Foundations of Democracy – Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

A New President of Iran (Part 2)

As noted in the first part of our overview of the recent presidential elections, power and influence in Iran depend on the interplay between the different sources of political legitimacy, the formal and informal institutions of the system, and the networks of connections in the society. Among the main sources of legitimacy are, on the “official” side, the relationship with the figure of the founding Leader and the 1979 Revolution, the appeal to the teaching of Islam, to velayat e-faqih, or to the  Constitution, and the religious or political stature of the person. On the “unofficial” side, one’s involvement with previous moments of popular revolt (eg. the Green Revolution of 2009), the relationship with the informal leaders of the “opposition” (Moussavi, Khatami), or with other “moderate” figures (Rafsanjani), are similarly relevant.

Although there are no official political parties in Iran, the formation of coalitions of interests is a natural process within any society; these networks might take different forms or names, but they are generally recognized as representing different positions. Within Iran, one can distinguish a spectrum ranging from, on one end, those most faithful to the original intent and spirit of the Revolution and to Khomeini’s legacy (and thus most closely following his specific interpretation of Shia Islam) – to, at the opposite end, groups and people associated with the recent movements of popular protest, who have been excluded, or have excluded themselves, from the official political process. In-between these there is a broad political middle, trying to be a part of the process, with some walking a centrist line while having their bearings more in the traditionalist direction, and others belonging to the reformist camp.

Of course, various readings are possible; in the media, very often the political life is simply divided into traditionalists and reformists, But a bare bones description does not do justice to the complexity of the situation on the ground. For example, the traditionalist direction, usually identified as “the principalists”. is by no means monolithic; an important dividing line has formed recently between the “deviants” or radicals, as Ahmadinejad’s populists are called, and those who are closer to the Supreme Leader Khamenei and to the clerical circles. This conflict burst out in 2009, when Ahmadinejan “walked out” of cabinet meetings for almost two weeks, in protest to Khamenei imposing his people and influence within the government.

Given the exclusion from the official political competition of those who had a direct involvement in the 2009 events, the centrist-reformist part of the spectrum covers a broad range as well, but is generically where the dissatisfied place their hopes and votes. Within this group there are many figures who have occupied or still occupy important positions in the system, and who have been a part of it for decades, and thus possess not only popular appeal (being a reformist voice), but also official, institutional legitimacy. Among them, Hassan Rouhani has been known for a long time as a not-so-prominent moderate voice.

Given the complexity of the factors listed above, it is easy to understand that the Council of Guardians probably did not have an easy job vetting and selecting the candidates “qualified” to run for the presidency. At the end of the registration process there were almost 700 people who manifested their intention to run in the election; true enough, most of them had no chances of being taken into serious consideration. For example, among them there were several women, although the Constitution prescribes that the President must be a male Shia Muslim. From the CoG’s perspective, however, the most important decisions had to be made about a small number of prominent players, who possessed the political and religious backgrounds that made them acceptable for the regime, and were (at least potentially) attractive to the people. Two of these, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, were especially interesting cases, Rafsanjani because of representing the moderate pragmatic line and having a reputable political past (friend of Ayatollah Khomeini and two-time Iranian president), and Mashaei because of enjoying the forceful backing of Ahmadinejad’s camp (which certainly did him no good with either Khamenei or the Council of Guardians).

At the end of the selection process, the Council of Guardians ended up with a brief list of eight suitable and suited candidates (biographies), including, on the traditionalist side, the Khamenei-backed mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf; the adviser to the Leader, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel; the former head of the Iran Revolutionary Guard and adversary of Ahmadinejad, Mohsen Rezaei; and the chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, strongly supported by the Ahmadinejad people. On the centrist, or pragmatic-reformist side, the approved candidates were Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister close to the Rafsanjani circles; a former vice-president of Iran, current member of the Expediency Council, and prominent friend of Khatami, Mohammad-Reza Aref; and a lesser-known cleric and former chief nuclear negotiator named Hassan Rouhani. An unknown quantity, perhaps straddling the two camps, but with a long political-administrative record, was the eighth and last approved candidate,  Mohammad Gharazi.

Since these candidates were not selected so as to have only one representative of each faction (as they are not officially recognized), during the campaign that followed (and which included televised debates) they had to take some strategic decisions in order not to dilute the vote that would go in support of the direction they represented. Accordingly, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel withdrew in order to strengthen the so-called “conservative” camp. In the reformist camp, it was important, but for a long time not clear, behind whom would Rafsanjani and Khatami throw their support; finally, their choice was Hassan Rouhani. In consequence, Mohammad-Reza Aref withdrew, for Rouhani’s benefit. Slowly but surely, through careful messaging and key endorsements, Rouhani rose to become the candidate representing the reformist direction. With his established past and moderate reformist rhetoric, he became the attractive choice for pragmatists, moderates, reformists – and, by default, for those who had been engaged with the opposition movement. An interesting contrast arose, therefore, between a carefully calibrated, generically encouraging, yet moderate rhetoric from the candidate, and the increasingly larger and louder crowds of supporters (who at one rally even chanted the name of detained opposition leader Mir Hussain Mousavi).

The possibility of such a broad, popular coalition forming behind Rouhani has its explanation in the generalized unhappiness with the state in which Iran finds itself – with inflation, recession, youth unemployment, a conflict-ridden foreign policy, and general insecurity about the future. No amount of ideological rhetoric, not even the most exacerbated one, can supplant the failure of a regime to provide these basics elements of security, and there is no factor that undermines a government’s messaging more, than a failing economic situation.

