should call them “Pruitt-style challenges”?) Last month, a federal district court sided with Pruitt against the federal government. Our morning keynote speaker, Indiana attorney general Greg Zoeller, filed the fourth such challenge, Indiana v. IRS. A ruling is expected at any time. Pruitt and Zoeller will discuss why they have asked the Supreme Court to grant cert in King.
  3. We’ve already been King-ed! The Center for American Progress and Families USA were so impressed (or worried) about our conference that they scheduled a conference call with reporters to piggyback on (or drown out) any coverage of our conference. Their teleconference is on Wednesday, October 29, at 10am ET. Dial in: 888-576-4398. Confirmation code: 1635383.
  4. Case-Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan Adler, an intellectual father of the Halbig cases, will discuss recent and future court rulings. So will law professor Jim Blumstein, intellectual father of the Supreme Court’s Medicaid ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius, who also played a seminal role in the Halbig cases.  
  5. Len Nichols, who advised the Senate on state-run vs. federal Exchanges will explain why all this is nonsense.
  6. Health-insurance industry expert Bob Laszewski will explore the possible impact of Halbig.
  7. University of Washington law professor David Ziff will discuss how Halbig critics could improve their arguments.
  8. The Constitutional Accountability Center’s Brianne Gorod, who wrote the amicus briefs filed by the members of Congress who wrote Obamacare, will explain what Congress really intended.
  9. AEI’s Tom Miller, who helped launch the Halbig cases, will explore how states might respond to a Halbig win.

And finally, the number-one reason you should attend this conference…

  1. Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber will explain his flip-flop on Halbig. Ha! Just kidding. The real number-one reason is: these lawsuits have more of a shot than you thought, and you need to get up to speed.

Register now.

Brazil: A Divided House

There were no surprises in Brazil’s runoff election: just as the polls had predicted in the days leading to the vote, President Dilma Rousseff beat Senator Aécio Neves by over 3 percentage points (51.6% to 48.6%). Despite high inflation, widespread corruption charges, and threats of a recession, the incumbent Workers’ Party (PT) won an unprecedented fourth term in power. Now what?

Brazil’s electoral map shows a divided country: the poor north and northeast states voted for Rousseff while most of the rich south and south-eastern states went for Neves. This divide has become more pronounced during the years of PT rule, as the incumbent party increases welfare spending every election cycle and warns voters about how the opposition would get rid of these programs if elected.

President Rousseff gave a conciliatory speech where she talked about bringing together Brazilians, being a better president than the previous four years, and the need for economic reform. Can she do it? The acrimonious tone of her campaign will make it hard for Rousseff to win over the half of the electorate that voted for Neves. Her appeal to voters wasn’t based on promises of a better future but on scaremongering of what a Neves victory would represent to Brazil’s poor. Moreover, new revelations on the growing corruption scandal at Petrobras that seem to show that Rousseff and her predecessor Lula da Silva were aware of the shenanigans at the state-owned oil giant threaten to taint her second term.

As for the economy, during the campaign Rousseff said that she would replace her Finance Minister, Guido Mantega, who is blamed for Brazil’s lackluster economic performance. Still, the stock market took a beating today and the real fell by 3%. Two reasons the bad shape of the economy didn’t play a decisive role in the election is that unemployment is low —which has a lot to do with many younger Brazilians going to university instead of looking for a job— and the fact that the government held back on the publication of bad statistics until after the election.

Can Rousseff deliver reform? Doubtful. As Mary O’Grady points out today in the Wall Street Journal, “Ms. Rousseff ran as the anti-market, welfare-state candidate.” With an economy not even growing by 1% and a stubbornly high inflation rate, the question Brazilians are asking themselves is whether Rousseff will reform or instead double-down on interventionist policies. One area to pay particular attention to is freedom of the press. What we’ve seen in a number of other Latin American countries ruled by left-wing governments is that, as the economy sours and corruption scandals mushroom, the authorities push for more regulations on the media. Will Brazil follow this pattern?

There are good reasons not to be optimistic about Brazil in the next four years.

