Nationalist Right in Finland Makes Historic Gains

Finns went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new Parliament. The right-wing National Coalition won 20.4 percent of the vote while the left of center Social Democratic Party won 19.1 percent. However, the seats of both the parties shrank in the Parliament, with National Coalition retaining 44 of its previous 50 and Socialists holding on to 42 out of 45. The Centre Party - previously the largest party in parliament - won just 35 seats, down 16 from the last election in 2007. The big winner was the far right nationalist party, the True Finns (Perussuomalaiset in Finnish) which finished in third place with 19 percent of the vote and 39 seats in the 200 seat chamber.

Headed by Timo Soini, the True Finns were founded in 1995 out of the remnants of the Rural Party, a centre-right party that advocated for agrarian interests. In the out-going parliament, the True Finns held just six seats on 4.1 percent of the vote in 2007. The party is staunchly anti-EU, anti-immigration and is opposed to bailouts of debt-laden EU countries such as Ireland and Portugal. Unlike most other eurozone countries, the terms of Finland's ascension treaty allows the Finnish parliament to vote on whether to approve the rescue package for Portugal.

Still, the  conservative National Coalition's leader, outgoing Finance Minister Jyrki Katainen, is however almost certain to take the prime minister's office and form a government, as his party rose for the first time in history to become the largest in parliament with 44 seats.The balance of the seats were distributed among the Left Alliance which won 14 parliamentary seats, the Green League with 10, the Swedish People's Party with 9, and the Christian Democratic League with 6.

Voter turnout was 70.4 percent, marginally higher than the 67.9 percent that voted in 2007.

More from the BBC.

Around the World

News from around the globe impacting our world.

Japan Nuclear Crisis to Last Nine Months. The operator of Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant says it expects to bring the plant to "cold shutdown" by the end of the year. The story from the BBC.

The Ongoing Brutal Crackdown in Bahrain. Arrests and troop movements signal another government crackdown on protests in the Gulf state. Both The Guardian and Al Jazeera have coverage.

Cuba to Introduce Wide Reforms. Speaking at the start he first congress of Cuba's ruling Communist Party in 14 years, Cuban President Raúl Castro is calling for wide political and economic reforms. Castro said top political positions should be limited to two five-year terms, and promised "systematic rejuvenation" of the government. In terms of economic reforms, free education and healthcare would still be guaranteed, but mass subsidies of basic goods would be removed and social spending would be "rationalized". More from the BBC.

Early Returns in Nigeria Favor Incumbent. Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent president leads in Christian south while his main rival, Muhammu Buhari, is ahead in Muslim north as counting is under way. Full coverage from All Africa

World Bank President Warns of Crisis. Robert Zoellick, the President of the World Bank, is warning that the world is "one shock away from a full-blown crisis." In particular, Zoellick is worried that rising food prices pose the main threat to poor nations who risk "losing a generation". The story from the BBC.

A Hong Kong Bubble? The Asia Sentinel looks at the real estate market in Hong Kong. Hong Kong likes to lay the blame for its escalating property prices on the influx of mainland money, particularly into high-end apartments. However the latest evidence from the HK Monetary Authority suggests that Hong Kong is doing much to help the process along. Meanwhile the territory's lending institutions are helping mainland firms avoid the rather modest efforts that China has been making to rein in credit growth.

Finns Voting in Crucial Parliamentary Elections. Finns are voting today in elections that may have a deep impact on the sovereign debt crisis in Eurozone countries and for the future of the euro itself. Finland has a unicameral Parliament with 200 seats and all seats are being contested. These elections, against the backdrop of the ongoing Irish and Portuguese debt crises, have seen the rise of right wing populism in the Nordic country. The polls show that the True Finns party, led by Timo Soini, stand to gain close to 20 percent of the vote in Sunday's elections on an anti-Islam, anti-Europe platform. Der Spiegel has a preview of the Finnish elections and what's at stake in this one of the most pro-Europe countries in the EU. I'll have a wrap-up later once results are in.

