Sweden, an election with no simple narrative

Swedish voters went to the polls Sunday in an election that had been hyped, particularly by English-language media, as a major coming victory for the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats. Apart from the Bavarian election in mid-October, Sweden is perhaps the biggest remaining test for a far-right party in 2018.

Ultimately, the Sweden Democrats underperformed those sky-high expectations: they won 17.6 percent of the vote, still a significant increase over last time but nowhere near the 24 percent some polls suggested they would win. For my first piece in The Los Angeles Times, I broke down the results and put Sweden’s election into the context of broader European political trends.

For The Atlantic, I looked at Swedish social democracy as a beacon of hope for other center-left parties across Europe—and this sense among Social Democrats leaders and staffers that they need to modernize the movement’s aims and messaging for the post-2008 era. I traveled to Enköping, a city about 40 miles outside of Stockholm, to watch Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez campaign with Sweden’s Stefan Löfven.

And while the pre-election hype for the Sweden Democrats was clearly overblown, I wrote for Foreign Policy that in a way, the party still did win the election. It posted the biggest gains of any party, it set the agenda for campaign-trail topics of discussion and its vote share will likely frustrate efforts of either major coalition to build a government.

Now that I’ve finished up in Sweden, I’m spending six days in Bosnia to learn about the (very complicated) system of government ahead of Oct. 7 elections here. After that, I’ll spend a few days in Vienna reporting on the state of Sebastian Kurz’s government nearly a year after the Austrian election. Quite the busy fall here!

Campaign posters in downtown Stockholm

How to interview the far right

What happens when you do a primetime interview with a far-right politician … but don’t actually ask them about refugee issues?

For The Atlantic yesterday, I looked at one such interview: German broadcaster ZDF sat down with Alexander Gauland, the co-leader of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), and asked him about everything but immigration. On retirement, climate change and digitalization, among others, Gauland struggled to explain his party’s positions—often stating that he had no actual answer to give.

That interview, which aired Sunday evening in Germany, is a study in contrasts with the way the American media handled the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Washington the same day: news organizations sent a collective horde of journalists down to cover what ultimately ended up being just a few dozen rally-goers.

We as an industry—on both sides of the Atlantic—have struggled to figure out how to cover the far right. When they get into parliaments or governments, their actions and issues are inherently newsworthy; however, overemphasizing or sensationalizing such news also runs the risk of tacitly helping such parties reinforce their rhetoric.

ZDF’s Gauland interview falls into one school of thought on dealing with the far right: treat them the same as you would any other politician, and if they fail to produce substantive answers it’s on them. “These should be questions that should be easy to answer for any political leader, because they are so important for the future of Germany,” University of Kiel political scientist Marcel Dirsus told me. “The AfD wants to talk about refugees because this is where they can score points, but they clearly don’t have answers on any of the other topics.”

Cambodia and the state of press freedom in southeast Asia

Sunday is election day in Cambodia, but it didn’t really feel like campaign season when I spent a week there earlier this month. That’s in large part because there is next to no independent media remaining in the country to cover the election.

But the descent was rapid: beginning last August, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government shut down more than 30 radio stations, delivered a tax bill to one of the English-language dailies that forced it to shut down, and dissolved the main opposition party. The other major English-language newspaper was bought earlier this year by a Malaysian businessman with ties to the Cambodian government, and now reporters’ stories get spiked or edited to toe the company line.

Reporting across southeast Asia for a month showed me how lucky I am to live and report in Germany; though reporters face challenges across the globe these days, journalists in southeast Asia have it especially tough.

My piece from Phnom Penh, which also includes reporting from my time in Malaysia and the Philippines, is up with The Atlantic today. Read it here.

A billboard for Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) in Phnom Penh, one of many on display across the country

The aftermath of Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘stupid God’ comments

A few weeks ago, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte — known for his outspoken and often offensive rhetoric — made waves when he publicly referred to God as “stupid” and a “son of a bitch.”

This would have been indelicate for any country’s leader to do, but it was walking into a minefield in the Philippines, a deeply religious country in which more than 80 percent of the population of 100 million is Catholic.

Though Duterte’s approval ratings have remained sky-high throughout his first two years in office, the “God” snafu was the first comment of his that seemed to truly resonate among the electorate — and could ultimately have a broader effect on the political atmosphere in the Philippines ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

As part of my Jefferson Fellowship, I and 10 other journalists spent five days reporting in Manila, meeting with everyone from government officials to human rights advocates to university students. These “God” comments were the jumping-off point for two of my stories: the first one on the relationship between Duterte and the Catholic Church for Foreign Policy, which you can read here. The second was on the Philippine vice president, Leni Robredo, and how Duterte’s recent scandals have given her an opening to step up and more vocally oppose Duterte’s policies; you can read that, for the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, here.

I’ve been back in Berlin for about a week now, and the rest of my stories from the trip will go online shortly. The rest of my stories from Asia should be publishing this week and next week, and then I’ll turn my attention back to German and European politics (which have not exactly been quiet in my absence).

The Manila Cathedral, in the city’s historic Intramuros district

Exploring populism and the state of democracy in southeast Asia

Greetings from Singapore!

After more than a year of focusing exclusively on European politics, I’m temporarily changing gears: through a 2018 Jefferson Fellowship from the East-West Center, I and ten other American and Asian journalists are spending three weeks reporting on populism and the state of democracy in Southeast Asia.

After starting this week in Singapore, we’ll go on to Manila to learn about Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his brutal drug war; we’ll then continue to Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia to report on the post-election political situation and ethnic politics.