This large and widespread disaffection with the regime – including Ahmadinejad’s administration of the economy and the Khamenei-lead control over the society – and the safety that both the people and possibly also the regime could find in such a centrist, experienced, economically-minded candidate like Rouhani, might explain why he was both successful in the campaign, and tolerated by the powers that be. Rouhani’s messaging, meanwhile, maintained his moderate positioning, and he kept his statements generic and well-meaning enough, to contain hints both toward the Green Movement people, and the ideological power establishment.

But what do we know about Rouhani? Hassan Rouhani is a Shiite cleric, born in 1948. Until the June elections, Rouhani has been serving on the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts; before that, he was a leading member of the Majlis for 20 years. His security and foreign policy background also goes back a long way, starting with the leadership role he played during the Iran-Iraq war; afterward, for 16 years he was a member (and then the head) of the Supreme National Security Council; and until recently he lead the Center for Strategic Research. In 1999 he came out forcefully against the popular protests, on the side of maintaining public order. Between 2003 and 2005 he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, brokering agreements with the EU. In recent years he was a constant critic of Ahmadinejad’s mishandling of both the foreign policy and the economy.

During the campaign, he carefully defined his position: “I have no problem working with Principalists or Reformists, I have a problem with extremists… and I have come to replace extremism with moderation.” He further clarified this self-definition when he mentioned by name the three key representatives of these factions (Supreme Leader Khamenei, Rafsanjani and Khatami), connecting himself neatly with all of them: “my close relationship with all three men began before the revolution and God-willing it will remain that way.” Thus, a moderate figure – but one of reform and pragmatism, against the thick ideological overtones of the previous president and of some hardliners. He said things that sounded good to the people, while not alienating the regime, as when he advocated for the need to pay attention to the impulses toward change that arise from “religion, freedom, and the people’s movement towards democracy.” No wonder that the people responded, pinning their hopes – for change, for a different voice, for a channel for their discontent and frustration after the uprising of 2009 – on him.

And the people expressed this support on the polling day, at the voting booth.  In Iran, the president is elected by popular vote, in two rounds. In the first round, all candidates are in the run (six, in our case). If no candidate obtains over 50%, a second round is organized, with only the top two candidates participating (those who obtained the most votes); in the second round, the candidate with the most votes (surely a majority) wins the elections. On June 14, the date of the first round of voting, there was an atmosphere of expectation, waiting to see if the regime would simply impose its will (as it did 2009), and who would qualify to the second round. To most people’s surprise, not only was the regime quick in making public the results, but the winner became apparent already from the first round of voting: it was Hassan Rouhani, with about 51% of the vote (results; results). According to the authorities, 72 % of the 50 million Iranian voters (including Iranians from abroad) participated in the elections. The win was clear and quite overwhelming – especially given the precedents.

As for Rouhani, in his first press conference after winning the elections, his emphasis did not change a bit; the word he kept repeating was “moderation”. Then. on August 4, 2013, he was inaugurated as the new President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Of course, the challenges for him and for the Iranians who greeted his election with immense enthusiasm are just starting. After the task of forming a government (i.e. making the right selection for members of the cabinet), the people of Iran (and also the rest of the world) will look eagerly to see if he will be willing, as the new President, and if he will be able, within the limits of this position, and the intricate Iranian political system, to transform his talk about moderate reform, economic pragmatism, and less tense foreign relations – into effective action.


An excellent source documenting the campaign and the elections was Wilson Center’s Iran Election Update series, prepared by Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani (Scribd). Al Jazeera also followed very closely and reported abundantly on the process.

A New President of Iran (Part 1)

On Sunday, August 4, Hojatoleslam Sheikh Hassan Rohani was inaugurated as the new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Previously, on June 14, the Iranians had voted overwhelmingly to elect him as president, already from the first round. The result was greeted with great elation on the streets of Iran, and with surprise in the West. But what does this election mean, and how did it come about?


For the past eight years, the Western media was dominated, in all things Iran, by the figure – at times grotesque, at times comical – of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the eyes of the media he stood for all things threatening or questionable about Iran’s Islamic government – and also, quite problematically, he stood for “Iran” itself. Yet this image neglected an important fact – that Ahmadinejad was only the President of Iran, namely the holder of an elected position limited to two mandates, of an office that is in no way the most important or influential one, in the Iranian political system.  “President” might sound like a grand title, but it is not. It is a position of power, indeed, but one of the many, in the intricate web of formal and informal institutions that constitute the Iranian political system.

At the heart and foundation of Iran’s political system are an originating event, a founding figure, and a grounding theory; respectively, the Revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the ideology of velayat e-faqih. The Islamic Republic was founded as a result of a popular uprising against the brutal regime of the Shah, regime that had been established and maintained with the visible support of the governments of US and of Great Britain. Turning against this regime in 1979 was a broad coalition of varied forces, from Marxists to Islamists – and, of course, the population. Yet, no matter how wide the ideological range of those who rose against the Shah, the best organized and most prominent were the determined followers of the charismatic (previously exiled) leader, Khomeini. And after the removal of the Shah, they proceeded to swiftly purge the institutions of the state, and the country itself, from the competing revolutionary groups, and to establish a political system and a society that would be based on Khomeini’s own theory of government, the “guardianship of the jurisprudent” (velayat e-faqih).