Report Concludes that Yucca Mountain Is Safe

For decades, the federal government has struggled with the issue of storing waste from commercial nuclear reactors and defense-related nuclear activities. The government has spent billions of dollars planning for nuclear waste disposal, but the creation of a permanent storage site is years behind schedule due to federal mismanagement and safety concerns. A new report confirms that the current proposed site, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, is safe for use.

The United States has more than 65,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel with the volume expected to double by 2055. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 aimed to create a permanent disposal site for radioactive waste by 1998. After many studies, Yucca Mountain was chosen as the single national disposal site in 1987, and engineers and construction crews went to work. Between 2001 and 2007 the project’s total life-cycle cost estimate increased from $77 billion to $106 billion, measured in constant 2012 dollars.

To fund the project, the 1982 Act created a fee or tax on all nuclear electric utilities charged on the basis of kilowatt hours generated. The fee generated $750 million annually for the Nuclear Waste Fund, which accumulated a balance on paper of more than $25 billion.

In 2010, the Obama administration, with strong urging from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, decided to close down the Yucca Mountain site. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that the administration did not cite any “technical or safety issues” for the closure. The administration also did not include other options for storage, but instead set up a committee to study the issue. Apparently, Reid did not want the site in his state under any circumstances, regardless of any previous agreements between the nuclear industry and the government.  

The abrupt closure created a bizarre situation; electric utilities and their customers were paying $750 million annual tax to store nuclear waste at Yucca, but those storage plans were halted. In November 2013 an appeals court ordered the Department of Energy to stop collecting the Nuclear Waste Fund fee and resume planning for the site. Energy Secretary Moniz suspended the fee in 2014.

The appeals court also ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume the site’s licensing process. Now, the long-awaited safety report confirms that the Yucca Mountain site meets project requirements. The New York Times summarized the report saying that it “concluded that the design had the required multiple barriers, to assure long-term isolation of radioactive materials.” Storage is expected to be safe within the site for one million years.

The administration must now decide how to proceed. It can ignore the report and try to push the issue of nuclear storage onto the next administration, or it can reopen the permitting process and ignore the wishes of Majority Leader Reid.

The issue of nuclear waste is complex, but federal mismanagement and the actions of the Obama administration have delayed a long-term solution.

Preliminary Results in Ukraine

Update: The results are finally in. With 98.5% of votes counted, Western-leaning parties (and independents) have done even better than expected, taking 311 seats. Pro-Russian parties took 112 seats, while 27 seats (mostly Crimean districts) remain unfilled.  In other good news, the populists, though represented in the parliament, did relatively poorly: Lyashko’s Radical Party took only 22 seats. Far right parties did even worse, with Svoboda obtaining only 6 seats, and Right Sector 2 seats. These results mark a major change for the Rada, which has typically had parliaments split almost 50/50 between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian parties, and will certainly presage a turn to the West for Ukraine. Unfortunately, Russia has also committed to recognize the results of the Nov 2nd rebel elections in Luhansk and Donetsk. The Rada election results are a major victory for pro-Western democracy, but the crisis in Ukraine is not over. 

Original Post: Yesterday, Ukrainian voters went to the polls to elect a new parliament, replacing the deputies elected prior to the Euromaidan protests of early 2014. In a piece at Al-Jazeera America published on Sunday, I highlighted a few ways in which the election results could impact Ukraine’s future relations with Europe, Russia, and the resolution of the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ukraine. Prior to the vote, a high level of uncertainty about the likely makeup of the Rada - especially the election of far right (ie, Svoboda or Right Sector) or populist parties (ie, Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party) – was a major concern, as was the uncertainty over whether they might be represented in government. A new governing coalition will be instrumental in the resolution of the conflict, shaping how aggressively Ukraine pursues the rebels in the Donbas region.

Fortunately, initial exit polls today indicate reasonably positive results. The three mainstream pro-Western parties did well, with the Poroshenko bloc polling around 22.2%, the Popular Front at 21.8%, and surprise contender Samopomich, a Lviv-based moderate party, polling at 14%. These results are excellent news, as a governing coalition with no far right or populist elements should be possible. The far right party Svoboda will be represented in parliament, as will the populist Radical Party, but the latter did worse than expected, taking home only around 6% of the vote. Rounding out the major parties, Yulia Timoshenko’s Fatherland party also did worse than expected, taking just over 5% of the vote. The main surprise is the success of the Opposition Bloc, a successor to Yanokovich’s Party of Regions, which was not expected to obtain seats, but instead took around 7% of the vote.

