The Political Regions of Europe and the Fallacy of Environmental Determinism

Europe Political Orientation MapGeoCurrents reader Rafael Ferrero-Aprato recently brought to my attention an interesting map of political divisions in Europe made by the Dutch electoral geographer Josse de Voogd and reproduced by The Economist in 2014. Josse de Voogd notes the difficulties and limitations in making a map of this sort: “Some countries [are covered] in much greater detail than others and there are lots of political parties that are difficult to place ideologically. The information comes from a wide range of resources over a long time-span.” In general terms, the map seems reasonably accurate. But at the more local scale, the situation often gets too complex to be easily captured in a map of this sort. As Rafael Ferrero-Aprato notes in regard to his own country, Portugal:

Speaking for Portugal though, the red corresponds to the strongly leftists regions of Alentejo/South Ribatejo (because of the latifundium agricultural system) and Setúbal Peninsula (an industrial region). It includes also the moderately leftist areas of the north Algarve, lower Beira Interior and Lisbon. So far, so good.

But after giving it more attention, the borders are not perfect: they include south Algarve (moderately right-wing) and the city of Porto, despite it being considered right-wing. Some leftist “enclaves” are missing too, such as the peninsula of Peniche (industrial fishing) and the city of Marinha Grande (industrial).

The Alentejo, Setúbal Peninsula, Peniche and Marinha Grande were also areas of strong influence of the Portuguese Communist Party during the 1926-74 dictatorships, the only force that remained organized in the face of strong repression by the regime. As such, these regions saw numerous revolts during that time.

Germany Electoral Maps 1The only country that seems to be misconstrued on the map—at least for recent elections—is Germany. As the set of maps from Electoral Geography 2.0 indicates, German elections have recently been structured largely Germany Electoral Maps 2around a north/south division, especially those of 1998, 2002, and 2005. The 1994 and 1987 (West Germany only) maps fit better with de Voogd’s depiction, although it does seem that he unduly minimizes the left-wing Ruhr industrial area.

European right-wing populism mapUnfortunately, the interpretation of de Voogd’s cartography by The Economist is not particularly enlightening. Much of the attention here focuses on environmental determinism, referring both to the map discussed above and to another map made by de Voogd, posted here to the left. As the noted in The Economist article:

Flat areas are more right wing The flat pains of southern Sweden, East Anglia, north-eastern France, Flanders and Padania vote for right-wing populists. Hilly regions like Cumbria, south-west France and most of the Alps tend to stick with the mainstream parties. This observation is not as facetious as it may seem. According to Garry Tregidga, an historian at Exeter University, hilly pastoral areas are generally characterised by left-leaning politics. One debatable explanation is that flat crop-growing areas benefit most from economies of scale, so fathers traditionally passed on their land to the first born, reinforcing differences in wealth and creating a more hierarchical political culture. In hilly, pastoral areas inheritances were more commonly split equally, which over the generations created a more egalitarian social structure and political tradition. Another (equally debatable) explanation is that arable farms need cheap vegetable-pickers and that the consequent foreign immigration into otherwise homogeneous rural areas stokes right-wing sentiment.

Europe physical mapThe Economist author simply gets the physical geography of Europe wrong. Upper Saxony in Germany and Provence in France are correctly depicted as right-wing populist strongholds, yet they are hardly flat areas. And as the “dominant political force” map indicates, many “flat” areas generally vote for the left. Examples here include southwestern France (Aquitaine is not “hilly,” despite what The Economist claims), the lowlands of Scotland, the Brandenburg region of Germany, the plains of Andalucía, and the lower Danube Valley. And what of upland area such as the Alps, the Carpathians, the Pindus, and the Cantabrian Mountains that are accurately depicted as more “rightist” in their voting patterns? As a comparison of de Voogd’s basic political map with a physical map of Europe shows, there is simply no pan-European correlation between topography and political viewpoints.

Like most geographers, I am often perplexed by the hold that environmental determinism retains on the public imagination. Actual evidence is rarely able to dislodge such fallacies. Evidently there is something deep comfortable about the idea that landforms and climate determine how we think.

Scolbert08’s Magnificent Map of World Religion, Part 1

Scolbert08 Religion Map1An astoundingly detailed map of world religion has recently been published by reddit user “scolbert08.” The map is much too large for me to post in its entirely on GeoCurrents, but one can find the full-resolution map both here and at the interesting website Brilliant Maps. The level of precision found on this map is truly remarkable; over much of the world it goes down to the level of third-order administrative divisions. The map certainly has a few problems, which I will address in subsequent posts. But so too do all world religion maps, due in part to the intrinsic complexities of religious affiliation. But overall, the map is a remarkable achievement, and both it and its author deserve far more recognition than they have received. The anonymity of the cartographer, however, does present some challenges here.


Scolbert08 Religion Map2I get excited about maps that teach me interesting things about the word, and by this metric Scolbert08’s production scores high indeed. Let us begin by considering the map’s portrayal of Greece and the Balkan Peninsula. The map detail that I have posted here has some interesting features that I have long been aware of, such as the Roman Catholic zone in northern Albania, the Muslim area in northeastern Bulgaria (Turkish speaking), and the Muslim area in southwestern Bulgaria and some neighboring districts in northern Greece (that of the Pomaks, who speak Bulgarian). But the map also includes three features that were completely new to me.

Scolbert08 Religion Map BalkansThe first of these feature is the presence of a Roman Catholic plurality on the Greek island of Tinos, as well as a strong Catholic presence on some other islands in the Cyclades archipelago (some of these islands, such as Syros, are colored light purple on the map, indicating that Eastern Orthodoxy is the main faith but is embraced by only around half or less of the local population). As the Wikipedia describes the island of Syros:

As in the rest of Greece, Syros has Eastern Orthodox churches. There is also an equal number of Roman Catholic churches on the island and some entirely Catholic villages; thus, it is one of the most significant places for Roman Catholicism in Greece. Syros is one of a few places where Catholics and Orthodox share a common date for Easter, which in Syros’ case, is the Orthodox date.


Another Wikipedia article, that on Roman Catholicism in Greece, explains the situation, which dates back to the period of Venetian and Genoese rule:

Indigenous Roman Catholic Greeks number about 50,000 and are a religious and not an ethnic minority. Most of them are either descendants of the Venetians and Genoese that ruled many Greek islands (in both the Aegean and Ionian seas) from the early 13th until the late 18th century, or descendants of the thousands of Bavarians that came to Greece in the 1830s as soldiers and civil administrators, accompanying King Otto. One very old but still common term to refer to them is Φράγκοι, or “Franks”, dating to the times of the Byzantine Empire, when medieval Greeks would use that term to describe all Catholics.

Another surprise for me is the Muslim plurality in Komotini in northeastern Greece. Most of the Muslims here are Turkish speakers. I had been under the impression that virtually all Turks were expelled from Greece in the 1920s. But as it turns out, Komotini was largely exempt. As explained by the Wikipedia:

The population [of Komotini] is quite multilingual for a city of its size and it is made up of local Greeks, Greek refugees from Asia Minor and East Thrace, Muslims of Turkish, Pomak and Romani origins, descendants of refugees who survived the Armenian Genocide, and recent refugees, including Pontic Greeks from north-eastern Anatolia and the regions of the former Soviet Union (mainly Georgia, Armenia, Russia and Kazakhstan).

The Muslim population of East Macedonia and Thrace dates to the Ottoman period, and unlike the Muslims of Macedonia and Epirus, was exempted from the 1922-23 Greek-Turkish population exchange following the Treaty of Lausanne

The most interesting surprise on the map, however, is the presence of a Roman Catholic population in the Bulgarian city and environs of Rakovski. This community was evidently composed of followers of the heterodox (or heretical, depending on one’s perspective), dualistic Paulician creed that once flourished in parts of the Byzantine Empire. The members of the final Paulician community eventually converted to Roman Catholicism rather than Eastern Orthodoxy, and in such a manner remained religiously distinctive from their neighbors. As explained in the Wikipedia:

Bulgarian Catholics live predominantly in the regions of Svishtov and Plovdiv and are mostly descendants of the heretical Christian sect of the Paulicians, which converted to Roman Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries. The largest Roman Catholic Bulgarian town is Rakovski in Plovdiv Province. ….

Nonetheless, Catholic missionaries renewed their interest in Bulgaria during the 16th century, after the Council of Trent, when they were aided by merchants from Dubrovnik on the Adriatic. In the next century, Vatican missionaries converted most of the Paulicians, the remainder of a once-numerous heretical Christian sect, to Catholicism. Many believed that conversion would bring aid from Western Europe in liberating Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire.


Valencia and the Països Catalans Controversy

Valencian Community MapFive days before the recent regional elections in Catalonia, the Archbishop of Valencia, Antonio Cañizares, gained attention and generated controversy by urging Catholics to “pray for Spain and her unity” while also arguing that “Spain is bleeding out” and that “there is no moral justification for secession.” It is not surprising that such sentiments would be voiced by the Archbishop of Valencia. The region of Valencia (officially, the Valencian Community) is largely Catalan speaking by strictly linguistic criteria and many Catalan nationalists would like to include it in a future independent Catalonia, but most of the people of Valencia firmly reject Catalan national identity.

Catalan Countries mapThis rhetorical battle over identity and language extends beyond Valencia to include other Catalan-speaking areas outside of Catalonia proper, encompassing a broad transnational region often called Països catalans (Catalan Countries). As the election approached, the rhetoric heated up. As reported in El País:

A suggestion by a Catalonia government official that the region could offer Catalan citizenship to residents of Valencia, the Balearics, parts of Aragon and parts of southern France if it becomes independent has been met with widespread indignation. Javier Lambán and Ximo Puig, the regional heads of Aragon and Valencia, called the proposal to extend Catalan citizenship to all residents of the area nationalists regard as the Països catalans (Catalan countries), because of historical ties, “intolerable” and “senseless.”

“It’s an intolerable lack of respect,” said Lambán about the statements made on Saturday by Catalonia regional justice chief Germà Gordó. “It is a clumsy and irresponsible opinion that not only violates basic legal norms, but also toys with the dignity of an entire region and the feelings of its people, in a display of identity-based arrogance – if you can call it that – with highly disturbing historical overtones.”

Catalan Language Valencia MapBut as the El País article noted, no other members of the Catalan government voiced support for Gordó’s position. Still, his comments reveal some of the deep controversies that undergird questions of regional and national identity in Spain. Gordó made it clear that in his interpretation the Catalan nation is essentially coterminous with the Catalan-speaking region. As he was quoted in the same article:

“The construction of a state must not let us forget the entire nation,” he said, specifying that this greater Catalonia included “North Catalonia [the French areas of Roussillon and Haute-Cerdagne], the Valencian Country, the Strip [the border area with Aragón] and the Balearic Islands.”

Greater Catalonia MapThe only part of the Catalan-speaking realm excluded by Gordo is the city of Alghero in Sardinia. Perhaps this was an oversight on his part, or perhaps making potential claims to a portion of Italy was simply a step too far. A few Catalan nationalists, however, would perhaps include within their envisaged domain almost all of the territories ruled by the Crown of Aragon during its medieval height, at least as evidenced by the maps posted to the left. Interestingly, they do not include the lands in what is now Greece that were dominated by the Catalan Company in the 1300s.

