Mixed bag in Spain’s first pandemic election

MADRID — Spain’s conservative Popular Party (PP) won its fourth consecutive majority in the northwestern region of Galicia Sunday, but performed poorly in the Basque Country in the country’s first elections since the coronavirus pandemic.

National PP leader Pablo Casado had been aiming to make up for his dismal electoral record in the two regional votes, but it was a mixed result for his party: Nationalist parties dominated in the northern Basque region and Socialists held their ground in both elections.

Under candidate Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the regional leader of Galicia since 2009, the PP secured 42 seats in the 75-seat regional parliament with nearly all votes counted, one more than in the 2016 election.

Núñez Feijóo is the most prominent voice on the moderate wing of the PP, which is the main opposition force in Spain’s national parliament, and is seen as a potential rival to Casado. Therefore the results could be used by Casado’s critics to suggest he tone down his combative approach as opposition leader.

The leftist Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) more than tripled its parliamentary presence to win 19 seats and become the region’s second-biggest force. The group overtook the Socialists, who maintained their 14 seats. The left-wing Galicia en Común alliance, which is led by the far-left Podemos party and has been riven by infighting, was left without representation.

The Basque election dealt a bigger blow to the PP, which ran on an experimental joint ticket with Ciudadanos — a party that shares its strident unionism and has previously never held a seat in the region. Together the two parties won five seats, four fewer than the PP won in 2016 when running alone.

The moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) came out on top overall, slightly increasing its seat share to 31 — seven short of a majority. The party’s candidate Iñigo Urkullu has been the president of the region since 2012.

The leftist pro-independence EH Bildu won 22 seats, ensuring an increase in the overall nationalist majority. However, the PNV is expected to continue to rely on the help of the Socialists to govern. That arrangement has been reciprocated in recent months in the Spanish congress, where the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez governs in a coalition with Podemos.

The Basque Socialists made light gains, securing 10 seats. On a disastrous night for Podemos, the party’s Basque ticket won only six seats.

The far-right Vox party will make its debut in the Basque parliament with one seat.

The two ballots had been postponed from April due to the COVID-19 crisis and there were calls from local opposition leaders for voting in some areas to be delayed again. The 70,000 inhabitants of A Mariña, on Galicia’s Atlantic coast, were quarantined from Monday until Friday due to an outbreak of the coronavirus. In the Basque region, the town of Ordizia has also seen a spike in infections recently.

In both regions, voting went ahead as scheduled, with extra safety measures. However, around 250 Galicians and several dozen Basques were not allowed to vote because they had tested positive for the coronavirus recently.

Source: Politico, Mixed bag in Spain’s first pandemic election

How a former Texas truck driver founded a booming baking business

Texas baker Mark Linen studied fine arts with dreams of becoming a marketing director, but when his career in graphic design stalled, he pivoted to truck driving to pay the bills. After founding Brotha Bakes, Linen now bakes and ships hundreds of jars packed with his signature cakes, inspired by delicious childhood memories. He speaks to Michelle Miller about discovering his passion, how his business is handling the COVID-19 pandemic and his dreams for the future.

Source: CBS, How a former Texas truck driver founded a booming baking business

Corruption crisis puts Bulgarian leader on the ropes

For more than a decade, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other center-right EU leaders have never wanted to peer too deeply into how their faithful Bulgarian ally Boyko Borissov runs his country.

They will now finally have to lift the lid on his premiership. The burly former firefighter and karate champion is battling for his political survival in a Hydra-headed corruption crisis that is laying bare how unaccountable oligarchs have wrapped their tentacles around key institutions such as the judiciary.

Since Thursday night, the Balkan nation has erupted in the biggest wave of anti-government protests in seven years, with thousands of demonstrators calling for the resignation of Borissov and the country’s chief prosecutor.

In Sofia on Friday night and on the Black Sea coast on Saturday, the protesters clashed with police — and footage of police brutality is catalyzing the anti-oligarchy movement. The father of a hospitalized law student has caught particular media attention with his claims that officers beat his son unconscious with blows to the head and chest.

Bulgaria’s socialist president, Rumen Radev, has spotted his opportunity to break Borissov’s grip on the state ahead of next year’s elections and is calling on the EU to finally weigh in on the country’s poisoned legal system.

“Now that Bulgarians have taken to the squares, Europe has no right to look at Bulgaria with eyes wide shut. Europe needs a democratic Bulgaria, a Bulgaria with rule of law,” he said in an address.

