On January 23rd, the day following the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty (which, as mentioned in an earlier post, was a key moment in the construction of the European Union), the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave an important speech addressing the future of the EU, and also the futures of the Tory party in the UK.
Besides addressing two different sets of worries, the speech was necessarily directed at two different audiences, which resulted in a difficult balancing work, trying to combine and present these as one coherent program – probably reflecting Cameron’s own complex position on the issue, as well.
The two major problems identified in the address are the crisis of the Euro zone (or, on a broader scale, the economic competitiveness of Europe facing the rising economies of Asia) and the crisis of democratic legitimacy of the EU’s governance structures; briefly put, prosperity & popular support.
Nobody would disagree with this twin diagnosis; many would, however, with the solutions proposed by the British PM. Even more so, it is highly debatable if the very definition of the EU offered in the speech fits the reality of the EU’s origins and purposes, even 50 years on.
AUSTRALIA: LABOR PARTY CHANGES ITS PRIME MINISTER, BUT LOSES THE ELECTIONS
In June, Australian PM Julia Gillard was removed from the leadership of the Labor Party, which also meant that she lost her position as the head of the government (executive). Although it is fairly unusual, and potentially damaging, for a party in power to change its leader and head of the government, it is not unheard of; indeed, a famous recent case was the unseating of Margaret Thatcher from her leadership position, after a long reign over the UK and the Conservative Party. Given that in a parliamentary system the executive derives its legitimacy and power exclusively from the legislative majority, it is the party or coalition that has that majority, which delegates the executive function, usually to the party leader – and the party can also take it away. But there is a significant risk in doing so, both in terms of public image and grip on power; so why did the Australian Labor Party do it?
Well, parliamentary elections were coming up, and Labor and its leader, Julia Gillard, were facing disappointing ratings in the polls, especially in the so-called marginal constituencies (the districts that do not “belong” clearly to one party or the other, but are actually disputed in the elections). By June, Labor was seeing the steady ascendancy of their main rivals, the conservative Coalition (which includes the Liberals, the National Party, the Liberal National Party, and the Country Liberals), under the leadership of Tony Abbott. A change was necessary, therefor, in order to salvage these elections.
And a change did come about, yet what deep irony that the person who replaced Gillard through such a palace coup is none other than former Labor leader and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who only three years ago had been removed from his leadership positions by – yes, you’ve guessed – Julia Gillard, due to – yes, you know it! – low polling scores. Quite the Shakespearian turn of events.
Be it as it may, after yet again party becoming leader and Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd was quick to set the date of the elections for the House of Representatives for September 7, 2013 – only a month later. The House of Representatives is the lower chamber of the bicameral Australian Parliament (besides the Senate), and is the one within which the governing majority is formed; in other words, the formation of the executive depends on having a majority in the House, not the Senate (see Australian political system). In the brief time between the announcement of the date, and the elections proper, the parties engaged in a campaign to convince the voters that they are the more trustworthy choices to deal with the core issues: keeping the economy successful, improving the infrastructure, immigration and asylum seekers, managing the social benefits, climate change etc. Although not far from each other on the most basic aspects of these issues, a few items differentiated the parties and their leaders more sharply: an emphasis from Coalition’s Tony Abbott on eliminating the carbon and mining taxes; fierce opposition from Labor’s Kevin Rudd to the conservative plans of providing maternal leave with full pay to all families; and policy nuances about how to deal with the often tragic stories of boats filled with asylum seekers originating from the poorer parts of the Asia, Oceania or MENA .
For a more detailed insight into the issues and the general rhetoric that characterized these Australian elections, watch the first, second, or third debate (below) between the two party leaders (and potential Prime Ministers), Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott.
In Australia, voting for the House of Representatives takes place based on a preferential voting system: each voter ranks (#1, #2 etc.) all the individual candidates (each representing a different party) who compete for the one seat available in each division (district); the winner is decided after counting these rankings for each candidate (see detailed description). (As an interesting side-note: voting in Australia is compulsory.)
The elections of September 7 proved that the last minute leadership changes did not deliver the victory for Labor; instead, the Abbott-led Coalition won in a decisive fashion, garnering a strong majority of 90 out of a total of 150 House seats, while Labor’s share shrank to only 54 seats (see detailed and summary results). Tony Abbott has become thus the new Prime Minister of Australia, forming the cabinet and already starting to tackle some of the issues emphasized during the campaign.
Gibraltar, the British territory at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, at the meeting point of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, once again “flared” into the headlines, as the subject of dispute between the Kingdom of Spain and the UK – or, more precisely, between the Government of Gibraltar and that of Spain, with the British government as a proxy. The tensions increased after Gibraltar’s decision this summer to drop some 70 blocks of concrete unto the bottom of the sea, in order to impede the Spanish fishing boats from trawling the sea floor, which Gibraltarians contend is destructive of the natural environment. The problem is of course complicated by the fact that Gibraltar does not possess an internationally-recognized maritime territory, and thus its attempts at protecting natural resources clash with Spanish claims to sovereignty over those waters. But, of course, the main question of sovereignty regards Gibraltar itself,
The situation is very interesting, because it raises – in a world of “nation-states” – the question of what criteria are to be used that define the boundaries and existence of a state. What makes a given territory and its population – a state? Should the main principle be, the will of the inhabitants? Many states, UK and Spain included, would not really subscribe to this criterion – at least, not unconditionally. Is it geography? – inasmuch as some territories seem to be “a natural part” of a geographic unit? Well, some are obviously not – see Puerto Rico, Alaska, Hawai’i, or Guam.: all US territories, but hardly contiguous with the mainland. The answer – if there is an answer – is that statehood, just like everything else in the political reality, is a matter of history and existing arrangements, as much as it is of current power relationships; in other words, a combination of the status quo with the moment’s balance of forces (or relationship) between the interested parties.
What makes the Gibraltar case even more interesting, is that both Spain as well as the UK are confronted with similar situations, elsewhere: Spain with its Ceuta and Melilla enclaves, off the coast of Morocco, and the United Kingdom with regard to the Falklands / Malvinas islands, in Argentina’s territorial waters. On the one hand, Spain can point to Hong Kong, which was a similar UK territory, yet sovereignty over which was handed over, rather seamlessly, to the People’s Republic of China. On the other hand, the population of Gibraltar (just like that of the Falklands) have voted overwhelmingly, in several referendums, in favor of British sovereignty (in 1967), rejecting even tentative attempts at establishing a kind of shared sovereignty between UK and Spain (solution to which the British would have been amenable, in in 2002).
It does not help that in this type of cases bombastic rhetoric abounds, both in the media and in the political life, as all too many are all too eager to harp on the string of identity politics (the nation-state: that must be a nation, there must be a state). The Spanish state, however, has been facing much greater struggles about sovereignty, with regard to Catalonia and the Basque region; after all, those are larger, are in the heart of the mainland, and are much more significant than a “Rock” populated by 30,000 inhabitants. Britain, on the other hand, is a multi-national state (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland), with a complicated history of statehood and national self-definition; the next challenge it will face is the David Cameron-proposed referendum on Scottish independence.
Nationalism is the language of the age, still – but only one of the competing discourses that shapes politics today. Another, increasingly powerful rhetoric, is about a continuously increasing democratization, understood as the “horizontalization” of politics: direct determination, direct influence, and direct access of people over the political institutions and processes. In a world of (nation-)states, however, the first task is that of defining “the people” who are supposed to enjoy direct democracy – or, in other words, the populational and territorial parameters of the political unit within which this self-determination “of the people” is supposed to take place. Here is where the question of sovereignty (popular, institutional) still comes into play.
DETROIT, US: The city of Detroit has declared bankruptcy, becoming the largest municipality to ever do so, in the history of the US. Detroit’s long and relatively steady decline started in the 1960s, perhaps even earlier. In the 1950s, it was the fifth largest US city; today, its population is of only 770,000, among whom 18% are unemployed (in addition, 33% of its territory is vacant or unusable). Some say it all started with the riots of 1967, which only accelerated the already existing national trend of mass migration from the inner-urban, to the suburban areas. Coupled with this was the steady process of de-industrialization, which hit Detroit just like it did other major American cities (Milwaukee, Indianapolis etc.). Yet those cities have not yet declared bankruptcy. So, what happened in Detroit? It seems that what we are witnessing today is the result of several decades of mismanagement of an already deteriorating situation (see timeline), a process in which mayors, city governments, citizen groups, unions, and the media, all played their (negative) part (see this in-depth investigation into the manifold causes, from the Detroit Free Press.)
During the last four decades, a continuously shrinking population and property values lead to an ever-smaller tax base for operating the city; simultaneously, however, Detroit’s commitments to its workers, retirees, and health funds continuously increased. To close the resulting gap between income and expenditures, taxes were increased, and the city kept borrowing, and borrowing (last time, and most disastrously, under disgraced Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick); at the same time, the incomes continued getting smaller, and smaller, notwithstanding the profitable casinos opened in the late ’90s. With little money to spend on things other than these contracted debts and the aforementioned employee obligations, the services the city was supposed to provide kept deteriorating. If you add to this the high levels of taxation and a horrific crime rate, it is not surprising that people and businesses kept leaving, and never returning, further reducing the city’s income and the average quality of life.
Right now, Detroit faces increasing obligations, from debt and interest on debt – with no money to pay them: not now, nor in the foreseeable future. A “bailout” from the state of Michigan or the federal government is not possible, although some help has been promised, and an emergency city manager has been appointed by Michigan’s Governor. One of the key steps in moving out of this situation has just been done – declaring bankruptcy, and thus trying to tackle the ever-piling debt.
This is a tragic story, Detroit’s – perhaps the most tragic, of all the formerly glorious American cities, which have been devastated by suburbanization and de-industrialization.
BELGIUM: At the beginning of July, in a quite unexpected move, King Albert II of Belgium announced his decision to abdicate in favor of his son, Prince Philippe (video). Only three weeks later, Prince – and now King – Philippe, age 53, was inaugurated, becoming the new head of state (video). Unlike in other constitutional monarchies, or in parliamentary democracies in general, the Belgian head of state has had to play an important role in the recent political history of the country. This is due to the peculiar makeup of Belgium’s society, and of the political and administrative system it has engendered. Belgium is a multiethnic and multilingual (French-speaking Walloons, Dutch-speaking Flemish, and German-speakers), multiconfessional (Catholic and Protestant), federal state, based on asymmetrical federalism. There are several levels of government: national, regional – and ethno-linguistic.
