Even Autocrats Get Headaches

Your Tuesday author has written about the sharp drop in Vladimir Putin’s approval numbers following unpopular changes announced to Russia’s pension system. That story made news again this week with a new poll that gives United Russia, a party distinguished only by slavish devotion to Putin, an approval rating of just 37 percent. That’s their lowest point since 2011.


Putin isn’t the only autocrat with a headache. After an historic consolidation of power over the past year, one made possible by purges of rivals and a surge in state censorship, President Xi Jinping has established a degree of political dominance not seen in China since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. But Xi is now grappling with two main sources of anxiety and anger.

The near-term problem is a public health crisis. A party that holds a monopoly on power assumes direct responsibility for the security and wellbeing of its citizens. In years past, China’s people have fallen victim to unsafe food and medicine, and last month a government investigation and news reports revealed that a major Chinese drug company produced at least 250,000 doses of vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough that didn’t meet safety standards. This is China’s third vaccine scandal in eight years. Protests erupted on social media and on the streets of Chinese cities.

The long-term challenge centers on growing economic anxiety. China’s economy has been slowing for years, in part by design, as the leadership shifts from heavy reliance on exports to a model fueled by the spending of Chinese consumers. It hasn’t been a smooth process, and the state has recently had to inject more than $100 billion to keep the economy moving at a healthy pace.

A growing trade war with the US has only added to unease about the future. President Trump again raised the stakes this week with threats to impose 25 percent tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese exports to the US.

Last October, as presidential term limits were lifted, and a twice per decade Communist Party congress became a kind of coronation, Xi proclaimed a new era for China, one in which his rising nation need no longer hide its strength and surging self-confidence. Yet, if China’s economic worries continue to grow, some will blame Xi and this triumphalist message for provoking an unnecessary confrontation with the US and others.

Let’s be clear: Xi and Putin have plenty of power in reserve. Neither is in imminent danger. But both must fear that, over time, emboldened critics may limit their ability to take unpopular but necessary steps for the long-term health of their countries.

Legislators in 8 US states have recently passed laws to limit abortions, thrusting the contentious issue into the center of the country's political debate ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The bills are intended, in part, to force the US Supreme Court to revisit its landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision, which gave women the right to choose to terminate pregnancy. Here's a look at how other countries around the world regulate abortion at the national level, as well as a region-by-region snapshot of how prevalent the practice is today, compared to 30 years ago.

Last week, as trade tensions continued to rise between China and the US, the Trump administration landed one of the heaviest blows yet on Beijing, moving to severely restrict the Chinese tech and telecoms giant Huawei's ability to do business with American firms.

What happened? Two things: The Trump administration formally banned sales of Huawei telecoms equipment in the US. More importantly, it also prohibited American firms from selling their technology to Huawei without a special license.

Why? It's complicated. Technically, Huawei was blacklisted from acquiring US technology due to alleged violations of US sanctions against Iran. But the US is also concerned that Huawei could allow Beijing to spy on or disrupt data flowing across the next-generation 5G data networks of the US or its allies. President Trump may also believe the moves will give him extra leverage in his broader fight with Beijing over trade and technology.

The fallout is already starting to hit. Here's where:

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An Austrian politician got drunk with a Russian woman in Ibiza a few years ago and said some things that have now broken up his country's government.

That's right, over the weekend the German press released a video secretly recorded on the Spanish resort island just before Austria's 2017 elections, in which Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), tells a woman posing as the niece of a Kremlin-connected Russian oligarch that if she donates money to his party, she'll get lucrative government contracts.

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Direct(ed) Democracy In Russia – After thousands of people protested the construction of a new cathedral in a nice park in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth largest city, President Putin weighed in to stop construction until a popular referendum can be held. What does that tell us? Well, for one thing, Putin is probably a little more sensitive to public unrest after seeing his approval rating pummeled by a botched pension reform last year. But more to the point, this is a nice illustration of how democracy works in Russia: the new tsar orders accountability to happen when and where it suits his interests.

The Size of Modi's Election Victory – Eight different exit polls released over the weekend show Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP party comfortably ahead in the country's 6-week national election. Voting ended on Sunday, with final results due on Thursday. How big will the BJP's margin be? In 2014, the party won the first outright parliamentary majority in India in 30 years, but after mixed economic results and rising concerns about sectarian tensions, the BJP went into this election on shakier ground. We're watching to see if Modi heads into his second 5-year term emboldened with another majority, or if he's forced to cobble together an unwieldy coalition of parties in order to govern.

What We're Ignoring: Cash for Peace and a Southern Switcheroo

The Deal of the Millennium – President Trump has a plan to secure peace between Israel and Palestine. That plan is: buy it. The administration announced over the weekend that it will hold a "economic workshop" in Bahrain in late June to get Gulf and other Arab states to funnel aid to Palestine, in exchange for which the Palestinians are expected to drop their long-held demands for an end to Israeli settlements, the designation of East Jerusalem as their capital, and (some form of) formal statehood. We're skeptical that cold cash will solve one of the most intractable conflicts on earth. Also, it's not a great sign that the Palestinians themselves don't even plan to attend.

Don't Cry for Veep, Argentina – With her country in crisis (yet again), Cristina de Fernández Kirchner, the controversial left-wing populist who ran Argentina between 2007 and 2015, is increasingly well-positioned to return to power in elections later this year. But over the weekend she pulled a surprise move, announcing that she'd be running only as vice president, allowing former aide Alberto Fernández, whose politics are seen as somewhat more moderate than hers, to top the ticket. We get that it's an electoral strategy meant to broaden Kirchner's appeal among centrist voters, but let's be serious: if the ticket wins, only one Fernández will really be running the country – AND SPOILER: IT'S NOT GOING TO BE ALBERTO.