Borissov insists he’s not budging. On Saturday night, he posted a barely audible Facebook video of himself standing before an icon of the Virgin Mary, in which he defended the police and styled himself as the only leader who could keep Bulgaria on a pro-EU trajectory. His target was Radev’s Socialist Party, whose own corruption scandals and links to organized crime limited Bulgaria’s access to EU funds in 2008.

“The [Bulgarian Socialist Party] will break the state,” he argued. In a peculiar aside on his public works projects and ability to secure EU funds, Borissov boasted that his GERB party had “built twice as much motorway as [Communist dictator] Todor Zhivkov.” (The claim is not as impressive as it sounds as Zhivkov’s Bulgaria was conspicuous for its lack of motorways.)

At least within his own political family in Brussels, Borissov’s center-right allies in the European People’s Party are showing no public signs of wavering. Manfred Weber, the EPP’s group leader in the European Parliament, released a statement on Friday saying that he fully supported Borissov and his government’s “fight against corruption.”

While Borissov wants to refocus the debate toward the failings of socialist politicians — easy targets who are the successors of the former Moscow-linked Communist party — that will do little to assuage increasingly broad-based anger over simultaneous scandals brewing on his watch. In an attempt to shift the blame, Borissov accuses Radev of pursuing a personal vendetta against him, and even of pursuing him with a drone.

The immediate focus of the current protests is on two powerbrokers who shun the daily limelight: Ahmed Dogan, former head of the country’s ethnic Turkish party, and his ally Delyan Peevski, a media baron. The crisis reached a fever pitch in recent days because of a debate over why the two men were entitled to protection from state security, and how they seemed to hold sway over Borissov and state prosecutors.

The trigger point came on July 7 when Hristo Ivanov, a former justice minister and leader of the anti-corruption Yes Bulgaria party, pulled off a successful video stunt by filming his landing in a rubber dingy on a Black Sea beach. While the beach is theoretically public land, Ivanov was set upon by security guards because the stretch of coast is the basecamp of Dogan.

Ivanov, who argues that Dogan and Peevski have hijacked the justice system, turned his video into a rare test of accountability of the state’s shadowy security apparatus by questioning the identity of the “anonymous gentlemen” on the beach.

It was President Radev who surprisingly intervened on July 8, to reveal the men were agents of the NSO, a national security service, and argued that Dogan and Peevski were not entitled to such protection. The scandal escalated on July 9, when the state prosecutors raided the president’s office and arrested two of his aides, in a move that the protesters see as revenge for arguing that Dogan and Peevski were not entitled to their NSO guards.

Throughout this escalating scandal, Borissov remained silent, before finally emerging to deliver a rambling monologue on Friday morning in which he sidestepped Dogan’s status, and suggested that Peevski needed NSO guards because of a sniper plot to kill him a few years earlier. Borissov was dismissive of the suggestion that the men who ejected Ivanov from the beach could have been NSO agents, and called for the avoidance of any potential ethnic tensions with the Turkish party.

Matters went from bad to worse later in the day when the NSO’s top general, who was later forced to resign, also seemed to do Dogan a favor by seeking a sea and air cordon around his beachfront headquarters.

Borissov only performed a volte-face on Saturday, after clashes in Sofia and on the Black Sea coast, by saying steps should be taken to remove NSO protection for Dogan and Peevski. They pre-empted the prime minister and said they would no longer use the guards.

In itself, Borissov’s indecisive handling of the case on the NSO agents would be inflammatory, but it comes just as he is under attack in even more bewildering — and, as yet, not fully explained — confrontations.

A casino and lottery baron called Vasil “The Skull” Bozhkov, who has fled to Dubai, is accusing Borissov of shaking him down for millions of euros — something that the Bulgarian government denies.

Last month, Borissov was also forced to give an emergency press conference over a set of photographs posted online of him asleep in bed with a gun on his bedside table, and a drawer crammed full of €500 notes and small bullion bars. While he admitted the basic image of him in bed appeared genuine (which would seem to ask major questions about his security staff), he accuses his political enemies of faking the photos showing a drawer brimming with loot. Playing up his EU credentials, Borissov casts the allegedly sham photos as part of a plot to thwarting Bulgaria’s path to the eurozone, which will be accompanied by tighter financial oversight of the banking system.

One factor that could come into play in the protests is that they come amid growing frustration with the practices of the GERB party.

Bulgarians complain that jobs in the public administration — be it as cleaners or mid-level officials — increasingly require ties to the GERB network. Companies also complain that they are asked to pay sweeteners — as was exposed in the “sausage-gate” scandal of 2017, in which the nation exploded in uproar over a GERB official being accused of extorting bribes in the form of tons of sausages.