2015 Spanish Municipal Elections MapThe people of Valencia, as would be expected, have mixed views on the Catalan controversy. Most support the unity of Spain regardless of linguistic considerations. As can be seen in the maps posted to the left, Valencia’s voting behavior tends to mirror that of Spain as a whole, and is such is unlike those of the more separatist regions of Catalonia and the Basque Spain 2011 Election Mapcountry. But quite a few people of the region do prioritize Valencian identity. According to the Wikipedia, this “Valencianist” group itself is “bitterly divided over the very nature of the Valencian identity, something which is best reflected in the debate over the philological affiliation Valencian Language MapCatalan Dialects Mapof Valencian.” Some Valencianists simultaneously embrace a larger sense of Catalan identity, although this seems to be a decidedly minority position, with its supporters receiving at best around half a percent of the vote in recent regional elections. Pejoratively called catalanistes by their opponents, members of this group tend to identify with the political left. More conservative or centrist champions of Valencian identity, on the other hand, more often reject the Catalan connection, regarding their Valencian tongue as a separate language (the linguistic position of Valencian is a significant controversy in its own right.) They also generally favor enhanced autonomy within Spain rather than outright independence. The main political group of this movement, the Valencian Nationalist Bloc, currently holds six out of 99 positions in the Valencian legislature (Corts Valencianes) and 384 out of 5,784 elected positions in local governments.

 The growth of Catalan nationalism has been associated with a countervailing “anti-Catalan” movement both in Valencia and elsewhere in Spain, as discussed in a Wikipedia article on “Anti-Catalanism.” As noted in the article:

[A]nti-Catalanism expresses itself as a xenophobic attitude towards the Catalan language, people, traditions or anything identified with Catalonia and the political implications of this attitude. In its most extreme circumstances, this may also be referred as Catalanophobia. Several political movements, known for organising boycotts of products from Catalonia, are also actively identified with anti-Catalanism. Anti-Catalanism in its most virulent form is mostly associated with far-right Spanish political parties.


In response to such sentiments, anti-anti-Catalanism statements have also been forwarded. One such view focuses on the arts and other forms of cultural production. As argued in an A*Desk article by Oriol Fontdevila, “Anti-anti-Catalanism is a stance with which to eradicate the ballast that nationalism has placed on certain aspects of Catalan culture, that if on the one hand naturalizes it as a culture of the state, on the other, makes it difficult to place them in correspondence with current challenges and articulate them within contemporary cultural production.”

In the end, all that I can say is that the situation is complicated indeed, and as a result is highly interesting.


Val d’Aran: The Catalonian Exception

Val d'Aran 2015 Election 2As the previous post noted, the rural areas of Catalonia generally supported pro-independence political parties in the 2015 regional election, whereas most urban areas did not. There are, however, several exceptions to his generalization. The most striking one is the comarca (“county”) of Val Val d'Aran 2015 Election 1d’Aran, located in the extreme northwestern portion of Catalonia. With a population of 9,993 scattered over 633.5 km2 (244.6 sq mi), Val d’Aran is hardly an urban area, yet its voters firmly rejected the independence movement, favoring instead regionalist and unionist parties.

Val d’Aran’s rejection is Catalan nationalism is easy to explain, as the comarca is not part of the Catalan cultural region. The indigenous inhabitants of the valley speak Aranese, a dialect of the language of Occitan (which is itself often disparaged as a mere dialect) that formerly extended across southern France. Although fewer than 5,000 people speak Aranese as their native tongue, it was granted the status of the third official language of Catalonia (along with Catalan and Spanish) in 2010. (If this maneuver was designed to bring the people of Val d’Aran over to the side of Catalan nationalism it evidently failed.) According to the 2001 census, roughly a third of the comarca’s inhabitants speak Spanish as their native language, whereas some 19 percent speak Catalan. As noted in the Wikipedia, “speakers of languages other than the local Aranese are typically people born outside the valley, or their children.”

Dialects of Occitan MapPhysical geography helps explain why Val d’Aran is part of the Occitan rather than the Catalan linguistic sphere. Unlike the rest of Catalonia, Val d’Aran is located to the north of the Pyrenees crest, with its streams draining through France to the Atlantic Ocean. It is thus not surprising that its cultural affiliations link it more to southern France than to northeastern Spain. Maps of the Occitan language, like the one posted to the left, thus typically show Val d’Aran as something of an outlier, the only part of the Occitan linguistic region located on the Spanish side of the border.

Occitan Supradialects 1From a broader linguistic perspective, however, this view is somewhat misleading. Most students of the Gallo-Romance languages place Occitan and Catalan in the same category, Occitan Supradialects 2as these two tongues are quite closely related. Some dialectologists, moreover, argue that the southwestern Occitan dialects of France are actually more closely linked to Catalan than they are to the northeastern Occitan dialects, as can be seen in the maps posted here. In this view, Catalan and southwestern Occitan together form the “Aquitanopirenec” dialect grouping.

In pre-Roman times, the people of Val d’Aran probably spoke a precursor to Basque, or at least a closely related language in the hypothesized Vasconic family. The place-name itself suggests as much. According to the Wikipedia, “The name Val d’Aran is formed from val in Gascon [an Occitan dialect], meaning valley, and aran from Basque haran, also meaning valley. The name is thus a pleonasm or tautological place name as it translates to Valley of the Valley.” In pre-Roman times, the Pyrenees did not form a linguistic frontier. As noted in another Wikipedia article:

 Pre-Roman Languages of Iberia MapThere are many clues that indicate that Aquitanian [a pre-Basque Vasconic language] was spoken in the Pyrenees, at least as far east as Val d’Aran. The place names that end in ‑os, ‑osse, ‑ons, ‑ost and ‑oz are considered to be of Aquitanian origin, such as the place-name Biscarrosse, which is directly related to the city of Biscarrués (note the Navarro-Aragonese phonetic change) south of the Pyrenees. “Biscar” (modern Basque spelling: “bizkar”) means “ridge-line”. Such suffixes in place-names are ubiquitous in east of Navarre and Aragon, with the classical medieval ‑os > ‑ues taking place in stressed syllables, pointing to a language continuum both sides of the Pyrenees.


The Rural/Urban Divide in Catalonia’s 2015 Election

According to most media sources, the Catalan independence movement scored a major victory in the September 28 regional election, taking 72 out of 135 seats in Catalonia’s parliament (Parlament de Catalunya). More careful reporting, however, noted that the results were actually mixed. In terms of the popular vote, candidates advocating independence gained the support of less than half of the electorate. Had the vote been an actual plebiscite on soverienty, skeptics argue, the motion would have been defeated. But Artur Mas, the leader of the independence movement, offered a different interpretation, claiming that “the Catalan people have spoken”—and have spoken for independence. As he put it, writing in The Guardian:

On 27 September Catalonia’s voters went to the polls and with a record 77.4% turnout gave a win in every single electoral district to the political forces whose campaign promise was, if elected, that they would follow a “roadmap” towards Catalan independence from Spain. Pro-independence lists obtained 48% of the votes and 72 seats out of 135, whereas unionist lists got 39% of the votes and 52 seats. These plebiscitary elections were the only way possible to give the Catalan people the vote on the political future they have long called for, after the Spanish government’s longstanding refusal to allow an independence referendum.

The fact that the pro-independence vote and the Spanish-unionist vote together fall well short of 100 percent indicates the presence of a third option, that of enhanced regional autonomy without actual sovereignty. But this third “regionalist” option, which rests on a mixed sense of Catalan and Spanish identity, was favored by relatively few voters. According to a recent Politico article, this “middle ground” lost support in part “because the campaign was not based on a rational debate on whether it makes economic sense to have full fiscal autonomy or leave the EU, the eurozone or NATO. Rather, it pandered to nationalistic feelings and prejudices…”


Catalonia 2015 Election MapAs mentioned in an Economist article, the pro-independence parties were able to gain control of the regional parliament without winning an outright majority due to “Catalonia’s unequal voting system, which favours less-populated rural areas.” The uneven electoral geography of the contest is clearly evident in a series of maps, posted on the website Saint Brendan’s Island, that show the percentage of the vote taken by the top six parties in each comarca (administrative division). I have amended these maps slightly by providing a crude characterization of the political philosophy of each of these groups (in red), along with their percentage of the vote across Catalonia. The leading contingent, an electoral coalition called “Together for Yes” (Junts pel Sí), is marked as “big tent” on the map because its constituent parties span a fairly wide range of political positions, falling both to the right and the left of center. The much less popular Popular Unity Candidacy party also favors Catalan independence but is situated too far to the left to have joined the “Together for Yes” coalition.


Catalonia Population Density Election MapThe second illustration, which juxtaposes a population density map with an expanded map of the “Together for Yes” vote, clearly shows the urban/rural electoral divide in Catalonia. The region’s most densely populated areas in general gave relatively little support to the independence movement, favoring instead the unionist and regionalist parties. One factor here is the presence of many migrants from other parts of Spain, who not surprisingly tend to support the unionist cause. In Barcelona, Spanish (or Castilian, as most Catalan nationalists insist) is the main language, and although three-quarters of the city’s inhabitants can speak Catalan, fewer than half are able to write in the language. Similar situations are found in the other major urban areas of Catalonia. As noted in the Wikipedia article on the historic city of Lleida: “After some decades without any kind of population growth, it met a massive migration of Andalusians who helped the town undergo a relative demographic growth.”


Poland’s Stark Electoral Divide

Poland 2015 Election MapSome observers were surprised by the triumph of conservative candidate Andrzej Duda over incumbent Bronisław Komorowski in Poland’s May 2015 presidential election. Duda’s margin of victory, however, was thin: 51.5 percent of the vote against Komorowski’s 48.5 percent. As is typical of Polish elections, the results were geographically patterned in a stark manner. Duda, like most conservative candidates, won almost every country in southeastern Poland, many by a substantial margin, whereas the centrist candidate Komorowski triumphed almost everywhere in the west and north. The few areas that Duda lost in the “greater southeast” are almost all major cites, such as Łódź, Warsaw, and Kraków, as would be expected, given the general left-voting tendency of urban dwellers (I have added the names of several cities to the Wikipedia electoral map to make this pattern clear.) The northwest/southeast divide, however, is still reflected in the urban sector, as the Duda did much better in such southeastern cities as Kraków and Lublin than in such northwestern cities as Poznań and Gdańsk.

This geographical division in Polish elections should not, however, be exaggerated. Few areas, for example, saw an overwhelming victory of one candidate or the other, unlike the situation found in most elections in neighboring Ukraine. Over large areas of Poland, Duda and Komorowski split the vote relatively evenly, just as they did in the country as a whole. I begin to have doubts about the national integrity of any country when one political faction routinely gains over 80 or 90 percent of the vote over large areas, but that is not the case in Poland.

Poland GDP Per Capita MapPoland’s northwest/southeast electoral divide does not fit very well with the country’s socio-economic and demographic divisions. To be sure, western Poland is more prosperous than eastern Poland, a pattern that is masked on the per capita GDP map by the relatively wealth of greater Warsaw, which makes the voivodeship (province) of Mazovia appear richer than it would otherwise register. But note that Warmia-Masuria in the far north supported Poland Population Density MapKomorowski despite being a relatively poor region, just as Małopolska in the far south supported Duda despite being a relatively well-off region. Population density plays even less of a role. As the map posted here indicates, low-density regions are found in Poland’s center-voting western and northern peripheries as well as its right-voting eastern periphery.

Poland Voting Pre-War Germany Map1Instead, as has often been noted, Poland’s electoral divide is rooted in historical and cultural factors. The regions that generally vote for centrist or left-center candidates had all been part of Germany (and more specifically, Prussia) before World War I, whereas those that vote for center-right candidates had all been part of either the Russian or the Austro-Hungarian empire in the same period. (I have posted two maps obtained from other websites (here and here) that illustrate this pattern from earlier Polish elections.) It is intriguing that this divide persisted after the massive population dislocations that occurred at the end of World War II, when millions of ethnic Germans were expelled from what is now western and northern Poland and replaced by Poland Voting Pre-War Germany Map 2million of Poles transferred from the east. Perhaps political attitudes that had been established among the ethnic Poles who had lived under German rule spread among those who moved into the region after the war. Such a conclusion, however, is little better than a guess; the issue surely calls for more investigation — or clarifying comments from informed readers!