Most Iranians belong to Shia Islam, and more particularly to Twelver Shia Islam, whose peculiarity is that the believers live in expectation of the return of the twelfth Imam, a descendant from Muhammad’s line who was supposed to become the next leader of the Muslims, before he disappeared in the year 874 CE. This is very important because, following Muhammad’s model, the leader of the Muslims is supposed to be the leader in all aspects of life – including what concerns us, the political. This is in keeping with the fact that, within Islam, ideally there is no justifiable separation between the religious and the social, between what is known to be right and just, and what is practiced, in all aspects of life (even if historically these spheres became separated not very long after the Prophet’s death). Therefore, since the (religiously) legitimate ruler of the Shia Muslims, the Imam, is not present, the question emerges as to who can rule them, and under what circumstances, so that they can live in faithfulness to the Quran and to the Islamic traditions. While in exile, Ruhollah Khomeini sat down to formulate an answer to this question, and the resulting theory, velayat e-faqih, became thus the fundamental principle of the new socio-political arrangement. In its essence, it states that, until the return of the Twelfth Imam,  the community of the (Shia) Muslims is put under the “guardianship” of the “jurists”, namely under the temporary guidance and rule of the trained scholars and clerics who know best, through their vocation and education, how to interpret Islam and apply it to the challenges of the day. A fairly commonsensical solution, given the premises; yet a solution that is by no means accepted by all Shia clerics and scholars, a number of whom consider it an abuse or deformation of Islam; and rightly so, since who gave Khomeini the authority to establish such “rules of the game”?

And here comes the second of the aforementioned foundational elements of the Republic of Iran: the figure of Ruhollah Khomeini. His intellectual and concrete leadership in overturning the Shah’s regime and establishing a new one, and his day-to-day rule over the newly formed republic, with him as ultimate decision-maker in all matters social, political and religious, make Khomeini the founding father of the Iranian polity as we know it. He is the source of the original ideology of the state, and he is also the revolutionary leader who established the new Islamic state. One could compare his figure to those of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Mao Zedong, Fidel Catro or, more recently, Cesar Chavez; but also to the more appealing  figures of the Framers of the American republic, Konrad Adenauer, or Charles De Gaulle: people who have shaped the founding principles of a state both through their ideas and through their actions, their actual leadership.

Thirdly, the other original source of legitimacy of the Islamic Republic is the 1979 Revolution itself, namely the social and cultural re-action to the authoritarian regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Given that that regime had been established and propped up through the very active involvement of Western interests, namely of Great Britain and the United States, against the will and desires of a good part of the people (see the 1953 intervention), the Revolution itself, at least in some circles, had a pronounced anti-Western, anti-American and anti-British coloring, as they were turning against the Shah and his backers.

The relevance of the three foundational elements of the Islamic Republic presented above is neatly evidenced in the preamble to the Constitution of Iran (which embodies the “guardianship of the jurists” theory, although it does not mention it); and this Constitution, together with velayat e-faqih, constitute the basic principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran.


To understand the role and relative importance of the presidential position, one needs to understand the system of institutions and functions that try to implement in reality the principles laid down in the Constitution and prescribed by the “guardianship of the jurists”. In keeping with the Islamic view of society, a polity will be moral and just only if it lives  in accordance with what is know to be true and right, namely the word and example of the Prophet, and the Islamic tradition. At the same time, within Islam, all believers are equal; even in religious matters, the “voice  of the people” can play a very important role. The Islamic Republic, therefore, is constituted so as to embody both these sources of legitimacy, and thus has two sets of institutions, one corresponding to each.

This situation is similar to that of other ideologically-grounded regimes, such as the People’s Republic of China. As the name states it, China is “the people’s republic”; accordingly, it has a set of institutions that is meant to make the people’s voice heard (the principle of representation), and also a parallel structure (the institutions of the Communist Party), which constitutes the ideological check on the system and on the representative institutions. Both in Iran and in China, the set of institutions that is more powerful is the one that provides the ideological leadership to the political system; accordingly, the representative institutions are weaker, and are kept in check (through the selection of candidates, or perhaps through sheer manipulation), so that they do not deviate from the ideological direction of the country.

It is worth noting here, perhaps, that such mechanisms or such an internal logic of the system are also found in what we consider to be liberal democracies. For example, in many countries the constitutional court is an unelected body that has the last say (or check) on the functioning and power of the representative institutions, based on a set of principles (or ideology) embodied in the founding principles (constitution, revolution) of that country. This is by no means a remark intended to create a false equivalency between the political systems of an Iran, a China, and a Germany, for example. It is however useful to understand the inner logic of a system, and to see that all these systems have a set of ideas at their basis, ideas which their supporters claim to embody the “truth” (i.e. the best form of government possible). The consensus today is that a form corresponding to the principles of representative democracy, freedom  (of speech, action, opinion), and what is broadly called “human rights”, is the optimal form of government, or what we usually call, in shorthand. “democracy”.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei meeting President Putin

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei meeting with President Putin

Returning to our discussion, it is relevant to note that, notwithstanding the similarities with China, the Iranian political system has a much stronger and more vocal “representative” component. Also, the ideological power is more diffused in Iran, within a range of formal and informal arrangements; unlike in China, where the Party’s institutions are more streamlined. But let us look at Iran.

At the top of the  political, social and religious structures of power in Iran is the Supreme Leader – currently, the Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei. Khamenei is only the second Leader after the founder, Khomeini. He was elected (since the Leader is elected by another institution) after the Khomeini’s death, in 1989, as a compromise candidate between various factions. Co-worker of Khomeini, he was President of Iran under him during the 1980s.