Our first week of the fellowship was spent at the East-West Center’s offices in Honolulu — hardship assignment, I know — where we all compared notes about how populism and identity politics are manifesting themselves in our home countries. What was clear from the other fellows’ presentations — besides the four Americans, we have fellows from the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, India, China and New Zealand — is that populism is alive and well in this region as well. I’m excited to get to work learning about these issues in a new region and drawing parallels with what’s happening in Europe. (I’m also hoping the German government doesn’t collapse while I’m away, but that’s another story…)

For more about the fellowship program, see here. I’ll post my coverage along the way!

Some of this year’s Jefferson Fellowship cohort on Waikiki Beach

Bavarian election season and die deutsche Regierungskrise

So much for German politics being boring!

The last year has proven that stereotype wrong many times over, with the AfD’s elections and Merkel’s drawn-out coalition-building process. But the last few days have been especially dramatic: Horst Seehofer and his Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, are in an all-out revolt over the implementation of stricter refugee measures.

Seehofer and his party — along with some in the CDU and other parties — want to allow German states to turn back asylum-seekers at the border; Merkel, by contrast, says unilateral action will cause a domino effect across the Continent, and that Germany needs to wait and come up with a broader European solution. Should neither side back down, Monday could bring the downfall of Merkel’s government — and potentially even of Merkel herself.

Why now? There’s a simple answer: it’s election season in Bavaria, and the CSU is terrified of losing its absolute parliamentary majority because of the rising electoral strength of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). I had already been working on a piece about the CSU’s pre-election shift to the right, which combines a hardline immigration policy with an aggressive focus on Bavarian “identity” and “values,” so that reporting fit in well with what’s happening in Berlin: I spent some time in upper Franconia, the northern region of Bavaria, talking to local activists and watching Bavarian Premier Markus Söder pitch himself and his party to supporters.

Read my piece here, for Foreign Policy. I’ve got one or two other Germany things in the works, then will be heading further afield for a few weeks… more on that soon!

Markus Söder at a CSU event in Dettelbach, Germany

When French political upstarts become the new establishment

It’s a bit hard for me to believe that the French election, the first of the European elections I’ve covered, was now more than a year ago. But one thing I’ve realized is that, just as it’s important to cover these campaigns and candidates during election season, it’s equally important to come back and understand how they’re faring once they actually take office.

So I went back to Paris to look at En Marche these days, and to understand how such a movement can transition its role when all of its leaders have effectively become the new French political establishment. When I was there, they were in the midst of a nationwide door-to-door campaign called the Grande Marche Pour L’Europe; I went along with a few of the volunteer teams in Paris and spent some time with members and leaders of En Marche (now officially rebranded as La République En Marche, or “the Republic on the move”).

It was clear this challenge had occurred to every one of the En Marche officials or volunteers I spoke with: they all realized the challenge they faced and had ideas for how to solve it. But to a certain extent, there are some inherent contradictions in Macron’s upstart movement — and I looked at how they’re trying to maintain their image as a grassroots-driven, bottom-up organization at a time when their former leader is running a very top-down administration in France.

You can read the piece, for The Atlantic, here. With my Bosch fellowship coming to a close, I’ll be staying put in Berlin and doing some Germany-related reporting for the next few weeks — and will have more on my next steps soon as well.

Inside En Marche’s Paris headquarters

Hungary’s election: Defeating Orbán, and the reinvention of the Hungarian far right

Voting is underway in Hungary, where today’s parliamentary elections will determine whether Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party will get another four years in power. It’s seen as a bellwether for more than just the direction of Hungary: given Orbán’s authoritarian tendencies and efforts to weaken democratic institutions in the country, today’s results will likely be extrapolated to draw conclusions about the future of right-wing populism and democracy across Europe.

With this in mind, I spent five days in Budapest late last month talking to party members and political types about the election, trying to make sense of Hungary’s complicated party politics and political system.

For The Atlantic, I looked at how a late February mayoral race in Hódmezővásárhely gave Hungary’s fractured opposition hope that they could unite and actually defeat Orbán. As I learned, that’s far easier said than done—and the wide ideological range of the parties in question, let alone intra-party infighting and the new electoral law, mean this full-scale cooperation never materialized.

Given my interest in far-right parties across Europe, I also wrote about the explicit and long-term shift that the far-right Jobbik has undertaken since 2013. More than just trying to expel unsavory elements and appeal to a broader base, they now describe themselves as a centrist “people’s party.” Tonally, it’s clear they’ve changed—but what’s still unclear is how sincere they are under the surface. I wrote about Jobbik in English for Foreign Policy and auf Deutsch for Tagesspiegel.

Sunset over the Danube in Budapest, with the Hungarian parliament building on the left

Austria’s smoking ban and the far-right Freedom Party

Late last month, I went to Austria to do some reporting on the-far right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and its role in the new Austrian government. (Back in December, the FPÖ became the junior coalition partner for the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), led by Sebastian Kurz.)

What I came away with was a story about the controversy over a proposed smoking ban in Austrian restaurants and coffeehouses, which was slated to take effect in May but which the FPÖ insisted (as a condition of their participation in the government) be thrown out. A resulting petition, started by doctors and cancer prevention organizations but embraced by opposition parties, has garnered more than half a million signatures and serves as perhaps the main way people are registering their displeasure at the FPÖ in government.

Every person I talked to pointed out that smoking in restaurants is a quirk of Austrian culture that outsiders can’t fully grasp: “In Austria, the question of smoking in restaurants can quickly get very emotional,” one person told me (as we met in a cafe, surrounded by a cloud of smoke). In fact, “Viennese coffeehouse culture” was added to UNESCO’s list of “intangible cultural heritage” back in 2011.

You can read the piece here, on Politico Europe. (And below, enjoy photographic proof that I fully sampled Austria’s restaurant and coffeehouse culture…)

Figlmüller, where schnitzel is larger than one’s plate
Chocolate truffle cake and tea at Demel Bakery