Ethno-linguistic federalism? For example, the Dutch-speaking community has its own governing structures, with authority in matters of culture and education over Dutch-speakers across the borders of the regions – which have their own administrative authorities. In other words, federalism is regional, and cultural as well – and those borders are not the same (see this detailed map of Belgian federalism). Within Belgium, the socio-cultural divisions between the various communities are so sharp, that each of them has developed its own, community-specific, complete spectrum of political parties. For example, there is a Flemish social-democratic party, which is completely different from the social-democratic party of the Walloon part of Belgium – they ale elected and activate in different parts of Belgium, but are also supposed to work together nationally (at federal level).
Given that the centrifugal tendencies are so strong, the role of the head of state, which is usually only ceremonial and representative, becomes quite important, both as the unifying symbol of the nation (?) and of the state, and as the political arbiter. For example, following the federal elections of 2010, Belgium went for a world-record 541 days (or more, by some counts), without forming a new government (yes, almost two years!). Thus, the monarch, who normally has the duty to invite the winner of the elections to form the government, had to play a very active role in managing the lengthy transition, and the coalition-building process – all in the interest of fulfilling his duty, which is to maintain the integrity and long-term welfare of the Belgian state and society. (Indeed, this is not very different from the very active role that other, normally ceremonial heads of state, need to play, in similar situations of political instability – see the role of the Italian president.)
We can be almost certain, therefore, that the new King Philippe of Belgium will have to face true historic challenges in the years to come, in order to “observe the Constitution [and] preserve national independence and the integrity of the territory”, as prescribed in the Constitutional Oath that he took at inauguration.
MALI: In July and August the Republic of Mali held two successful rounds of presidential elections – orderly, with high participation, and with undisputed results. Quite a remarkable feat, considering that only a few months earlier the state was on the brink of collapse, with only the requested and welcomed intervention of French troops stopping the country from falling completely under the control of extremist Islamist groups. And maybe it is exactly for that reason – for having been so close to the brink, and also by way of the strong encouragement from the Western backers (France, US), that the political class and the Malian people itself managed to get through such successful presidential elections, in very difficult circumstances – a necessary first step in the re-construction of a hopefully lasting and successful political system.
The winner of the elections, and the new president of Mali, is Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), who in the first round of the vote obtained 40% of the vote, with Soumaïla Cissé, his main opponent, receiving 20%, and twenty other also-ran candidates obtained much less. Given that nobody received a majority of the vote (50%+1) in the first round, a second, run-off vote had to be held, with only the first two placed candidates in the running. Keita carried these elections as well, and in an overwhelming fashion, obtaining over 77% of the vote; Cissé had to content himself with just a tiny bit more than the percentage obtained in the first round – 22%, This is just an initial step toward the stabilization of the Malian state, but a relevant and promising one; the the challenges they face are many .
ZIMBABWE: Authoritarian ruler Robert Mugabe, who has been in power for the last 33 years, has won the fifth election in a row, becoming again president of Zimbabwe (see profile). Meanwhile, in simultaneous parliamentary elections, organized according to the revised electoral law and the 2013-approved Constitution, his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) won broad majorities in both the House of Assembly and the Senate, ahead of the main opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T; whose leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, came second in the presidential election). The third party, which managed to obtain a few seats in the parliament, is the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by the third-ranked presidential candidate, Welshman Ncube.
Contrary to the tragic happenings of the 2008 elections, which saw Tsvangirai win the first round of the presidential elections, and Mugabe “winning” a highly contested second round, results that led to clashes across the country that left some 200 people dead, this time the voting process and its aftermath were peaceful. This time, despite documented cases of intimidation, “voter tourism”, or incorrect or unreliable voter registration, there is a generalized sentiment among the observes that Mugabe might have actually won these 2013 elections. But, most of all, everybody is happy that the elections did not result in violence and bloodshed.
Up to this year’s elections, the country was run by a sort of “coalition” government, which came about after 2008, both as a means of pacifying the divided society, and as a natural consequence of the fact that the “opposition” MDC held the majority in the Parliament, while Mugabe had “won” the presidency. Part of the arrangement was that the parties would share positions in the cabinet and, more importantly, that Mugabe would continue as president, and MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai would be the Prime Minister. The period that followed actually saw some positive policy measures being implemented, which held the promise of bringing back Zimbabwe from the brink of the abyss, where the runaway inflation, collapse of basic services and spread of infectious diseases, and violent politics of Mugabe had taken it.
According to the recently modified Constitution, Zimbabwe is now a presidential political system, with the President as both head of state and head of government (which means that there is no Prime Minister, anymore). This means that the main position in the system, at stake in these election, was that of President. As for the legislature, the new electoral law, pushed through by Mugabe in June, brought some interesting features, including a forced male and female parity in representation (!), as well as a complementing of the single-member-district, first-past-the-post voting system (which favors the larger parties) with proportional representation (!). According to the new rules, then, voters cast a single vote, for an individual representative in their district, deciding who would win that seat in the House of Assembly. However, that same vote is also counted as a party list vote (for the candidate’s party), determining the distribution of the 60 seats reserved in the same House of Assembly for women. Thus, the seats in the HoA come from both an SMD-FPP vote, and from PR lists that are reserved for women (the 60 seats are distributed based on the proportion of votes each party received – PR). Thirdly (!), the same vote for that individual candidate also counts as a PR vote for the given party for the Senate, deciding who will represent the given province in the upper house. Fourthly, and finally, that same vote also goes toward filling the seats in the provincial government – again, based on party lists. One vote – four outcomes (see detailed description). For all intents and purposes, it looks more representative, even forcibly so (gender parity); if only the voting process would not be marred by intimidation and manipulation.
Here are the results – which, as mentioned, have been contested only half-heartedly by most Western countries, and that have been equally half-heartedly endorsed by the African Union and the Southern African Development Community. According to the official data, Robert Mugabe received an astonishing 61% of the vote from the first round of the presidential elections, versus Tsvangirai’s 34%, thus obtaining a majority and winning the presidency already in the first vote. In the House of Assembly elections, Mugabe’s Zanu-PF won 160 of the 210 seats, while MDC-T (Tsvangirai) got 49, and MDC (Ncube) only 1. In the Senate (elected through proportional representation), ZANU-PF obtained 37 seats, MDC-T 21, and MDC 2. (See detailed results here and at kubatana.net.)
Notwithstanding the generally peaceful elections, it is pretty clear that Mugabe is still in control – like before them, like always; his reign is strong, he has purged the country of opposition many a time. However, he is now a “sprightly” 89-years old, and it is very possible that he will not live through the end of his 5-year mandate. Right now, however, he is as defiant as always, against the Western countries and his rivals, and continues to enjoy significant influence within the AU and the SADC. Furthermore, he pledged to continue his policies, including his signature “indigenization“, which has seen his governments presiding over violent take-overs of “white-owned” property (individual or business), by supporters of the regime, thugs, and the government itself.
EGYPT – TURKEY – TUNISIA
There is little that is encouraging about the current situation in Egypt. After the army removed the Morsi-led government, the Egyptian society found itself in a conundrum: in the name of democracy, an elected leader was deposed through that most undemocratic institution, the army; in the name of democracy, a ruler who was criticized for acting undemocratically was removed forcibly, wiping away the consequences of the elections that brought him to power.
In any regime, the army would possess the brute power to remove the political leadership. The reason it does not do so has to do with political culture: a constitutional consensus, lack of popular support, and the long-term lack of prospects; but it is never for lack of capacity. And, as we can see in Egypt, such a brute act, even if coming from “the best of intentions”, carries implications that simply can not be squared with the idea(l)s of liberal democracy.
The Egyptian army’s intervention into the social and political life of the country is very much reminiscent of recent Turkish history. During the second half of the twentieth century, it was the Turkish army that guaranteed and upheld the secular, “democratic” state – which was not really democratic, but was (at least partially) secular. The consequences of those decades of muted oppression and silent violence were the rise after the year 2000 of religiously-inspired political forces, who have now been in government, quite successfully, for the last ten years. Recent trials directed against attempts by military groups to remove this democratically elected regime through coups d’état have benefited from the support of the majority of the population. But Erdogan’s religiously-inspired AK Party has also learned from those decades of military-backed secular rule. They have learned to thread a careful path, knowing that a good part of the population is in fact culturally secular, and still very much supportive of the original, Atatürkian blueprint of the Turkish republic. Notwithstanding those lessons, Erdogan’s government could not help itself derailing here and there from the expectations of that part of the population – and the recent string of popular protests has demonstrated just how difficult this project is: to rule in a democratic political system, but also to try to shape it, from an Islamist-influenced perspective.
Yet that seems to be Erdogan’s project, and this is why he was also very much involved with, and supportive of, the Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. He was hoping to help them carve out a path through which an Islam-influenced political group would prove that it can successfully hold power in a democratic system, while also leading the polity in the right direction, according to their ideology. An ambition apparently not very different from any other democratic party’s ambitions – to come to power, and to implement policies, based on a specific ideology.
But the dictum, “politics is the art of the compromise”, is learned by force of necessity, and not by choice. In Egypt, Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood clearly did not have the benefit of a similar set of experiences; unlike in Turkey, which was an illiberal democracy under the watchful guardianship of the military (but still a sort of democracy), Mubarak’s Egypt was an authoritarian state, where all and sundry were equally oppressed. And this lack of democratic political experience is true for all the political forces in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafi party, and the very fragmented “opposition groups” (those who opposed both Mubarak, and Morsi as well, in the name of the 2011 Revolution). Case in point regarding this lack of political experience is Morsi’s economic record, which was dismal, showing that they did not understand that the first and foremost duty of any government, notwithstanding ideology, is to provide for the physical security of the population: food, order, basic services, the ability to earn a living.
Meanwhile, neighboring Tunisia is another site for a similar experiment: Islamic parties are in power, a natural consequence of surviving decades-long oppression, having well-established structures, and benefiting from the popular capital that opposition forces have, at the time of a regime change. So what is happening in Tunisia? Although the governmental forces are at pains to distance themselves from some of the more extreme Islamic groups, recent assassinations of prominent opposition figures, supposedly by some of these groups, have brought the people unto the streets, in protest against the government, which is accused of being secretly behind these acts.
THE FIRST QUESTION: SECULAR POLITICS
What do Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia have in common? In all three countries, Islamic parties have been trying to come up with a modus vivendi, and a modus operandi, to govern in a democratic setting. In all three societies, there are significant parts of the population that are culturally secular(ized) – and another good part, in fact a majority, that are culturally religious (and have voted these governments into power). The distinctions, as always, are not clear cut.
But one should also note here that “secular” means something, if used to describe to a life-style or philosophy, and a different thing, if used to describe a political system. To give an example, the religious denominations in Western Europe, even in the countries with established religion like the United Kingdom or Denmark, are politically secular; they look at politics as a sort of neutral means to regulate decision-making in a democratic polity. These “neutral” means, then, depending on who is elected into office, can be oriented in one or another ideological direction, according to the ruling party’s philosophy (which might be closer or less so, to the principles of these religious denominations; eg. the ruling Christian-Democratic Union in Germany).