The Sanya Summit

On Thursday in the coastal city of Sanya on China's Hainan island, Brazil, Russia, India, China and now joined by South Africa for the first time - the BRICS group of global emergent economies - met in their third annual summit. These economies represent 40 percent of the world's population and 20 percent of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). More importantly, these economies are growing over six percent per annum compared to negligible growth in the world's most advanced industrial economies.

At their first meeting in Brazil two years ago, the BRIC economies accounted for just over 15 percent of global GDP. By 2016, the International Monetary Fund predicts the GDP of the four largest - Brazil, Russia, India, China - will total $2.1 trillion collectively out-stripping the US economy. The BRICS group also hold 40 percent of the world's currency reserves, the majority of which is still in US dollars.

While summit dealt with a whole range of issues from Libya to climate change, the primary focus was to forge ever closer financial and trade ties. To that end, the BRICS  each represented by their head of governments - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, China's Hu Jintao, Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, Russia's Dmitry Medvedev and South Africa's Jacob Zuma - signed an agreement to use their own currencies instead of the predominant US dollar in issuing credit or grants to each other. Full text of the Sanya Declaration is available from China's Xinhua Net news service.

"Our designated banks have signed a framework agreement on financial cooperation which envisages grant of credit in local currencies and cooperation in capital markets and other financial services," Manmohan Singh told reporters at a news conference with other BRICS leaders.

While the agreement is confined to credit and not trade, it is only a matter of time before trade is settled in non-dollar denominated currencies. Take Sino-Brazilian trade. Brazil’s imports from China have gone from $1.2 billion in 2000, to $5.3 billion in 2005, to $25.5 billion in 2010 - mostly Chinese manufactured good such as cell phones and televisions. Brazilian exports to China have gone from $1 billion in 2000, to $6.8 billion in 2005, to $30.7 billion in 2010. Over 80 percent of Brazilian exports to China are one of three things: iron, soy, or oil.

While Indian Prime Minister Singh, Russian President Medvedev and South African President Jacob Zuma all headed home or went on to other destinations, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is spending five more days in China this week to concentrate on trade talks. As Al Jazeera notes there is concern in Brazil if exporting iron and soy (which is major cause of Amazon deforestation) to China while importing billions of dollars in low-cost Chinese manufactured goods (that would be putting Brazilians out of work) is really the kind of healthy trade relationship Brazil wants with China.

From the Brazilian point of view, there is an increasing worry that Brazil is being pigeonholed as just another commodity supplier to China. The proportion of raw materials within Brazilian exports has grown from 29 percent in 2002 to 41 percent in 2009. Furthermore, Brazil’s manufacturing sector is suffering from Chinese competition. While Brazil does run an overall trade surplus, the country which had been used to running a deficit in manufacturing goods of several hundred million dollars a year has now seen that gap grow to $23.5 billion dollars in 2010. Brazilian imports of Chinese manufacturing goods reportedly lost 70,000 Brazilian jobs in 2010, and a slower GDP growth is forecast in 2011 partly due to Chinese manufactured goods replacing Brazilian domestic goods. In sum, more than 80 percent of Brazilian manufactured exports are being adversely affected. Coupled with China’s undervaluing of the yuan, occurring alongside the sharp appreciation of Brazil’s real, has put Brazilian goods at a massive disadvantage in terms of price.

The Economist Intelligence Unit reports:

Accompanied by a large contingent of Brazilian businessmen and officials, President Rousseff was clear in her message to her Chinese hosts: she wants a “qualitative jump” in what Brazil sells to the Asian powerhouse, with a major increase in value-added and processed goods. The government also wants Chinese investment in Brazil to be more diversified, to include not just extractive industries but also high-tech manufacturing.

