Around the World (May 18, 2013)

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).

In Brief

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.]


Central European Review – April 2013 (Part 1)

The countries of the Visegrad Four – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – have confirmed their intention to form a joint military force within the EU Battlegroups, to be operational by 2016.  This was announced during the common meeting of the V4 and of the Weimar Triangle (Poland, Germany, France) in March.  According to the plans, the force would have about 2500 troops, and would be built on the existing Polish infrastructure, given that this country has the largest military (and corresponding investments) of the four. The battlegroup would serve the purposes of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and of NATO, of which these countries are members. Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande expressed their satisfaction; there are separate plans for a Weimar Triangle battlegroup, but the preparations have currently been put on hold. It is in these V4 countries’ interests to prove and to strengthen their capabilities, as parts of NATO (and at its behest), and also as a platform for their own regional cooperation efforts. There are questions marks regarding the success of the venture, given the differences between their policies regarding the development of the armed forces (or, rather, their reduction); others, however, see in this a response to a new and different geostrategic era.

SLOVENIA: New Government – Ongoing Crises

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Triglav – national symbol of Slovenia

On March 20, 2013 the Parliament of Slovenia elected a new Government, led by Prime Minister Alenka Bratušek. This came one month after the vote of no confidence that removed Janez Janša’s cabinet, which had been in office for only one year. But these most recent changes were but a response to a larger crisis – perhaps the most severe one since Slovenia obtained its independence – in which a dangerous economic situation meets with extensive popular dissatisfaction with the Slovenian political elite. The economic crisis began in 2009 and intensified in 2011, and the austerity measures passed by the Janša government in 2012 did not improve the public sentiment soured by the previous (center-left) government’s perceived mismanagement of the economy.  Furthermore, there is a general feeling of disaffection with the entire political class, within the Slovenian population – and it does not matter if it is left or right, if we are talking local or national government. This public sentiment was expressed very poignantly during a long series of public manifestations that took place at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, which started as local protests against Maribor Mayor Franc Kangler. This series of manifestations peaked in February, when more than 20,000 gathered after the report of the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption became public, revealing that both the Prime Minister, Janez Janša, and the leader of the largest opposition party,  Zoran Janković (Positive Slovenia), had been found with large sums of money that they could not account for.

At that point Janša had been in power for about a year; after the elections of December 2011 (see related post) it took about two months to form a new government that, contrary to expectations, did not put in power the nominal “winners”  (the party with the plurality of seats, center-left Positive Slovenia), but the political force that came in second (Janez Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party – SDS, of the center-right). The reason for this was that only they could put together a working coalition, together with the conservative People’s Party (SLS), the Christian-democratic New Slovenia (Nsi), the liberal Civic List of Gregor Virant, and the center-left Democratic Party of Slovenian Pensioners (DESUS). After becoming prime minister again (he’s held that position between 2004-08), Janša started implementing a set of austerity measures, to deal with the threatening economic situation. However, these economic measures did not help to improve the general fatigue with the ruling political-economic class – fatigue that transcended party lines. In consequence, on February 27, 2013, after months of protests and revelations of misdoing about many politicians, three of the governing coalition parties withdrew their support from Janša’s cabinet.

A new governing coalition was formed a few weeks later, containing the two more left-leaning, formerly governing parties (Civic List and the Pensioners’s Party), the 10% of the Social Democrats, and the largest party in Parliament, center-left Positive  Slovenia. Given the demise of PS’s previous leader, Zoran Janković, the parties chose as Prime Minister the new leader of Positive Slovenia, the relatively untainted Alenka Bratušek.

But the formation of a new government can not make the problems go away magically, overnight. After the recent Cyprus crisis, there has been talk about Slovenia, whether it would become the next country (after Spain, Portugal, Ireland) to be hit by a financial crisis and necessitate a bailout. The governments of Slovenia, past and present, have been arguing quite fiercely that that is not the case – and not without reason. Slovenia’s situation is indeed different. Unlike in the cases of Cyprus or Iceland, the size of its debt is much smaller: 53.8% relative to its economy, instead of Spain’s 84% or  Cyprus’s 80%. Similarly, its (mostly state-owned) banking sector is much smaller, representing 135% of the GDP;  compare that with 800% in Cyprus’s case. The major problem however with the banks is the quality of a part of their assets: they currently own about €7 billion in bad debt, which represents about 20% of the GDP. While measures in this sense have already been taken by the Janša cabinet – such as the establishment of a bad bank, and several austerity measures – the state still needs to recapitalize the banks. It also does not help that unemployment is still at a multi-year high.

And here is where the relative political instability has an important role to play. The new Prime Minister, Alenka Bratušek, came to power under a limited mandate: she received a 12 months period, with a possible extension until the elections of 2015. Her main task – as she herself has declared – is to guide the country to these elections; meanwhile, however, she intends to focus on economic growth and on balancing the books, without an undue emphasis on austerity measures (as the previous government did); cutting spending is not in itself the solution, according to Bratušek. This of course has immediately been criticized by the center-right, with warnings that removing the austerity measure might mean repeating the mistakes of the recent past – namely, of the center left government under which Slovenia went in a downward direction, after the years of growth (or bubble?) under Janša’s leadership.

While the economy does represent the urgent challenge, the deeper crisis of public confidence can not and should not be neglected. Just like in the rest of the region, Slovenia seems to be going through what I would define as the post-1989 malaise: democracy and market economy have been taken to task, and they have both failed to live up to the very high expectations of those heady beginnings. But the two – economy and politics  – cannot be separated. It might be the case that surviving the economic crisis will solve the political confidence gap – economic security is, after all, one of the foundations of political legitimacy. But it might also be the case that the very resolution of the economic crisis might necessitate a rethinking and reorganization of politics – the way Iceland did it (as mentioned in a previous post).