Yet what appears to be clear-cut is always a bit more complicated, a bit more confuse, when looked at closely. Take, for example, the difference between the French understanding of the secular state (laïcité), and the traditional American understanding of the same concept. In France, the legacy of the French Revolution shaped a secularism that is a-religious, verging on the anti-religious. In the US tradition, the idea of the secular state implies a coexistence, in which the institutions of the state (which possess the power) do not impose their power, favorable or unfavorable, over religious institutions. These are the models, at least on paper. Yet a closer look at how these are actually lived out shows that even in the countries that produced these models, the situation is not clear. For example, there are plenty of American political actors (or regular citizens) who understand the state from a French perspective, and French citizens who naturally lean toward a model much closer to the American one.
It is no surprise, therefore, if confusions or questions about these issues appear in countries where such models have not yet been established or tried out – like Egypt, or Turkey, or Tunisia. There are religious people (as most Egyptians are, for example), who have a secular image of politics; and secularized citizens who support an Islamic-influenced government (as in Turkey); or, on the other hand, secularized or religious people, who understand this identity in a very militant way, and would like to enforce it on the others, democratically or not.
THE SECOND QUESTION: POLITICS AS COMPROMISE
In the video below, a remarkable young Egyptian presents with astonishing articulateness the complexities of the situation in Egypt, while also reflecting the complexities of Egyptian society (he accuses the Muslim Brotehrhood of not being true to religion), and the challenges the Morsi-opponents face in making the distinction between political adversary and full “enemy” ( a crucial distinction).
Many of the anti-Morsi political actors seem to dismiss all too easily the concern that, in a democratic political system, the only legitimate way to remove a government is through the mechanisms of the system. But, they could say, these mechanisms are excruciatingly slow and imperfect; and they could also say that they were justified, because they are right. As true as both these statements may be (or not be), they do not change the nature of these undemocratic actions. In a democracy, “being right”, even “being certain of being right”, is not reason enough to forcibly remove a government. Politics, just like living in a society, or in a family, is indeed “the art of the compromise”: a slow and imprecise process during which one is obliged to fight even the worse positions of the political adversary, through the established mechanisms of political and civic action.
But this is not to imply that the secular-minded (in the political sense) forces are alone with this impatience and irascibility. Their action was provoked by, and was met by, the equally impatient and irascible politics of the Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government, whose actions have indeed veered undemocratically. And the of the MB was surely “I am right.” Yet “I am right” – ideologically, morally, or metaphysically – is simply not enough of a justification to bypass by force the rules of the democratic political system (at least according to the current status quo about what democracy is).
These secular and religious forces in Egypt are not alone in this struggle to deal with the cognitive dissonance between the clarity of their moral principles, and the imperfection of democratic mechanisms. Even in the more established democracies – like in the US, for example – the borders between shaping policy according to one’s ideology, and manipulating the very mechanisms of politics, based on the same ideology, are confusing and fickle. The saving grace is that the exaggerations of a political actor can be checked by the other political actors, who have this ability by virtue of the same democratic political system (through elections, checks and balances, separation of powers etc.). What makes this work, more or less, is that all political actors have subscribed to the basic ideology of the system itself, by adhering to the Constitution. What makes the situation difficult for the political actors in Egypt or Tunisia is that they did not have yet the chance to internalize the rules of liberal democracy. And this applies equally to those who support the Islamic governments and to those who do not.
Is this, then, a vicious circle – that the basic institutions of democracy have a hard time being established, because they did not already exist, and viceversa? A vicious circle is synonymous with an impossible situation, but there is no such thing, politically speaking; what is needed, is a slow learning process; and the best that Western well-wishers, governmental or nongovernmental, can do, is to support this process of democratic enculturation.
THE FOUNDATIONS OF DEMOCRACY
Superficial commentators might voice opinions to the effect that the problem is with Islam itself (theology? culture?). That would ignore the democratic experience of the largest Muslim-populated country, Indonesia (as complex as it is). Yet it is true that in the Middle East and North Africa there have been very few experiments, and those only of late, of an Islamic political force governing a liberal democracy; which is why, again, the fate of Erdogan’s project is of such interest.
Yet the problem is much broader than the current events in Egypt or Tunisia or Turkey. The questions of the ethical, philosophical, and even metaphysical assumptions of the modern liberal democracy are studiously avoided, or remain unsatisfactorily answered, even in the West. The problem is that the modern (i.e. liberal, Enlightenment) model of democratic political systems is itself based on moral and philosophical assumptions, which have not been challenged, but which are constantly being “tried and tested” on an unsuspecting population. At the basis of this model there seems to be an impetus toward individualism, and toward individual liberty as the ultimate value – but also towards the state as the ever more powerful Leviathan that ensures the programmatic pursuit of these objectives. Yet these values, mentioned here, are very specific values, belonging to a specific ideology. They are not absolute universal values, neither horizontally (in different places, today), nor longitudinally (at different points in history). Working under the assumption of an immutable “march of history” in one specific direction is both irrational and clearly ideologically biased. In other words, the “neutral means” of democratic politics is not as neutral as it seems.
It is easy to understand, then, the unease of some of the newer political actors, in some of the more inexperienced democracies. After all, what in France looked like an inherent consequence of the basic principles of the French status quo, namely the ban on publicly-worn religious symbols, was met with incredulity and incomprehension in many other countries (for example in the United States). But just a few years later, the Barack Obama-led US government needed to be harshly rebuked by a rare unanimous decision of the Supreme Court, when ideological motivations led the government to trespassing on a long established constitutional clause, which was meant to provide for the free and peaceful co-existence of different philosophical/ ideological/ theological systems. So the dilemmas the Islamic-oriented political forces in Turkey or Tunisia are facing point towards deeper unsolved questions, about the basic assumptions of the modern democratic model.
We will not solve these questions here, but this awareness might help us see how seemingly unrelated issues, such as these difficulties in the MENA region, and the conflict between Hungary’s Viktor Orbán government and some of his EU counterparts, might have surprisingly similar roots. After all, part of the untold revolt of some Western European chancelleries had to do with the fact that the new Basic Law of Hungary makes explicit reference to the cultural heritage of the country, and it contains the flag and coat of arms of the country; unusual, perhaps – but is this not an innocuous detail? The irksomeness of these details in the eyes of some Western chancelleries points again to the fact that there are unexamined, fundamental assumptions, under which different democratic regimes work; clearly, these chancelleries have a specific interpretation of what the modern democratic model means or implies; to approach it somewhat glibly, one might say that “they have taken the Enlightenment and ran with it”. Whether one or the other interpretation is right or wrong, is not our concern. A more important question is if we could distinguish between a neutral, universal basis for democracy, or is it all just one ideology, which now has come to dominate the world? This is very relevant, from the point of view of the struggles of Islamic political forces, trying to be successful within the framework of functioning liberal democracies.
As with all things political, we usually make sense of things as they happen, or after they happened; and the strongest proof is always in practice; it is the tried that proves true or untrue. There is no question that the modern representative democracy is astonishingly attractive and appears germane to most people around the world. Successive opinion polls taken in the Middle East and North Africa before the Arab Spring have consistently showed that a large majority of those populations desire and are fond of the democratic model. One should not be reluctant then to say that some of democracy’s central principles – but not all! – clearly appeal to traits shared by all human beings (hence the universal popular appeal). On the other hand, one can not forget either that the actual, historical sources of the model are the Enlightenment, Judeo-Christian, and Classical Greek culture (probably in this order).
But how do we distinguish between what is universally valid, and the ideological excrescences? between freedom of religion, and the ban on religious symbols? Or, to turn around the question, is it not possible that there is a universal appeal, and there are universally valid traits, but they are developed slightly differently (yet equally democratically) in different cultural spaces? After all, religion vs state means very different things in the US and in France – and both are truly democratic. This is a most difficult question, as many illiberal democracies or even authoritarian regimes have excused their trespasses, by making reference to “cultural differences”. At this point, such references have almost become markers of something fishy going on.
But it might also be the case that the current experiments in Turkey, Tunisia, even Egypt, with this model of modern liberal democracy entering a relatively new cultural area, is an occasion to purify what is essential and universal about it, from what are ideological and cultural excrescences.
As said, the recent deposition of an elected government by an undemocratic institution left Egypt, its politics and its society, in a deep impasse. The tragic nature of the situation could not be better evidenced than by the recent bloodshed on the streets of Egypt, as a result of both the brutal actions of the army against a part of the Egyptian population (the Morsi-supporters), and by the violence inflicted by some of the latter on their co-citizens (see the burning of Coptic churches). Obviously, Egypt can not survive divided, yet the cleavages existing in the Egyptian society are only exasperated by such acts of violence. One such act generates a reaction, a reaction deserves a response – an unending cycle of violence, all under the illusion that “the other side” can actually be silenced, eliminated, terminated.
Politics and, more specifically, the institutions of representative democracy, are made for the management of inherent societal conflicts. The existence of sharply differing ethical, philosophical, ideological positions in a society is an inevitable reality; what stops these conflicts from being fought on the streets is the consensus of all political actors, and of a great majority of the population, that the legitimate means of solving these divergences is through the institutions of (democratic) politics, especially through parties, which coalesce differing opinions into structured programs; and through parliaments, where these positions are allowed to clash through debate, and to generate a course action through the shaping of policy. In other words, if these institutions are not allowed to play out their role, politics fails, and violence speaks.
One could thus say that the only possible “solution” for the current situation, is a return to functioning democratic institutions, which could channel these societal conflicts. The problem is that the army seems to act under the impression that it can first eliminate these conflicts, and then reestablish democratic politics. This, clearly, is false. What compounds the degree of difficulty in the current situation, is that no side seems ready, able, or willing to talk to the other; instead, one seems to notice on both sides the illusion that “we can solve the situation, once and for all”, that “we can defeat them” – through force. That, however, is the opposite of democracy, and its perfect poison, both short- and long-term.
ADDENDUM & TIME-OUT
A good example of the range of cultural identities existing in the societies mentioned above is the Harlem Shake staged by Tunisian high school students (below), and the varied reactions it engendered.
UK: The Dizzying Euro-Spiral of the Tories
As expected, David Cameron’s ultimatum regarding Britain’s relationship with the European Union – reform or (a kind of) exit – has put him and his party in an unnecessarily difficult position, creating an either/or situation that perhaps was not called for. Within the party, it opened a Pandora’s Box, amplifying and providing a platform for the Euro-skeptics, while forcing the pro-Europeans to take a vocal stand as well; in other words, dividing the party on a key issue. The results are apparent: there has been a flurry of newer and older leadership figures making appearances in the media, taking one or the other side on the issue. The Tory backbenchers spoke out as well, when half of them voted for an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, in which they deplored the omission of any reference to the planned 2017 referendum on the EU. This was a symbolic gesture, but a highly unusual act of censure nevertheless, and its echoes reverberated throughout the political sphere (even if the amendment was defeated, as expected, through the combined vote of the other half of the Tories, and of the Labour and LibDem MPs). It might be the first time since 1946 that members of a governing party voted against the Queen’s Speech, which in fact is the government’s statement on its political program for the next period.