There is a major caveat that must be noted, there is reason for concern that the Chinese economy may be in danger of overheating. Numerous economists are already warning of Chinese bubble in real estate and infrastructure. Should China's economy catch cold, much of the emerging market economies that are commodity exporters to China will simply buckle under.

In Florida, the GOP Moves to Disenfranchise Voters

In Florida, the Republican controlled state legislature wants to overhaul election laws in ways critics say would disenfranchise voters and extend the dominance of the GOP in the state.

This latest onslaught to disenfranchise voters comes after Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott rescinded the rules allowing for automatic restoration of voting rights of tens of thousands of convicted nonviolent felons in the state, a move that critics say smacks of a return to Jim Crow-era laws in the Sunshine State since felons tend to be disproportionately members of minority groups.

Under the new rules established in March, Florida felons will have to wait a minimum of five years after they’ve served their sentences to apply for the right to vote. More serious offenders would have to wait seven years. Florida now joins Kentucky, Virginia and Iowa as the only states that deny felons automatic restoration of their rights to vote in elections after having served their sentences.

But now the state legislature is pushing a bill to cut early voting time by half, to make it harder for grass roots groups to register voters and to require people to vote provisionally if they moved since the last time they voted — a change elections supervisors say would affect the young and the poor the most. Both groups are traditionally Democratic voters. Republicans argue that move is needed to save money.

The story in the Miami Herald:

The 140-page Senate elections amendment was sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who chairs the Rules Committee and is the immediate past chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, defended the bill as voter-friendly, noting that it makes it easier for voters to request absentee ballots. But the proposed changes drew fire from election supervisors as well as the League of Women Voters, which successfully sued the state to block a previous round of restrictions on third-party voter registration efforts.

“We would hope to avoid going back to court,” said Ben Wilcox of the League of Women Voters. “We believe that citizens should be active, engaged, and informed participants in democracy.”

The bill also would push back the primary election by one week to Sept. 4, the day after the three-day Labor Day weekend holiday. Supporters said the change is needed so that the election won’t conflict with the Republican National Convention in Tampa, scheduled the previous week. Moving the primary would allow fundraising to continue during the GOP convention.

The bill would force voters who do not go to the correct precincts to cast provisional ballots — which are only counted in some cases. Since 1973, Florida has allowed voters to update their address at a polling place.

Elections supervisors oppose a provision that allows Secretary of State Kurt Browning, an appointee of Gov. Rick Scott, to issue written orders to supervisors, who are elected constitutional officers.

But what drew the most heat Friday was the Senate’s insistence that early voting be curtailed from two weeks to one. A surge in early voting was widely cited as a major factor in Obama’s 2008 victory in Florida, and then-Gov. Charlie Crist extended early voting hours because of long lines at early voting centers.

“Generally, early voting in Miami-Dade County has not been very efficient,” Diaz de la Portilla said. “What you see more often than not is that there is a trickle of two or three people a day at a very high cost to keep those public libraries and polls open. … We felt it was an efficiency measure.”

Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Aventura, said the crush of early voters in the last presidential election showed that two weeks of early voting is not enough. She called the bill a “Machiavellian” act by Republicans.

“It will disenfranchise and really anger a lot of people who are standing in line,” Margolis said. “I just think that it’s a very, very bad thing to do.”

 

There's more...

The Candid Obama

Via CBS News:

In what he thought was a private chat with campaign donors Thursday evening, President Obama offered the most revealing behind-the-scenes account to date of his budget negotiations with GOP leaders last week.

CBS Radio News White House correspondent Mark Knoller listened in to an audio feed of Mr. Obama's conversation with donors after other reporters traveling with the president had left the room.

In the candid remarks, Mr. Obama complains of Republican attempts to attach measures to the budget bill which would have effectively killed parts of his hard-won health care reform program.

"I said, 'You want to repeal health care? Go at it. We'll have that debate. You're not going to be able to do that by nickel-and-diming me in the budget. You think we're stupid?'" recalled the president of his closed-door negotiations on the bill to fund the federal government until September. 