Immediately below the Leader, on the next rung of power, is the Council of Guardians. As the name suggests, this organ is at the heart of the system, expressing the idea of the guidance of the Islamic jurists over the direction of the society and of its institutions. Accordingly, the CoG has many powers, and a central role in making sure that both the institutions and the individual actors in the state follow the Quran and the Constitution. Of its twelve members, six are elected by the Parliament, and the other six are appointed by the Leader.

This being the heart of the ideological system, there are two other institutions that, although with more ideological rather than representative functions, are situated somewhere between the “democratic” (demos + cratos) and the “theocratic” dimensions of the system.

The Assembly of Experts is the institution that elects the Leader; again as illustrated by its name, this institution gathers people with theological studies (86 of them), who need to pass examinations in order to qualify; however, they are voted in by the population, through universal elections happening every ten years. As it is with most other elected positions in the system, however, the candidates are vetted and pre-selected by the Council of Guardians. It is interesting to note that theoretically the Assembly of Experts also possesses the power to dismiss the Leader, if found unfit.

The Expediency Council is a more recent institution, established not long before Khomeini’s death, and its role is to mediate the legislative and decision-making conflicts between the elected Parliament and the Council of Guardians. These being its formal roles, informally it is also an institution that gathers many of the most powerful individual actors in the Iranian polity: military leaders, top clerics, government ministers etc. Given that it is the Leader who appoints them to the EC, it can also be seen as a way for him to gather and maintain the informal support of the power players of the country.

On the “purely” representative side of the political system, Iran looks like a combination of a presidential and a parliamentary system. Its legislature is constituted by the unicameral parliament, the Majles, which is directly elected by the population, through universal suffrage, every four years.  Although both men and women can be members of Parliament (unlike in the institutions mentioned above), in order to run for election one needs to be a Muslim; there are however spots in the Majles that are reserved for the members of the religious minorities – Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians. In order to run for elections, the candidates need to be vetted by the CoG; and not all qualify. Nonetheless, the Parliament is a relatively powerful and active institution; it is after all the characteristic of any institution that, once formed, it tries to cut itself as large a slice of power as it possibly can.  Just like other parliaments, the Majles debates and passes laws, and is able to check on the government (executive); at times, it has not shied from passing decisions (which never became laws) trying to check on the power of the Council of Guardians.

The executive branch is constituted by the President (who is its head) and the Cabinet (ministers). The President is directly elected by the population, every four years, and is limited to two terms. Of course, the list of candidates for the presidency is first vetted by the Council of Guardians; some of the basic requirements are that the candidate be male, a Shia Muslim, and an ethnic Iranian (i.e. not an ethnic Kurd or Armenian, for example). The President shapes a good part of the policy (which makes him a relatively forceful head of government), but he does not have the last say over the overall direction of the country. For example, while he signs international agreements and appoints ambassadors, the general thrust of the external policy is in the hands of the Leader and of his circles of power. Most pointedly, given much of the West’s concerns, the President is only an executor, and not a shaper of policy,  in what regards Iran’s nuclear plans, The Cabinet functions as a “council of ministers”; its members are appointed by the President and are approved by Parliament.

The President (with his Cabinet) is essentially in charge with running the day-to-day business of government, but his appointments and initiatives need to be approved or passed by the Parliament, which can also remove Cabinet members. In this sense, given also the reality of a very activist Majles, one could say that governing power (on the “representative” side) is somewhat equally divided between legislature and executive. Their activity (meant to express the intentions of the people, and to benefit them) is ideologically checked for corresponding with the grounding philosophy of the regime: Islam and the legacy of the Revolution.

There are additional institutions, such as those necessary for maintaining order and control over the society and its institutions: the Army, the Police, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the judiciary, the judiciary’s secret police etc. As is to be expected, these are very large, numerous, and relatively secretive; and maintaining control over them is crucial. On the other hand, there are also quasi-nongovernmental (quango?) or para-statal organizations, with roots in the Iran’s social culture and its recent past. Such are the Foundation of the Disinherited, the Martyrs’ Foundation, the Foundation of the Oppressed; these are large, sprawling even “foundations” that fulfill social and economic functions. For example, they might distribute benefits to the veterans of the war between Iraq and Iran, which has left the deepest marks on Iranian society; on the other hand, they also have economic interests and activities so large that they are some of the main employers in the country.  These parastatal structures constitute therefore very important sources of patronage; and the last say over their activity and leadership belongs to the Leader. Another very influential social organization is that of the Friday Prayer Leaders. Having control over what and how is communicated to the population at the Friday prayer, given that within Islam there is no ecclesiastical hierarchy, and thus no institutional check over the clerics’ or scholars’ activity, is of course very important. Consequently, the ultimate influence over this body rests with the Leader.

Iran pol sys 10

It is important to have a picture of this network of formal or less formal institutions and relationships, in order to understand that to have and wield power in Iran is a not a simple, unidimensional challenge. After founding father and revolutionary leader Khomeini’s death, in the absence of his towering figure, the system had to negotiate a modus operandi, which in actuality looks like a sum of compromises and relationships between various centers of power. Even the fact that the current Leader, Khamenei, was initially a “compromise” and relatively non-threatening candidate illustrates that having and maintaining power in this system is not as simple or straightforward endeavor as it could seem. Here one can notice again some similarities with China, with the plays on and for power within the structures of the Communist Party. One needs to create a rely on a network of institutional, ideological and individual supporters, or interested actors – and the population itself is one of these actors. After all, no regime can survive a complete loss of legitimacy.