AUSTRIA: Taxes & Guns

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Parliament of Austria (360° view)

At the recent reunion of the finance ministers of the EU countries in Dublin, Austria’s Maria Fekter dominated the debate and shaped the agenda with her fierce defense of Austria’s constitutionally-guaranteed right to banking privacy. This, however, clashed with the growing concerns, and rising impetus for decisive action, about tax havens and offshore schemes in Europe and the world. Fekter, on the other hand, was adamant that this can only be done based on reciprocity, and she brought up the issue of the many territories under British legal responsibility, such as the Channel Islands, Gibraltar, Cayman Islands, and Virgin Islands, which function as offshore “tax paradises”. The Austrian finance minister’s position , however, was weakened by the fact that the other country that has been holding out, Luxembourg, has meanwhile agreed to share banking information with the German authorities. Furthermore, while Maria Fekter might be able to put up a tough act abroad, at home she has to function in a government that is based on a grand coalition between the two largest parties, the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), which are on the opposite sides of the political spectrum (see elections 2008). Given that the next legislative elections will take place in September 2013, her attempt to score points will not go unanswered. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Chancellor Werner Faymann, who belongs to the other party (SPÖ), has used a more nuanced language, and did not exclude the possibility of reaching an agreement on the issue.

Earlier this year, in January, Austrian citizens were called to a referendum about moving from a conscription-based military, to a professional one. Referenda (Volksbefragung) represent one of the constitutionally-defined means of democratic control in Austria; while they are not binding, the parties in power can only ignore them at their own peril. In the lead-up to this referendum, the center-left Social Democrats argued that the current system is outdated, given the foreseeable security challenges of the 21st century; the center-right People’s Party, however, made the point that the existing make-up fits Austria’s neutral status, and that a move to a paid army would only reduce the size and professionalism of the military, while elevating the costs, in the conditions of a worldwide economic crisis.  At this point, all Austrian men reaching 18 years of age must serve six months in the army or nine months in civilian service. In the referendum, a decisive 59.7% of the voters went against the changes (results).

CROATIA: The New EU Membership & the Old Rivalry with Serbia

On April 14 Croatia voted for the first time to send representatives to the European Parliament.  For the first time, because it was only on March 27 of this year that the European Commission announced the end of the long accession process; in consequence, Croatia will become a full-fledged member of the EU on July 1, 2013. As a member of the EU, it needs to have  representatives in all its institutions of decision-making, including the EP, where it has allotted 12 seats (according to an apportionment system based on population size). Although 43.5% of Croatians participated in the 2012 referendum on joining the EU, and 66%  voted in favor, these first EP elections saw a very low turnout (by Croatian and European standards) of only 20.84%. According to analysts, the main reason for this is a general sentiment that these elections do not matter that much (which might have to do with the complexity of the EU’s governing structures and the so-called democratic deficit connected with that), and also a relatively lower enthusiasm about the EU, because of the current economic crisis.

Be it as it may, the results of the elections are somewhat interesting, as 6 of the 12  seats went to the center-right coalition led by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), 5 seats to the center-left coalition formed around the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and 1 to the populist Croatian Labourists party.  Overall, the HDZ-led coalition obtained 32.86% of the votes, the center-left 32.07%, the Labourists 5.77%,  with other parliamentary parties obtaining less that 4% (official resultsdetails). These results are interesting because the “winning” coalition (center-right HDZ & allies) is currently in the opposition in the Croatian Parliament, while the Social Democrats-led coalition is currently in power, possessing 80 of the 151 seats of the Parliament. This may or may not be a harbinger of things to come. Another interesting fact is that, unlike in the national elections, in which the citizens vote for closed party lists based on a proportional system, in the EP elections Croatia used open party lists,  with the voters having the ability to rank the individual candidates.

The last national elections took place in 2011 (outcome), and marked the transition of the reins of power from the long-reigning center-right (which had been in power between 1990-2000 and 2003-11), to the center-left Kukuriku coalition (the name means what you think it means) led by the Social Democrats – in the context of a 17.4% rate of unemployment, a 4.9% budget deficit and with some major corruption scandals going on. 

Also in March, the Croatian national football team hosted Serbia, for a game counting for the qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. This was the first time that these two teams met, since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, and accordingly the authorities were on high alert, and measures were taken to avoid any serious incidents. Even more so, since in 1991 it was a football game between a Serbian team (Red Star Belgrade) and a Croatian one (Dinamo Zagreb), which was credited with igniting the simmering Serbian-Croatian conflict. Of course, that game did not “start” the conflict; sports, however, represent today one of the key ways through which ethnic, regional or national identities are affirmed and “fought for“; correspondingly, long-standing historical rivalries are very often played out on the pitch and around it, and very often around the soccer pitch, given the sports’ immense popularity and the large number of people who are invested in it (see the Netherlands-Germany rivalry). The March game between Croatia and Serbia, however, which ended with a clear Croatian victory, was not accompanied by any acts of violence; however, it is also true  that, as a precautionary measure, neither at this game nor at the away game in Serbia will supporters for the visiting team be allowed in the stadium (which is otherwise customary). While the Serbian anthem was whistled at and booed, and while the Croatians fans did chant anti-Serbian songs, on the pitch and immediately around it the competition was characterized by fair play; in a very nice gesture, the coaches of the two teams set a good example, making a point of sharing a hug before the game.

[Note: Part two of Central European Review – April 2013 will examine the recent political developments in Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. These posts replace the Biweekly Roundups of April 20 and May4; the next edition of our review of international events is due May 18.]


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:


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

Italia

Why would we care about the Italian elections? Isn’t this the country that has had over 50 governments since 1945, that is in a seemingly perpetual crisis, that is governed by picturesque characters like Berlusconi? Isn’t this also the country that, in terms of GDP, is the third in Europe and the eighth in the world? Whose population of 60 million people is the fourth largest in Europe, and thirty-third in the world? A key member of the G8 and of NATO? Whose cultural footprint is truly unparalleled, possessing  more UNESCO world heritage sites than any other country while remaining a trend-setter in the arts, fashion, and high-end craftsmanship?

What Do the Italians Elect?