Mr. Obama said he told House Speaker John Boehner and members of his staff that he'd spent a year and a half getting the sweeping health care legislation passed -- paying "significant political costs" along the way -- and wouldn't let them undo it in a six-month spending bill.

"When Paul Ryan says his priority is to make sure, he's just being America's accountant ... This is the same guy that voted for two wars that were unpaid for, voted for the Bush tax cuts that were unpaid for, voted for the prescription drug bill that cost as much as my health care bill -- but wasn't paid for," Mr. Obama told his supporters. "So it's not on the level."

We would all be better served if President Obama were this candid more often and not reserve such insights for those who can afford tens of thousands of dollars for a dinner with the President. No doubt, it is, nonetheless, very refreshing to hear what the President really thinks.

The Rise of Donald Trump

I've tried to avoid writing about Donald Trump but that has become increasingly harder to do as his numbers climb in the polls, numbers matched perhaps only by the sheer madness of it all. With a new poll out today from Public Policy Polling (PPP) now showing the irascible tycoon with a nine point lead over his nearest would be rival, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Trump's rise in the polls is impossible to ignore.

Still in looking at the PPP poll, Trump's lead isn't what surprises me the most but more on that in a moment. Trump has a name recognition advantage over his rivals for one and the media-craven self-annointed maven has over the past few weeks benefitted from appearances on The View, the Today Show not mention just about every time slot on Fox News as well as from rather public feuds with Gail Collins of the New York Times and Juli Weiner of Vanity Fair

Each of these episodes have, in turn, had a multiplier effect with each new outrageous statement being assiduously rebroadcast across every medium imaginable. Never one to shy from publicity, Donald Trump has basked in the glory of his own self-adulation reveling in every word uttered by admirers and detractors alike. There is no greater cause to Donald Trump than Donald Trump and in his mind there is no such thing as bad publicity even as he writes his own political obituary. 

The question now is whether this rise in the polls will lead our narcissist-in-chief to put his money where his mouth is and actually run for commander-in-chief. Stay tuned. If he does run, Donald Trump will convert the Greek tragedy that is today's GOP Presidential field into a full blown Roman farce.

The PPP numbers in all their farcical proportions:

Only 38% of Republican primary voters say they're willing to support a candidate for President next year who firmly rejects the birther theory and those folks want Mitt Romney to be their nominee for President next year. With the other 62% of Republicans- 23% of whom say they are only willing to vote for a birther and 39% of whom are not sure- Donald Trump is cleaning up. And as a result Trump's ridden the controversy about Barack Obama's place of birth to the highest level of support we've found for anyone in our national GOP polling so far in 2011.

Trump's broken the perpetual gridlock we've found at the top of the Republican field, getting 26% to 17% for Mike Huckabee, 15% for Romney, 11% for Newt Gingrich, 8% for Sarah Palin, 5% for Ron Paul, and 4% for Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty.

The number that jumps out at me is that 23 percent of Republican primary voters are only willing to vote for a birther. That's just insane but it speaks to level of insanity that has beset the GOP. What began as a fringe theory pushed by avowed racists which certain elements in the GOP chose to countenance for their short-term political gain now threatens to drive the Republican party off a cliff causing long-term political damage.

That 23 percent number is not only bound to keep Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty up at night but also Karl Rove and Reince Priebus. It would be nice to think that this is only a GOP nightmare developing but frankly it doesn't serve the country to have a quarter of Republican voters to be so profoundly delusional.

Still, I've had the misfortune of actually listening through some of these interviews and it's not difficult to see why Trump appeals in these uncertain times. He's not much for subtlety or nuance. In a country that has always been looking for the next Teddy Roosevelt to charge up Capitol Hill and take no prisoners, Trump plays to the under-educated, over-zealous, often xenophobic hyper-nationalist crowd. He is unapologetically the voice of the America First crowd.