This is why it is very relevant and important that Hassan Rohani was elected so overwhelmingly, obtaining over 50% of the vote from the first round, and that his election was received with such a huge cheer by the population and the “reformist” forces . But it is perhaps even more significant that, of a field of candidates that initially included almost 700 names (anyone could register), the Council of Guardians, surely with the acknowledgment of the Leader, vetted and selected eight persons, one of whom was Rohani.  Thus let us take a look at the circumstances of his election, the interplay of the various influences, and the interesting profile of the newly-inaugurated Iranian president, Hassan Rohani, in the second part of our analysis.

[VIDEO: Raucous Rohani Campaign Meeting]

Italian Elections: The Triumph of Alice? (Part II)

As mentioned in the first part of our overview, the (very) wild card of the recent Italian elections has been Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. Let us take a closer look at it, and then at the possible solutions to the post-electoral conundrum.

Through the Rabbit Hole: Beppe Grillo’s Movement

Beppe Grillo has played the role of acidic (and comedic) commentator of Italian public life since the 1980s. In the last two decades or so, he has moved away from the public media, but continued to do the same through national theater tours and, increasingly, through the internet. Slowly but surely, and especially since the economic crisis, he has become the focal personality channeling the anger of many Italians at the failures of the political elite. Grillo then took up consciously this role of conduit and mover, and founded a political movement (“not a party”) intended to be a direct expression of the will of the citizens, and an anti-political alternative to the political-media establishment.

After participating in local and European election, his Movimento 5 Stelle started preparing for the 2013 elections, which were called after yet another failure of the main political forces, right and left, to support  a stable government in a time of crisis. M5S’s organizing and campaigning efforts respected its non-establishment roots: shunning traditional media, they concentrated on public meetings and on creating a huge online network of communication  – inspired and guided by Grillo’s Internet guruGianroberto Casaleggio. A sort of direct democracy, using the oldest as well as the newest forms of mass communication. The roster of candidates and the party platform were constituted in similar ways: the potential candidates posted their CVs and self-introductory videoclips, and the online organization voted for them; the main policy objectives included some of the original ideas of M5S (ecology), but most of them were collected and discussed on online forums.

The resulting platform reflects both its originating process as well as the nature of the movement: halving the size of the legislature; anti-corruption laws; state support for the people affected by the economic crisis; incentives for small businesses; an end  to public financing of political parties and of the media;  a new electoral system, based on proportional representation; support for renewable energy;  free and universal internet access; voting age reduced to 16 for the Chamber of Deputies  (from 18), and to 18 for the Senate (from 25); online referendum on leaving the Euro. Also, M5S representatives will serve only two terms and will accept only a part of their salary.

In translation: replacing the current political class; cutting the connection between power and the media; direct democracy as the alternative to politics as usual; the internet as the means of this new direct democracy; common sense ideas from ordinary people; the new generation as the solution to the problems of the old; enlarging the social protection network, to help the growing number of Italians descending into poverty every day; aiding regular people who have small businesses; making sure that the newly elected people are different, and will not profit from political power, but will be there only to serve the ideas of the Movement.

To put it even more directly: we are tired of the same people, who are only pursuing their own interests, and the ones dictated by the international structures of powers. such as “the markets”, the World Bank, IMF, and the European Union. What we need is the idealist politics of the young generation and the common sense solutions of good, ordinary citizens. We will change the political elite, using the horizontal, democratizing force of the internet.

In the run-up to the elections, Grillo skewered Monti’s technocratic cabinet, because of the austerity solutions they implemented in response to the economic crisis – saying that these were imposed at the bidding of the markets and of international capital. Instead of austerity measures, Grillo said that he wants to use the money wasted on the government itself and on subventions, and redistribute it to those affected by the crisis and to small businesses. If his proposals sound familiar, it is because you have heard them before, from other populist movements.

One of the key challenges of populist movements is that it is easy to ride the wave of popular anger at the given situation (economic crisis, political immobility), as voters and candidates are united by their opposition to the status quo. Once in power, however, it becomes obvious that no amount of revolt or outcry can provide, in and of itself, the solutions to the problems. Furthermore, it usually turns out that those simple solutions, which sounded so energizing during the campaign – “eliminate waste,” “use the internet to increase efficiency” – never actually produce large enough outcomes, to cover ambitious programs such as expanding the social net. 

Another main challenge of populist movements is that, in order to actually have an impact in politics, they need to develop the internal structures necessary for unitary and effective action.  In other words, what starts as an inchoate, granular, horizontal revolt, needs to coalesce into institutions (which are, of necessity, structured and hierarchical). Without a group of people acting in a concerted way, with consistency over time, and in pursuit of the same goals (i.e. institutions), no lasting results can be achieved.

These challenges became apparent for M5S immediately after the elections, during the voting for the Presidency of the Senate, when several representatives “defected” by choosing to support the candidate of the center-left, thus going against Grillo’s injunction which rejected any cooperation with the existing political forces. The idea of organizing as a network sounds attractive enough, and it did work in the campaign; in fact, Beppe Grillo himself said that he does not know and has not met all the M5S candidates who ran in the elections; and Grillo himself did not run for Parliament,  as a consequence of a manslaughter sentence from the ’80s. But a decentralized network does not act as one entity, and then who is to assure that the ideas of the movement are actually followed and pursued with constancy.