In order to counteract the famed Italian political instability, and to ensure strong parliamentary majorities for any given cabinet, a reform of the electoral system was passed in 2005. Pursuant to these reforms, the 630 members of the lower house (Chamber of Deputies) are now elected on closed party lists from 17 districts (details), by a proportional representation system. If this is a proportional electoral system, how would this avoid fragmentation? Well, there is a major corrective to proportionality, namely that, by law, the party that wins a plurality of votes nationally, automatically obtains 55% of the seats in the lower house (340 seats). The irony is that, given the fickleness of Italian politics, this 55% does not always represent a strong majority.

Unlike in other parliamentary systems, the upper house (Senate) has about as much power as the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house is usually the more powerful). This makes Italy one of the most balanced bicameral systems around. And, since the Senate is not only called to pass legislation, but also to approve the prime minister and the cabinet, a majority in the upper house is essential for appointing and maintaining a stable government. However, this majority is not simple to obtain. According to the new electoral system, most of the 319 members of the Senate are elected on closed party lists, in 21 different constituencies (regions). Each region has a number of Senate seats allotted; however, in order to “force” a majority, in each region the party that obtains the plurality of votes, automatically receives 55% percent of that region’s seats. The problem is that, given Italy’s socio-political fragmentation, and the significant cultural differences between the various regions, this does not necessarily add up to a Senate majority.

An interesting detail is that the minimum age requirement for voting for Senate candidates is 25; it is enough to be 18 years old, however, to be able to vote for the lower house.

The (First?) Elections of 2013

The elections of 2013 were called after the announced resignation of Mario Monti’s technocratic cabinet, which (as its “technocratic” attribute indicates) initially came to power as a government of non-political specialists, called in to take care of the economic crisis, because none of the political parties was able or willing to assume that responsibility. The advantage of technocratic governments is that they are not indebted politically to anyone, and can assume the risk of implementing difficult, even harsh policies, which would otherwise destroy the support of any party attempting them. The major disadvantage of such governments comes from the same feature; since they do need a majority in the parliament to pass these policies, they depend on a frail constellation of political support, which is never guaranteed, given their lack of political affiliation. This is what happened in Italy, with Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition withdrawing their support from Monti’s cabinet. Without this support, Monti could not continue implementing the austerity measures that brought upon him the anger of many Italians, but which may have started putting Italy on the right track.

With Monti for Italy! In a surprising move, however, Monti, who is a respected economist and academic, decided to remain in politics, taking into account both the need for a responsible, efficient government, as well as the general public dissatisfaction with the existing political alternatives.

To the Right: Berlusconi. These existing political alternatives include, on the center-right, the coalition led by the seemingly inexhaustible Silvio Berlusconi, who has staged a comeback that was unimaginable only a couple of years ago – when he resigned his prime-ministership in less than honorable circumstances, with both the Italian economy and his public image in shambles. But his sizable resources and high public profile constitute a capital that few others have in Italy; thus, the many parties of the center-right could only agree to a renewed Berlusconian leadership. And, in the run-up to the elections, this effective communicator managed to promise (again) to the economically afflicted Italians that he will undo many of the austerity measures (some introduced by Monti, and some by the same Mr. Berlusconi, during his previous tenure in government).

To the Left: the Center-Left. This coalition is composed by some of the recent incarnations of the Italian left-of-center, whether with Christian-democratic or with social-democratic roots. Among them, the most important is the Democratic Party of Mr. Pier Luigi Bersani. With Berlusconi’s blemished public image, and with Monti’s low popularity, the center left looked prone to winning these 2013 elections; which meant that Bersani chose the path of least resistance during the campaign, making few promises and relying simply on the inertia of the situation.

Nobody Expects Beppe & the Grillini. For more than a couple of years now, comedian and public personality Giuseppe (Beppe) Grillo has been loudly and emphatically announcing the demise of the entire existing political system and the arrival of a new politics. In preparation for this, in a pure anti-system fashion, he abjured any apparition in  the Italian media (a good part of which is under Berlusconi’s influence), and confined all his  mobilizing efforts to the internet and to the public squares of Italy. And, to many observers’ surprise, the impact was notable; in fact, it might be the first time that a movement built only on the newest and on the oldest means of mass communication has had such a significant impact in politics. And, as in a sketch by his confrères, although nobody ever really expected it, the grillini‘s suddenly entered Italian politics – and turned it upside down. Or, rather, they allowed the Italian people to turn upside down a political and economic situation that was already topsy-turvy.

And Here Are The Results:

In a sign of the Italian public’s disaffection with politics, but also of its high levels of political participation (both, indeed), 25% of Italians chose not to attend these elections; and this still represents one of the highest levels of participation among industrialized countries, although it is lower than the usual rates in Italy.

Of those that went to vote, a similar, relatively low percentage of electors chose the two major coalitions – of the center-right (Berlusconi), or center-left (Bersani): about 30%. Only 10% had the sense of civic responsibility, or comfortable enough life, to choose Monti’s alliance. Some 5% percent of the vote was distributed among the very many ideologically or geographically marginal political groupings that populate Italian politics; none of them made it into the parliament. But about 25% percent of the total vote, in both houses, and from all regions, went to one party and one party only – Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) – making it the largest single party in the Italian parliament.

Here are the complete results, for the Chamber of Deputies:

COALITION / Party % of National Vote # of Seats
Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement 25.55 108
Center-Left (Bersani)
– Democratic Party 25.42%, 292.
– Left Ecology Freedom 3.20%, 37.
– Democratic Center 0.49%, 6.
– South Tyrolean PP, 0.43%, 5.
29.55 340
Center-Right (Berlusconi)
– People of Freedom 21.56%, 97.
– Northern League 4.08%, 18.
– Brothers of Italy 1.95%, 9.
– The Right 0.64%, 0.
– Great South… 0.43%, 0.
– Moderates in Rev. 0.24%, 0.
– Pensioners’ Party 0.16%, 0.
– Popular Agreement 0.07%, 0.
– Indep. for a Fair Italy 0%, 0.
29.18 124
With Monti for Italy
– Civic Choice 8.30%, 37.
– Christian & Center Democrats 1.78%, 8.
– Future and Freedom 0.46%, 0.
10.56 45

You might have noticed the strong discrepancy between percentages obtained and seats assigned; the center-left and the center-right are separated by only 0.37 % of the Italian vote, yet the Bersani coalition was assigned 340 seats, while Berlusconi’s coalition received only 124. The reason is that those 340 seats represent 55% of the seats in the lower house, which are given automatically to the coalition obtaining a plurality (however slim) of the national vote. The remaining seats are then divided among the other parties or coalitions, in proportion to the percentages obtained.