Belarussian Language in Poland MapOne largely rural area of eastern Poland, Hajnówka County, stands out for having strongly supported Komorowski. Hajnówka town is noted as the gateway to Biełaviežskaja Pušča, widely regarded as Europe’s largest “primeval forest.” Its distinctive voting pattern, however, is probably related to its large Belarussian population, which may be put off by the Polish nationalism and Euro-skepticism of Duda’s party. Whatever the cause, this region has voted in the same manner as Poland’s west and north since the transition to democratic rule at the end of the Cold War.

German Minority in Upper Silesia MapIn the south center-west, Opole Voivodeship stands out for its especially strong support for the defeated incumbent Komorowski. This region is also ethnically distinctive, as it is one of the few places in western and northern Poland to have retained a sizable ethnic German population. The reason behind the survival of a German-speaking community here is interesting. As noted in the Wikipedia:

Alongside German and Polish, many citizens of Opole-Oppeln before 1945 used a strongly German-influenced Silesian dialect (sometimes called wasserpolnisch or wasserpolak). Because of this, the post-war Polish state administration after the annexation of Silesia in 1945 did not initiate a general expulsion of all former inhabitants of Opole, as was done in Lower Silesia, for instance, where the population almost exclusively spoke the German language. Because they were considered “autochthonous” (Polish), the Wasserpolak-speakers instead received the right to remain in their homeland after declaring themselves as Poles. Some German speakers took advantage of this decision, allowing them to remain in their Oppeln, even when they considered themselves to be of German nationality.

Poland Kukiz Vote 2015 MapAnother possible factor in Opole’s distinctive voting pattern was the strong showing on the “protest” candidate Paweł Kukiz in the election’s first round. Nationwide, Kukiz received over 20 percent of the vote, and in some parts of Opole he won a plurality of the votes. Not surprisingly, Kukiz is a native son of Opole, having been born in the town of Paczków, deemed the “Polish Carcassonne” for its well-preserved medieval buildings. Kukiz is best known not as a politician but rather as a musician and actor. According to the Wikipedia, he performs in the genres of rock, pop, pop rock, and punk rock. (I would be tempted to classify the few songs that I listened to as “folk punk rock,” but I have little knowledge of such matters.)

I initially assumed that Kukiz voters would have gravitated to the centrist Komorowski rather than the right-leaning Duda in the second election round, but that is not necessarily the case. As it turns out, the political stance of Kukiz is difficult to classify, and many of his supporters probably sat out the second vote. As Aleks Szczerbiak writes in a fascinating post in The Polish Politics Blog:

Mr Kukiz stood as an independent ‘anti-system’ candidate. His background is as a rebellious rock singer who performed in a band called ‘The Breasts’, best known for their 1992 anti-clerical song ‘The ZChN (Christian-National Union) is coming’. The now-defunct Christian-National Union was a clerical-nationalist party which, as a member of Polish governments in the 1990s, promoted the Catholic Church’s social and political agenda. However, Mr Kukiz also professes a strong commitment to the Catholic faith, arguing that his best known composition was motivated by a desire to protect the Church from abuse by exploitative clerics.

Indeed, in recent years he has been better-known as an advocate of social conservative and patriotic causes. In 2010 Mr Kukiz opposed a ‘EuroPride’ homosexual march in Warsaw and was dismissive of the election in 2011 of Anna Grodzka, Poland’s first transsexual parliamentary deputy, as the product of identity politics rather than ability. His musical recordings have also increasingly emphasised national-patriotic themes and he was at one time involved in supporting the annual ‘Independence March’ held on November 11th, the day that Poles celebrate national independence, which has come to be associated with nationalist groupings. However, describing himself ‘a right-winger with a left-wing heart’, Mr Kukiz also has a very eclectic approach towards socio-economic policy: supporting low taxes while positing an active role for the state in tackling poverty, and enjoying close links with a number of prominent trade union activists and leaders.


Lecture Slides on the Mediterranean Migration Crisis

Dear Readers,

Military Spending per GDP mapYet again, other obligations have prevented me from making regular GeoCurrents posts. Most of my recent time has been devoted to preparing lectures for my course on the History and Geography of Current Global Events. This week’s talk was on the Mediterranean Migration Crisis; the lecture slides are available at the link below (“MediterraneanMigration”). The remainder of this post summarizes those slides

The lecture began with an overview of recent events, using media headlines, maps, graphs, and quotations from various articles. The table on page 11 departs from this introduction, showing that although human smuggling—whether across the Mediterranean or anywhere else—is indeed a big business, it is much smaller than many other illicit activities, including that of counterfeiting auto parts (the table is from the invaluable site Havocscope: Global Black Market Information). Slides 14-19 consider some of the reasons why human smuggling and its associated fatalities have increased recently, including Italy’s abandonment of “Operation Mare Nostrum” and the construction of border barriers by Greece and Bulgaria.

The next slide simply outlines the remainder of the lecture: 1. Global Perspectives on Migration; 2. Local Particularities: Europe and the Mediterranean; 3. Response from Europe & Repercussions for Europe; 4. Contrasts with Australian Policy.

Slides 21-34 present maps and other visuals that try to capture the global dynamics of international migration. The overarching idea here is that people tend to move from poor and chaotic countries to wealthier and more stable ones. The best of these maps is a busy and somewhat dated French portrayal that contains a wealth of information. Slides 26 and 27 illustrate the under-appreciated fact that a major portion of migration occurs within the so-called Global South, going from poor countries to richer but still not “fully developed” ones. (In discussing slide 28, however, I critique the very notion of the “Global South,” as the conventional definition places a number of impoverished states on the “rich” side of the line [Tajikistan, Moldova] and quite a few wealthy countries on the “poor” side [Singapore, Qatar]). The next set of images gives information on a few particular instances of troubled international immigration in the “South,” including Nicaraguans moving to Costa Rica, Paraguayans and Bolivians going to Argentina, and Indonesians migrating to Malaysia. Slides 33 and 34 show that this process sometimes goes into reverse, as when Ivory Coast experienced protracted conflicts that resulted in millions of people from Burkina Faso and Mali fleeing back to their homelands.

With slide 35, the lecture returned to the current crisis in Europe and the Mediterranean. Slides 36-38 show migration routes, but not very accurately (the last of these maps appear to be the best). More significant is slide 39, which includes two tables showing the countries of origin of people illegally crossing the sea into Europe in recent months. This slide brings up the significant question of why these particular countries send so many would-be immigrants into Europe. Some are easy to explain on the basis of war and related calamities, such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Others can be explained on the basis of severe repression, including the Gambia and Eritrea. A number of these slides (41-50) delve into the horrors of life in contemporary Eritrea. Beginning with slide 50, the lecture took on the issue of why Libya has become the main embarkation point for trans-Mediterranean migrants. Here I first explored the political chaos encountered now in Libya and then considered the legacy of Muammar Gaddafi in encouraging trans-Saharan immigration into his country. The final slides in this section examine to proximity of Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa, considering as well the conditions found on that small island.

At this point, the lecture turned to the responses to the crisis found in Europe. Different European countries have had different reactions, and the EU’s “ten-point plan” has been wide criticized for being weak and ineffectual. Many Europeans, however, maintain that they have been unduly taken to task, especially considering the fact that Europe takes much more than its “fair share” of asylum seekers. Some European countries, however, attract many more asylum seekers than others (slide 73), but do so for different reasons. Sweden is particularly generous, while Hungary is merely located in an area that is easy to reach for many asylum seekers. Slides 76 and 77 examine Europe’s detention system for people claiming refugee status, considering as well the criticisms of this system by human-rights activists.

The next set of slides examine debates within Europe over the larger immigration issue. Images 98-82 consider the argument that Europe needs high levels of immigration due to its low birth rate and rapidly increasing dependency burden, showing as well the growing demographic imbalance between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. But as the next group of slides shows, Europeans are increasingly opposed to high levels of immigration, although sentiments vary considerably from country to country (with Italy and Sweden at opposite ends of the spectrum). Attitudes also vary widely in regard to the country-of-origin of would-be immigrants. Perhaps surprisingly, in Western Europe opposition to migration from Eastern Europe is almost as strong as that to migration from the Middle East or Sub-Saharan Africa.

Beginning with slide 86, the presentation considers the political ramifications for Europe of the migration crisis, focusing on the rise of so-called right-wing, anti-immigrant parties, most of which are also highly skeptical of the EU. In the lecture, efforts were made to differentiate the political philosophies of these various parties, which differ significantly. Map 89, for example, distinguishes the “extreme far right” from both the “far right” and the “populist right.” Although the distinction between the “extreme far right” (Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, and Attack in Bulgaria) and the other parties seems valid, I am not convinced about difference between the “far right” and the “populist right.” Although Alternative for Germany has often been portrayed as populist in the German press, as it is on the map, it appears to me to be more of a neo-liberal (or “classical liberal”) party. At any rate, the remainder of this section of slides provides more detail on number of these parties. As can be see, they generally have heavier representation in the European parliament than in the legislative chambers of their own countries.

A number of these parties would like Europe adopt immigration policies more like those of Australia. The final set of slides thus outline the Australian immigration system, examining policies on both asylum seekers and those seeking work permits through standard immigration channels.


Geopolitical Anomalies in the “Greater Middle East,” Part I

(Note: The introduction to this post is found in the previous post, that of April 1))

U.N. Greater Middle East MapA detail from the Wikipedia map of United Nations members, discussed in the previous post, shows only one non-member in the region that we might crudely dub the “greater Middle East,” which is the focus of today’s post. That non-member is the Palestinian geopolitical anomalies map 1territory, composed of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as can be seen the second map. This area is deeply anomalous in regard to geopolitical standards, and would be worthy of an entire post. The two units of which it is composed are not just geographically but also politically separate, despite efforts to form a unity government.* They have some but by no means all of the attributes of sovereignty. As the map notes, they also occupy an ambiguous position in the United Nations, as well as in the global system of mutual state-to-state recognition.

geopolitical anomalies map 2But the Palestinian territories are merely one of a great many geopolitical anomalies found in the region depicted on this map. Consider, for example, the situation of Kosovo. Although the U.N. map portrays Kosovo as part of Serbia, it is in actuality an independent country. It is not, however, a members of the United Nations, and its recognition by other sovereign states is far from complete. Three other states in the region are also characterized by incomplete international recognition, as the next map shows. 32 U.N. members do not recognize Israel, while Cyprus and Armenia are each denied by one member, Turkey in the former case and Pakistan in the latter. Curiously, Pakistan refuses to acknowledge Armenia in deference to Azerbaijan, which has lost much of its internationally recognized territory to Armenia, yet Azerbaijan itself continues to recognize the country.

geopolitical anomalies map 3







geopolitical anomalies map 4The next map, “States With Barely Functional Central Governments,” highlights recognized U.N member states in which regional governments or factional militias have more power than the state itself, a category that encompasses Lebanon and Bosnia & Herzegovina. In the former case, the militia of Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia political party, is much stronger than the national armed forces. As Hezbollah militarily operates on its own, with support from Iran and without oversight by the Lebanese government, its presence in Lebanon contravenes a key defining feature of the state, as states are supposed to have a monopoly over the legitimate use of force and coercion. Lebanon has a peculiar system of “confessionalism,” one in which politics are structured around religious communities. Although this system once functioned relatively well, it has not in the long run proved conducive to national unity. Intriguingly, Lebanese confessionalism was enacted as a temporary measure more than 80 years ago, yet it remains full ensconced.