To add fuel to the fire, in recent local elections UKIP – a party whose very raison d’être is opposition to everything EU – fared very well (shockingly well, for a two-and-half party system like England’s), benefiting from a protest vote that gave them 20 times (!) the number of local council seats they had won in 2009. Moreover, the opinion polls show UKIP enjoying the support of 20% of the population, with Labour at 37%, the Conservatives at 27%, and the Liberal Democrats at 7%. Of course, given the first-past-the-post British electoral system, this still means that they would not get any seats in the next Parliament. However, it does represent an added pressure on the Tories, which will necessarily sharpen – and shape – the debate within the party, and will by no means make Cameron’s life easier. There have already been rumors of a split within the party (to UKIP’s benefit).
At this point, therefore, under fire from within and from without, David Cameron’s party looks like a ship uncertain of its direction, populated by a partially mutinous crew. While Ed Milliband’s leadership of the Labour Party and the LibDem’s results in the polls are equally unimpressive, they are at least able to put up a (mostly) united front, opposing Cameron’s EU plans (and the opposition includes Cameron’s governing partner, Nick Clegg). The positives though for Cameron are that, as tortuous as his positions are, they do reflect the complicated relationship of the British public with the European idea, and also that opposing the EU referendum would not be a popular position (it would be like another one of those EU-related decisions taken over the heads of the citizens). At the same time, UKIP’s rise in the polls, the very vocal squabbles within the party, and the improbability of the European partners agreeing to a radical reform like the one he demanded, might eventually force Cameron in a corner in which he does not want to find himself: of being the Prime Minister who leads Britain in an unfortunate sort of exit from the EU. And that surely would not be a happy outcome for Britain, economically and politically.
Canada: Troubled Times for Toronto’s Mayor
He was elected in 2010 by a majority formed mostly of suburbanites, small business-owners and ethnic minorities, to the chagrin of the left-leaning elites of downtown Toronto. He rode in on a populist platform, promising to fix a municipal government that had been characterized by mismanagement and waste. He made his name by constructing an image of being a “man of the people”, and by cultivating a close relationship with, and responsiveness to, his constituency. It has always been his habit to give out the personal cell number, and to respond in person to the citizen’s complaints, going out on the field. Because of his colorful, nonconformist image, he had attracted comparisons with London Mayor Boris Johnson; because of the recent developments, the (in)famous name of former Washington, DC Mayor Marion Barry has been brought up repeatedly.
A few weeks ago, the news exploded that the US gossip website Gawker and the Canadian daily The Toronto Star had both been offered video footage of Rob Ford, Mayor of Toronto, smoking crack cocaine in the company of dubious characters. The footage was offered for sale at the price of $200,000. Since none of these outlets were able to come up with that money, what resulted were written testimonies from Toronto Star journalists and Gawker writers, and an effort by the latter to collect the money from readers (the Rob Ford Crackstarter). A couple of weeks later, both outlets made it public that they lost contact with the people who originally offered the tape, and that it is very probable that the footage is no longer retrievable.
Where does this leave Rob Ford? After the news broke, it took him several days to come out with an official declaration, in which he denied the charges. His – and his supporters’ – main defense is that these are fabricated accusations coming from ideological adversaries, mainly the liberal-leaning Toronto Star. To his misfortune, such troubles seem consistent with previous controversies in which he had been embroiled: accusations that he was intoxicated while at a public event, that he groped a female colleague, that he was seen reading while driving. At the same time, it is equally true that his election (which he won decisively, with 47.1%) has shocked, and his personality (some say genuine, some say outrageous) has continued to appall, the Toronto establishment. In fact, the latest “scandal”, before the cocaine allegations, had him accused of putting small advertising magnets on people’s cars, and thus campaigning for his causes; which seems more amusing than scandalous. Yet he is not a stranger to scandal, which is why the recent news stories have hit pretty hard; several of his key collaborators, both at City Hall and from his political circle, have resigned or have declared that they will not continue to work for him, until these issues are resolved. Furthermore, the recent allegation come in what was, from a governance perspective, a difficult situation already.
The City of Toronto (fifth largest municipal unit in Northern America, disposing of a budget of about 10 billion dollars) is governed by a City Council, which contains 44 members elected from individual wards, and a Mayor elected by the entire city. Besides being a member of the Council, the Mayor also acts as a CEO; but he can not make major changes in policy, without having the support of a majority in the Council (details). In the last period, however, Rob Ford has proven himself less than adept at building and sustaining such coalitions and, in consequence, has been handed several stinging defeats in the Council. In response to this, as a true populist, he decided to appeal directly to his base – the so called “Ford Nation” that voted him in office, and in general the citizens of TO – through a weekly radio show (thus bypassing “the establishment”). His brother, Doug Ford, himself a city councilor, is Rob’s main partner in this endeavor – and, more generally, in his political career. But the next mayoral elections are not far away, being scheduled to take place in October 2014. Will the embattled mayor manage to repair and salvage his public image? More importantly, will he manage to create the coalitions in the City Council (which depend on his public image), which will allow him to implement some of his ambitious policy projects? This last question is probably the one that will decide his political fate, because the voters will surely evaluate him first and foremost based on fulfilling his key electoral promise, of ending the “Gravy Train” – the financial waste, mismanagement and corruption that had characterized the City of Toronto government before his arrival. The Conservative Party, with which Rob Ford is affiliated (and which is currently in power at national level), can only hope that, just like in the case of Boris Johnson, a center-right politician will manage to remain in power and run successfully what is usually considered a fiefdom of the other parties (of the left), which had suffered from severe mismanagement. Of course, for this to happen, Rob Ford (twitter; portrait) will have to not mismanage his own life, first of all.
Sweden: Youth Riots in Stockholm’s Suburbs
Such news always come across as shocking – for the outside observers, maybe even for the given society writ large. A few years ago, before the economic crisis, it was the Greek youth; before that, the young French people of the banlieues; a year or so ago, pictures of senseless violence were coming out of London and other parts of England; and now, news and images of young rioters from the suburbs of Stockholm in Sweden (photos; video). It started in Husby, a suburb of concrete housing near Stockholm, and it continued for a few days, spreading to other areas as well, with hundreds of young people in their teens or 20s setting fire to businesses, destroying cars, and clashing with the police. The initial reaction is always: “Why?” The immediate answer usually brings up race, religion, class. The truth, however, is that one common factor in all these apparently senseless events – which do not have any specific goals, but have a direction: against society, authorities, surroundings, “them” – is that they arise from a context of deep hopelessness, from a culture of gratuitous violence, and from a life lived without a promising horizon. According to data published by various news sources, unemployment in the suburb of Husby is two to three times higher (6-9%) than in Stockholm (around 3%), and is much higher among the youth (20%). Culturally, many of these young people do not feel integrated in the society at large, both because of the immigrant background of their families, their social standing, and their immediate environment; not being in school or employed, their main channel of socialization is through the peer groups on the streets. Since the problems seem easily describable in broad social terms, surely what is needed is more social programs; indeed, the Swedish authorities were quick to promise better, ampler programs for this population. Yet these suburbs already have cultural centers and social programs, and a good 12% of the inhabitants are beneficiaries of financial support. The Swedish police, while intervening when needed (with trepidation, given the unusual character of such violence in a fairly homogeneous, peaceful society like the Swedish one), expressed their hope that the local “community”, the civil society, will themselves step up to address the root causes of these acts. Yet it is clear that these young people are no longer contained by their own families; the local residents themselves (many of whom are from immigrant backgrounds) have expressed shock and incomprehension at the possible motivations of these youths; and many of them have put the blame squarely on these young persons’ irresponsibility. But what comes across, again and again, is the depressing, hopeless outlook on life – especially for young persons – in these drab suburbs of concrete; and this is why a better understanding of the situation might arise from materials like this investigative piece on the life of youngsters in these suburbs.
[Note: for those of us whose Swedish is less than perfect, Google Translate can be a helpful tool.]
Burma: Ethnic Conflict Flares Up
Before the advent of multiparty politics in Burma and the slow but seemingly steady transition to democracy, it was not extraordinary to see in the West a car donning the bumper sticker, “Free Burma!”. And now, as Burma is indeed transitioning to democracy, old questions arise again about what is behind that name, “Burma”. Is there such a thing as “a” Burma? Well, the reality is that this country is one of the most ethno-culturally diverse ones in the world; its population of over 55 million comprises some 135 ethnocultural groups, speaking over 100 languages and dialects (report). In fact, Burma was not meant to be a unitary state; after gaining independence from British rule, the original plan was to build a federal system. But this was not mean to be, and successive regimes have tried to create a unitary state through force and propaganda, defining and imposing a “national identity” mostly designed around Buddhism. Of course, this was met with limited success; although most of the news in the past two decades have revolved around the conflict between the military junta and the political opposition (embodied by Aung San Suu Kyi), the deep(er) and (more) lasting divisions in the country, the ones that have continued to cause armed conflict and bloodshed in these 65 years of independence, and have not ceased to fester, are those along ethno-cultural lines. But the years of national and nationalist propaganda have not passed without leaving marks; just like in former Yugoslavia, where ethnic identity is based as much on religion as on language and region, Buddhism has become instrumentalized and enveloped by a much stronger, more prevalent identity – by a virulent national ideology.
Thus, the recent, brutal violence in Lashio and Meiktila have taken place along religiously-defined communal lines, but have not been “religious”, but typical examples of ethno-nationalist conflict. Unfortunately, just as typically, these recent conflicts have been appalling in their violence: besides the widespread devastation of property, tens of people have been killed (overwhelmingly Muslim, and among them many young), and thousands have been displaced.
[Warning: Graphic images!]
Because of the said incorporation of Buddhism in decades of nationalistic rhetoric, one of the prominent players is the so-called “969” movement and its instigator, Buddhist monk U Wirathu; and Buddhist monks have taken an active part in the recent violence, shoulder to shoulder with other men, women, youth. (This would only be shocking if one would hold to the naive assumption that “Buddhist monks” is an abstract, unitary, universally pacifist category; the reality is that “Buddhist monks” are part of the given society, and partake in its mores; see the role of the Buddhist monasteries in the power struggles of medieval Japan.)