You should not miss out on checking the full results list (reference; official), which includes the 30 or so political groups that received votes but did not obtain seats in the Chamber; their names will take your imagination on a very pleasant ideological trip .

Here is the summary of the results, for the Senate:

COALITION / Party % of National Vote # of Seats
Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement 23.79 54
Center-Left (Bersani)
– Democratic Party 27.43%, 105.
– Left Ecology Freedom 2.97%, 7.
– Democratic Center 0.53%, 0.
– The Megaphone … 0.45%, 1.
– Italian Socialist Party 0.18%, 0.
– Moderates 0.04%, 0.

31.63 113
Center-Right (Berlusconi)
– People of Freedom 22.30%, 98.
– Northern League 4.33%, 17.
– Brothers of Italy 1.92%, 0.
– The Right 0.72%, 0.
– Pensioners’ Party 0.40%, 0.
– Great South… 0.39%, 1.
– Moderates in Revol. 0.22%, 0.
– Sicilians’ Party 0.15%, 0.
– Popular Agreement 0.08%, 0
– People’s Work 0.07, 0.
– Enough Taxes 0.06%, 0.
– Independents for a Fair Italy 0.02%, 0.
30.72 116
With Monti for Italy
9.13 18

You might have noticed that, for the Senate, the number of seats obtained by a coalition does not seem to correspond to their percentage of the national vote; the reason is that the seats are not assigned nationally, but separately in each region.  In other words, each region has allotted a different number of seats in the Senate (as they are of  different sizes), and in each region the coalition winning plurality receives 55% of the seats allotted to that region, while the rest of the seats are divided among the other political groups, in proportion to the vote obtained there. For added political delight, you can check the full results list (reference; official).

Please be mindful that the names on the lists above have been translated, and some had to be abbreviated, for reasons of space.

What Does This Mean?

This is indeed the 1 million Euros question. The situation goes beyond the usual political gridlock between left and right, being complicated by the ferocious enmity between the current center-right coalition (with and because of Berlusconi), and Bersani’s center-left, and by what is widely considered to be a protest vote of the Italians, through which both traditional alternatives, as well as Monti’s “professional alternative”, have been largely dismissed. Instead, the most relevant single party in both houses of the legislature is now a group whose very origins, goal and tactics are, very simply put, the rejection of the entire Italian socio-political status quo. A rejection that is present not only in message, but is also translated in a programmatic, already announced refusal to cooperate with any of the existing political groups in Parliament.

Indeed, Beppe Grillo movement’s motto is, “throw them all out!” (they use a more direct expression – see video below). But doesn’t the new electoral law give to the party that wins a plurality of votes, a secure majority in the lower house, at least? Indeed; but in order for laws to be passed – and, even before that, for a prime minister and cabinet to be elected – majorities are needed in both houses; and in the Senate, no party, coalition or presumable alliance looks able to garner those 50% +1 seats. Furthermore, let us remember that even that 55% majority in the lower house is, based on the Italian experience, actually a fragile one.

What then? Examining the current situation and the possible alternatives, and looking into the characteristics of the Grillo movement, will be the subject of the second part of this analysis.


Around the World (March 16, 2013)

Hugo Chavez Dead

Hugo Chavez, the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela since 1999, died on March 5, 2013, after a prolonged struggle with cancer, not long after winning the presidential elections. Chavez was one of the most prominent world leaders (in terms of media visibility); around the world, he stood for opposition to US hegemony; in his country as well, but there, he was more. While adopting a (post-) socialist rhetoric, he was actually an authoritarian populist leader, who came to power as a result of the failures of the anterior political elites (left and right) to respond to the grave economic and social problems, and especially to the enormous rates of poverty  (50%), afflicting Venezuela. His answer to this is well known: blaming capitalism, US imperialism, the old elites and the rich; and employing an adapted, media-savvy, socialist-tinged and nationalist-sounding “revolutionary” rhetoric. What he actually did in his 14 years of reign was to use the immense oil resources of the country in order to improve the services and the infrastructure available to the general population, lifting roughly a quarter of them out of poverty.  What he also did, was to accumulate all the levers of power in his hands, getting all the major institutions of the country under the control of the president, and changing the Constitution if that was needed for it. He also allowed Venezuelan society to descend into an unprecedented spiral of violent crime, the country being at this point one of the more dangerous places on Earth, with 21,000 murders/year in a population of about 28 million people. He also managed to win several elections, more or less fairly, and to create a system of alliances both with other populist leaders from Latin America (his protégé Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, and perhaps to a lesser degree former president Lula da Silva of Brazil and the Kirchners of Argentina; and, of course, his sponsors and mentors, the Castros of Cuba) and with authoritarian, anti-Western leaders from around the world (from Belarus’s Lukashenko, to Iran’s Ahmadinejad, to Libya’s Ghaddafi). In fact, many of these leaders were present at his funeral (watch the entire event or a short report), as proud pallbearers and/or speakers, together with other guests, mostly from Latin America – but also from Hollywood (Sean Penn).

What happens now? What happens, after the death of charismatic, authoritarian leader? The official, Chavez-designated successor is his Vice President, Nicolás Maduro, who is currently ahead in the polls, in the lead-up to the constitutionally prescribed elections. The counter-candidate,  Henrique Capriles, is the same opposition leader who, while garnering 44% of the vote at the last elections in October 2012, did not manage to defeat Chavez, and is now facing an uphill battle, more so with the myth of the departed leader, than with Maduro himself (pre-election overview). For the country of Venezuela,  the legacy of Chavez (and thus its near future) includes being at on the verge of becoming a mono-economy, currently relying on little else but oil production – with all all the socio-political ills that this brings: from corruption, to concentration of economic and political power in the hands of few people.

