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Can Canada avoid the economic damage that comes with a U.S.-style political split? – CBC.ca

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It Can’t Happen Here, a 1935 novel by U.S. social critic Sinclair Lewis, portrays a United States sliding into a Nazi-style autocracy.

Some modern critics have suggested Lewis’s book predicted what they currently see as a breakdown in democracy in our southern neighbour.

While most of us stand by with fingers crossed hoping the novel was a warning to be heeded rather than a prescription, the same book title might be applied to Canadians observing the current election uncertainty in the United States. Could it happen here?

Economic observers fear that even well short of the dystopia Lewis sketched, once a president — whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump — has finally been selected, the country will be so sharply divided between two opposing ideologies that it will not be run well.

Economics ‘seems to be getting political’

Christopher Cochrane, a political scientist at the University of Toronto and author of the book Left and Right: The Small World of Political Ideas, worries that by following their impulse to play to the outrage of their backers, politicians may be setting aside a long-accepted rule of good government.

“There would be a debate about economics, but it would always be about what is the best way for growing the economy,” he said in a phone interview.

But now, Cochrane said, that single-minded focus — where the economy was put on a pedestal — has been fractured into a series of other political debates that are not in the country’s economic best interests.

“Economics is no longer where it used to be as an overarching consensus,” he said. “Now it seems to be getting political in a way that it hasn’t been in recent memory.”

Hundreds of people line up outside a Kentucky Career Center hoping to find assistance with their unemployment claims in June. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to job losses and a recession that economists fear will be hard to fix while parties engage in a ‘messy blame game.’ (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

That was a concern expressed Tuesday by economist and business analyst Mohamed El-Erian, currently president of Queens’ College, Cambridge and adviser to the German financial giant Allianz.

With the U.S. facing a series of problems that need immediate attention — including a growing income gap and an economy weakening in the face of a pandemic — the country requires a focused economic policy that everyone will back. El-Erian said that is not happening.

In an article titled “A Divided Electorate Spells Trouble for the U.S. Economy,” he worries that not only will groups fight over their share of the pie, but without a clear consensus on economic direction, the entire pie will shrink.

“It will also fall short of what the two sides of the political divide believe is possible under their different approaches, fuelling a messy blame game that will further undermine the social fabric,” El-Erian wrote in the Financial Times, as Democrats and Republicans squabbled over who had actually won key states.

Can it happen here?

But for Canadians watching the political, economic and legal mess emerging in the U.S., the question remains: Can it happen here?

Jeffrey Roy, a professor in the faculty of management at Dalhousie University in Halifax, is worried that it could. Roy, who studies and advises governments on political polarization, including in the context of social media, says what the University of Toronto’s Mark Kingwell discussed in an article called “The Shout Doctrine” — where people go online to shout at their opponents — transcends the border.

“The nature of technology is certainly polarizing rhetoric and polarizing political debate,” Roy said. “It’s enabling people to go to forums in the media outlets that basically match their own values.”

Some say that so far, forums such as Twitter are not so nasty here as in the U.S., and Roy suggests that Canadian politics — while not proof against polarization — tends not to be so bitterly divided.

Roy said that when Canadian politicians such as Kevin O’Leary tried to adopt parts of the Trump-style populist message, it did not take as well here. He credits the reduced power of religion in Canadian politics, a smaller influence from wealthy donors and a greater respect for democratic values and institutions.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe makes his victory speech at a campaign event in Saskatoon on Oct. 26 after the Saskatchewan Party won its fourth consecutive majority government. Canadians seem to have greater respect for democracy. The U.S. used to have that, too. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

Ominously, however, Roy points out that respect also existed not long ago in the U.S. as well.

In his research on the historical concept of political “left” and “right,” the U of T’s Cochrane has found that the absolute location of the two poles is constantly shifting and may actually be a way of intentionally creating a division. And while the concept of “we” and “they” exists in many political systems, as observed in Britain’s Brexit debate, U.S. politics seems structured to foster it.

“The American system institutionally seems almost built for the purpose of generating polarization,” Cochrane said. “You’ve got partisan control over electoral boundaries. You’ve got partisan-affiliated Supreme Court judges. You’ve got a two-party system institutionalized right down to the level of voter registration.”

In Canada, by contrast, elections are controlled by a chief electoral officer and an electoral commission that by tradition pride themselves on being non-partisan. There may be other structures built into Canada’s multi-party parliamentary system that also help, such as the governor general, who has no party affiliation, and the auditor general and Parliamentary Budget Office, which are responsible not to a party but to all of Parliament.   

But how can Canada avoid the kind of U.S.-style political stalemate that could lead us into an economic gridlock that stops trying for consensus? At an individual level, Cochrane insists we must all be constantly on guard to avoid the kind of unbending political attitudes we have seen in the recent U.S. context.

“Things are complicated,” he said, something we must constantly remind ourselves of. “Reasonable people will see things differently.”

Voters arrive to cast their ballots at a polling station on federal election day in Shawinigan, Que., on Oct. 21, 2019. Unlike in the U.S., elections in Canada are controlled by a chief electoral officer and an electoral commission that by tradition pride themselves on being non-partisan. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

But as we’ve seen in the United States, leadership also matters.

“I think it’s extremely important that political leaders put the well-being of democracy, of the institutions, of fairness and so on ahead of their own electoral calculations,” Cochrane said.

“And I think in Canada, we have been extremely fortunate that we have had leaders that do that to a significant degree.”