Well, it turns out that it is Grillo himself (and Casaleggio) who do have the institutional power to make sure that the movement remains true to its ideas. For example, during the campaign local representatives of M5S have been thrown out of the movement (by Grillo); however, he rejected the accusations of undemocratic behavior thrown at him on the online forums: “Don’t come and break my balls, me of all people, about democracy. I’m getting fed up, I’m getting angry, seriously angry”. And so it happened after the Senate debacle that a new informal policy was introduced, by which Grillo would constantly keep in touch with the M5S members in the Parliament through text messages, thus ensuring that they would toe the party line.

The problem with equality is that it requires a Leviathan to enforce it, a Leviathan who is the guarantee of ideological purity.

After the Elections: The Impasse

In a parliamentary political system, getting to power means obtaining a majority in the Parliament, which the allows those political forces to choose their own people as head of the executive (prime minister) and as members of the cabinet. In addition to the executive, other key positions in the Italian political system are those of President of the Chamber of Deputies and President of the Senate. In fact, filling these positions is the first thing to do, after the legislature gets together for the first time; but this is not an easy thing to do, if the initial goal is not met – that of having a working majority of seats in the houses of the legislature.

As presented before, this is indeed the situation after the last elections. The coalition of parties on the left, led by Pier Luigi Bersani, does have 55% of the seats in the lower house, but only a slim plurality in the Senate (see updated results).  Their main rivals are the center right coalition (the main parties being Berlusconi’s Poppolo della Libertà – PDL, and the regionalist-separatist Lega Nord), which, while receiving only 0.3% less of the national vote, lost the majority in the Chamber of Deputies (due to the electoral system) and is only a few seats behind in the upper house. Coming third in terms of voting percentages and seats obtained, receiving a quarter of all the votes, and getting close to becoming the largest single party in Italian politics, is Beppe Grillo’s M5S.  The fourth and last political group, with about 10% of the votes and of the seats, is Mario Monti’s civic coalition.

Given that the center-left and the center-right have been at each other’s throats for a good long time, and that Grillo has rejected any cooperation with the other parties, Bersani was in a very difficult situation indeed, when it came to trying to constitute the necessary, however slim, majority in the Senate needed to elect its president. In the end, he managed to do that, by relying on a combination of abstentions and dissident votes from M5S (hence the scandal), and also by nominating for these positions politically neutral personalities (and thus the impact of M5S’s electoral success is already felt).

Given how tortuous these votes were, the perspectives of the negotiations for the nomination of a prime minister became even more daunting. According to the constitution, the President of the Republic is supposed to ask the party (or coalition) that came first in the elections, and that has the highest chance of forming a stable majority, to try to form a government.  Although the center-left is the closest to this description, it does not fit these bills completely – and yet they had to take the initiative.

What are Bersani’s choices?  Theoretically, they would be:
1. to attempt to gather a parliamentary majority in alliance with other coalitions / parties; in exchange for this support, these partners could either take part in government (receive positions in the cabinet), or they could support  a “minority government”, only with their votes in the legislature, without becoming members of the executive.
2. a grand coalition between the two major political forces, of center-left and center-right, the kind Germany had between 2005 and 2009.
3. to organize cross-party support for a government of technocrats

What complicates the situation even further is that Italy is in the middle of an economic and social crisis, and no matter what government is formed, it needs to have a strong enough support to pass some of the necessary (and presumably highly debated) economic measures; or at least to pass some urgent measures and prepare for snap elections.

Let us examine the aforementioned choices, starting with the last one, of a technocratic government. Well, although it has proven to be a solution for Italy in similar situations before, it would not be possible at this time, for the simple reason that these last elections were preceded and partially brought about by the collapse of political support for the technocratic government of Mario Monti.  In fact, Silvio Berlusconi has openly ruled out supporting a second technocratic government.

So, could the center left form an alliance or system of alliances, that would give them a majority support in both houses of Parliament? (Recall that they have 55% of the seats in the lower house, but only about 123 of the 319 seats in the upper house.) The only “natural” ally (from the point of view of political pragmatism) would be Monti’s political group; however, the latter have only 21 seats in the upper house. The only other,  theoretically amenable political group, would be the Five Star Movement; but, as we know already, they are against giving support to the existing political forces, even “from the outside”. Bersani’s strategy, as evidenced by his nominations for the leadership of the chambers, has been to propose figures or policy points in which M5S could find a reflection of their own political ideas. Up to this point, however, his attempt has failed.

Meanwhile, M5S has declared that it would expect the president’s invitation to form a government, at which point they would reveal the names of the candidates and the policy program. Of course, the other political forces are not very receptive to such a cat-in-the-bag plan of action. Let us also not forget that Beppe Grillo has stated that he expects new elections to happen soon; in this context, letting the other political forces fail, separately or together, would only prepare the grounds for a more sweeping electoral success for the Five Star Movement, which would fit their goals of replacing the entire political class.

As for the center-right, it absolutely rejects the formation of a center-left minority government – a “governicchio”, but it might not be opposed to the other alternative, that of entering into government themselves.