His economic creed is that of right-wing populist that plays on the fears of a working class that has seen their living standards decimated by globalization and free trade deals gone awry. On Libya, he's only interested in removing Qaddafi if we can grab their oil. On Iraq and Iran, he is just as blunt suggesting on his brand new “Mondays with Trump” segment of Fox & Friends that American soldiers will have died in vain if we leave Iraq and let Iran go and take the oil fields.

There's more...

Chaos in the House over Ryan or Ryan on Steroids

The United States House of Representatives descended into chaos as Democrats refused to provide political cover to conservative GOP members over a proposal by conservative Republicans to make deeper cuts to spending and tax rates than those proposed in the official Republican budget, Rep. Paul Ryan's Path to Perdition. In last minute maneuvering by the Democratic leadership, the Democrats changed their votes from no to present sending the GOP leadership into full panic mode.

The Democrats had sought to hang an albatross around the necks of the GOP by having the House pass the Tea Party backed Republican Study Committee's (RSC) budget alternative which House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland termed "Ryan of Steroids." With 176 Democrats switching their votes from no to present, the Republican Study Committee's (RSC) budget alternative, which envisions even deeper tax cuts for the wealthy and more draconian spending cut including severe entitlement rollbacks, suddenly had a majority of GOP votes forcing the GOP leadership to find members to quickly switch their yes votes to no votes.

In the end, the RSC budget went down by a small margin, 119-136.

From The Hill:

In a chaotic scene filled with shouting more typical of that which takes place in the British Parliament, the Republican Study Committee's (RSC) alternative to Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) 2012 budget went down in a 119-136 vote.

It was gaveled shut only after Democratic leaders started pushing members to switch their "no" votes to "present," in order to force a face-off between conservatives and the Republican leadership. A total of 176 lawmakers voted "present."

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on Twitter:

"Dems voting present on RSC budget to highlight GOP divisions, plans to end Medicare - which bdgt does GOP support? Ryan or Ryan on steroids?"

Hoyer and Ryan could both be observed yelling on the House floor, with Hoyer shouting to his members to vote present and Ryan shouting for the vote to be gaveled closed.

Members of the Republican leadership flipped their votes in the closing moments of the proposal to help fell the proposal. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) switched her vote from yes to no at the last minute, as did Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Rules Committee.

There was last-minute drama in the vote over the conservative proposal, as a number of liberal Democrats flipped their votes from "no" to "present." Lawmakers loudly protested as Republicans tried to gavel the vote shut before more votes could be switched.

By refusing to provide political cover to extremists, the Democrats have exposed deep fissures in the GOP. For a number of Republicans being forced to vote against the Ryan on Steroids budget all but ensures primary challenges from the Tea Party wing of the GOP. Kudos to Steny Hoyer and the Democrats for a well-played parliamentary maneuver. 

The Huffington Post has the video:

Around the World

News from the globe impacting our world.

World Bank Chief Warns of Global Food Inflation. World Bank President Robert Zoellick on Thursday warned of rising food inflation and high oil prices risks to world growth, as they threaten to push more people into poverty. "We are at a tipping point in terms of food prices," Zoellick said in a press conference at the opening of the spring meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund here. Zoellick also cited high sovereign debts in advanced countries as another risk to the world's economic outlook. Zoellick urged the Group of 20 industrialized and emerging nations, which is gathering on the sidelines of the IMF and World Bank meetings, to work on ways to limit food price volatility.

Chinese Inflation Rising. Data released Friday showed that Chinese consumer prices rose 5.4 percent over a year ago, driven by surging food costs. That's up from February's 4.9 percent increase and was a setback for communist leaders who have boosted interest rates four times since October and taken other steps to cool prices. Chinese inflation is now at a thirty-three month high. The country’s gross domestic product rose 9.7 percent from a year earlier in the first quarter, data released Friday by the National Bureau of Statistics show, down marginally from the 9.8 percent expansion reported in the fourth quarter of 2010. More reaction from the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, Dr. Vikram Mansharamani of Yale University warns in the Asia Sentinel of a bubble economy developing in China.