These results are extremely preliminary, and as with pre-election polling, only give a broad national figure for how people voted. Thus, they predict the 225 seats which are allotted by proportional representation from them, but the remaining 225 seats are elected in each individual district, for which we have no exit polling data. The parties associated with Petro Poroshenko are expected to do well, but these are also likely to yield high numbers of independent candidates.  Full results are expected by Thursday morning.

Until we know the final makeup of the new Rada, as well as which parties ultimately will form the coalition government, it’s difficult to assess how the results will impact the ongoing crisis. Many citizens in Crimea and the Donbas were indeed unable to vote, disenfranchising as much as 19% of the population. The overwhelmingly pro-Western nature of the parties elected may be a double-edged sword: it will be popular with Western politicians, but it is in part a reflection of the disenfranchisement of Eastern Ukraine, and will not be truly representative. Despite this, Russian leaders appear to have accepted the results, signaling, hopefully, a willingness to work with Kiev in the future. Whether any government will be able to tackle Ukraine’s myriad problems is unclear. But while full electoral results will give us a better idea of what to expect from a new Ukrainian government, for now, the indications are reasonably positive. 

It Was Fifty Years Ago Today

Fifty years ago today, the actor Ronald Reagan gave a nationally televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater. It came to be known to Reagan fans as “The Speech” and launched his own, more successful political career.

And a very libertarian speech it was: 

This idea that government was beholden to the people, that it had no other source of power is still the newest, most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man. This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream – the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order – or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. Regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have embarked on this downward path. Plutarch warned, “The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits.”

The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose.

Video versions of the speech here.

For libertarians, Reagan had his faults. But he was an eloquent spokesman for a traditional American philosophy of individualism, self-reliance, and free enterprise at home and abroad, and words matter. They change the climate of opinion, and they inspire people trapped in illiberal societies. And these days, when people claiming the Reagan mantle push for wars or military involvement in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and other danger spots, we remember that Reagan challenged the Soviet Union mostly in the realm of ideas; he used military force only sparingly. George W. Bush, whom some call “Reagan’s true political heir,” increased federal spending by more than a trillion dollars even before the financial crisis. We watch the antigay crusading of today’s conservative Republicans and remember that Reagan publicly opposed the early antigay Briggs Initiative of 1978 (featured in the movie Milk).

And in those moments libertarians are tempted to paraphrase the theme song of All in the Family and say, “Mister, we could use a man like Ronald Reagan again.”

Would that the current assault on economic freedom would turn up another presidential candidate with Reagan’s values and talents. More on Reagan here and here. 

Federalism Doesn’t Mean That States Can Do Whatever They Want

Cato and the Constitutional Accountability Center have filed another amicus brief in a marriage case, this one challenging Louisiana’s restriction of marriage licenses to opposite-sex couples and its non-recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages. Filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit—where last month we filed in a case out of Texas—this is an appeal from the only ruling to uphold a state marriage law since the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act. (A federal judge in Puerto Rico also recently upheld that commonwealth’s law.)

Our previous briefs, including in that Texas case and also regarding the marriage laws of Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Wisconsin in the TenthFourth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits, respectively, focused on the original public meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and its guarantee of “equality under law” for all. Here, however, we focus on federalism, democracy, and why states shouldn’t automatically get judicial deference when they pass legislation.

That is, the Fourteenth Amendment significantly reworked the constitutional order such that the U.S. Constitution now protects individual liberty against state infringement (which wasn’t the case before the Civil War). When the district court held that Louisiana was free to deny loving, committed same-sex couples the freedom to marry because the state “has a legitimate interest … for addressing the meaning of marriage through the democratic process,” it empowered the people of the states to use the democratic process to oppress disfavored minorities and thus overturned the constitutional order we’ve had since 1868.