Bosnia in many ways is even less of a coherent state than Lebanon. It is divided into three autonomous units, the “Serb Republic,” the Croat-Bosniak “Federation” (which is itself rather dysfunctional), and the self-governing unit of Brčko (which formally belongs to both the “republic” and the “federation”). Equally important, the highest political office in the country is arguably that of the “High Representative,” who is not even a citizen of the state, making Bosnia something of an international protectorate. As the Wikipedia notes, “The OHR’s [Office of the High Representative] prolonged interference in the politics of Bosnia and Herzegovina is also considered to be one of the causes of the low commitment of citizens towards the state.” The other reasons for the “low commitment of citizens towards the state,” however, are probably more significant, particularly that of the persisting ethnic animosity that marks Bosnia’s constituent communities. If given a free choice, most Bosnian Serbs would probably opt to join their territory with Serbia, just as most Bosnian Croats would likely want to join their lands with Croatia. Under such conditions, referring to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a sovereign state is a bit of a stretch, while calling it a “nation-state” is simply unreasonable.

geopolitical anomalies map 5The next two maps, showing internationally unrecognized annexations, are a bit more straightforward. Russia has officially annexed Crimea, and will likely retain full control over that territory. But as this action is widely viewed as illegitimate, most maps produced elsewhere in the world will almost certainly continue to show Crimea as geopolitical anomalies map 6Ukrainian territory. The situation in regard to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh is somewhat more complicated. The Armenian-majority territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has officially declared itself to be an independent state, although it has not been recognized as such by any member of the U.N. Most sources, however, regard it as having been unofficially annexed by Armenia. Most of the lands surrounding the official boundaries of Nagorno-Karabakh, moreover, are controlled by the Armenian military and are therefore effectively part of that country. Armenia is able to maintain control over these territories, which formally belong to the larger and more economically powerful country of Azerbaijan, in large part due to Russian support.

geopolitical anomalies map 7The next map portrays internationally recognized sovereign states that do not control their full territorial extent due to the emergence of self-proclaimed states (which are themselves depicted on the following maps). All of these proclaimed statelets exercise effective power over all or most of the territories that they claim, but they do not necessarily possess all of the elements that constitute genuine sovereignty. Most of them are widely viewed as “puppet states” of larger independent countries.



geopolitical anomalies map 8The map posted to the left shows the three self-proclaimed states in question that have received some international recognition. Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Turkey and is often regarded as Turkish client state. The other two, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have gained higher international standings, being reckoned as independent by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru. (Vanuatu had briefly recognized Abkhazia and Tuvalu had briefly recognized both states, but they later withdrew their recognition). Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are commonly regarded as Russian client states, with Nauru giving its nod of approval due to financial compensation from Russia, and Venezuela and Nicaragua doing so to signal their disapproval of the United States and other countries opposed to Russia’s actions. Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared their independence shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, rejecting membership in Georgia, which by international consensus should rightfully encompass them. Northern Cyprus declared its independence from Cyprus in 1983, a maneuver made possible by the Turkish invasion and partition of the island in 1974.

geopolitical anomalies map 9The next map adds to the previous one several self-proclaimed states that lack international recognition. One, Nagorno-Karabakh, has been discussed earlier in this post. Three of the other entities shown on this map, Transnistria (officially, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic), Luhansk People’s Republic, and Donetsk People’s Republic, are widely regarded as Russian puppet states. Transnistria was hived off from Moldova after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the latter two emerged out of far eastern Ukraine during the conflict of 2014. Together, Luhansk and Donetsk form the self-proclaimed federation of Novorossiya, or New Russia. They are recognized as sovereign states only by South Ossetia. Transnistria is recognized by South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Together, these four statelets comprise the inaptly named Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations, also called the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States. The other self-proclaimed state shown on this map, Somaliland, enjoys more genuine independence, not serving as a client state. Yet Somaliland has no formal international recognition and is instead regarded as part of the non-functional state of Somalia. Ethiopia, however, comes close to recognizing it, with its local consulate headed by a diplomat with ambassadorial ranking. In 2014, moreover, the British city of Sheffield recognized Somaliland’s independence, a purely symbolic maneuver that nonetheless generated marked enthusiasm in the self-proclaimed state.

geopolitical anomalies map 10Finally, the last map includes as well a fully autonomous region that has not declared its own sovereignty but may well do so in the future: Iraqi Kurdistan. Of all of the “statelets” shown on this map, Iraqi Kurdistan probably has the most effective government; along with Somaliland, moreover, it has the best claims to possessing something approaching genuine independence. I have also appended to it the currently autonomous Kurdish areas of northern Syria, known locally as Rojava. The future situation of this area is of course highly uncertain.


Whatever Rojava’s future may hold, the region is currently structured in an interesting manner that has some bearing on geopolitical models. As described in the Wikipedia:

 The political system of Rojava is a mixture of socialist principles at the local level with libertarian principles at the national level. …

Political writer David Romano describes it as pursuing ‘a bottom-up, Athenian-style direct form of democratic governance’. He contrasts the local communities taking on responsibility vs the strong central governments favoured by many states. In this model, states become less relevant and people govern through councils similar to the early US or Switzerland before becoming a federal state in the Sonderbund war. Rojava divides itself into regional administrations called cantons named after the Swiss cantons. …

Its programme immediately aimed to be “very inclusive” and people from a range of different backgrounds became involved (including Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, and Turkmen (from Muslim, Christian, and Yazidi religious groups).


Thus far we have examined just a few of the anomalies found in the geopolitical map of this region. We will look at many more in tomorrow’s post.

* As noted in the Wikipedia, “On 30 November 2014, Hamas declared that the unity government had ended with the expiration of the six month term. But Fatah subsequently denied the claim, and said that the government is still in force.”

Misleading Statistics: The Case of Luxembourg, by Will Rayner

(Note: This post is by Will Rayner, a former student of mine who graduated from Stanford University last year.)

Statistics can be misleading, particularly in regard to international country-by-country comparisons. We all know that. And yet governments, institutions, and corporations rely on these statistics every day.

GDP per capita—just to pick an example—is often used as shorthand for a country’s level of economic development, and it can influence everything from investment decisions to wealth redistribution programs. But can this statistic be trusted?

Luxembourg MapTake the case of Luxembourg, often cited as the world’s wealthiest nation. Luxembourg ranks first among all non-microstate nations by all four major publishers of nominal[1] GDP per capita figures (the IMF, World Bank, CIA World Factbook, and United Nations). According to the IMF, Luxembourg had a nominal GDP per capita figure in 2013 of $110,423; by way of comparison, the United States clocks in with a seemingly meager $53,101.

By all accounts Luxembourg is indeed a prosperous place, but Luxembourg’s wildly impressive GDP measurements are misleading—very misleading. As it turns out, Luxembourg is not far wealthier than its neighbors, nor does it harbor mysteriously super-productive workers. The secret to Luxembourg’s amazing economic success (on paper, that is) is the country’s small size and its location at the crossroads of France, Germany, and Belgium.

This is a strategic location indeed. Perhaps, the reader may guess, Luxembourg’s phenomenal GDP per capita is generated by linking trade between these three larger countries; perhaps it is generated by Luxembourg’s status as a popular destination for French and German holidaymakers; or perhaps it is a result of Luxembourg serving as a financial haven for foreigners. Although these are reasonable guesses, in actuality Luxembourg’s wealth figure is largely a misleading artifact of the way GDP per capita is calculated.

GDP per capita is a very simplistic metric produced by diving a country’s total GDP by its total population. This works well as a rough gauge for most countries, but Luxembourg presents an interesting distortion of GDP per capita for a unique reason: a very large percentage of its workforce commutes into Luxembourg daily but actually lives in the surrounding countries of France, Germany, and Belgium.

According to a 2012 employment report, an astonishing 44% of Luxembourg’s workforce commutes across the border. Of the 355,800 total workers in the country, 78,500 commute in from France, followed by 39,400 from Belgium and 39,100 from Germany.

Luxembourg Commuting MapThis map of commuter flows from 2008 illustrates another trend: the flows of Luxembourg’s own residents commuting out into the surrounding countries are tiny fractions of the inward flux (for example, 68,600 workers commuted in from the Lorraine region of France, while only 200 Luxembourgers made the opposite commute).

This one-sided commuting trend suggests, in short, that Luxembourg’s GDP per capita calculation is performed with a numerator that does not match its denominator. Nearly half of the country’s economic activity is generated by foreign workers, but those workers—and their families—live outside Luxembourg and thus are not counted as part of its population in the calculation.

Data from a 2010 survey reveals that the average gross income per employed household member residing within Luxembourg is €48,876; the average income for an employed commuter household member is €41,356. We can see, then, that commuters earn nearly as much as native Luxembourgers (about 85% as much, according to this set of statistics). A rough back-of-the-envelope calculation, assuming that 44% of Luxembourg’s workforce is made up of commuters earning 85% as much as resident Luxembourgers, would suggest that around 37% of Luxembourg’s economic output is generated by commuters.

Using this 37% figure, we can make a very simplistic estimation: Luxembourg’s “true” GDP per capita figure (with the 37% of GDP from commuters removed) would be about 63% of $110,423, yielding a figure of about $70,000. This would drop the country to fifth in the world according to the IMF table—still a very wealthy country, of course, but no longer boasting a GDP per capita twice that of the United States.

Luxembourg is a wealthy country no matter how we compute the statistics, but this case serves as an interesting reminder that international comparisons should be taken with quite a grain of salt.

[1] Note that per capita GDP in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) rather than nominal terms provides different figures, which are generally lower for countries (such as Luxembourg) that have high costs of living. In these tables, Luxembourg is usually second to Qatar in regard to non-micro-states.

Everyone Has a Role to Play: Farce and Politics in France

If you want to have a good laugh this week, I would suggest diving into the bountiful sea of articles on French politicians’ recent missteps. I will start my overview of recent political stumbling with the right-wing National Front before turning to France’s other parties.

The top of the hit parade features Marine Le Pen.  For all the Front National’s attempts to re-brand itself into a forward thinking, non-racist or xenophobic party, recent incidents show that the characteristics that were evident when her father was at the head of the party remain. Marine Le Pen was recently strapped with a ten thousand euro fine for having disseminated fake flyers. These posters featured an image of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a prominent French socialist, with a sentence he uttered in a speech to the city of Marseille: “Il n’y a pas d’avenir pour la France sans les Arabes et les Berbères du Maghreb” [‘There is no future for France without the Arabs and the Berbers from the Maghreb.’] A line at the bottom of the postcard-sized flyer reads “Votons Mélenchon” [‘Vote for Mélenchon’] along with a translation of the slogan in Arabic, but written incorrectly. As it turns out, the Front National produced the fliers, but neglected to include their party symbol or note in any other way that the whole effort was a parody designed to discredit the socialist politician. While Mélenchon readily admitted that he had made the statement in question, he angrily denounced the lack of taste of the tract, which features a green background, color of Islam, and the use of Arabic characters. As he put it, “I only express myself in French, the language of the Republic. This tract gives a meaning that I never wanted to give to my action.” Although the Front National initially tried to place the blame on some of its own local members, denying its role in the production of the flyers, Marine Le Pen eventually stepped forward to assume full responsibility, going on to compare Mélenchon’s attitude to “des pleurnicheries de chochotte” [‘whimpy whinings’.]


As if the French newspapers did not have enough material to use, Marine Le Pen made sure to become their greatest muse with another misstep. This time she claimed the need to re-introduce pork in school cafeterias in cities in which the Front National has gained power. One week after the National Front’s breakthrough in the French municipal elections, Marine Le Pen boldly declared on national radio that “il est interdit d’interdir” [‘it is forbidden to forbid.’] She then proceeded to declare that her party would not accept any religious demands in school menus, as there is no reason for religious affairs to enter the public sphere. However, none of the cities in which the National Front took power had actually abolished pork from their cafeterias. As such, students in Fréjus ate sautéed pork this past Monday for lunch, and those from Hénin-Beaumont were served ham. The students in Béziers will be eating “macaronnade de porc” (pork stew) this week. Jewish and Muslim students are simply given the option of eating turkey or chicken instead of pork—an alternative that even Marine Le Pen would not dare oppose.