Maybe, so far, we’ve just been lucky. But at least now we will have an idea of the consequences as we watch them unfold across the border.

Follow Don Pittis on Twitter: @don_pittis

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EU prepares new round of Belarus sanctions from June

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The European Union is readying a fourth round of sanctions against senior Belarus officials in response to last year’s contested presidential election and could target as many as 50 people from June, four diplomats said.

Along with the United States, Britain and Canada, the EU has already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on almost 90 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, following an August election which opponents and the West say was rigged.

Despite a months-long crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by Lukashenko, the EU’s response has been narrower than during a previous period of sanctions between 2004 and 2015, when more than 200 people were blacklisted.

The crisis has pushed 66-year-old Lukashenko back towards traditional ally Russia, which along with Ukraine and NATO member states Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, borders Belarus.

Some Western diplomats say Moscow regards Belarus as a buffer zone against NATO and has propped up Lukashenko with loans and an offer of military support.

Poland and Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fled to after the election she says she won, have led the push for more sanctions amid frustration that the measures imposed so far have had little effect.

EU foreign ministers discussed Belarus on Monday and diplomats said many more of the bloc’s 27 members now supported further sanctions, but that Brussels needed to gather sufficient evidence to provide legally solid listings.

“We are working on the next sanctions package, which I hope will be adopted in the coming weeks,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting.

The EU has sought to promote democracy and develop a market economy in Belarus, but, along with the United States, alleges that Lukashenko has remained in power by holding fraudulent elections, jailing opponents and muzzling the media.

Lukashenko, who along with Russia says the West is meddling in Belarus’ internal affairs, has sought to deflect the condemnation by imposing countersanctions on the EU and banning some EU officials from entering the country.

“The fourth package (of sanctions) is likely to come in groups (of individuals), but it will be a sizeable package,” one EU diplomat told Reuters.

More details were not immediately available.

 

(Reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin, editing by Alexander Smith)

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Belarusian President signs decree to amend emergency transfer of power

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has signed a decree allowing the transfer of presidential power to the security council if he is murdered or otherwise unable to perform his duties, state Belta news agency reported on Saturday.

Lukashenko said in April he was planning to change the way power in Belarus is set up.

Previously, if the president’s position became vacant, or he was unable to fulfil his duties, power would be transferred to the prime minister until a new president took oath.

 

(Writing by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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Scottish nationalists vow independence vote after election win

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By Russell Cheyne

GLASGOW, Scotland (Reuters) -Pro-independence parties won a majority in Scotland’s parliament on Saturday, paving the way to a high-stakes political, legal and constitutional battle with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson over the future of the United Kingdom.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the result meant she would push ahead with plans for a second independence referendum once the COVID-19 pandemic was over, adding that it would be absurd and outrageous if Johnson were to try to ignore the democratic will of the people.

“There is simply no democratic justification whatsoever for Boris Johnson, or indeed for anyone else, seeking to block the right of the people of Scotland to choose our own future,” Sturgeon said.

“It is the will of the country,” she added after her Scottish National Party (SNP) was returned for a fourth consecutive term in office.

The British government argues Johnson must give approval for any referendum and he has repeatedly made clear he would refuse. He has said it would be irresponsible to hold one now, pointing out that Scots had backed staying in the United Kingdom in a “once in a generation” poll in 2014.

The election outcome is likely to be a bitter clash between the Scottish government in Edinburgh and Johnson’s United Kingdom-wide administration in London, with Scotland’s 314-year union with England and Wales at stake.

The nationalists argue that they have democratic authority on their side; the British government say the law is with them. It is likely the final decision on a referendum will be settled in the courts.

‘IRRESPONSIBLE AND RECKLESS’

“I think a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless,” Johnson told the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Alister Jack, the UK government’s Scotland minister, said dealing with the coronavirus crisis and the vaccine rollout should be the priority.

“We must not allow ourselves to be distracted – COVID recovery must be the sole priority of Scotland’s two governments,” he said.

The SNP had been hopeful of winning an outright majority which would have strengthened their call for a secession vote but they looked set to fall one seat short of the 65 required in the 129-seat Scottish parliament, partly because of an electoral system that helps smaller parties.

Pro-union supporters argue that the SNP’s failure to get a majority has made it easier for Johnson to rebut their argument that they have a mandate for a referendum.

However, the Scottish Greens, who have promised to support a referendum, picked up eight seats, meaning overall there will be a comfortable pro-independence majority in the Scottish assembly.

Scottish politics has been diverging from other parts of the United Kingdom for some time, but Scots remain divided over holding another independence plebiscite.

However, Britain’s exit from the European Union – opposed by a majority of Scots – as well as a perception that Sturgeon’s government has handled the COVID-19 crisis well, along with antipathy to Johnson’s Conservative government in London, have all bolstered support for the independence movement.

Scots voted by 55%-45% in 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom, and polls suggest a second referendum would be too close to call.

Sturgeon said her first task was dealing with the pandemic and the SNP has indicated that a referendum is unlikely until 2023. But she said any legal challenge by Johnson’s government to a vote would show a total disregard for Scottish democracy.

“The absurdity and outrageous nature of a Westminster government potentially going to court to overturn Scottish democracy, I can’t think of a more colourful argument for Scottish independence than that myself,” she said.

(Writing by Michael Holden and Andrew MacAskill;Editing by Gareth Jones, Helen Popper, Christina Fincher and Giles Elgood)

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