What We're Watching: Afghanistan's progress, Venezuela's opposition boycotts, EU vs "illiberals"

What We're Watching: Afghanistan's progress, Venezuela's opposition boycotts, EU vs "illiberals"

Afghanistan's small breakthrough: For months, disagreements over a range of political issues have hamstrung the intra-Afghan peace talks brokered by the Trump administration that aim to bridge the years-long conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But this week, a significant breakthrough was made on the principles and procedures governing the talks, that, experts say, will help push negotiations to the next phase. One key advance is agreement on the official name of the Afghan government, an issue that stalled talks earlier this year. Still, progress is fragile. Taliban violence and efforts to seize territory have only increased since the militants and the US reached a deal in February on a blueprint for an American troop withdrawal. And the Trump administration says it aims to pull out all but 2,500 US troops by mid-January, whether the Taliban have kept their end of the deal or not. What's more, while this week's development puts the parties one step closer to an eventual power-sharing agreement, it's unclear whether the incoming Biden administration will even honor the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban.


The Venezuelan opposition's boycott gamble: On Sunday, Venezuela will hold legislative elections, but opponents of President Nicolas Maduro who currently control the National Assembly are boycotting the vote, which is likely to be rigged anyway. As a result, they'll lose their majority in the Assembly and, with it, opposition leader Juan Guaidó's legal claim to the presidency, which is recognized by a number of other democracies in the region and globally. It seems like ages ago that Guaidó was leading mass protests against the economic incompetence and authoritarian drift of the Maduro regime — but since his heyday in 2019, momentum has sputtered, the opposition has splintered, and Maduro's security forces and cronies have stayed loyal despite crippling US sanctions. The opposition plans to hold its own referendum next week to reject the legitimacy of Maduro's government, which will provide a fig leaf for the US and others to continue to recognize Guaidó as president. But that will increasingly be a fiction once Maduro has full control over all branches of government. Meanwhile, ordinary Venezuelans continue to reel from an economic crisis, the pandemic, and sanctions. Small wonder that nearly two-thirds of them back neither Guaidó nor Maduro at all (source in Spanish.)

European Union vs illiberals: Mired in a budget crisis after Poland and Hungary vetoed the European Union's proposed pandemic economic recovery bill last month, Brussels now says it will go ahead with the 750-billion-euro fund whether Budapest and Warsaw cooperate or not. The two eastern European states balked after the EU included a provision that made disbursement of funds, that will fund the bloc through 2027, contingent on respecting EU rule-of-law norms. (Both states are led by illiberal leaders who oft-flout democratic norms and vehemently oppose the EU's conditionality.) While the EU technically requires unanimous consent to pass the financial package, EU president Ursula Von der Leyen implied this week that the bloc would use a loophole to pass it if the veto is not lifted when EU leaders meet in Brussels on December 10. Poland and Hungary, meanwhile, say that they aren't backing down and are waiting for a compromise from Germany which holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union until the end of the year. For now, the impasse continues.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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