But the National Front does not solely rely on Marine Le Pen for its miscues. In Hénin-Beaumont, where the party had just won the mayor’s office, the new officials decided to take over the Legion of Honor’s headquarters, which the Legion has been using for the past ten years. The Ligue des Droits de l’Homme is a publically incorporated body that has long enjoyed a high level of respect throughout France. The National Front now claims that, as the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme has political aims, it cannot legally receive subsidies or enjoy their headquarters free of charge. For the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, this act constituted a major “slipping” on the part of the National Front’s secretary general Steeve Briois. Indeed, it is difficult to portray the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme as a political organization in this sense.  According to its local president Alain Pruvot, the Legion is:

“[A] citizen association for the defense of human rights. It takes care of politics, not in the politician sense of the term, but in the sense of the general affairs of the city-state. Our goal is to defend liberties. In this sense, the mayorship is paying us homage when it implicitly recognizes the role we can take on.”

As such, the Front National’s most recent move against the Legion of Honor is heavily loaded and can easily be interpreted as indicating a lack of concern for human rights, a long-standing problem for the party. In response, the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme decided to take on the National Front by creating a “republican vigilance committee”. The committee is designed to be an “observatory for the rights and liberties of each and everyone on the territory of Hénin-Beaumont” and will constitute a “black book” of all the instances of disregard for these rights and freedoms by the National Front. In response, the new mayor of Hénin-Beaumont has denounced what he calls a “hate campaign” led by the Legion of Honor, an institution that he has labeled as ‘trying to receive free headquarters on the taxpayer’s dime.’


But the Front National is not the only French party guilty of blatant and flamboyant missteps. With President François Hollande’s recent trip to Mexico, the French population was reminded of his dismal lack of ability in foreign languages, undoubtedly symbolic of a problem existing on the national scale. While trying to echo General de Gaulle’s speech in Mexico in March 1964, Hollande declared: “Le Géneral de Gaulle avait eu la formule qui est restée dans tous les esprits de faire que le Mexique et la France restent ‘la mano dans la mano’.” [‘General De Gaulle had the formula which stayed in the minds of all so as to ensure that France and Mexico would remain ‘la mano dans la mano’.] Perhaps the French President did not realize that he kept a French word “dans” in his own formula, rather than the Spanish equivalent “en”? It is as though he had declared that the French would remain “mano in the mano” (or “hand in the hand”) with the Mexicans. Such a formulation does not exactly have the same effect or glamour that Mr. de Gaulle conveyed sixty years ago when he properly wished for France and Mexico to remain “la mano en la mano” (“hand in hand”).


The Socialist party is also comical despite itself: with the appointment of Manuel Valls as prime minister, French newspapers had a field day with puns on his name:

Vals“Manuel de survie” (‘Survival guide’, a pun on the PM’s first name, which means ‘guide’ or ‘booklet’ in French); and Ayrault Valse (Ayrault being the Prime Minister who is being replaced by Mr.Valls.) The latter pun is on the word ‘Valse’, meaning a ‘waltz’ in French, but which also happens to be a homonym for the Prime Minister’s surname. The daily newspaper Metronews went with “Valls mène la dance” (‘Valls opens the dance’), a pun on the French expression “mener la dance,” to ‘lead the dance’ or to ‘run the show.’ Although amusing, these puns show how French newspapers have intentionally been making a game out of their country’s politics.

Such parody is indeed their forte. Le Figaro, arguably France’s largest daily newspaper, even created a fictional series called “Fiction Politique: Le coup du Père François” (‘Political fiction: Father Hollande’s trick”) in which president Francois Hollande decides to dissolve the national assembly. Running about ten episodes, this saga dramatizes French politicians in absurd, imaginary situations for purely satirical purpose. French newspapers and political magazines have also been approaching many of the government’s shortcomings and incompetent actions with a bitter, dark sense of humor. In particular, the right-wing magazine Le Point is particularly virulent in its criticisms of the government: its very title this week was “Vite, on coule!” (‘Quick, we are drowning!’) placed over a headshot of president Francois Hollande and his new prime minister, Manuel Valls. Sans titre1It boldly declares: “the leftist government’s capacity for blindness is limitless. It never learns lessons from the past. It refuses to see even the most evident realities.” Le Point has even coined the expression “catéchisme néo-con” [‘neo-shit catechism’] to refer to the Socialists’ doctrine which it satirically sums up as ‘let us spend and borrow more, and all will be better.’ The very use of the word ‘catechism’ marks the idea that, for Le Point, the socialist party’s policies are grounded in rank ideology rather than economic or social realities.

However, it is the Guignols de L’info, a band of puppets representing French celebrities and politicians, that takes the cake for irreverence and laughter-inducing skits. Developed by the French TV station Canal +, the puppets spare no one from their line of fire, from the Paris Saint Germain football star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to Belgian rapper Stromae, to Francois Hollande, and Dominique Strauss-Khan. One rather comical example was a parody for Stromae’s now world-famous ‘Alors on Danse’ song:


[Qui dit proches te dis deuils car les problèmes ne viennent pas seuls
Qui dit crise te dit monde, dit famine dit tiers-monde.
Qui dit fatigue dit réveille encore sourd de la veille
Alors on sort pour oublier tous les problèmes.
Alors on danse]


[Qui dit perdre les élections te dit dégage de Matignon,
Who says losing the elections, says get out of Matignon

Qui dit échec dit humiliation dit encore plus nul que Fillon
Who says defeat says humiliation, even suckier than Fillon

Qui dit viré dit déprime dit lexomil  et aspirine
Who says fired says depressed says lexomil and aspirin

Tout seul dans ton salon a traiter Hollande de con
Alone in your salon treating Hollande of ‘con’ [asshole]

Alors tu Valls
And so you Valls [Waltz]  ]

As a matter of clarification, Matignon is the Prime Minister’s dwelling and Fillon was the prime minister under Sarkozy. The Guignols have Stromae singing to the beat of ‘Alors on Danse’ with satirical and irreverent lyrics sounding like the original ones. All French speakers, and many non-French speakers as well, would understand the reference to Stromae’s song, even if they do not understand the puns and inside jokes of French politics.


The Guignols also feature Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the ex-head of the IMF who had to step down from presidential contention because he was entangled in a sex scandal. In the clip, he is in a bathrobe, declaring that he knows a socialist who received an “even bigger spanking than Hollande did.” When the puppet anchorman asks him “who?”, he answers “Me. Often, at night, I like to receive a good old lesson” and proceeds to naming his private part, “Francis,” who, he adds, with the daylights savings time, is “up earlier.”


In the past several of weeks alone, an avalanche of incidents has given French newspapers, magazines, and television stations the opportunity to laugh at the expense of many of the country’s leading public figures. The political climate in France is ripe for these opportunities, and if it were all a scripted reality show or soap opera it could hardly be funnier or more puzzling than reality itself.

Cyprus: Between East and West?

(Note: This is the second of two articles by Stanford student Claire Negiar that together contrast the situations of two geopolitically divided islands: Saint Martin and Cyprus)

Cyprus and Saint Martin – two very different islands sharing one key property: both are split by their “mother countries,” Greece and Turkey in the case of Cyprus, France and the Netherlands in the case of Saint Martin. However, these two islands have known very different fates over the past several decades, which are worth exploring in greater depth. What makes Saint Martin successful in its division, while Cyprus has remained in a stalemate since 1974? Why have France and the Netherlands been able to coexist and build an amicable system despite the division, while Greece and Turkey still struggle over finding an agreement for Cyprus, with Nicosia remaining the last divided capita around the globe, the only militarily-divided city of Europe, and a seeming vestige of the past?

The earlier colonization of Saint Martin has given time the chance to blow over some of the initial tension that resulted from this dual presence, enabling the emergence of a stable border and the near-assimilation of the people of Saint Martin into a common identity. In many ways, however, the population of Saint Martin is much more diverse that of Cyprus, where the indigenous population remains starkly split between Greeks and Turks. Yet in such diversity, a degree of unity is also found. The difference in geopolitical tension may also be related to the much greater distance separating the island from its mother countries: if Saint Martin were as close to France and the Netherlands as Cyprus is to Greece and Turkey, would the two have been more inclined to have resisted their gradual relinquishing of control? Or is it that they do not see Saint Martin as enough of an economic asset, while Cyprus has just discovered great gas reserves that both Greece and Turkey desperately want to exploit?

On Saint Martin, over time the majority of the island’s population essentially became European, identifying closely with France and the Netherlands, but on Cyprus the colonial power, Britain, had “nothing to do” with the local population of Greeks and Turks and hence was never able to achieve such results. With the initial annexation of the island by the British Empire, the “Cyprus dispute” corresponded to the conflict between the people of Cyprus and the British Crown regarding the Cypriots’ demand for self-determination. The dispute was however soon shifted from a colonial to an ethnic register between the Turkish and the Greek islanders. The international complications of the dispute stretch far beyond the boundaries of the island of Cyprus itself, also involving the guarantor powers (Turkey, Greece, and the United Kingdom alike), and eventually the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. To what extent has the presence and interference of several international organization complicated the conflict rather than helping smooth it over?

With the 1974 Cypriot coup d’état’s installment of a pro-Enosis (the union of Cyprus and Greece) president and the responding Turkish invasion that same year (formally condemned by UN Security Council Resolution 1974/360), Turkey occupied the northern part of the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus. As the Greek and Turkish Cypriots had been interspersed across much of the island a significant amount of “ethnic cleansing” and relocation  subsequently occurred. Northern Cyprus soon unilaterally declared independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a sovereign entity that lacks international recognition—with the exception of Turkey, with which the TRNC enjoys full diplomatic relations. The United Nations has since created and maintained a buffer zone (the “Green Line”) to avoid any further inter-communal tensions and hostilities. This zone separates the Greek Cypriot-controlled south from the Turkish Cypriot-controlled north, passing directly through Nicosia, the world’s last divided capital since the fall of the Berlin Wall, though many also view Jerusalem as a divided city as well (a poll conducted in June 2013 found that 74% of Israeli Jews reject the idea of a Palestinian capital in any portion of Jerusalem, although 72% of the public regarded it as a divided city).

Ethnographic_distribution_in_Cyprus_1960 (1)

I visited Nicosia and walked by the wall and along the divide in 2003, which was the first year it was open to the public: it seemed to me like an odd vestige of the Cold War, frozen in time, absurd in the twenty-first century with the graffiti, the barbed-wire, and the sand bags at its foot, yet standing there still.

Another crucial factor is the intense cultural difference between the Greek and the Turkish populations. This split looms large in my memory as well. As a ten-year old child, I walked past the checkpoint from the Turkish to the Greek parts of Cyprus, and as soon as I reached Greek territory I was handed a small bottle of traditional Greek liquor, Ouzo. The two sides of the island seemed like a microcosm that revealed patterns of a much larger, global scale. Caught between the Western World and realm of Islam, at a crossroads of civilizations, Cyprus is split between the autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, and Sunni Islam.