From a macroeconomic perspective, most asset bubbles are associated with "easy" or cheap money that drives overinvestment and overconsumption. Evidence of such easy money can be found in Chinese commercial real estate, where both entire cities – like Kangbashi, in Inner Mongolia – as well as gigantic malls remain virtually empty. Time magazine profiled Kangbashi as a modern "ghost town," and foreign newspapers have referred to the South China Mall in Dongguan as the "mall of misfortune." Despite a 95-plus percent vacancy rate six years into its opening, the solution proposed by the mall's management is as disturbing as its existence: an expansion of approximately 200,000 square meters.

An Army Mutiny in Burkina Faso. Blaise Compaore, president of Burkina Faso, has reportedly fled Ouagadougou as a mutiny among his military bodyguards spread through barracks at the presidential compound and other army bases. Burkina Faso has recently been hit by unrest. On April 8, people took to the streets of Ouagadougou to protest soaring prices of basic foods. In March, students torched government buildings in several cities after a young man's death in custody. More from Al Jazeera.

Opposition Leader Shot in Uganda as Army Moves to Quell Protests. Days after arresting three prominent opposition leaders, Uganda’s opposition leader Kizza Besigye was shot in the arm as soldiers moved to quell riots over high living costs. It was the second day of a walk-to-work protest to symbolise the hardship encountered by Ugandans in paying for transport costs. Uganda People’s Defence Force soldiers took over from the police to crush the demonstration. More from All Africa.

GOP Invites Israeli PM to Speak. The Israeli daily Haaretz is reporting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will give a Mideast peace policy speech in front of U.S. Congress in late May. The office of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner confirmed the report, saying Boehner's will invite Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress during a visit to Washington next month. When did Boehner become Secretary of State?

Irish Credit Downgrade. Moody's downgrades Irish sovereign debt rating two grades to Baa3 and warns of more austerity measures as euro value falls. The story in The Guardian.

Robert Fisk on The Arab Awakening. Noted journalist and Middle East expert Robert Fisk writes in The Independent on the roiling Arab protests of 2011. He notes that "the "Arab awakening" began not in Tunisia this year, but in Lebanon in 2005 when, appalled by the assassination of ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese of all faiths gathered in central Beirut to demand the withdrawal of Syria's 20,000 soldiers in the country."

Don't Know Much About . . .

well, anything.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Republican Presidential field for 2012, a bunch of regressive, know nothing ignoramuses.

The parody of Sam Cooke's Wonderful World is from Sad n Mad Productions.

What a United States Senator Sounds Like

Kudos to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and the women of the Senate Democratic caucus who took to the Senate floor on Wednesday to rise in defense of reproductive rights. You also got to love the not so subtle dig at Arizona Senator Jon Kyl for his gross indecency for claiming on the Senate floor that "well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does" was provide abortions when the actual number is just three percent. Senator Kyl's office later and laughably issued a statement that Senator Kyl had not intended his remarks to be a factual statement.

Here is Senator Gillibrand's astute and well placed jab:

For my friends and colleagues, this is a factual statement. Current law already prevents federal money from paying for abortions. This has been the law of the land for over 30 years. Shutting down the government for a political argument is not only outrageous, it is irresponsible. The price for keeping the government open is this assault on women's rights.

The New York Observer writes that "Gillibrand seems to have gotten a little more aggressive over the past few months, emboldened maybe by having been elected to the upper chamber, but more likely just stirred up by the Republican House, which has made a particular point of going after women's issues." Whatever the reason, Senator Gillibrand's voice is a welcomed arrival on the national scene. She is everything a United States Senator should be: smart, passionate yet measured, focused on issues of human dignity, and above all factual. I have always held that when we stick to the facts we win. The Democrats have a winner in Kirsten Gillibrand.

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