Finally, two interesting details regarding the passing of Chavez: first that, very much in tone with other revolutionary leaders of the past century, his body will not be buried but embalmed; second, that although he had clashed with and had been criticized often by the Catholic Church (to which most Venezuelans belong), during his last days he asked for and received spiritual guidance and the last rites of the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI Resigns – A New Pope Is Elected

In a completely unexpected move – that surprised even the close collaborators, and following what he described as a long process of self-examination, Pope Benedict XVI announced on February 11 his intention to resign from his position (text), effective a few weeks later (February 28). This is the first time since 1415 that a Pope has resigned (Gregory XII) , and it is only since 1294 that the very act of resignation is codified in Church law and thus made available for the occupant of the position (Pope Celestine V, who was also the first one to resign). Coming after the long pontificate of John Paul II, during which the carrying the burdens of old age up to the moment of death was seen as another way of rendering service, Benedict XVI’s announcement (video) came indeed completely unexpected, yet was mostly received with sympathy and understanding by other political and religious leaders (reactions).

Let us note here that this gesture entails in fact a three-fold resignation: from being the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics (of various rites); from being the head of the world-wide institutional structure of the Church; and from being the absolute sovereign (head of state, of government and of the judiciary) of the Vatican State. From a comparative politics perspective, this last aspect is most interesting, and certainly deserving of a more detailed examination (upcoming).  It is also interesting that the announcement of the resignation came on the anniversary of the Treaty of Lateran between Italy and the Holy See, which founded the modern Vatican State (in 1929); February 11, however, is also the World Day of the Sick, which probably offers a better contextualization of the act.

While this surprise gesture has raised a sum of questions about the immediate future of Benedict XVI and about his relationship to the next pope, these concerns were addressed fairly quickly: he will be known as Pontiff Emeritus, and will live in relative seclusion within the walls of the Vatican (details). As for the election of the new leader of the Church and of the Vatican State, the process is well-established, having been developed over centuries. In brief, a Conclave of the cardinals of the Church is called, with those under age 80 (currently 115, from all over the globe) voting for the next Pope, who will almost certainly be one of them (although not necessarily). The days of the actual voting are preceded by talks, spiritual exercises, discussion and prayer, during which the needs of the Church, the desired characteristics of the next pontiff, as well as the profiles of the cardinals themselves, are contoured with more clarity. The voting process takes place in secrecy, in the Sistine Chapel (3D), under the imposing painting of the Last Judgment by Michelangelo; for a detailed description of this centuries-old process, see this attractive and concise infographic, courtesy of La Stampa/Vatican Insider.

The Conclave to elect a new pope met for the first time on Tuesday, March 12, when the first round of voting also took place. This was followed next day – and would have been followed for the next 11 days – by four other rounds of voting, two in the morning, and two in the afternoon, the process continuing until a candidate reaches 2/3 of the votes (77 out of 115). However – and somewhat unexpectedly, given that there were no towering “favorites” in the run-up to the Conclave, the election process ended the very next day, after only five rounds of voting; and it ended with the even more surprising election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, the first Pope from the Americas.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a little know figure in the world, but a towering figure in his native Argentina, is a Jesuit known for his simple lifestyle and focus on the poor, and also for his straightforward rhetoric on socio-economic issues, which lead to repeated frictions both with the recent regimes of the Kirchners, and with some of the previous governments of Argentina. Upon being elected Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio chose the name Francis (the first to do so), as a reference to Francis of Assisi; the symbolism of humility and charity carried by the name was reinforced during his first public appearance (video).  Although aged 76, based on what is known about him (portrait), it should be expected that the new leader of the Catholic Church and head of the Vatican State will have a very active and strong voice, on many social-political matters.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Resigns

On February 20, Bulgaria’s prime minister, Bojko Borisov, a former wrestler, bodyguard and police chief, who came to power in 2009 promising strong governance and to aggressively fight corruption, has resigned, following weeks of street protests by thousands of Bulgarians. These protests, which at times turned violent, were fueled by anger over the high electricity and fuel bills that Bulgarians had to deal with in the last few months, and more generally by an across-the-board dissatisfaction with the economic conditions and with the perceived inertia and corruption of the Bulgarian political class. The PM’s resignation came only two days after he dismissed the finance minister, Simeon Djankov, who in the last few years had implemented harsh austerity measures, managing to reduce Bulgaria’s budget deficit to 0.5% of GDP (one of the lowest in Europe). These encouraging macro indicators, however, were achieved at the cost of deep cuts in wages and pensions, compounding the general income stagnation suffered by Bulgarians during the last decade. Although PM Borisov promised to introduce some easing measures, such as increasing the pensions, that was not enough, and as a result of this violent and ongoing public pressure, he was forced to resign.

Faced with the resignation of the PM and of his cabinet, President Rosen Plevneliev had two choices: either to ask the majority party,  GERB (Citizens for European Development), or a coalition of other parties that could achieve a majority in the National Assembly,  to form a new government; or to initiate the formation of a “caretaker” (transitional) cabinet  for the third time in the last 20 years, and to call for early elections. Since GERB is the party of the outgoing prime minister, and since none of the other parties was interested in taking responsibility for governing in the current situation, the president was left only with the latter choice, of an interim government and of calling new elections.  