What is the Burmese government doing? While the security forces stood by or even assisted in these violent events, its judiciary arrested and condemned only a few Muslims. Ethnic- and racially-infused nationalism seems to be alive and well as a guiding modus operandi, within the institutions of the state. On other fronts of the interethnic conflicts in Burma, however, the government has been very active and quite successful, making significant progress toward agreeing with the military groups associated with some of the larger ethnic groups (like the Kachin and the Shan).
But the multiethnic and multi-religious nature of the Burmese society is such an inescapable datum of the Burmese state, that there is simply no way to go forward, without addressing this in a decisive and coherent manner. This is especially true in a period as vulnerable as the transition from an authoritarian regime (which, through its strong institutions, has held these potential conflicts in check) to a yet undefined democratic arrangement; in such moments, the only thing known for sure is that the old checks are gone, and the institutions that would define the new order do not exist as yet – and thus there is the potential for disorder. But in order for Burma to survive and even prosper as a state, substantial solutions will have to be found; perhaps through a redefinition of the state along federal lines, perhaps through a re-construction of a national narrative along civic, political or historical lines – but away from the inherently divisive, ethnic or religious lines. This, of course, is easier said than done, and might sound like the idealistic imaginings of remote theoreticians; however, the nearby example of Indonesia and of the the solutions it has found in a similarly diverse and conflict-ridden context might prove quite useful.
Unrest in Turkey
At the end of May, a group of about 100 people gathered in Gezi Park in Istanbul to protest a planned redevelopment that would affect one of the few remaining green areas in the city. This small manifestation soon developed into marathon demonstrations that spread to the nearby Taksim Square and to other 48 cities in Turkey, sparked at first by the brutal intervention of the police against the initial group of protesters, but fueled for weeks by a deeper resentment toward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK – Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi). But why would there be such enmity among these demonstrators towards Erdogan? This is the Prime Minister that eliminated the heavy hand of the military from Turkish politics and public life, after 50 years during which the military has dominated the state, even putting it through several coups d’état. This is the head of the executive under whose leadership Turkey has experienced a period of continued economic growth, for the first time in a long time, while the rest of the world was undergoing a major crisis. At his initiative, the Constitution of the republic was reformed in the direction of strengthening civilian rule and the representative institutions; and these reforms were supported by a strong majority of the population, and were hailed by the EU as decisive steps toward democracy. Erdogan even managed to reach a ceasefire agreement in the longstanding, bloody conflict of the Turkish state with the armed factions of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). It is unsurprising, then, that Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the first Prime Minister in Turkish history who managed to win three successive elections (’02, ’07, ’11), obtaining for his party 50% of the popular vote in the last elections. Then why these protests?
There are a few characteristics common to these protesters. Most of them are not politically affiliated, and for many this is the first act of political participation; a large number are educated, middle class; many belong to the generation of social media & individualism. First and foremost, the overwhelming majority of these protesters are united by their distaste towards what they perceive as Erdogan’s government’s attempt to redirect Turkey (notwithstanding the obvious economic and democratic advances) toward a non-secular course, more in line with the Islamist inspiration of the ruling AK party. They cite in this regard laws such as the banning of the sale of alcohol between 10 pm and 6 am; and actions that they perceive as coming from authoritarian tendencies: plans to ban kissing in public, attempted laws against abortion and adultery etc. Similarly, the brutal intervention of the police played into a deeper irritation with the generally abrasive, confrontational style of the Prime Minister, underlining the accusations that his policies and politics have divided the country. And indeed, during most of these troubled weeks, Erdogan did little to consciously shed this abrasive image: he called the protesters “extremists” and “looters” (names which they wore with pride); he accused them of being organized by shady foreign economic interest (a fairly risible accusation, given the participation of far left groups, among others); has continued to direct the police to intervene with unnecessary brutality, instead of trying to meet and reach a compromise (thus, as a result of violence from both sides, five people have died and thousands – protesters and policemen – have been injured). An added problem, however, is that the demonstrators could not – and still can not – speak with a united voice, true to the fact that they do not constitute a coherent mass: there are those who manifested against the redevelopment of Gezi Park; there are extreme left wingers; there are nationalists; there are many of the middle-class, who came out in solidarity or just against Erdogan. Furthermore, none of the parties of the parliamentary opposition can claim to represent them either: they are either nationalistic forces or they belong to the recent Turkish past, one that was military-dominated and economically-underdeveloped; a past for which these protesters have no fondness.
What is the current situation? After weeks of protest, Erdogan’s government agreed to meet with representatives of the demonstrators, and also agreed to hold off the proposed developments, letting the courts decide on the matter, and even putting the decision to a popular vote. This seems to have effected a calming down of the situation, except for a few hardline groups. But what are the deeper conclusions to be drawn from these events? On the one hand, they confirmed the adage that, when politics fails, the only remaining option is violence. In other words, they confirmed the goodness of (democratic) politics, of having institutions that would mediate the conflicts inherent in any society, through agreed rules of debate and decision-making. When these political institutions fail, or when they fail to transmit and process these inherent societal conflicts, the only other way to solve it is – on the streets. Secondarily, they illustrate a deeper problem, related to the philosophical or ideological foundations of democratic politics. Both “sides” in this crisis (if we can talk of “two sides”) are, by and large, supporters of Turkey’s democratization; as mentioned, Erdogan has done more than anyone in recent history in this direction. Yet their assumptions differ. Erdogan and AK are grounded in, and imagine a Turkey founded on, an Islamic society and culture (and nobody can deny that Turkey has always been, as a society, Islamic). The protesters, however, have been shaped by decades in which the official ideology was that of laicity: a secular state whose secularism is understood not as non-intervention in religious affairs (as in the American conception), but as an exclusion of religion from the state and the public sphere (as in the French Revolution-inspired laïcité). Moreover, some of these protesters base their ideas about democracy on vague notions of Western (European) liberal democracy; while others are motivated by left wing or radical ideologies; and others by nationalism. Moving from a military-dominated, illiberal democracy to a democratic (and prosperous!) state is not a simple path, especially when the society is clearly divided as to the fundamental assumptions that should guide their lives – and perhaps the state as well.
In June Central Europe was hit by massive floods along the Danube and Elbe rivers and their tributaries; in Germany (photo; video of Passau; reportage), the Czech Republic (photo; video of Prague), Hungary (video; photo), Austria, Slovakia, Switzerland, the historical levels of the waters forced thousands to leave their homes and left over 20 people dead; yet these numbers would have been much higher, were it not for the measures implemented after the floods of 2002. The deep involvement and strong leadership demonstrated by an Angela Merkel or Viktor Orbán will probably also have a positive effect on how they will be judged in the soon-to-come elections.
In Syria, the documented death toll of the civil war has reached 93,000, of which over 6,000 are children. Meanwhile, one of the leaders on foreign affairs in American politics, Senator John McCain, sneaked into the country to meet with opposition groups. In an act of defiance of the West’s efforts, Russia delivered anti-aircraft missiles to the Assad regime; in response, the Obama administration announced that it decided to expand the support it gives to the rebel groups, to include arms as well; while the European Union decided to lifts the arms embargo, thus allowing the member countries to pursue their own individual policies in this regard. Currently the Assad regime seems to have gained the upper hand on the battlefield, with support from Hezbollah and probably Iran. Within the rebel groups and organizations, besides those that have been recognized as legitimate conversation partners by the West (like FSA, partially SNC), there are also Islamist factions that have perpetrated vicious acts of violence against the members of other religious minorities. In fact, it seems that a “rebel victory”, given the problematic ideological profile of some of the opposition groups, will have devastating consequences for the Syrian Christians, who had previously enjoyed a protected status.
The African Union celebrated its 50 years’ anniversary, a period that has seen incontrovertible economic and social development on the continent, but also the failures of the AU to take charge of the problems facing it – whether because of a lack of political will, of cumbersome decision-making procedures, or a dearth of resources.
In a shocking decision in February, the International Olympic Committee voted to remove one of the most ancient sports – wrestling – from the list of Olympic disciplines. Behind the surprising decision is the intention to force the governing structures of the sport to finally address a host of issues that have been brought to their attention repeatedly, to no avail: women’s representation in its organizations, a streamlining of its cumbersome rules (which suffered many changes, yet remained obscure and unappealing to the public) etc. The shock had its effect, and one of the first acts was to elect a new president of FILA (the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles) in the person of Serbian Nenad Lalovic, who immediately engaged in an intense program of sport diplomacy (besides implemented the required internal changes). Among these efforts were a highly mediatized public competition between wrestlers of USA, Iran and Russia at the Grand Central train station in New York; press conferences at the UN; apparitions on popular talk shows etc. There are of course popular initiatives as well in support of the sport, a sport whose greatest tournament is actually the Olympics (unlike soccer, for example, where the World Cup is much more important). A first victory has already been already obtained, with the recent decision of the IOC Executive Board to include wrestling on the short list of sports (together with baseball/softball and squash) on which the general assembly of the International Olympic Committee will vote in September, for the one spot available for the 2020 Olympics.
Rumble on the Rails: USA vs. Iran vs. Russia, at the Grand Central Terminal in New York
Italy: New President & New Government
After an undecided election and two months of uncertainty (chronicled here and here) about the options available for forming a government and electing a new head of state, the main Italian parties agreed on re-electing 87-years old Giorgio Napolitano as President of the Italian Republic, and on forming a kind of “grand coalition” in support of a new government. Napolitano’s re-election, albeit contrary to his original intentions, of not standing for re-election, paved the way for reaching the more important goal, of forming a new and stable government. Why was Napolitano’s election conducing to the formation of a government?
On the one hand, he is a personality amenable to both major parties (center-left Democrats and center-right People of Liberty), and thus “finding” a compromise candidate was actually possible; although the Democrats could have pushed through a candidate without Berlusconi’s support, that would have doomed any chances of forming a government. It took five voting sessions, in the special electoral assembly, to return to the choice of the outgoing President; along this tortuous process, the center-left experienced significant turmoil, including a change in leadership (Bersani resigning), and that also contributed to making an agreement with the center-right possible. Finally – but just as importantly – at the swearing-in ceremony Giorgio Napolitano gave a powerful, emotional speech (video), in which he chastised with harsh words the entire Italian political elite; according to many, this was a catalyst that gave a significant impetus to the said elite, to reach a compromise in the interest of the country. The arrangement they reached is a coalition government in which both the center left, the center right, as well as Monti’s alliance would participate, thus giving it (at least on paper) the broad parliamentary support needed in order to attempt the serious economic, social and political reforms that Italy needs (composition of the cabinet). The new center-left premier, Enrico Letta, is a sober and moderate figure, one that is able to inspire trust, even beyond the political fault-lines. The only political force remaining outside these arrangements, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, whose representation in Parliament and anti-political stance had an important role to play in the recent impasse, has expressed its opposition both to Napolitano’s re-election and to Letta’s coalition government.