According to a Eurobarometer report, Cyprus is one of the most religious states in the European Union, alongside Malta, Romania, Greece, and Poland. What is more, it is linguistically divided between its two official languages, Greek and Turkish, which do not even share the same alphabet. (English is, however, well spread across the island).  This deep cultural divide makes the situation much more difficult for Cyprus than in the case of Saint Martin, where the two sovereign powers, France and the Netherlands, share many cultural similarities and have a long history of mutual understanding, unlike the two countries which ‘share’ the island of Cyprus. Walking between the Dutch and French sides of the island of Saint Martin, the biggest difference is scale: while the Dutch side boasts very large hotels, nightclubs, casinos, and cruise-ship tourist populations, the French side is home to smaller-scale hotels, restaurants, and in true French form, a few topless beaches. As I remember it, walking between the Greek and the Turkish sides of Cyprus was more like changing worlds: while the Greek side boasted a variety of international brands and had the lively feel of a capital city, the side-streets in the Turkish part of Nicosia were dominated by variety of repair shops selling hardware, pipes, and steel. There were more little stores, with a less touristy and more industrious ambiance, and the crux of the energy was concentrated around the very lively Souk. We visited a Turkish hammam, or public bath, located in a converted Catholic church, where the women and the men were sent to different parts of the edifice. We also enjoyed a honey-filled Turkish variation on a crepe in a  lovely courtyard. It was pleasant, but all the time I remember feeling a distinct sense of unease, my ten-year old, pale and blonde self, walking around in these streets, feeling quite out of place. While the Greek side seemed open for leisure and tourism, the Turkish side seemed made for the local inhabitants.

This cultural rift lay at the heart of many debates after Turkey posted its candidacy to the European Union. Indeed, while Greece and Cyprus are members of the European Union, Turkey was and is still seen as a much more controversial candidate, due in part to fear of interethnic and inter-religious conflict between Christian Europeans and immigrant Muslim Turks, as well as concerns that Turkey would not integrate harmoniously into the European political system, as perhaps evidenced by the situation in Cyprus. The lack of resolution of the Cypriot conflict has long burdened Turkey’s candidacy, and if Turkey is serious about its integration of the union, it will most likely need to come to a better settlement with its Greek counterpart on the island. Equally problematic is Greek Cypriot recalcitrance on reunion. A 2004 UN-organized referendum on reunification was rejected overwhelmingly on the Greek half of the island but was supported on the Turkish side.

Any possible settlement of the Cyprus issue seems unlikely given the history of fear and mistrust between the two sides. The unrecognized Turkish Northern Cyprus territory covers only 36% of the island’s overall territory, thus starting Turkey out with weaker hand and giving the conflict an unequal feel. This 36% of land is, however, crucial to Turkey due to its proximity to its own ports. Indeed, Cyprus is only 65 kilometers from Turkey, and the island is close to Turkey’s southern harbors, such as Mersin. As such, all Turkey’s southwestern ports are under the cover of Cyprus and whoever controls the island is able to exert pressure on them. It should be of no surprise, then, that it has been a prime and long-standing Turkish objective that the island does not succumb to any potentially hostile power, especially its traditional enemy, Greece. Common membership of Greece and Turkey in NATO has never diminished Turkish concerns about these geo-strategic issues, nor will Turkey’s possible accession to the EU.

As such, reasons for the different fates of Saint Martin and Cyprus extend from historical to geographic, demographic, geopolitical, and cultural factors. The easy coexistence of two states on the former island and the on-going conflict on the latter, however, result from processes that are as multi-faceted as these islands are diverse, and truly pinpointing what could be learned from one situation to apply to the other is difficult at best. From an island in the Caribbean with significant self-determination and hundreds of years of colonial history, to an island in the Mediterranean split between its two native populations, significant situational differences which may not allow for comparison at all. However, as history tends to repeat itself, with a little bit of imagination and a little bit of creativity, there may be some lessons that each can learn from the other’s situation.

Regardless of such comparisons, the geopolitical situation on Cyprus remains extraordinarily complex. According to the diplomatic establishments of most countries, the Republic of Cyprus has de jure sovereignty across the island, yet in de facto terms Cyprus is of course split, with Northern Cyprus forming a separate state.  But this is just the start of the complexity, as the United Kingdom still controls two military bases on the island over which it exercises sovereign power. These sovereign military bases, moreover, encompass several exclaves of the Republic of Cyprus, while Northern Cyprus has its own exclave on the northwestern coast.


And the U.N. Buffer Zone itself makes up yet another unit, as it is not a mere “line” but rather a territory in its own right that cover 346 square kilometers (134 sq mi) and is home to some 10,000 people. Parts of this buffer zone are essentially off-limits to people, and have thus become a haven for wildlife, much like Korea’s so-called demilitarized zone. Another complication of geopolitics on Cyprus is that the island has been as a tax haven for many international investors, especially the Russians, which has a significant effect on the Cyprus-Russia relations. Many Russian investors withdrew their funds when the Cypriot government forced bank depositors to pay their share of an international bailout in the spring of 2013, but now Russian investors are returning. There is also a fairly sizeable Russian community on the island, with its own online forum .

Finally, it is important to note that Cyprus plays an unusual international role in regard to Israel, as Israelis who want to be married in civil rather religious ceremonies generally do so on Cyprus. But recent discoveries of off-shore gas deposits in Israel’s waters may change the hereto peaceful relations between Israel and Greek Cyprus. Both Greek Cyprus and Turkey desperately want to import Israeli off-shore gas. According to one plan, Israeli gas would be exported directly to a facility to be set up in Vassilikos, in southern Greek Cyprus. Alternately, the gas could be delivered via an underground pipeline to the port of Jihan in southern Turkey, but en route the pipeline would have to cross under the territorial waters of Greek Cyprus to avoid crossing Lebanese and Syrian territory. Unsurprisingly, Turkey and Greek Cyprus cannot agree on this issue. All in all, it is difficult to find more geopolitical complexity and ambiguity than on Cyprus.



Geographical Patterns in the German Federal Election of 2013

German Election 2013  CDU vote MapThe recent German federal election has been widely heralded as a major victory for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union party (along with its regional sister party, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria). Taking almost 42 percent of the vote and nearly half of the seats in the Bundestag, Merkel’s center-right party had its best showing in almost a quarter century. It is thus not surprising that the Chancellor “urged her party to celebrate ‘a super result’ as she looked set for a historic third term” (as reported by the BBC).

Merkel’s victory, however, was far from overwhelming. The three main parties of the left, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Alliance ’90/The Greens, and The Left (Die Linke), would, if combined, control enough seats to form a government, a possibility precluded only because the former two parties refuse to join forces with the hard-left Die Linke. Moreover, Germany’s other main center-right party, the Free Democrats, did not reach the five percent threshold necessary for representation in the Bundestag, a massive decline from its 14.6 percent showing in 2009. 2013 marks the first time since it was founded in 1948 that the “classically liberal” Free Democrats failed to gain representation. The party’s 2,082,305 votes (4.8 percent) were almost matched by those of the upstart, anti-Euro Alternative for Germany (2,052,372), founded earlier this year. The only other parties to win more than one percent of the vote were the Pirate Party (2.2%), which stresses Internet freedom, and the far-right National Democratic Party (1.3%). Germany’s only significant secessionist organization, the Bavaria Party, took only 57,285 votes, a slight gain from its 2009 showing of 48,311. Other minor parties participating in the election include the deep-green Human Environment Animal Welfare Party (140,251 votes), the “eco-pro-life” (for want of a better term) Ecological Democratic Party (127,085 votes), the “radical-centrist” Die PARTEI, which supposedly wants to rebuild the Iron Curtain and turn the former East Germany into a Special Economic Zone (78,357 votes), The Republicans, an anti-immigration group (91,660 votes), and the evangelical Party of Bible-Abiding Christians (18,529 votes).

German election 2013 SPD voteElectoral maps at the level of the sixteen constituent states (Länder) of Germany reveal distinct geographical patterns. (Note: these maps, like the figures given above, show the results of the “second”* vote, in which voters select a party, determining whether it passes the five percent threshold, rather than a specific Bundestag candidate.) As in other recent elections, that of 2013 shows Germany to be roughly divided into three political regions: the northeast, the northwest, and the south. The northeast—the former East Germany—is much more supportive of candidates from the far left than is the rest of the country, as can clearly be seen on the map showing support for Die Linke (“The Left”). In the former West Germany, Die Linke did fairly well in industrial Saarland and in the urban state of Bremen, but even here its count was less than half of what it received in the northeast. Due in part to the local strength of the far left, the center-left Social Democrats performed poorly in the former East Germany, taking less than fifteen percent of the votes in Saxony. (Overall, the Social Democrats had their second-worst showing since 1949.) Also notable is the fact that the Green Party as well failed to gather many votes in the former East Germany, outside of east-central Berlin. As can also be seen, the Green Party did particularly well in urban areas, gaining over twelve percent of the vote in Berlin, Bremen, and Hamburg.

German Election 2013 Far Left Vote MapIn the former West Germany, the south is clearly more conservative than the north. As is the case in most elections, Bavaria in particular supported the center-right, giving just under half (49.3%) of its votes to the Christian Social Union in Bavaria and less than a quarter to the Social Democrats and Die Linke combined. Baden-Württemberg in the southwest also solidly supported the center-right, although not to the same extent as neighboring Bavaria. Baden-Württemberg, noted for its engineering-oriented economy, also gave a relatively high percentage of its votes to both the Greens and the Free Democrats.

Germany Election 2013 Green Vote MapUnsurprisingly, Germany’s electoral map shows relatively close correlations with its map of per capita GDP, especially if one excludes the urban states of Hamburg, Berlin, and Bremen. Of the large states, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg rank second and third on per capita GDP, trailing only Hesse. The five poorest states of Germany, on the other hand, constitute the former East Germany (with the exception of East Berlin). On Germany’s per capita GDP map, the Cold War division of the country is still strikingly evident after a quarter century of reunification.

German election 2013 Free Democrats Vote MapThe much more detailed Spiegel Online map posted below, which shows constituency results for the “first vote” (in which voters opt for a specific candidate for the Bundestag, rather than a party) reveals some slightly different patterns. Here, for example, one can discern two centers of Social Democratic power, one in central Germany and the other in the industrial northern Ruhr. The Berlin inset map is also of note, as it shows strong support for the far left in the former East Berlin, and for the Green Party in central Berlin. Intriguingly, the Greens took two adjacent constituencies in the heart of the city, located on either side of the old Berlin Wall. As the BBC notes in an article arguing that the Cold War division of the city persists, these Green-voting areas “have been gentrified heavily, with large numbers of young, professional incomers.”

Germany per capita GDP by state mapSpeigel German Election 2013 Map *The voting actually occurs simultaneously; the “first vote” is on the left-hand side of the ballot, the “second” on the right.


Explaining the Rapid Rise of the Xenophobic Right in Contemporary Europe

Copyright James Mayfield

The last three decades have witnessed a remarkable rise in xenophobic, deeply conservative, and even extreme right-wing parties across much of Europe.[1] Whereas thirty years ago most xenophobic parties failed to even pass the 5% minimum voter threshold that is typically required to enter government, it can be argued that they now constitute as much as ~28% of the parliament in countries like Austria, and arguably have reached the ~70% level in Hungary.[2] By 1999, the Austrians—who traditionally tout themselves as the “first victims” of the Third Reich—had elected the prominent nationalist and accused Holocaust denier[3] Jörg Haider as the governor of Carinthia and given his Freedom Party more than 26% of the vote in the national elections. Haider proceeded to personally help dismantle multilingual street signs that were erected for the local Slovene minority.[4] The Golden Dawn party, which now has more than ~7% of the national vote in Greece, often marches in the streets of Athens with Rune-emblazoned flags and jackboots that easily remind the older generations of the German occupation of 1941-45. Most recently, the Golden Dawn has distributed free meals to the racially “authentic” Greek public.[5] At the same time, prominent members of Hungary’s powerful Jobbik party have even called for the government to prepare lists of Jews who might “[pose a] threat to Hungarian national security.”[6]

Hoping to understand these surprising changes in the European political climate, this post will briefly analyze the characteristics of the xenophobic right as of 2013, underscore the diversity of xenophobic parties, and try to explain some of the patterns encountered when the far-right takes hold, as well as their exceptions. The rough percentages listed next to the parties refer to their approximate share of national parliaments according to the most recent elections, and are corroborated with each country’s respective government websites. It will become apparent that it is very difficult to locate common patterns that might explain when and why the far-right takes hold in Europe.

