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.

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