Serbia and Kosovo Reach An Agreement
On April 19, the leaders of Serbia and of Kosovo have reached an important EU-brokered agreement addressing the status of the four ethnic Serb municipalities in the north of Kosovo (North Mitrovica, Zvečan, Zubin Potok and Leposavić). Although “parts of” Kosovo, these municipalities have been under a sort of self rule, which actually translated into a weak rule of law and the flourishing of underground, even criminal economic activities, and a survival of the region only due to significant financial support from Serbia. Under the new agreement, however, this region will form one unit that will become an integral part of Kosovo, subject to its laws and institutions, while retaining some autonomous decision-making powers in the realm of economic development, education, healthcare and town planning, and populating its judiciary and police forces with local people. The consequences of the agreement, although interpreted differently by the two sides, are far reaching; for Serbia, it opens the doors for starting the negotiations for joining the EU; for Kosovo, it signifies an implicit affirmation by Serbia of Kosovo’s independent status; for the EU and its foreign minister (i.e. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy), Katherine Ashton, this is a significant success, and a step toward solving the long-term NATO and EU involvement in the region. It also demonstrates the continued attractiveness (and “soft power”) of the “EU carrot” – of the promise of integration into the economic, social and legal structures of the Union; in many ways, this is another instantiation of the accomplishment of the original objectives of the EU: to become a space of peace and prosperity. The signing of the agreement was certainly helped by the fact that the leaders involved have well-established nationalist credentials among their people: Serbia’s prime minister, Ivica Dačić, was at one time Slobodan Milosevic’s spokesman; the deputy prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, used to be an extremist nationalist; Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaçi, is a former guerrilla leader. The text of the agreement was approved with large majorities by both parliaments: by the Kosovo Assembly on April 22, and by the Serbian National Assembly on April 26. The only obstacle remaining – and quite a significant one – is the actual implementation of the agreement, given that the leaders and population of the said municipalities remain opposed to it; however, given that Serbia is the de facto financier of these municipalities, there are few options for them but to accept the deal.
The Obama Administration in Crisis
These weeks the Barack Obama-led executive is passing through what is probably its most difficult period, following revelations of abusive behavior by its tax institution, a continued lack of clarity about what happened in Benghazi, Libya last year, and the discovery of the fact that its Justice Department has been conducting wide-ranging investigations of journalists’ activities. The Internal Revenue Service-related scandal has to do with its targeting of “conservative” groups, while evaluating their tax-exempt status, i.e. in the course of deciding if they engage in political activities, which would make them taxable entities. The code words that the IRS used in selecting the targeted groups (such as “Patriots”, “Bill of Rights”), the sheer intrusiveness of the inquiries, and the slow response time of the agency, give the impression of a politically motivated activity by an institution of the state that has no role to play in politics. The events of September 11, 2012 in Benghazi have been used by the Republicans from the start, to attack the executive, accusing it of either being grossly incompetent, or of intentionally misleading the public and the Congress. The way in which the various actors in the administration have vacillated in their reactions to and description of the events, and the overall reluctance to provide, even nine months later, a transparent accounts of who did what, why, and under whose orders, did not help put an end to those accusations. Finally, the DOJ revealed recently that it has secretly (albeit legally) obtained over two months of phone records belonging to 20 telephone lines assigned to the Associated Press; in addition, the Washington Post recently described the extensive investigation of a Fox News journalist’s interactions with a government official, in relation to some leaked information. These recent revelations cement the image (that has been developing for a while) of a White House that is probable the most aggressive administration in documented history, in terms of aggressively fighting and pursuing such so-called “leaks”.
The intersection of all these “scandals” looks very much like a “perfect storm”, from the perspective of Barack Obama’s political adversaries, but the negative reaction extends beyond party lines. A US president’s political power is mostly based on influence, and this is why presidents entering the last two years of their mandate are called “lame ducks” – because there is little public support, positive image, or positions n government that they can transaction, in exchange for support from members of the Congress or at state level. Barack Obama has started his second and last term determined to push through with a very ambitious agenda, including some political unicorns like immigration reform, gun-control legislation, entering the implementation phase of the new health care law etc. Fresh from a solid elections victory, he looked to be in the best position to attempt this, because of the public’s demonstrated support, and a lack of direction, ambition or legitimacy on the part of the Republican Party. Right now, however, only six months later, the Republicans seem newly energized, trying to craft a narrative that would tie together all these scandals, in the hope of forcing this administration to turn the corner into the “lame duck” stage sooner than anyone would have expected (with added benefits for the Congressional elections of 2014). How the Obama administration will fare through these scandals will be crucial, therefore, in terms of its objectives, and of the mark that the President wants to leave in US history (a central concern of all presidents). Until now, the White House has been taking a different strategy, regarding each of these scandals: reacting quickly and strongly against IRS’s abuses; taking the line that the DOJ is simply doing its duty, with regards to leaks affecting national security; and characterizing GOP’s attacks on the administration, in relation to Benghazi, as over-inflated political rhetoric. The success of these White House defense strategies, and the degree to which the President will maintain the public’s support, will also depend on how he will manage his relationships with the Democratic members of Congress (a relationship that has never been too simple or too close) and with a press corps that until now has been largely favorable (and even cooperating).
Syria: Where Is the “Red Line”?
In March of this year several reports signaled the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, in the northern town of Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo. This was followed by other incidents with allegations of chemical attacks, and by statements suggesting that this might not be the first time when such weapons have been used. Syria is known to have a large stash of chemical weapons, and the fear was always that the government might actually deploy them against the rebel forces. The matters are complicated by contradictory accusations, with the Syrian government and some international observers stating that it was the rebel forces who might have used chemical components, while most international actors (US, France, Britain, Israel) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) blame it squarely on the Syrian regime, saying that only they would possess the capacity and the will to do so. It is also not clear if these were actual chemical weapons, like the (nerve gas) sarin, which the regime possesses and might have used before, or simply chlorine, which is a readily available cleaning supply, and thus accessible to any of the forces engaged in the conflict. The reports have however put the international actors, and especially the US, in a difficult position, as the use of chemical weapons has been qualified a while ago as a “red line” that, once crossed, would necessitate a more direct intervention on behalf of the population. It is also clear that the “red line” expression was used originally in reference to the possibility of large scale use of chemical weapons, which would have devastating consequences – and not about local incidents. However, if large scale is an issue, then one has to wonder what actually constitutes a “red line”, given that, since the beginning of the conflict, more than 90,000 people have lost their lives, and more than one million have become refugees (summary). The ongoing vicious war of the Assad regime on the Syrian population, and the messy civil war that is being waged today at the cost of thousands of innocent victims, might have already crossed that “red line.” Yet it is not simple to see through the various, more or less organized groups battling the regime; as always in a mass uprising, their motivations, goals and composition vary with the place, the moment, and the group in question. It is clear however that there are institutionalized opposition structures, such as the FSA and the Syrian National Coalition, which have become “official” partners of the international actors on behalf of the “rebels”, and who could be used more actively in the effort of ending the ongoing bloodshed. Meanwhile, Syrian society is being torn apart, probably with long term consequences (unsurprisingly similar to post-war Iraq); and those who bear the brunt of the conflict are, as always, the non-involved civilians and the minorities (eg. the Christians).
According to the authorities, Hugo Chavez’s former right-hand, Nicolás Maduro, narrowly won the April 14 presidential elections in Venezuela, which were called after the former president’s death. The elections were followed by violent street clashes, amid heavy contestation of the results by the supporters of the opposition and of its presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles – and amid a continued and vertiginous worsening of the economic situation.
On May 10, for the first time in history a former ruler of a country was condemned for genocide by a court from his own country. The trial of Efrain Rios Montt, the ex-military dictator who ruled Guatemala during a portion of its 36-years long civil war, concluded by finding him guilty of taking part in a genocide against the native Ixil Mayan population, and condemning him to 80 years in prison.
One of the defining political leaders of the second half of the twentieth century, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, passed away on April 8. As a Prime Minister she left behind a complex legacy, combining political centralization with an emphasis on the free market and on individualism, and an aggressive foreign policy with a certain insularism. Illustrating the mark that her career left on the public consciousness, the funerals (video) were attended by notable figures from all aspects of public life, from politics to economy and entertainment.
Representatives of the Ladies in White Cuban opposition group finally managed to travel to collect the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded them by the European Parliament in 2005. The Ladies in White is a Church-based group of wives and relatives of people jailed for political reasons in Cuba.
The new Monarch of The Netherlands, Willem Alexander, was enthroned on April 30 (video). He takes over as head of state after his mother’s, Queen Beatrix’s resignation earlier this year. (An interesting detail: the pop song commissioned to celebrate this event was met with widespread criticism and derision; see video.)
In April, at a distance of just a few days, different parts of Iran were rocked by powerful earthquakes (of 6.3 and 7.8 magnitudes on the Richter scale, respectively). Iran sits on a major tectonic fault line, and its inner regions have been historically the victims of very strong earthquakes, such as the 2003 one in the Bam region, which resulted in over 25,000 deaths.
What Do Iranians Want?
[Press CC for English subtitles.]
Czech Republic: Political and Personal
The Czech political life is currently dominated by the conflict between the recently elected President, Miloš Zeman, and the Foreign Minister, Karel Schwarzenberg. The dispute seems to be about the appointment of new ambassadors to Slovakia and Russia, but it points to some of the particularities of politics in the Czech Republic.
As recently as January of this year, Zeman and Schwarzenberg in competition for the position of president of the republic. In the first round of voting, they obtained similar results, receiving the support of 24.21%, and of 23.4% of the voters, respectively – with Zeman enjoying a 1% lead. But who are these two people, and why is the position of president relevant at all?
The Czech Republic, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, has a semi-presidential political system. It has a bicameral parliament, with a Chamber of Deputies elected every four years, and a Senate elected for 6 years, with 1/3 of the mandates renewed every 2 years. Until 2012, the president of the republic was elected by the parliament, which is a typical feature of parliamentary political systems (in which the president is only head of state, with limited, mostly ceremonial and representative functions). This is not the case with the Czech Republic, however. Although in 1990 the Republic (actually Czechoslovakia) started – as its features demonstrate – from a model leaning strongly toward a parliamentary system of government, because of the towering figure of Vaclav Havel the roles and powers of the president were designed so that they were certainly greater than in the usual parliamentary model, making it look and function more like a semi-presidential system. For example, the president can veto laws, although the parliament can override that veto; he appoints persons to key offices of the republic, such as the Constitutional Court and the Board of the Czech National Bank; he can dissolve the Chamber of Deputies and call for new elections; finally, he has an important role to play in foreign affairs, representing the country and partaking in the shaping of the foreign policy (just like in France, which has a strong semi-presidential regime). Although some of these powers can be exercised only with the countersignature of the prime minister, they do make him a relatively strong president, while the features of parliamentarism remain strong as well. In 2012, however, another step was taken toward what looks more like a semi-presidential model, by switching from the indirect election of the president (by the parliament), to direct popular elections for this office.
