Sorry Nick, but there is more that Facebook can and should be doing.

Nick Clegg was on the Today Programme this morning to talk about his job with Facebook and its role in facilitating interference with elections and referendums in the UK and around the world. 

Clegg says there is no evidence that Russia influenced the result of the Brexit vote using Facebook. 

To quote Mandy Rice Davies – Well he would say that, wouldn’t he.

Clegg appears to blame deep-rooted Euroscepticism for the outcome. He also argues for greater regulation of social media and tech firms saying there should be new rules of the road on privacy, election rules, use of personal data and what constitutes hate speech.

Clearly there is no single reason why the UK voted to leave. Pinning all the blame on Facebook, Russia, Cambridge Analytica or anyone else is misleading. However, there does appear to be significant evidence that the last of these had access to a huge amount of personal data, harvested via Facbook, and sought to use it via campaigns to influence people’s voting. The evidence of Russian involvement is not quite so strong as that Russia sought to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election (where it is undeniable), but it is clear that Facebook was used as a platform for illegal campaigning, even if unwittingly.

And it is also clear that whatever happened in the UK referendum, there have been many cases of outside forces seeking to affect national elections via Facebook and other online activity. The Macedonian name referendum and recent Ukrainian Presidential election are just two examples.

Clegg is right that the should be better regulation that reflects the modern world. But he is wrong to imply that there are no rules in existence at the moment. The UK, as most countries, has a vast amount of electoral law that codifies who can campaign and how much they can spend. That these laws were written before the advent of the public internet doesn’t matter. If the law can apply to paper leaflets then, broadly, it can also apply to internet communications.

Difficult though it may be for Facebook, a company that operates in 150+ countries and therefore with 150+ sets of different election laws, it is the responsibility of everyone to obey the applicable law in the countries in which you operate. Facebook’s reaction until now, however, has been to place itself above the law. It has proposed (and is gradually implementing) two significant changes, requiring election related advertising on its site to be clearly labelled as such and reporting on who is paying for political advertising. Both of these changes are to be welcomed, but they are not yet universally applied. And, crucially, they do not accord with the detail of election law in each country. In seeking to apply its own solution, Facebook is thumbing its nose at elections around the world.

It is not just the main Facebook site that is doing so. WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram and many other social media platforms also have their problems. Some of these will need new legislation to solve, but most simply require the company behind them to read and adapt to local laws.

Russia’s next President? What happens in 2024 (UPDATED 24/6/19)

UPDATE: Chatham House held a round table today (24/6/19) with Kirill Rogov, a political analyst, who discussed these precise scenarios. The suggestions and conclusions below remain my own, but I have updated them to take account of some of the things that Kirill said.


Vladimir Putin was re-elected as President of the Russian Federation last year by a healthy margin. Not quite the 70/70 margin that he was aiming for, but a significant first round majority in an election characterised by a lack of competition. But that was, at least officially, his last election. In 2024 his second term will expire. Russia, and the wider world, wants to know what will come next.

In essence, there are five options for Putin to consider and very few Russia watchers are brave enough to put much money on any particular one. The signs that he is going down a particular path might be well hidden, but they are nonetheless there. The trouble is that the same sign might lead to more than one outcome. Therefore, in no particular order:

  1. A second ‘Dos-si-Dos’ with Medvedev

It worked once, so why not again? Taking a term off from the role of President to be Prime Minister is hardly a real change as no one would be under illusions about who is the real boss. Medvedev would undertake a bit more ceremonial stuff, but Putin would still pull the strings.

Except – Medvedev is not nearly as credible as he once was. In fact he is seen as a Dan Quayle-type by some in Russia, and there is currently no one else with sufficient profile to be slotted in as a reliable figurehead. What happens if the voters of Russia choose not to endorse Medvedev (or another nominee) in an election? And will Putin be seen as being too old to return. After all, the presidential term has been lengthened from four to six years and he will be 78 before he is allowed to resume the top job. UPDATE: Kirill Rogov pointed out that even ‘facade’ Presidents such as Medvedev can build up a coterie of followers who have either been excluded by the main regime or who see this as a means of advancement. This can be a problem for the main player when they return to the top job.

How we might see this coming – If Putin starts to emphasise the inviolability of the constitution; If Medvedev is replaced as Prime Minister or a credible, but not threatening, successor is groomed.


  1. Stepping Away from it all

If the constitution says that Putin cannot stand again as President, then he could simply follow the constitution. It is the simplest and most elegant option and would bring praise from former opponents and enemies around the world. He could step back and enioy his retirement years in fitting luxury.

Except – Everyone knows that this is not how this story plays out. Russia as a top down autocracy might have lost some of its direction in recent decades, but even if every directive is no longer controlled by the party or the president, a lot of what happens is done because officials believe that this is what the boss would want to happen. Stepping away from such power and control is highly unlikely. Putin has undoubtedly amassed great private wealth but gives no sign of wanting to retire to enjoy it. And, once he is no longer in charge, he cannot protect himself, his friends or his family as he can now. Retribution is not going to come straight away, but in a decade or so life could get pretty tough for an ex-authoritarian.