On March 14, therefore, a new cabinet took office, led by PM Marin Raykov, who until now had been Bulgaria’s ambassador to France, and who had participated in several previous governments. It is important to note that this is not a “cabinet of technocrats” – of the kind used often in Italy during the last two decades, when none of the political parties had the courage to implement tough economic measures, and specialists from various fields were called in, to form a government focused only on implementing those policies and solving the urgent problems.  Following a specifically Bulgarian tradition (of the last two decades), this cabinet will restricts itself at being “interim” (transitory): organizing the upcoming elections; maintaining the economic direction of the country; adding a few easing measures already promised by the previous government; and trying to respond to a few of the most pressing public concerns (i.e. reigning in the utilities companies); nothing radical, one way or the other. It is not surprising, therefore, that the members of the new cabinet, although recognized as specialists and “self-made men and women“, are actually from GERB’s political circles; not surprising, given the particular mission of this transitional government, the reluctance of the other parties to assume responsibility, and the fact that the president himself is GERB-supported.

The early elections are planned for May 12, but it is not clear to what degree they will bring a resolution to a key problem in Bulgarian politics – the delegitimization of the entire political class in the eyes of the majority of the population, who sees them as being interested only in gaining and maintaining privileges; as corrupt and inefficient; and as unable or uninterested in improving the lives of the population.  This general disenchantment with political life and with its actors can be explained as a combination of post-1989 malaise (disappointment with the fact that democracy did not bring general prosperity); the effects of the austerity measures introduced in response to the world economic crisis; anger at the perceived impunity, lack of transparency, and collusion of the top economic, political and even criminal circles; and the growing gap separating a large part of the population, which lives on stagnating incomes, from the much thinner stratus of rich and well-connected elites. This generic revolt against the political system is also illustrated by the fact that the recent protests were not associated with political parties or trade unions (as customary), but were organized at grass-root level, involving many young people, using social media or other horizontal methods of communication. It is also reflected by the fact that one of the main demands of the protesters (echoing similar demands made in neighboring CEE countries in the last few years) is the overall reduction in the number of MPs (members of Parliament) – in many ways, a “Throw the bums out!” message.

Although there is a theoretical possibility that a protest political movement could emerge and sweep to victory, between now and election time, channeling the popular frustration and expressing it through an appropriately populist rhetoric, at this point it looks very likely that the upcoming elections will not bring a resolution to the socio-political problems facing the Bulgarian society. According to recent polls, the current balance of forces shows GERB at around the same percentage as its main opponent, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (around 20%); they are followed by (what is usually) the third party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (of the ethnic Turkish minority), currently almost tied in public support with the ultra-nationalist, anti-system Ataka party (around 5%). A new player on the scene is the Bulgaria for the Citizens party, formed in the past weeks by Meglena Kuneva (a former EU Commissioner), to provide a fresh, professional-looking and accountable alternative to the current political scene; its support, however, hovers only around 5%. Other political forces that until now had seats in Parliament, such as the center-right Blue Coalition, will probably not make it into the next National Assembly.  It is therefore very possible that we will see huge rates of absenteeism during the next elections, and that the results will be inconclusive.

Kenyan Elections

At the end of January and the beginning of February the first elections since the constitutional changes of 2010 took place in Kenya (history; map).  These were general elections, in which members of the executive and of the legislature, at both national and county levels, were elected: President, National Assembly and Senate; and Governor and County Assembly, respectively. The recent constitutional reforms came about as a response (more immediately) to the grievous inter-ethnic violence that followed the 2007 elections, and (more generally) to the long-acknowledged problems of concentration of power in the hands of the president and of the ethnic and tribal fragmentation of the Kenyan society.

After the constitutional reforms, Kenya now functions as a presidential system, with a bicameral legislature (National Assembly, representing the population, and Senate, representing the counties), an executive lead by the President (who is head of state and government), and an increased devolution of central power to the 47 constituting counties (which have prescribed policy-making powers that are vested in a local legislature and a an executive). In addition, the new constitution ads consociational provisions that obliges the President to garner support across the ethnic/tribal boundaries: he/she needs to obtain more than 50% of the popular vote, and at least 25% in more than half of the counties.

The 2013 elections took place in much better conditions than many expected, with relatively few disturbances. The presidency was contested between several candidates, but the main rivals were Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, both scions of old political families in Kenya. Although Uhuru Kenyatta is under a pending investigation by the International Criminal Court (in connection with the 2007 events), and while some Western countries signaled their displeasure at the prospect of his election, he managed to win the election from the first round (!), with a thin but sufficient majority of 50.51%.  Despite the fragmentation on the Kenyan political scene, there were a few major political coalitions that disputed the available elected positions,  and it seems that the coalition supporting Kenyatta has also won a plurality of seats in both houses of the national legislature. Although the complete results of the national and county elections are not yet public, see this excellent presentation of the currently available information. 

Meteor Explodes Over Chelyabinsk, Russia

Spectacular yet frightening scenes just beyond the Ural mountains, as a meteor entered the atmosphere and exploded into many fragments above Chelyabinsk, in a region that has had its share of momentous events in the last 50 years. See below some astonishing images filmed on February 15, or enjoy a number of other impressive videos.

In lieu of a scientific explanation,  let us simply mention that the famous Mr. Vladimir Zhirinovsky (leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) was quick to declare that what thousands have witnessed was certainly not a meteor, but a US military test.


Timothy Garton Ash’s “Facts Are Subversive”

Garton Ash cover.inddI discovered Timothy Garton Ash many years ago as one of the leading voices within the renaissance of scholarly and literary interest in Central and Eastern Europe – its culture, politics, history, all that belongs to that world. Those might have been the circumstances of my discovery, but Timothy Garton Ash is much more than that: he is a “historian of the present” – part investigative journalist, part public intellectual,  part witness to current events, and part essay writer. A wonderful mix, I might add, and one that he delivers in an exquisite manner.

What I always found attractive about his voice is its “groundedness”,  which might have several sources: maybe family and education, perhaps from having lived through different things, in different places, or maybe simple English common sense. I am referring to the ability – which should be normal, but is not – to look at things, and talk about them, as they are, and not through the ideological lens of the hour.