The shift across Europe towards the right is perhaps as surprising as it is alarming, considering that the specters of World War II and totalitarianism are still ripe in the historical memory of virtually all European societies. Even more surprising, the xenophobic right has enjoyed some of its greatest successes in countries that are usually associated with liberalism and multiculturalism, including Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Even in supposedly tolerant Switzerland, the powerful Swiss People’s Party (~26%) has restricted the construction of mosques and minarets and has even campaigned with an ad that depicted three white sheep kicking a black one out of the country.[7] Far-right, racist parties like Vlaams Blok in Belgium were gaining in popularity until they were banned for extremism in 2004. In the 2003 elections, the Vlaams Blok won almost 12% of the seats in the Chamber of Representatives. Observers in the West have especially struggled to comprehend how quickly the extreme right has emerged in Greece, the supposed birthplace of democracy. The growing popularity of the right across the continent is a source of great concern for human rights groups in Brussels, which routinely encourage national courts to ban xenophobic parties on the grounds that they breach international protections against racism.

Copyright James Mayfield
My map charting the spread of elected xenophobic parties in Europe as of 2013. When viewed on a map, the growth of the far-right is striking. Green refers to countries were a xenophobic party is in government, which gray means none is in power. Copyright James Mayfield/GeoCurrents.

However, it is critical to understand that “the right” cannot be homogenized or reduced to the typical imagery of fascism, neo-Nazism, racism, or dictatorship that might emerge in our minds when we think of the right in European history. Xenophobic parties have garnered increasing support from voters of diverse political ideologies, primarily because of growing disaffection with the status quo. As the vulnerabilities of the European Union become more apparent, increasing numbers are calling for reform of pan-European economics, integration, open border immigration, and multiculturalism—principles that have shaped the development of Europe since World War II. With skyrocketing unemployment across most of the continent, massive immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Balkans into Western Europe, and what many feel to be a broken economic and political structure of the European Union, voters of various backgrounds seem to be choosing radically different solutions to the ongoing crises in Europe.

With this in mind, it is important to recognize that political movements of the xenophobic right are just as varied as social democratic and far-left parties. They include traditionalists, pro-Europeanists, Euroskeptics, democrats, nationalists, racialists, neo-Nazis, and even Greens. The vast majority of xenophobic parties calling for restricted immigration are obdurately democratic. Most advocate a traditional, conservative, or even moderate approach to resolving Europe’s problems within the democratic process. These relatively moderate nationalists include the True Finns of Finland (~19%), the Sweden Democrats (~6%), the Danish People’s Party (~12%), and the People’s Party of Portugal (~11%). Even the ruling Fidesz Party of Hungary (~53%) advocates a conservative platform rather than a militant or autocratic agenda, despite being castigated by Western media as far-right or even dictatorial after it amended the constitution to strengthen executive powers.[8] In some countries, such as Serbia and France, far-right parties have little parliamentary strength but still boast very popular public figures. The Front National of France has only two seats in the National Assembly out of 577, but Marine Le Pen came in third in the 2012 presidential election with almost 18% of the vote. The extremist, racialist Serbian Radical Party is not even in the national government, but its former leader Tomislav Nikolić was elected president of Serbia in 2012. In short, we should be wary about placing all xenophobic movements in the same category. They vary as much in regard to their popular support as they do in regard to their ideology, and not all of them embrace anti-democratic, fascist, or authoritarian agendas.

Although all of these parties have their share of supporters who take a more violent approach to tackling immigration, most parties on “the far-right” are better described as conservative and xenophobic. The majority advocate a multi-party democratic system and do not call for any future constitutional changes that might repudiate democratic checks and balances. Most call for a non-violent solution to Europe’s economic and immigration issues. Even such nationalist parties as the New Flemish Alliance (~17%) and the Vlaams Belang (~8%) of Belgium are staunchly ethnic nationalist, but their ideology springs just as much from a desire to strengthen the rights of the Flemish population as it does from their plans to target immigrants. The same tendency applies to the rather moderate National Alliance of Latvia (~14%) and the Order & Justice Party of Lithuania (~13%), which are most concerned with offsetting the historically disproportionate influence of Russian minorities who settled in these states during the Soviet era.

The only major elected parties that take an aggressive, racialist, militant stance are the Jobbik Party of Hungary (~17%), Svoboda of Ukraine (~11%), the Golden Dawn of Greece (~7%), and “Attack!” of Bulgaria (~10%). For example, whereas most Greek parties are at least to some extent cultural nationalists (including the PASOK socialists) who allow immigrants like Albanians to assimilate into Greek culture, only the Golden Dawn often sees “Greek” as an exclusive racial category. The Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian far-right often makes similar exclusions. By contrast, “moderate nationalists” like the Sweden Democrats are more interested in curbing unrestricted immigration than they are in racial issues. Quite different are more militant parties like Jobbik, which is often accused of having links to the Hungarian Guard (Magyar Gárda), a quasi-paramilitary organization that has been compared to the brownshirts of the German SA.[9] While Bulgarian nationalists, the Golden Dawn, and Svoboda do not have equivalent organizations, their supporters have been widely linked to vandalism and assaults against immigrants, mosques, and synagogues in Athens, Sofia, and Kiev.[10] It is also widely assumed that the Athens police either cooperates with Golden Dawn or at least looks the other way during the frequent assaults on Albanian, Turkish, and Muslim immigrants in the capital.[11]

Although the economic weaknesses that have swept the EU since 2008 have become increasingly obvious, the chief reason behind the rise of the xenophobic right is not the economic alternatives it offers, but rather its hostility towards unrestricted immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Balkans. But here too, each country and party is very distinct. Xenophobic parties in Europe range from simply wanting tighter border controls, to calling for a “whites-only” immigration policy, to demanding the wholesale deportation of minorities. Although virtually all xenophobic parties are at least “soft Euroskeptic,” some merely call for greater national autonomy within the EU, whereas other are petitioning to quit the EU altogether, primarily in order to resolve the supposed immigration crisis.

Although xenophobic parties challenge immigration policies as a whole, most of their hostility is focused on Muslim immigrants, especially Moroccans, Indonesians, Arabs, Somalis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis, as well as African blacks. Importantly, xenophobia is often equally harsh against other European or “white” immigrants, particularly Albanians, Bosniaks, Greeks, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Poles, Balts, Romanians, and Russians. In Italy, the center-right Lega Nord is more xenophobic towards Southern Italians than towards Muslims. The Golden Dawn of Greece is viciously hostile towards Albanians. In Switzerland, xenophobia is mostly directed against immigrants from the former Yugoslavia. Whereas most major xenophobic parties are not overtly Anti-Semitic, Hungary’s Jobbik is widely seen as not just Anti-Zionist but anti-Jewish, and deeply anti-Ziganist (anti-Gypsy) as well. Austrian right-wing parties are usually focused against Slavs and Turks, while in the Netherlands the noted provocateur Geert Wilders and his Dutch Party of Freedom (~10%) are particularly hostile towards Muslims, especially Indonesians and Somalis. The militant Svoboda party of Ukraine (~11%) directs most of its xenophobia against ethnic Russians, Jews, Tatars, and Roma, while the aptly named “Attack!” party of Bulgaria (~10%) is vociferously anti-Ziganist, anti-Romanian, and anti-Turkish. The popular Bulgarian nationalist Volen Siderov has gone so far as to claim that Bulgaria still has yet to be liberated from “Turkish [i.e. Ottoman] rule” as long as Turks and other Muslims (presumably the Slavic-speaking Pomaks) “occupy” the country. The various “targets” of xenophobic parties demonstrates that the far-right is often successful in countries with large immigrant populations and where hostility towards newcommers is strongest. So too, the diversity of these targets remind us that we cannot generalize far-right movements as if they share the same enemies, agendas, solutions, or even political principles.

Copyright James Mayfield
My map showing the proportion of Muslim populations in Europe today (including indigenous and immigrant populations). Also included are the ethnic groups that often become the focus of the hostility of xenophobic parties. Stats from government websites and the CIA World Factbook.

It is thus difficult to locate patterns that might explain why and where the far-right has achieved electoral success. Many examples lead to contradictory and surprising results. It is suggestive that this trend is occurring during a time of great economic hardship—just as the far-right gained sway in Europe during the post-WWI slump in the early 1920s. and especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s Considering the historical link between economic instability and the rise of the far-right, it is thus surprising that such countries as Spain and Cyprus have very weak far-right movements despite having suffered skyrocketing unemployment and crippling public debt. Instead, leftist parties such as the Eurocommunist Progressive Party of Cyprus and the left-leaning ethnic separatists of Catalonia have enjoyed remarkable success in the last several years.

As another possible explanation, one might expect immigrant “transit” countries that have recently experienced a surge of immigration, such as Malta, Italy, and Cyprus, to turn towards the right. But this is not generally the case. Indeed, Malta’s powerful Nationalist Party is deeply conservative and pro-Maltese, while Italy has several small neo-fascist parties, such as that of Mussolini’s granddaughter, Alessandra. However, extreme xenophobic parties like Imperu Ewropew of Malta and Forza Nuova of Italy have had very little success. Neither is even in the national government.

Other cases also make it difficult to find consistent patterns behind the rise of the xenophobic right. We might expect ethnically diverse countries with large immigrant populations like the United Kingdom to have strong right-wing movements. However, the British National Party has consistently failed to meet the 5% threshold. (The burgeoning U.K. Independence Party is certainly conservative and EU-skeptical, but it is not truly xenophobic.) However, diverse and immigrant-rich France has seen the rise of powerful xenophobic figures like Marine Le Pen and her father Jean-Marie Le Pen before her. If ethnic diversity itself does not automatically trigger the rise of the far-right, one might conclude that ethnic homogeneity provides a more fertile ground for xenophobia. This is certainly the case in regard to Hungary, which has by far the largest right-wing movement in Europe in terms of its electoral results. So too, relatively homogenous Finland offers substantial support to xenophobic nationalist parties like the True Finns (~19%). However, other relatively homogenous states, like Poland and Norway, have weak xenophobic parties.

We might also be inclined to look for basic cultural characteristics that might explain the rise of the far-right. It is perhaps intriguing that Hungary seems to be the first country to drift towards the far-right, having been the first to pass anti-Jewish legislation in the 1930s when Miklos Horthy installed a right-wing dictatorship . However, cultural xenophobia alone does not seem to lend electoral success to far-right parties. A prime example here is Romania. Although Romanian culture is often described as deeply xenophobic and often viciously racist (particularly against Roma and Jews, and even Hungarian to some extent), the Romanian parliament is almost completely social democratic and socialist. The same might be said about Poland, Serbia, and Croatia. Even countries with genocidal pasts such as Slovakia, Germany, Croatia, and Serbia, lack strong right-wing parties. Another key example is Russia. Although Russia has what many sources consider to be the most virulent subculture of skinheads and neo-Nazis fomenting violence against migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia—marked by such horrors as the filmed beheading of a Tajik boy—extreme right parties like Great Russia and the Russian All-People’s Union have very little electoral success.[12] In short, there does not seem to be anything inherent in European national cultures that puts xenophobic parties in power.

One final explanation adds both perspective and contradiction. We might expect countries facing a difficult, traumatic, or confusing phase of transition to move towards extremist movements. Studies have shown that neo-Nazism, nationalism, and the National Democratic Party are far stronger in the former East Germany than in the rest of the country since the fall of the Berlin Wall. So too, this concept of transition may explain why Bulgarians and Ukrainians tend to support the far-right as they move away from their communist past. However, this explanation falls flat when we look at other former socialist states like Romania, Poland, Russia, and the Czech Republic, where the far-right is rather weak. Transition and cultural insecurity alone do not provide an explanation.