For Borissov, the overarching threat is indeed that patience is wearing thin with his party.

Tsvetan Tsvetanov, GERB’s former No. 2 who has split off to form his own political group after being caught up in a housing scandal, has warned that half of the party’s voter base could peel away amid the current showdown.

GERB itself is accusing Radev of acting irresponsibly and is calling for calm on the streets.

“We will not allow a civil war, even if we have a chance to win it,” said Borissov’s deputy prime minister, Tomislav Donchev.

Source: Politico, Corruption crisis puts Bulgarian leader on the ropes

Poland’s Duda secures another 5 years as president: preliminary result

RZESZÓW, Poland — Incumbent Andrzej Duda has been reelected for a second term as Polish president, according to unofficial results released Monday morning by the country’s National Electoral Commission, paving the way for continued conflict between Warsaw and Brussels.

Duda’s win is a victory for the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party that backed him, which now has a clear path to continue controversial reforms of the rule of law, media freedom and abortion in Poland.

After a tight race and indecisive exit polls, Duda won 51.21 percent of the vote, while his opponent, centrist Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski of the Civic Platform party, took 48.79 percent, with 99.97 percent of polling stations reporting. The electoral commission said the votes that are yet to be counted will not affect the final result.

Duda claimed victory even before the release of the preliminary results.

“Winning the presidential election with 70 percent of turnout, it’s excellent news. I’m very moved,” Duda said Sunday evening at a campaign event in Pułtusk, a town north of Warsaw.

Trzaskowski also claimed victory on Sunday, saying: “I’m absolutely certain that nothing will beat us, because we’ve already won, regardless of the final result. We have managed to wake up, we have managed to create new hope.”

The turnout in the runoff vote was 68.12 percent, according to the commission. The final result of the vote will be announced later Monday or on Tuesday.

Duda, 48, first won the Polish presidency five years ago as a relatively unknown member of European Parliament, after promising social programs for the country’s poorest and oldest voters. This year, he built his campaign on a mix of continued generous social welfare programs leavened with a dose of protecting Poland’s national and Christian values by unleashing attacks on what he called “LGBT ideology,” as well as on Jews and Germans.

With Duda as head of state, PiS remains Poland’s dominant political power. Only the relatively powerless Senate is narrowly in the grips of the opposition, which isn’t enough to stop the party’s radical reform agenda.

During the campaign, high-level PiS officials including Duda and the party’s Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, widely considered Poland’s de-facto leader, hinted at their upcoming agenda.

It’s likely that efforts to rein in the independent media will be high on their list. State-owned television is already a mouthpiece for the ruling party, and during the campaign Duda and other politicians complained of foreign interference when media owned by foreign companies reported critical stories.

It’s also likely that the government’s five-year efforts to bring Poland’s courts under tighter political control will continue with renewed vigor — moves that have caused growing tensions with the European Commission and the European Parliament.

To mobilize his conservative electorate, Duda built an anti-LGBTQ campaign and proposed a constitutional amendment that would bar single-sex couples from adopting children. Kaczyński said he hopes the country’s Constitutional Court, controlled by PiS, will ban abortion if a fetus is irreparably damaged.

Source: Politico, Poland’s Duda secures another 5 years as president: preliminary result

Britain spends million to boost border controls with EU

Britain’s Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove on Sunday announced a £705 million funding package meant to beef up the U.K.’s border controls ahead of the country’s exit from the EU customs union at year’s end.

The package, which relates only to the external borders of England, Scotland and Wales, includes funding for new control posts meant to reinforce existing checkpoints, data infrastructure to improve the flow of traffic and people and 500 extra staff for the U.K.’s Border Force.

Additional measures aimed at addressing the end of the transition period in Northern Ireland are expected to be rolled out in the coming weeks.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Gove compared leaving the EU to “moving house” and said that “instead of being lodgers,” Britain was now “choosing a new place … where we’re in control.”

Gove argued the package would ensure that the U.K. was “ready for full independence” when the transition period concludes on January 1, and would enable Britain to have “the world’s most effective border by 2025.”

“Modernizing our border means we can introduce a migration policy that ensures we’re open to the world’s best talent,” he added.

The new package comes just days after a leaked letter from International Trade Secretary Liz Truss raised concerns about the readiness of Britain’s ports, and on the same week that the European Commission set out guidelines for businesses, governments and citizens to prepare for the end of the transition period, regardless of whether and what kind of deal is agreed between the EU and the U.K.

Source: Politico, Britain spends million to boost border controls with EU