Perhaps this instinct, this capacity to be “normal”, this awareness of  the common human condition, comes  from the combination of professional  and personal paths that started with him studying life under Communism in East Berlin, and then led to an involvement with the anti-Communist dissidence of Central and Eastern Europe. A common trait of the writings of these dissidents was an antipolitics (to use György Konrád‘s coinage) that simply opposed to the regime’s ideology simply the truth of human existence; opposing normal life to the abnormality of the “new man” that Communism wanted to create. This “living in truth” (as Vaclav Havel says) was the common ground which united many of the named and nameless members of those networks of solidarity. Timothy Garton Ash’s writing very often reflects the freshness of that approach to life and politics.

In Facts Are Subversive, which is a collection of essays spanning the first decade of the new millennium, covering all the regions of the globe (most appropriately, especially those afflicted by oppression), his voice is at its best when it recalls this existential knowledge about what human beings are, and what normality is, and opposes it to the abnormality of the given situation.

However, without the pressure of an oppressive regime, pressure that continuously purifies one’s understanding of what is and what is not “normal”, it is hard to cling to that sort of an experiential knowledge. There are slips and slides, therefore, even in the work of person so well “trained” by what he has experienced. Such “slips” are made even more probable, because of the inherent pressures in the life of a public intellectual. Being a public intellectual is a function of public reception, and one is shaped by that public’s feedback; it is a function of being fully and continuously engaged in the public dialogue, therefore that public dialogue shapes you, and its shifting posts will keep reframing your thinking and writing –  especially (to repeat the above) when the pressure of the evil alternative is not as poignantly felt. Without that abusive governmental pressure, the public space is relaxed and the living is comfortable – and it is easy to go sideways.

This is not to say, or even suggest, that the book reveals a Timothiy Garton Ash who “went sideways”;  but the public conversation has gone sideways, and some of his answers will reflect that. I am referring here to a specific occasion, namely his back-tracking after the “scandal” which erupted when he characterized the attitude of some of Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s fervent (even militant) admirers as “enlightenment fundamentalism” (while also praising Hirsi Ali for many of her contributions). While Timothy Garton Ash’s essays on Islam are characterized by groundedness, pragmatism, and even wisdom, as he is trying to not give in to any of the idealisms of the usual antagonists in the “debate”, but to see the richness of the encounter with Islam as well as the inherent tensions, in the specific case of Hirsi Ali he had to give up this groundedness, and to renege on his “enlightenment fundamentalism” characterization. But he should not have done that, because he was actually correct; just as there is religious fundamentalism in the world of Islam,  there is also anti-religious fundamentalism in the West, very closely (and unsurprisingly) mirroring one its historical predecessor, the French Revolution. A French Revolution that was the precursor of quite a few good things, but also of several murderous fundamentalisms that we know from recent European history.

There is one other instance that, although really minor, it aggrieved me: his off-hand dismissal of the events of the anti-Communist revolution in Romania as simply a coup d’état covered by street theatrics. For someone who had the privilege of witnessing some of these events (on the streets), and who is well aware of the innocence of the sacrifice of the youth who, unarmed and peacefully manifesting, were shot at and murdered by the regime, this qualifies as a “grievous” statement. The reality of the events on the streets of many of the cities of Romania, and foremostly of Timisoara, is in no way affected by the (equally) real but much less significant maneuverings in some of the government buildings of Bucharest; these are two different planes, that existed concomitantly, in no way annulling each other.  But I am making too much of a few remarks that are really made only in passing in the book; and one must also understand that, unlike his reporting from Czechoslovakia or Hungary or Poland, these fleeting remarks did not come from first-hand witnessing of the events.

The Magic Lantern

The Magic Lantern – Timothy Garton Ash’s exquisite witnessing to the events of 1989

Notwithstanding such (really) minor slips, this is a lovely, living book. True to form, i.e. true to the fact that many of the politically engaged intellectuals whose friendship shaped his formation were writers, firstly and foremostly, there is a whole section in the book gathering articles dedicated to the art of writing; also true to form, that section contains two extensive essays on George Orwell and on Günther Grass, respectively: two politically engaged writers, yet also two real writers. Other chapters in the book collect essays on Central and Eastern Europe (naturally); on Europe as a whole (including Britain’s position within Europe, and issues concerning the European Union); on the United States (where he lives and works); on the developing world (from Asia to South America); and  on “general considerations” about our time(s) and civilization(s).

Reading the book will be a very pleasant experience, I can guarantee that – and one from which you will learn. Timothy Garton Ash travels , and reports from the spot. His “politics” is a lived one – lived, mostly, together with the man of the street; of course, within the constraints of a longer or shorter exposure to the given situation. He is a writer, and it shows;  his concern is with people (first), and with ideas (second), which is the right order – and it shows.

Looking forward to his next books, I would express the hope that he will be able to reconstitute the intellectual – and, in fact, existential – scaffolding that he acquired during his years lived with the dissidents to the regimes of lies and terror. This challenge, of rightly grounding the “history of the present”, is especially relevant from my perspective, because it points to a deeper and broader problem with the field of journalism, in general (even if TGA’s writing is much more than journalism, and even if he is less affected by it). Although reporting is ideally conceived as an objective relationship with the facts on the ground, understanding and describing those facts is not an activity that can ever be value-neutral. Judgments about what is right or wrong, about the essential truths of human existence, are inherent in any “story” about people. Even reporting on the Syrian regime’s brutal (in fact, murderous) treatment of the people of Syria starts from the basic assumptions that democracy is a good, and that killing must be justified. While these might be assumptions shared by most readers, they are not shared by all; also, as soon as we go beyond these generally shared assumptions, we are in the weeds of endless ideological debates, which the journalists usually escape by taking refuge in one of the dominant ideologies of the day. This is understandable, given that few journalists have had the leisure or the existential opportunity, to construct a more solid, longer lasting scaffolding, than the “enlightened” assumptions that carry the day. And thus it is that, underlying reporting, one encounters clichés instead of thinking, and commonplaces instead of understanding.