In the run-up to the first direct elections for the presidency, most parliamentary parties, some extra-parliamentary ones, as well as some independents, were represented among the candidates for the position. In the end, the two persons that stood out, Zeman and Schwartzenberg, represented neither of the two main Czech parties. But let us take a look at the political landscape of the Czech Republic.
The last parliamentary elections (for the lower house) took place in 2010. Although the main center-left party, the Czech Social Democratic Party, obtained a plurality of votes (22.08%) and of seats, it could not form a government, as it did not had the necessary allies in the parliament (official results; reference). Instead, the main center-right party, which came in second (Civic Democratic Party, with 20.22%) was able to form a governing coalition with other parties of similar right-leaning orientation – TOP 09 (Tradition Responsibility Prosperity 09, a breakaway from the Civic Democrats, which brought 16.79%), and Public Affairs (with 10.88%). These are four of the only five parties that have obtained seats in the lower house – the fifth one being the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, which, for the first time since 1990, did not come in 3rd, but obtained “only” 11.27%.
This was the situation, then, at the end of 2012, as the Czechs were preparing to go to the voting booth to elect a president: the country was under a not-too-popular center-right coalition government, and none of the leading candidates for the presidency came from the largest parties. Instead, Miloš Zeman, although a former leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party, and the one who actually lead the party to prominence in the ’90s, had formed his own party in 2009 (a party that did not manage to get into the parliament). Karel Schwarzenberg, his rival, used to be a prominent member of the main center-right group – the Civic Democratic Party, but had also broken from them, forming his own party, TOP 09, which is currently the junior partner in the center-right governing coalition.
How come, then, that Zeman and Schwarzenberg ended up being the two main candidates for the presidency? What lies behind this? Miloš Zeman is part of the “old guard” of Czech politics – the old guard of the 1990s-2000s, represented by the two main parties, Social-Democrats and Civic Democrats. Reflecting this, one of Zeman’s main allies in the campaign turned out to be his former rival of the center-right, the outgoing President of the Republic, Vaclav Klaus. How could this be, one may ask, that the former leaders of the main opposing parties, one of the center-left and the other of the center-right, were supporting each other? Well, there is actually a history of cooperation between them – take for example the agreement between them that allowed the center-left to stay in government between 1998-2002, with parliamentary support from the center-right. According to Schwarzenberg and others, the collusion between politics and business that led to the current, stagnating state of affairs has its roots in that period. Furthermore, Schwartzenberg has had his own feud with Vaclav Klaus, during the time when they were both in the Civic Democratic Party, as Klaus represented the more Euro-skeptic, neo-liberal direction, while Schwarzenberg stood for a pro-European, classical conservative orientation (as does his current party, TOP 09).
Accordingly, in the presidential elections Zeman was mostly supported by those areas of the Czech Republic and by those parts of the society that are more intent on keeping the status quo: that are less developed, less cosmopolitan. Schwarzenberg, on the other hand, dominated the new media, as well as the urban and more developed areas of the country. These socio-cultural divisions were accentuated during a campaign that can only be characterized as aggressive, with nasty overtones, especially on Zeman’s part; among other things, he resorted to using the nationalistic card, calling Schwarzenberg (an aristocrat who lived in exile during communism, and who is married to an Austrian woman) a “sudetak” – a reference to the ethnic German minority, a large part of which was forcefully expelled at the end of WWII. Furthermore, Zeman received the vocal support of the outgoing president, Vaclav Klaus, who, together with his Slovak wife Livia, joined in these attacks against Schwarzenberg.
Although in the first round both Miloš Zeman and Karel Schwarzenberg obtain about similar scores, in the second, run-off round of the elections, Zeman won 54.80% of the Czech citizens’ votes, against his opponent’s 45.19% (official; reference). At the end of that bruising campaign, therefore, Miloš Zeman won the presidency of the republic. Let us not forget, however, that the parliamentary and the presidential elections do not happen at the same time; thus, this center-left new president came into office with a government (legislature and executive) dominated by the center-right coalition, and a government in which Karel Schwarzenberg was – and continues to be – the Foreign Minister.
The conflict between the President and the Foreign Minister, therefore, reflects both personal animosity as well as deeper-lying divisions in Czech politics. This is evidenced by the fact that the name the President proposed for the position of ambassador to Slovakia is Livia Klausova – indeed. the same wife of Vaclav Klaus who actively participated in the campaign against Schwarzenberg. In these conditions, the latter’s reluctance to go along with this proposal is perhaps understandable.
What does the future hold? Currently, the Czech Republic has a center-right coalition government, in which the positions of Prime Minister and of Foreign Minister belong to two different parties (Civic Democrats and TOP 09); it also has a divided government, in which the President is of a different political orientation than the governing coalition (center-left vs. center-right); and it also has a public that is a quite sick of the old-style politics and of the politicians that represent it, while also being unhappy with the currently ruling center-right coalition. What next, then? Which of these tensions will prevail, and what do they foretell about the next elections (due in 2014)? Well, at this point the opinion polls show the Social Democrats in pole position in the race towards winning the legislative elections next year.
How about governing? Given the fact that power is distributed quite evenly between presidency, PM and cabinet, and parliament, how will this work? Referring to the appointment of said ambassadors, Mr. Schwarzenberg recently stated that he foresees the dispute going on for the next year or so – basically until the next elections.
Hungary: A Re-Constitution?
This year has so far been characterized by a continuation of the spicy exchanges between the various institutions of the European Union, and the Hungarian government. The reason for this, somewhat tense relationship, lies partially with the incongruity between the new government’s plans of socio-political reform, and the Western European expectations about how a liberal democracy should look and behave. The currently governing coalition, consisting of Viktor Orbán‘s Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Union (about) and the much smaller Christian Democratic People’s Party (about), came to power in 2010, following the disastrous governance and complete self-destruction of the Hungarian Socialist Party (about). So great was the disappointment – nay, anger! – with the previous center-left government, and with the general state of affairs (economy, public life, the country overall), that the center-right received an astonishing 52% of the votes cast in that election – which, in the conditions of a majoritarian-leaning mixed-member proportional representation system, translated into acquiring over 2/3 of the seats in the Parliament.
Hungary has a parliamentary system of government, in which the bulk of the power rests with the (unicameral) legislature, which delegates it to the head of the executive – the Prime Minister. In consequence, whoever has the majority in Parliament, has also the control of the executive (just like in the UK or Germany). In addition, after the fall of Communism, the new democratic parties agreed to a system in which the most important decisions – from the election of the president, to the modification of the Constitution – would require the assent of 2/3 of the members of Parliament. At that point, and until recently, that seemed like a very high threshold, and it did indeed help push the parties towards finding consensus agreements.
But not since 2010. Following the legislative elections, a center-right force came to power, which intended to address not only the deep economic crisis in which the country found itself, but also the general demoralization of the population regarding the direction of the country, and the very meaning of the post-1989 political and economic settlement. In other words, Fidesz came to power at a juncture when several crises met – economic, at national and international level; socio-cultural, with a post-1989 malaise; and political, with the complete demise of the center-left. Accordingly, they came with a bold plan to address and reform all these aspects – from the cultural to the social, from the economic to the political. And they had both the popular legitimacy (over 52% of votes, extremely rare in multiparty elections) and the institutional tools needed to achieve that (over 2/3 of the seats in the Parliament).
The clash, then – or at least a part of it – comes from the difference between how many of the Western partners and their EU representatives understand liberal democracy (or the Western status quo about it), and the specifically Hungarian conservatism/traditionalism manifested in Fidesz’s programs and actions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the new constitution (or Fundamental Law) promulgated by the Hungarian Parliament in 2011. From its preamble, a number of “strange” occurrences have raised eyebrows in many European chancelleries: the references to the historical roots of the Hungarian state, the inclusion of a detailed description of the flag and coat of arms, the listing of the national holidays, the mentioning the national anthem – all these made little sense, unless one understood the connection with the Communist history, during which these symbols had been confiscated and manipulated; and with an agrarian, strong-state, nationalist tradition of conservative politics in Hungary. In other words, unless one understood that this is part of a longer-term plan of reshaping Hungary, a post-1989 re-settlement based on a cultural self-understanding that is traditional (even traditionalist), national (even nationalist), and conservative (in a specific way); and that is directed against both the recent history of Communism (1946-1989), and that of a center-left governance (2002-2010) that was economically neo-liberal (markets over national interest) and socially left-wing (individualistic, cosmopolitan).
Indeed, this is not the conservatism of the typical Western European center-right parties – notwithstanding the fact that the Gaullist, statist center-right of France is not the same with the Christian-Democratic right of Germany, or with the market-driven, socially liberal Tories of the UK. There seems to be, however, a qualitative difference between some of the conservative parties of Central-Europe, and their Western counterparts. As always, there is no such thing as “one” conservatism, in any of these countries – but among the hodgepodge of influences (see Vaclav Klaus’ combination of economic libertarianism, social traditionalism and nationalism), one can see a few traits that would relate Hungary’s Fidesz to, say, Poland’s Law and Justice party of the Kaczynski brothers (although Fidesz is by no means Euro-skeptic – to the contrary). One could say that both these parties are (at least in part) representatives of a specific, central-European tradition of conservatism, with roots in the interwar period and the 19th century – when the national identity was being developed alongside the modern state, being defined around language, culture and an agrarian tradition, under the strong guidance of a powerful central government.
Unlike other parties in the region, however, Fidesz possesses both the initial popular impetus and the institutional means to actually implement these programmatic ideas. No wonder, then, that a good few of their policies, from the de facto re-nationalization of the pensions system, to the new media law, from the reform of the electoral system, to the tax on banks and on financial transactions, have been met with international criticism (Freedom House report on Hungary).
Besides the cultural-ideological differences pointed out above, there are of course other interpretations of Fidesz’s conflicts with the opposition (parliamentary and extra-parliamentary), and with some of its European counterparts. There are many critics who accuse the current government of manipulating the entire framework of the state so that it can install itself in power – lawfully, according to these changes – for a long time to come. There is however no doubt that this is Fidesz’s intention, to be and remain in power – something of a necessity, given the long-term socio-political shift that they are pursuing. And there is also the accusation that the governing coalition is simply involved in an activity of state-capture, from which those around them are meant to profit economically (see the recent law regulating the sale of tobacco) – in other words, organized corruption.