How we might see this coming – More emphasis on the constitution and its importance; Strengthening ties with a friendly country where Putin might acquire a ‘holiday home’; Promotion of a successor who is stronger than Medvedev but nonetheless completely unthreatening to Putin; Interest in taking on an international role (ideally one that comes with some form of immunity).


  1. The Nazarbayev

A number of long standing leaders of former Soviet states are deciding that the time is right to step aside. Their concern, as Putin’s, is to safeguard their legacy. Or, more accurately, to ensure they aren’t likely to face the inside of a courtroom or the loss of all their pilfered gains.

So Putin might look to the example set by Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. Nazabayev stepped aside earlier this year in favour of his longstanding (and largely anonymous) sidekick Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. But Nazarbayev didn’t quit politics completely. He retained the position of head of the Nur Otan Party (Kazakhstan is effectively a one party state) as well as President of the Security Council. In addition, every second thing in Kazakhstan is named after Nazarbayev – who is referred to as ‘First President and Leader of the Nation’. From airports to universities to the capital city itself, it is difficult to imagine him being denounced, let alone put under any real hardship.

Except – For all the deficiencies of the Russian Federation, it is a more open and pluralist state than Kazakhstan. Putin might well get a defence college named after him, but I suspect Moscow and St Petersburg will be inked into atlases for a few years yet to come. The United Russia Party was created to do Putin’s will but it has also been the shock absorber for discontent within the country and looks set to be abandoned in favour of a new grouping if needed. Putin could well keep hold of the country’s security aparatus and that could protect him for a few years, but it is not the long term solution that he might wish.

How we might see this coming – Almost certainly, we won’t. The secret to making this option a success is that it must come by surprise. Perhaps the absence of other options will be the clue. But if it is to happen then it is unlikely to be at the last minute.


  1. A new union

The constitution forbids a third consecutive term as President of the Russian Federation. But what if there were another top job created? What if another, currently independent, state decided to throw in its lot with Russia to create a new Union. Well if that were to happen then that union would need to have a supreme leader, wouldn’t it? An elected President. And who better to guide this new creation than Putin? This option actually feeds into Russia’s adoption of the Brezhnev Doctrine and spheres of influence, especially if some countries cannot be trusted to be loyal of their own volition.

Except – The downside here, of course, is what state is going to give up its sovereignty to become a vassal of Russia? Belarus is the obvious choice, as many in Russia regard it as the only true ally but it seems unlikely. Kazakhstan is another option, but that ship might well have sailed with the accession of Tokayev to the seat of power in Nur-Sultan.

The other concern would be the consternation sparked in the remaining former Soviet states. Who would believe that Putin’s ambitions are limited to a union of two or three? 

How we might see this coming – If it looks like Belarus is wobbling away from adherence to Russia or if any of the central asian states start to become too close to China.


  1. A new constitution

That this is Putin’s final term is due to the limits imposed by the constitution. If such a document imposes limits that you don’t like then you can simply amend it, right? 

Except – A new constitution would require a public vote and, whilst these have been easy enough to win in the past, the same might not be the case in the future. Putin is less popular than he was before and the crest that he rode after annexing Crimea has definitely fallen away. Presidential elections are easier to manipulate because a vote against Putin required ballots to be cast in favour of one of a range of pretty unappealling alternatives. Voting against a constitutional amendment is much easier to do as it means simply rejecting Putin’s power grab. UPDATE: Kirill Rogov points out that abolishing term limits might not require a referendum and could be undertaken by a simple Parliamentary Bill. He suggests that a move like this can either be undertaken on the back of a wave of popularity or in response to a national crisis. And whilst Putin has successfully ridden foreign policy interventions before, these are having less effect. He might need to ensure there is a crisis in which the Russian population perceives Russia to be the victim.

And whilst it is easy enough to rig an election – and he has had lots of practice – massaging a constitutional poll would be more blatant than anything Putin has yet managed. Expect mass footage of ballot box stuffing and rejection of the results by honest international observer groups.

How we might see this coming – If there is talk about the need for a new or updated constitution. Putin was very good at boosting turnout in the last presidential election by running ‘neighbourhood improvement ballots’ alongside. Give the public something they really care about to vote for and you can get away with slipping in a less popular change at the same time.

Albania’s local elections cancelled amidst political protests

Albania is heading for a political showdown between President Ilir Meta and Prime Minister Edi Rama. The President has said he is cancelling local elections scheduled for June 30th but the Prime Minister insists they will go ahead.

The President’s actions come after many weeks of street protests led by anti-government protesters who accuse the government of fraud and corruption. Petrol bombs were thrown at the Prime Minister’s office before activists were dispersed by police using tear gas and water cannon.

The opposition wants the government to step down and call an early general election. In the meantime they planned to boycott the local polls.

This situation comes at the worst time for the government of Albania which is looking to open talks on joining the EU. 