Timothy Garton Ash is aware of the need to define for himself an existential/intellectual scaffolding, because he knows that what drives him is an interest in human beings, and in their welfare; and for that, he needs to define what that good is, and why. Accordingly, he defines himself as a European liberal (in the traditional understanding of the word, and not the usage current in the US, for example) – someone interested in human beings, in the good of the human beings, and in their ability to live freely and without oppression. Yet somehow this definition feels insufficient. Why it is so, and inquiring into the necessary philosophical foundations of journalism, perhaps some other time.

As said, Timothy Garton Ash’s writing is at its freshest and most illuminating, when it is at its most human, coming from what he instinctively and experientially knows to be true about human beings and their world – even if it conflicts with the fads, currents, media noise or loud politicos of the day. If you are interested in putting a finger on the pulse of the political events of the last decade. as seen from the level of ordinary human existence, this is a delightful and most recommendable place to go.


Around the World (February 9, 2013)

Queen Beatrix of Netherlands to Abdicate

After 33 years as the monarch of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (comprising the Netherlands, Curaçao, Sint Maarten and Aruba), Queen Beatrix announced her intention to abdicate in favor of her son, Prince Willem-Alexander (video). The announcement is being greeted with expressions of respect and thankfulness from the majority of the public in The Netherlands. With the prince’s ascension to the throne come April, it will be the first time since 1890 that the monarch will be a male. As in all other constitutional monarchies (that are also parliamentary democracies), the monarch in The Netherlands has only head of state roles, and even those are mostly focused on the ceremonial-representative dimensions. From this point of view, Willem-Alexander’s efforts to build up a respected profile, not only in terms of the public persona, but also as in the field of humanitarian work, were a good laying of groundwork for his future job (given that he had his share of controversy in his younger years).

EU Council Agrees on Seven Year Budget Plan

After a marathon debate, the European Council (the gathering of all heads of state and/or heads of the executive in the European Union), which is in many respects the highest decision-making body in the EU (structure), agreed on a 7-year budget for the Union. After the final decision was reached, all the major players declared themselves very satisfied with both what they gave and with what they took in order to get to this agreement. IN order to come into effect, the budget will still have to be approved by the directly elected European Parliament, and that is by no means  guaranteed, given that it is austerity-oriented; yet it is probable, given the perceived need for decisive action from the EU in these uncertain economic times.

German Leader Resigns Following Accusations of Plagiarism

In another instance of what seems like a never-ending chain of resignations and scandals related to accusations of academic plagiarism in the last 3 years, throughout Europe, one of the prominent leaders of the Christian Democratic Union and a close friend of Angela Merkel, Annette Schavan, recently resigned after losing such a public battle (video). Until then she was the Federal Minister of Education and Research, and this was in fact why, while completely rejecting all accusations, she decided to resign: to guard the authority of the ministerial position and the interests of a CDU that is entering an election year.

Tunisia Opposition Leader Killed – Mass Revolts Follow 

The assassination of Chokri Belaid represents the most troubling event yet in the history of the young Tunisian democracy, after the Arab Spring. Just like the turmoil in Egypt, it shows that building the habits and institutions of a functioning democracy is not a simple, unidirectional process, but a vulnerable and uncertain trajectory. There are two mechanisms that have to be taken into consideration, when looking at these events in MENA:  one has to do with  the normal process of moving from euphoria to disappointment after a revolution; and the other with understanding the specific make-up of the countries of Middle-East and North Africa. Currently, the Islamist-dominated governments that came after the Arab spring in several of these countries are suffering from (inevitably) failing to deliver on the (naturally) exaggerated public expectations regarding the overall quality of life, the functioning of the institutions, and the general pace of change. On the other hand, while the Islamist forces enjoyed significant legitimacy after the Revolution, given that they had always been the most  prominent and well-organized opposition forces during the previous regimes, their ideological make-up does not correspond with the profile and expectations of a significant part of the respective populations.  As the post-1989 history of Central and Eastern Europe has taught us, it would be part of the natural post-revolutionary process for these Islamist forces to lose the next elections; but handing over power and accepting this democratic turn-over might be a difficult fit with their ideology, and it is certainly not something yet part of the political culture of societies that until recently lived under authoritarian regimes.  The mass protests, violence and strike following Belaid’s funeral  are visible manifestations of these tensions.

Failed Attack on an Ethnic Turkish Political Leader in Bulgaria

Bulgarian political leader Ahmed Dogan recently became an internationally known figure, when  footage showing a young man pointing a gun at his head became one of the most watched videos on the internet. What happened? Ahmed Dogan is one of the leaders (and founders) of the main political party of the ethnic Turks in Bulgaria, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS). Besides a large (~ 5%) Roma minority, and other, smaller ethnic/religious groups (such as the Pomaks, who are Muslim ethnic Bulgarians), Bulgaria also has a significant Turkish minority, constituting about 10% of its population. In the 1980s, just like in neighboring Romania or Yugoslavia, the ruling Communist party adopted a nationalist rhetoric, as well as policies directed against the main minority – in this case, the Turks. Obviously these tensions did not disappear with the end of Communism,  transforming this Turkish population into a fairly unified electoral constituency, brought together by a sense of being disenfranchised and oppressed by the Bulgarian majority and the state that serves it. And just like in other formerly Communist countries, many of the “new” political and economic elites that rose to power after 1989 were in fact people with deep-lying connections with the previous Communist regime, and often with the secret police, who benefited after the advent of democracy from this already existing network of power and influence. This is also the case with Ahmed Dogan, who has been profiting in the last 20 years, politically and financially, from both circumstances. In fact, (his attacker) Oktay Enimehmedov’s statements said as much, and the ethnic Bulgarian public opinion’s tendency to both accuse Dogan of orchestrating the attack, and at the same time to  make Ehmedinov into a sort of popular hero. illustrate both the continuation of the ethnic tensions in Bulgaria, as well as a general dislike of the outspoken Dogan and of the post-1989 generation of political and economic elites that he represents. As an addendum, it  has to be noted that this was not an actual “assassination” attempt, as the gun was a gas pistol loaded with two blanks and a pepper load. The footage remains shocking, notwithstanding, which explains its popularity on the internet.