The most recent international disputes have revolved around a set of amendments to the Fundamental Law (the constitution). These amendments include laws which have already been passed by the Parliament, but had been struck down by the Constitutional Court. However, since the Court does not have jurisdiction over the text of the Constitution itself, and since the coalition government has the 66% of seats needed to amend the Constitution, this was thought to be a good and safe alternate way of introducing those policies.
Slovakia: Scandals and Prosecutors
Slovakia has been without an appointed General Prosecutor for two years now. The reason for this is that the General Prosecutor elected by parliament two years ago, has never actually been appointed by the President to that position. Since 2011, this has been the object of a tug of war between the GP-elect, Jozef Čentéš, and the President of the Slovak Republic, Ivan Gašparovič; and, by extension, between the center-right forces, and the main main center-left party, Smer. Right in the middle of this dispute falls the Constitutional Court, which has decided once that the President must either appoint Čentéš, or refuse to appoint him, while providing clear justifications; a Constitutional Court that has been appealed to, and has been attacked by, both sides in the dispute.
This conflict looks like a typical manifestation of what happens during times of divided government, in a semi-presidential political system, if the political actors and the institutions of the state have not developed a working modus operandi for such situations (as they have in France, for example). Indeed, Slovakia has a semi-presidential political system, in which the president is directly elected by the population (every five years), and, although possessing mainly head of state attributions, also has some important powers, such as: nominating and appointing the PM (upon parliamentary approval), dismissing the PM and the cabinet (unilaterally), appointing three members of the Constitutional Court and other positions in the state, and having a suspensive veto on bills passed by the parliament.
The parliament? Slovakia has a unicameral legislature – the 150-seat National Council, which is formally the most powerful body politic in the republic. It is directly elected every four years through proportional representation (national party lists, with the possibility of preferential option for four candidates). The Parliament elects and removes the executive (Prime Minister and cabinet), executive whose composition is a reflection of the coalition that has the majority in the Parliament. Thus, just like in other weak semi-presidential systems, most power belongs to the legislature, but the decision-making in the state is “nicely” distributed between a very powerful PM (especially if he has solid support in the Parliament), the National Council, and the President. This can work fine and well when both the PM/cabinet (and the Parliament that supports them) and the President come from to the same side of the political spectrum. However, when they belong to opposing political forces, the division in the executive functions and the overlap in the powers of nomination and appointment, between the President, the PM and the National Council, can lead to problematic situations.
This is what happened in 2011. At the end of the mandate of the previous General Prosecutor, the center-right coalition that had the majority in the parliament elected Jozef Čentéš as the new GP. The follow-up appointment of Čentéš by the President should have been a simple formality; however, the wiggle room created by the fact that the powers of election and of appointment are separated, combined with the sheer weight of the office of the president in a semi-presidential system, made it possible for President Gašparovič to refuse to do so. This being a sort of a constitutional crisis (a moment when the institutions of the state can not function well together, based on the prescriptions of the constitution), the Constitutional Court was appealed to, and it asked the President to remove the stalemate by either appointing Čentéš, or by giving serious reasons for not doing so. President Gašparovič did give a number of reasons – yet these did not really amount to a constitutionally-grounded motivation for not appointing him.
To understand the President’s stubbornness, one has to look at the political background. In 2010, a center-right coalition government won the elections for the legislature, under the leadership of Iveta Radičová (who became PM), removing the Robert Fico-led Smer (Direction – Social Democracy), which had been in power during the previous eight years. The new government did not last long, however, and in 2012 it was removed through a vote of no confidence (as a result of the internal crumbling of the coalition); advanced elections were called, which were won again – and decisively (with over 44% of the vote and more than 55% of the seats) by Robert Fico’s Smer-SD.
The current conflict, therefore, started during those two years of center-right government – when the Parliament and the executive were run by a frail center-right coalition, while the presidency belonged to a center-left politician, Gašparovič (president of Slovakia since 2004). According to the then-PM Iveta Radičová, the President did his best to play into the center-left opposition’s plans of sabotaging the policies of the governing coalition.
But the same center-left forces, i.e. Robert Fico’s Smer-SD, came to power soon afterward, and now the conflict has been extended into their own mandate. There is a crisis in Slovakia, but it does look like it will find a solution within the Slovak political system. The very organism that should be able to cut this Gordian knot, and decisively rule on the limits and competences of the other institutions – namely, the Constitutional Court – is itself contested by all sides; both the President and the General Prosecutor-elect have contested the individual members of the CC who were to sit on the panels that would judge the various aspects of this situation. The latest development is that Prime Minister Fico (whose interest is, obviously, not to appoint this GP) has just pushed a law through parliament that would allow for any CC judge to sit on such panels, no matter if they have been removed previously, as a result of being contested. On his part, GP-elect Čentéš made it clear that he does not intend to abandon this fight, and, if all national means are exhausted, is planning to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Besides the political aspects of the conflict, in the background there are also serious matters regarding who controls, and how, the judiciary. Robert Fico’s previous terms in office had been characterized by cronyism and accusations of corruption; Radičová’s government was dedicated to cleaning up the situation, hence their appointment of Mr. Čentéš as GP; however, the center-right coalition itself, which supported Radičová, lost the elections in good part due to the major corruption scandals that hit several of its politicians. The irony of the situation is that the politicians that came to power afterward, including Robert Fico, have a solid reputation of putting obstacles in front of such corruption investigations – and many of them, including Fico, feature prominently in the documents of those scandals.
In other news, Slovakia is determined to continue developing its nuclear energy capacities, building on the existing, Communist-era infrastructure at Jaslovske Bohunice, and negotiating with potential partners for the new development. It is also interesting that, unlike in other countries nearby, there is little public controversy about these projects, as they are seen beneficial both macro-economically and for the population of the region.
Poland: Polish Identities
Is Poland becoming a country of immigration, besides being one of emigration? There are signs that point to the fact that Poland’s relative economic success in the 2000s, while the rest of Europe – and of the world, in fact – was stagnating, has made it a magnet both for people from neighboring countries, as well as for immigrants from places as remote as Vietnam or Nigeria. From the Belorussians who cross the border to make some money and then return home, to the Vietnamese who come in the footsteps of their parents who studied in Poland before 1989 (by virtue of the “Communist international”), but who do not intend to go back, Poland shows signs of moving away from the status of being the “most” monocultural country in the European Union.
At the same time, the emigration from Poland to Western Europe is not ceasing either, even if it has slowed down. Currently, there are over 2 million Polish nationals who have settled, either temporarily or definitively, in other European countries, especially the UK (about 600,000), Ireland (where their number has overtaken that of those coming from Britain – between 120,000 and 200,000), Germany (some 400,00o) – but also The Netherlands, Italy etc.
But now the challenges of being a foreigner, who arrives to a new country driven by necessity or just by the desire to have a better life, and who has to cope with obstacles cultural, social and administrative, are experienced by Poles from the other side as well. Part of any process of receiving workers from other countries, is the phenomenon of “illegal immigration” – or, rather, of immigrants who, at some point or other, find themselves with less than the complete set of papers needed to live and work legally in the given country. As the number of immigrants grew, Poland had to take this into account; thus, in 2012 the government offered an amnesty to those who were in the country illegally – their number was estimated at around 40,000, although some talked of much higher numbers. After six months, about 8,500 immigrants had regularized their status, to the satisfaction of both the government officials, as well as of the many people who, no matter their country of origin, have embraced their new Polish identity and homeland. A good sign of how these people from Vietnam, Belarus, Ukraine, Pakistan, Georgia, Armenia, Russia, China, Moldova, Bulgaria, Turkey, Nigeria etc. have become a part of the Polish cultural and political landscape is the election of the first black person to the Polish Parliament, in 2010. Although the numeric rapport between the immigrants and emigrants still leans towards the latter, the tide might be shifting; with over 200,000 people coming to Poland to work, only in 2012 (mainly from neighboring Ukraine), the Polish government will have to continue to develop and adapt its emigration and integration policies, as a matter of both social and economic necessity.
In 2010, Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform (OP) was the first political party to win re-election in the two decades since the fall of Communism. Their success was due in good part to the continued superior economic performance of the country, while the rest of the world was undergoing an economic crisis. On the other hand, the choices on the political scene were not too varied. To the right was the Law and Justice (PiS) party of Jarosław Kaczyński, who, after a brief period in government, remained with the image of party that has a propensity for rhetoric over (economic) performance. To the left, the group that has traditionally occupied that space on the political spectrum, the Democratic Left Alliance, has been in disarray for about 10 years; leaving a space that, to everyone’s surprise, was grabbed and occupied by a newly-formed (breakaway from OP) group, Palikot’s Movement (RP). Thus, after the elections, the two largest parties were the Civic Platform – OP (39% of the vote) and Law and Justice – PiS (29% of the vote) – both of the center-right; as these parties never got along well, it was fortunate for OP that they could form a governing alliance with a third center-right party with seats in the parliament, the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL), which had received 9% of the votes.
It is pretty clear from this picture that the Polish voter is a “center-right voter” – with about 80% of the electorate choosing parties on this side of the generic political spectrum. Given the relatively crowded scene on the right, the major question for PM Donald Tusk is how to navigate his party, so that its social market, pro-Europe, and socially moderate orientation continues to reflect the Polish people’s preferences, not allowing for the Law and Justice party (which is, so to speak, “further to the right”) to get ahead. The challenges inherent in this proposition are well-reflected by the recent conflict between Prime Minister Tusk and one of the prominent members of his party (and Justice Minister in his cabinet), Jarosław Gowin.
While the tussle between them ended eventually with Gowin losing his ministerial position, the conflict is reflective of a deeper tension within the Civic Platform party itself. The fact is that Gowin’s positions coincide with those of a good portion of the party members and leaders – as evidenced by the recent failure of a Tusk initiative to pass a law on civil unions, because his own parliamentarians rebelled against it; and also by the fact that he chose as a Gowin replacement Marek Biernacki, who belongs to the same, socially-conservative direction in the party.
As said, the Polish voter is a center-right voter. In other words, Polish political culture reflects the fact that for the regular Polish citizen nationality (expressed through historical consciousness and cultural self-awareness) and Christianity (whether or not he is a practicing Christian) represent fundamental pillars of his/her identity. The variations are about the economy (the role of the state), the relationship with Europe (between national pride and the European identity), and the intensity of the various particular convictions.
Of course, the make it or break it test is, as always, the economy. If a government fails to perform in that sense, it matters little how ardent its discourse is – an opening will arise on the political scene, and there will not be a scarcity of political actors willing to grab that spot. Accordingly, the recently laid off Justice Minister made it a point to specify that the dispute between him and the PM is in fact about economic visions – and not about social or moral ones. However, as currently the Civic Platform is polling relatively equally with the more socially-conservative Law and Justice, there is no incentive for the Gowin/Biernacki wing to do anything but keep strong on their positions.