Then how about a grand coalition between the center-left and the center-right? Such an alliance would surely have enough votes both in the lower and in the upper houses – comfortably so (within the bounds of Italian political fragmentation, of course).  Nothing is impossible in politics, but Bersani and the center-left seems to reject this idea quite fiercely, because of their personal opposition to Berlusconi (whose figure does dominate the center-right coalition), out of fear of his hidden or not-so-hidden intentions, and because of a lack of trust in the perspectives of such a government  (given last year’s events) . The center-right has made it clear that it would only support a government in which some of the key positions in the state would go to them. This would include not only cabinet positions, but also the Presidency of the Republic. Why the Presidency? It is widely agreed that this has to do with Berlusconi’s personal concerns: he is currently involved in several trials whose outlook does not look very promising; the President, however, has the power of pardon. 

Because, to further complicate the matters, Italy does not only need a stable government in the midst of economic and social crisis. In addition, the mandate of the current President of the Republic is constitutionally set to  expire in a few days (May 15), and by that time they need to have already chosen a new president.

How About the Italian President?

The Italian president is elected for a seven-year mandate by a special assembly of grand electors, constituted of all the members of the Chamber of Deputies and of the Senate, and delegates chosen by the governments of the 20 regions (3 from each, with a few exceptions). In order to be elected, a candidate (usually nominated by a major political coalition) needs to gather 2/3 of the votes; if, after three rounds of voting, this is not achieved, in the fourth round a majority (50%+1) is enough.

Giorgio Napolitano – the current president – is running out of time. The assembly to elect the new president will have to be called on April 15, 30 days before the expiration of his mandate (according to the constitution). At the same time, the developments of these presidential election will surely be influenced by the current negotiations for the formation of a cabinet – and they are currently are going nowhere. A possible outcome of the presidential elections would be for Bersani’s center-left to gather enough votes for a majority in the fourth round (perhaps with the aid of Monti’s civic coalition); however, the bad blood created by not agreeing during the previous rounds to a consensus, 2/3 candidate would probably doom any prospect of forming a cabinet afterwards. One must recall that the head of state in a parliamentary system is supposed to be the guarantor of the stability of the state, and to situate himself (or herself) above party politics. Perhaps by finding a presidential nominee who would also fit M5S’s profile – maybe that would open doors for a post-election formation of a stable government? But that would take us into June, and the effects of the political instability are already being felt on the economy.

In any case, President Giorgio Napolitano has made it clear that he will do his utmost to try to help the formation of a government while his mandate lasts; and he reminded everybody that there is still a caretaker government in place, managing the country, namely Mr. Monti’s government of technocrats (their mandate only ends when a new cabinet is elected).

In a move inspired by the models of government formation in Netherlands or Belgium,  on Tuesday, April 2, Napolitano announced the beginning of (maximum) 8-10 days of consultation with two groups of “wise men”, gathered both from the political and from the civic-economic sphere. The role of these “facilitators” is to help formulate a set of policy priorities for the country, around which the political parties can gather and which they can support. In other words, this is about supporting specific policy measures, and not personalities. One might assume that, once and if such a governing program is delineated, the parties would have to agree on  a cabinet either from their ranks (a sort of grand coalition) or from the outside (again technocrats), who would pursue a very specific,  limited agenda. One might also assume that the life-span of this target-specific cabinet would be strictly defined as well, and that among their key goals would be to organize new elections, within the next 6-10 months. It is not clear if Napolitano’s strategy of asking them to focus on urgent policy targets, rather than on people or parties, will work; right now, the turmoil goes on.

A Land of Wonders

Italy is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful countries in the world, both in terms of natural beauty, and of historical and cultural riches. It has one of the highest life expectancies in the world; its life-style, from the propensity to enjoy good life, to the siesta, to its family-oriented daily rhythms, make it a favorite destination both for tourism and for comfortable living. Its politics is also full of wonders: intricate, regionally and ideologically fragmented, filled with strong personalities. Its state budget seems to be chronically mismanaged, yet under the leadership of some of its technocratic governments it has produced some of the most impressive economic turnarounds of the last decades. Its system of public administration is widely considered to be inefficient, corruption is seen to be pervasive. Its politics seem to be dominated by the same people, and little seems to change structurally, no matter who gets into the seats of power.

Into this realm and against it comes Beppe Grillo’s movement, proposing an alternate land of wonders, somewhere at the intersection of dreams and pragmatism, that would turn the current reality upside down. One wonders, however, if one does not also hear the Queen of Hearts running around and asking “off with their heads!” In Lewis Carroll’s story, Alice slides into an alternate land of wonders; yet by the end of the narrative, we sigh with her of breath of relief, as she gets back into the (slightly less interesting) land of rules, reason and normality – no matter how fascinating (and frightening) that world of wonders was. At this point, we are right in the middle of the story of Italian elections, and the best we can do is to follow its developments.

Addendum: the Negotiations

Before the recent consultations between Bersani and the M5S representatives, the latter insisted that they would only agree to discuss, if the meeting would be broadcast live, on the internet. This happened, and Bersani made it a point to state that he was happy to oblige. Complete transparency; open politics to the masses, with the aid of the internet.

In the follow-up to that meeting, Movimento 5 Stelle needed to decide on the strategy to be pursued during the negotiations to come; the line its representatives should follow, especially given the Senate vote debacle. Thus, the leadership of M5S met behind closed doors to discuss and strategize; no media access, nobody from the outside was allowed. Some secretiveness seems to be in order.

You can watch the entire streaming broadcast of the Bersani – M5S meeting here:

[FEATURE] David Cameron’s EU Speech

cameron eu 6On 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.