Moldova enters political crisis as President Dodon stripped of his duties (UPDATED: Crisis over)


Protests have been held in Chisinau for many weeks

20/6/19 UPDATE: The political crisis is over as the Democratic Party have resigned and accepted the new coalition’s right to govern. An update written on the (American) International Republican Institute blog gives one take on what has happened.

Moldova has been plunged into political crisis after the Constitutional Court dimissed President Igor Dodon and handed his powers to Pavel Filip who promptly dissolved parliament and called fresh elections. However the Parliament has refused to recognise the court’s ruling and has recognised the new government of Maia Sandu, former World Bank adviser and Education Minister.

The origins of this crisis are the inconclusive elections held in April. At that time no party won an overrall majority and negotiations started to form a coalition government. But with three very different political forces in the country – Dodon’s pro-Russian Socialist Party, Filip’s Democratic Party and Sandu’s pro-Western ACUM bloc – this looked an impossible task. This was exacerbated by the close result of the election in which the Socialists won 35 seats, the Democratic Party 30 seats and ACUM 26 seats of the 101 seat legislature.


Maia Sandu of the ACUM bloc

In Saturday, Dodon and Sandu announced an unlikely alliance with Sandu being named Prime Minister and a Socialist Party MP taking the Speaker’s chair. This alliance appear aimed at keeping the oligarch leader of the Democratic Party – Vladimir Plahotniuc – out of power. However the Constitutional Court ruled that the coalition had not been formed before the mandated time limit of 7th June and declared Dodon stripped of his office as he had failed to call the fresh elections required when no government could be formed in time. Filip was named President and he immediately called elections for September 6th.

With Parliament refusing to recognise the authority of Filip, the stand-off threatens disorder in the country which is already split with an unrecognised territory of Transnistria claiming independence. Transnistria is home to a vast Cold War Russian arms dump which is guarded by Russian forces. Regarded as a frozen conflict, there is concern that instability in the country could lead to a return to arms. Both the EU and NATO have appealed for calm.

You can find a preview I wrote about the inconclusive elections here.

Kazakhstan election gets a failing grade from OSCE/ODIHR

Yesterday’s snap Presidential election in Kazakhstan has been assessed very negatively by OSCE/ODIHR, the most respected international group present in the country. The election was called after interim President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called the poll having taken over from long time President Nursultan Nazarbayev .

The full OSCE/ODIHR statement can be found here. It is a preliminary statement and the final report will be issued in a couple of months once the election processes, including any complaints and appeals, have been dealt with.

In short, OSCE/ODIHR found that:

  • there were a few positives, including that the central election commission held its meetings in public;
  • the campaign environment was not equal, with huge bias being shown towards the incumbent;
  • although there were seven candidates, including one woman, there was no real choice available to voters;
  • restrictions on freedom of assembly and arrests of those who expressed views opposed to the incumbent regime meant there was not an open campaign environment;
  • there were indications of malfeasance on Election Day including of ballot box stuffing;
  • counting and tabulation procedures were particularly problematic with evidence of manipulation of the vote.

Mr Tokayev was declared the winner with 70.76% of the vote – well down on the 98% which his predecessor was recorded as having gained last time.

This report presents a challenge both to the Kazakh regime and to other governments. The Kazakh regime has shown in the past that it does not take much notice of OSCE/ODIHR reports. Will they do so this time? And similarly for the OSCE member governments that commissioned this mission – will they take any account of the problems with the election and will any action follow?


UPDATE: A Chatham House paper on the elections and what happens next is here.


Sudan moves to swift polls as agreement between military and opposition collapses

Sudan’s army leaders have called for elections in the country to be held within nine months after fresh protests brought the end of an agreement between the opposition and military.

The regime of President Omar al-Bashir was toppled in April after months of protests. The army moved against the former leader and appeared to be working with the opposition. An agreement was in place for elections to take place in three years time as the opposition said that it would take that long for the grip of the old regime on the levers of power to be loosened.

However the military launched a brutal attack on protesters in Khartoum recently and has been condemned internationally. The head of the Transitional Military Council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, said in a statement broadcast on state television that they had decided to “stop negotiating with the Alliance for Freedom and Change and cancel what had been agreed on”.

Opposition groups believe that elections held in just nine months time will allow remnants of the old regime to maintain their grip on power.

Algerian elections cancelled as elites bow to street protests

Algeria’s Constitutional Council has postponed the Presidential election planned for July 4th amid claims that no suitable candidates had come forward. The move will be seen as a victory for street protesters who have rallied against the old order in the country.

The country has been gripped by street protests which resulted in the resignation of long-time leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika two months ago. The 80 year old had been in power for more than two decades. Protesters had been skeptical about the election which they saw as being in the grip of the old elites and the army.

Abdelkader Bensalah had been appointed as interim President with a mandate to stay on until July 9th, but his term is now going to be extended and it is he who has been tasked with organising fresh elections, although no date has been set.

General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, had been overseeing the poll as the head of the Army and key powerbroker in the country. However the election was cancelled after the two candidates who came forward were deemed to be invalid due to a lack of supporting signatures.

The New York Times has more.