Two final examples are perhaps the most surprising when trying to explain the rise of the far-right: Norway and Sweden. Right-wing parties have never had much success in either country. Norway’s powerful Progressive Party (~22%) is only mildly xenophobic and is better described as conservative nationalist. The Sweden Democrats are much more virulently xenophobic, but have only recently broken the 5% minimum threshold necessary to enter government. However, throughout the 1990s and even today, Norway and Sweden saw some of the most brutal waves of anti-immigrant violence in Europe. While theses attitudes are by no means widespread in Scandinavia, this seeming contradiction might reinforce our conclusion that cultural xenophobia does not mean xenophobic parties will get elected. In Norway and Sweden, the extreme “black metal” music-oriented subculture that emerged in 1992 perpetrated numerous brutal attacks on immigrants.[13] Over a hundred churches were burned in Norway and Sweden, often with the intent to purge Scandinavia of Christian influences that the arsonists interpreted as an immigrant “Middle Eastern plague” that had to be replaced by the ancient Nordic racial religion.[14] Norway’s supposed immigration problem was met with uncompromising xenophobia and racism by members of this subculture. As late as 2008, prominent black metal musicians like Gaahl insisted that Norwegians had a duty to “remove every trace [of] what…the Semitic roots have to offer this world.”[15] He captured the opinion of much of the growing subculture by asserting that Norway is no place for immigrant “niggers” and “mulattos.”[16] The popular Norwegian drummer Jan Axel Blomberg repeated similarly that “we don’t like black people here.”[17] The Norwegian case tells us that homogenous cultures facing a very difficult adjustment to immigration and diversity often generate extreme reactions, but that such reactions do not necessarily translate into electoral success.

As this post has demonstrated, the xenophobic right has become more pervasive than most observers may have realized. Perhaps this is disconcerting. At the same time as many Europeans are calling for greater integration and cooperation in order to fix Europe’s problems, increasing numbers of people are moving in the opposite direction by advocating greater nationalism, homogeneity, and xenophobia. However, the common gut reaction to interpret this trend as a rebirth of fascism, Nazism, racialism, or dictatorship is as sensationalist as it is oversimplified. The xenophobic right advocates radically different economic, political, and cultural platforms in response to the supposed immigration crisis. So too, as the above cases demonstrate, we cannot explain when and why the far-right takes hold by pointing to any common cultural, demographic, or economic patterns. When we consider the aforementioned conflicting and contradictory cases in Europe, it remains to be found what exactly causes far-right parties to become popular so quickly. Each xenophobic movement must be observed—with understandable trepidation and concern—on a country-by-country basis.

James Mayfield is a historian, researcher, and translator from Stanford University with two Masters Degrees in History. He specializes in genocide, nationalism, post-colonial identity, and cultural traumas. He currently has two books soon to be released, one on the expulsion of 10,000,000 ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe (Memoria del Olvido) and one on an ethnic Slovene survivor of both German and Italian concentration camps during World War II (Peter Starič, My Life under Totalitarianism). Contact him here:

[1] In this article, “xenophobia” refers to any political platform that calls for the strict limitation of immigration, strengthened border controls, the reform or abolition of the Schengen Zone, or even the expulsion of minorities.

[2] This number refers to the combination of the Austrian Freedom Party (roughly 17% of the Nationalrat) and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (~11%). For Hungary, this number refers to Fidesz (~53%) and Jobbik (~17%).

[3] Anat Shalev, “Foreign Ministry ‘concerned’ over Austria elections,” Yedioth Ahronoth Newspaper,,7340,L-3603718,00.html.

[4] “Haider zagrozil Korineku zaradi odločbe ustavnega sodišča,” Dnevnik,

[5] BBC, “Athens police stop food handout by Greek far right,”

[6] Marton Dunai, “Anger as Hungary far-right leader demands lists of Jews,” Reuters,

[7] Elaine Sciolino, “Immigration, Black Sheep, and Swiss Rage,” New York Times,

[8] Hungary has even been threatened with suspension or punishment by some European Union MEPs. See Pablo Gorondi, “Hungarian PM Orban rejects criticism of constitutional change, says democracy not threatened,” Fox News,

[9] Balazs Penz and Alex Kuli, “Brown shirts march in Budapest as Gyurcsany condemns ‘Fascists,” Bloomberg,

[10] Maria Vidali, “News from Greece: Anti-Jewish attacks,” Central Europe Review,

[11] Paul Mason, “Alarm at Greek police ‘collusion’ with far-right Golden Dawn,” BBC,

[12] Dan Harris and Karin Weinberg, “Violence ‘in the name of the nation,” ABC News,

[13] See Michael Moynihan, Lords of Chaos: Satanischer Metal: Der blutige Aufstief aus dem Untergrund (Index Verlag, 2004).

[14] See Bård Eithun Faust in Aaron Aites, “Until the Light Takes Us,” Artists Public Domain/Field Pictures, 2009.

[15] Jessica Joy Wise and Sam Dunn, “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” Seville Pictures/Warner, 2005.

[16] See Tomasz Krajewski’s interview with Gorgoroth, scan available here:

[17] Moynihan, Lords of Chaos, 305.

Misleading Murder and Rape Maps, and the Sweden Rape Puzzle

World Murder Rate MapThe previous post on murder rates in Brazil featured a Wikipedia map of homicide rate by country, based on a 2011 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). That map, reproduced here, is less than ideal, as its highest category lumps together countries with hugely different homicide rates, ranging from 20.1 per 100,000 in Kyrgyzstan to 91.6 in Honduras. I therefore remapped the same data in 12 rather than six categories. I also used a two-color scheme, depicting low-murder-rate countries in varying shades of blue and high-murder-rate countries in red. Such a system better captures the huge variation in murder rates, which ranges from 0.3 per 100,000 (Iceland and Singapore) to almost 100 per 100,000 (Honduras).

World Murder Rate Geocurrents MapThe geographical patterns revealed by the map are clear. Murder is much more common in tropical Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Russia than it is in most of the rest of the world. Homicide is relatively rare in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East & North Africa.

But are such figures reliable? In general, murder data is considered to be one of the more reliable crime statistics, due in part to the mere severity of the offense. But that still does not mean that it is necessarily trustworthy. I am skeptical, for example, of the low homicide rate posted for Somalia (1.5), which is substantially below those of neighboring countries. Much of Somalia is wracked by extreme violence, although it can be difficult to determine whether an individual killing is best considered an act of murder or an incident of war. But more to the point, how could a country as anarchic as Somalia possibly gather dependable murder data?

The low reported murder rate in China has been received with some skepticism, as have official reports that it has been declining sharply in recent years. As The Economist recently reported:

Official figures show that the number of murder cases rose from fewer than 10,000 in 1981 to more than 28,000 in 2000. Since then it has dropped almost every year, to about 12,000 in 2011. China’s statistics bureau does not disclose which crimes are included in its murder data. Chinese scholars say that a single case might include several deaths, and that some killings which occur in the course of other violent crimes such as rape or robbery might be excluded. In a 2006 report, the World Health Organisation estimated that in 2002, when 26,300 murder cases were recorded in China, 38,000 people died from “homicide-related injuries”.

Homicide Data Source mapWhen I mentioned China’s supposedly low murder rate in my seminar on the history and geography of current global events this week, the one Chinese student in the class expressed strong doubt. According to her, murder for gambling debt is common in China but rarely recorded. Although I was unable to find systematic information on this topic, an internet search of “China, murder, gambling” does return a curiously large number of hits.

The authors of the UNODC report are well aware of such data problems, and they worked hard to overcome them. They have considered the discrepancies found among different sources of information for different countries, and they weight the results accordingly. For several parts of the world they have abandoned conventional “criminal justice data” in favor of “public health sources.”  In the process, they have revised murder rates of many African countries sharply upwards.

World Rape Rate MapIf global murder-rate figures are problematic, rape-rate figures appear to be almost worthless. Consider, for example, the Index Mundi rape-rate map posted here, which indicates that Sweden and New Zealand have some of the highest levels of rape in the world, and that Egypt has one of the lowest. Although the map comes with a disclaimer,* it is hardly adequate. Could anyone possibly believe that Sweden has a higher rape rate than Egypt? Egypt is currently suffering a rape epidemic so severe that it is becoming a diplomatic issue. Sweden, meanwhile, consistently rates as one of the most gender egalitarian, nonviolent countries in the world.

Yet it does appear that many people accept such official statistics, and are happy to use them to score ideological points. This occurs on both on the right and left sides of the political spectrum. In a letter to the government of Sweden, leftist filmmaker Michael Moore writes:

Let me say that again: nine out of ten times, when women [in Sweden] report they have been raped, you never even bother to start legal proceedings. No wonder that, according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, it is now statistically more likely that someone in Sweden will be sexually assaulted than that they will be robbed. Message to rapists? Sweden loves you! So imagine our surprise when all of a sudden you decided to go after one Julian Assange [of Wikileaks fame] on sexual assault charges.

On the political right, an article in FrontPage also accepts Sweden’s official rape statistics on face value, but places all the blame on Muslim immigrants:

In 2003, Sweden’s rape statistics were higher than average at 9.24, but in 2005 they shot up to 36.8 and by 2008 were up to 53.2. Now they are almost certainly even higher as Muslim immigrants continue forming a larger percentage of the population. With Muslims represented in as many as 77 percent of the rape cases and a major increase in rape cases paralleling a major increase in Muslim immigration, the wages of Muslim immigration are proving to be a sexual assault epidemic by a misogynistic ideology.

Although Muslim immigrants have been responsible for many if not most recent cases of forcible rape in Sweden, the country’s extremely high official rape rate seems to be mostly a result of tabulation strategies. Many acts are counted as rape in Sweden that would not be so counted elsewhere. As explained recently in the BBC:

On the face of it, it would seem Sweden is a much more dangerous place than these other countries. But that is a misconception, according to Klara Selin, a sociologist at the National Council for Crime Prevention in Stockholm. She says you cannot compare countries’ records, because police procedures and legal definitions vary widely. In Sweden there has been this ambition explicitly to record every case of sexual violence separately, to make it visible in the statistics,” she says. “So, for instance, when a woman comes to the police and she says my husband or my fiance raped me almost every day during the last year, the police have to record each of these events, which might be more than 300 events. In many other countries it would just be one record – one victim, one type of crime, one record.”

Barriers to Rape Reporting MapMany countries exhibit the opposite tendency: the systematic under-reporting of rape. Rape cases are not reported for a variety of reasons, both cultural and institutional.

One strategy for determining the actual prevalence of rape is to examine obstacles to reporting the crime. The Woman Stats Project, which has created an intriguing map collection, has done precisely that, mapping the “Strength of Barriers to Reporting Rape.” As can be seen, cultural and legal obstacles are depicted as extreme across South and Southwest Asia, and much of Africa as well. The data source, however, is not specified, and I am skeptical of many of the claim advanced by the map. Are reporting barriers really much more intense in Germany than they are in Austria or Switzerland?  I have more serious misgivings about another map in the same cartographic series, which depicts the prevalence of rape. This map tells us that rape is non-existent in Armenia and Georgia, and that India, Pakistan, and Sudan have a lower prevalence of the crime than Iceland, Finland, and Australia. It also tells us that Brazil—another country currently experiencing a “rape epidemic”—suffers less rape than the Netherlands and at least six times less rape than Montenegro. The huge gaps between neighboring countries in Africa are also highly suspicious.

Prevalence of Rape MapWhen it comes to crime rates, it does seem that statistics—and maps based on those statistics—are often so misleading as to be essentially dishonest.

*The disclaimer reads as follows: “Note though that comparison of crime rates across countries needs to be be taken with a grain of salt, since in some countries the population may be reluctant to report certain types of crimes to the police.”