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Elections in Slovenia

On December 4, 2011 Slovenians voted for parties vying to win a proportion of the 90 seats of the lower house of Parliament – the National Assembly (Državni Zbor). In fact, this is the only directly elected chamber of the Parliament in this small, two million strong country.

The National Assembly

The upper house, the  National Council (Državni Svet), containing 40 seats, is constituted based on corporatist principles, its members representing either the regions of Slovenia, or each major socio-economic group in Slovenian society. Thus, the NC has 18 seats reserved for representatives of business, trade unions, farmers, crafts, students etc., while 22 seats are elected by regional electoral colleges. This arrangement reflects the strongly consociative nature of the Slovenian political system, another sign of which being the relatively frequent (constitutional) use of the referendum, as a means of passing decisions (in Europe, this might be second only to Switzerland).  Another feature of Slovenian politics, namely its decentralized nature, might be a reflection of the peculiar history of the country, who only acquired independent existence very recently (early 1990s);  throughout history, Slovenians have been just one group among many, or a smaller part of, large and powerful states (mostly under Austrian / German influence). The German connection is still very much evident, in the daily life of both politics and the economy, and also in the political self-understanding of the Slovenian society. Indeed, corporatism, regionalism and consociational arrangements are key aspects of German politics and society.

But back to the elections for the National Assembly: they were early elections, called after the center-left government of Borut Pahor was toppled, through a vote of no confidence, as a result of general dissatisfaction with its economic policies, its overall performance, and recent corruption scandals. This came only two years after Pahor’s Social Democrats had won the elections, replacing Janez Janša’s center-right Slovenian Democratic Party, notwithstanding the economic boom Slovenia had experienced under that government.

Zoran Janković

In the preamble to these early elections, several new forces appeared on the political stage in Slovenia. Was this a sign of general disappointment with the entire spectrum of the existing, established parties, in addition to the growing economic difficulties? It is very possible, given that the main parties and leaders have been around basically since independence (early 90s). This is also confirmed by the profile of the new political groups: Zoran Janković’s List – Positive Slovenia is formed around the attractive populist profile of a successful businessman, former head of the handball federation, and current mayor of Ljubljana. Although with some previous affiliation with the Social Democrats, his entry into national politics (only about a month and a half before the elections, when he formed the new party) has not been greeted with cheers by the establishment. The other brand new political force is the Citizen’s Alliance of Gregor Virant; again, formed only about a month and a half before the elections, around a stand-out personality. The non-ideological,  generic and positive names of these new groups, and their very recent “history” suggest a  generalized rejection of the political establishment, and of the existing partisan alternatives – and the need for fresh faces, and (possibly) new solutions.

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Libya: The End of the Gaddafi Regime, and the Responsibility to Protect

This is a real moral victory for “the West” (if there is such a thing), “whose” intervention to protect the thousands of civilians threatened by Ghaddafi with imminent death has been accompanied, from the beginning, by ignorant recriminations from the general public about “starting yet another war in the Middle East.” Echoes of this mood affected even the political scene of the primary campaign in the US, as evidenced by some of the populist isolationist rhetoric exhibited during their first debate by most Republican candidates, some of whom have been very muscular at the time of the Iraq intervention (which was anything but a humanitarian intervention).

For once, the governments of European countries and the US had the courage to intervene when genocide was imminent. One would think that, after Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Sudan the general public would be more aware of what happens when… nothing happens; when those who can do something, do nothing. Most of it is ignorance, all too often accompanied by some of those wonderful conspiracy theories, from the usual “it’s all about oil”, to other, more darkly elaborate and farther removed from reality ones. For once, however, the governments of influential countries in the West dared to invest money, resources, and human lives, to save the lives of thousands of people.

The conquering of the capital Tripoli by the so-called “rebels” – who are in fact ordinary Libyans who rose up against Gaddafi regime – comes at a moment when there were renewed discussions about the will and the ability, both political and material, of these Western governments, to continue the aerial and logistical support they have been giving to the battered members of the uprising.

Of course, the fact that a genocide has been stopped, and that the population has removed Gaddafi’s regime from power, does not mean that Libya will become a safe, democratic country – not overnight, and perhaps not even on a longer term. The intervention was about saving people, about stopping a murderous ruler’s forces from carrying out the massacre of the population. For anyone not remembering what this was about, here is a short reminder: “140 ‘massacred’ as Gaddafi sends in snipers to crush dissent“. But we have to look no further than today’s events, to remind ourselves of the true nature of Gaddafi’s regime:

(See this timeline of events in Libya, from the beginning of the uprising, for a memory refresher.)

Libyan society is divided by tribal allegiances, and there are tribes who have been close to the Gaddafi regime, and have probably profited from it. This predicts serious challenges to establishing a functional, perhaps democratic political system. This, at its turn, raises new questions about the Western governments’ duties with regards to a continued commitment. Do they want that? Should they get involved? To what degree? In what sense? These are not easy question, but for now let us just state that, for once, the responsibility to protect has been assumed by the international community, and that is undoubtedly a good thing.

See the website of the The International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP) for more information on this recently assumed new principle in international relations:

Recognizing the failure to adequately respond to the most heinous crimes known to humankind, world leaders made a historic commitment to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity at the United Nations (UN) 2005 World Summit. This commitment, entitled the Responsibility to Protect, stipulates that:

1. The State carries the primary responsibility for the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

2. The international community has a responsibility to assist States in fulfilling this responsibility.

3. The international community should use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State fails to protect its populations or is in fact the perpetrator of crimes, the international community must be prepared to take stronger measures, including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council.