Trump is no standard strongman candidate
Carl-Johan Karlsson


PARIS — Every aspiring strongman must fulfill a number of prerequisites. He should be skilled at demonizing his opponents and intimidating his allies, manipulating the media and restricting free speech — all the while mixing different doses of serial lying, fear-mongering and nationalism to rile up the masses.

But, of course, the long-term success of all such endeavors hinges on the aspirant's ability to hold onto power. And so as Donald Trump has spent the last four years sliding toward "American strongman" status, he now faces his final exam.

And so far so good. Clearly losing at the polls to Joe Biden is a detail, as the incumbent has doubled down on his pre-election prediction of a rigged election; he has skipped the concession speech and bullied other Republicans into refusing to congratulate the winner; he's taking legal action to challenge the election results; and, he's now — with 68 days left of his presidency — stacking the Pentagon and the National Security Agency with loyalists.

All by the book. But still, as the so-called Leader of the Free World, Trump is no standard strongman candidate. Autocrats and democrats alike are watching closely. Indeed, there isn't really a precedent for how to become (or dispose of) an aspiring authoritarian ruler in the U.S. For Trump's opposition, it complicates the question: How do we kick him out?

Ibrahim understands the importance of putting emphasis on the "leaving" part.

One person who might have an idea is Mo Ibrahim. The Sudanese-British billionaire runs a foundation that awards the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The prize offers a $5-million payout, followed by a lifetime annual $200,000 installation thereafter, to a former African head of state who has worked to strengthen democracy, and — most importantly on a continent with a history of power-clinging — who has left office with a graceful, democratic transfer of power.

Mo Ibrahim runs a foundation to encourage democratic transitions of power — Photo: Imago/ZUMA

The 74-year-old Ibrahim understands the importance of putting emphasis on the "leaving" part: Africa has seen more than 2,000 country-years of dictatorship in the last seven decades, according to the calculation of a Princeton University study. Among more recent examples, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh refused to step down after losing his bid for a fifth term in 2016, eventually leading to an intervention by several West African countries to force him out.

Ivory Coast is again facing an over-extended reign, as President Alassane Ouattara just won election to a third term, even though the nation has a two-term limit. Trump may be shooting for something more along the lines of Robert Mugabe who, during 37 years as Zimbabwe's ruler — claiming contested victories in popular votes in 1990, 1996, 2002, 2008, and 2013 — became a billionaire by looting his own country.

Mo Ibrahim knows the math. His prize was not established to convince the natural-born strongmen that the payoff was a better deal, but to serve as an example for future African leaders that democratic institutions have their own value. And Trump? Sure, he likes a quick buck — but he's also done his math. That leaves it to the rest of the country, starting with other Republicans, to bet on democracy.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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