Around the World – September 16, 2013

AUSTRALIA: LABOR PARTY CHANGES ITS PRIME MINISTER, BUT LOSES THE ELECTIONS

In June, Australian PM Julia Gillard was removed from the leadership of the Labor Party, which also meant that she lost her position as the head of the government (executive). Although it is fairly unusual, and potentially damaging, for a party in power to change its leader and head of the government, it is not unheard of; indeed, a famous recent case was the unseating of Margaret Thatcher from her leadership position, after a long reign over the UK and the Conservative Party. Given that in a parliamentary system the executive derives its legitimacy and power exclusively from the legislative majority, it is the party or coalition that has that majority, which delegates the executive function, usually to the party leader – and the  party can also take it away. But there is a significant risk in doing so, both in terms of public image and grip on power; so why did the Australian Labor Party do it?

Well, parliamentary elections were coming up, and Labor and its leader, Julia Gillard, were facing disappointing ratings in the polls, especially in the so-called marginal constituencies (the districts that do not “belong” clearly to one party or the other, but are actually disputed in the elections). By June, Labor was seeing the steady ascendancy of their main rivals, the conservative Coalition (which includes the Liberals, the National Party, the Liberal National Party, and the Country Liberals), under the leadership of Tony Abbott. A change was necessary, therefor, in order to salvage these elections.

And a change did come about, yet what deep irony that the person who replaced Gillard through such a palace coup is none other than former Labor leader and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who only three years ago had been removed from his leadership positions by  – yes, you’ve guessed – Julia Gillard, due to – yes, you know it! – low polling scores. Quite the Shakespearian turn of events.

Be it as it may, after yet again party becoming leader and Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd was quick to set the date of the elections for the House of Representatives for September 7, 2013 – only a month later. The House of Representatives is the lower chamber of the bicameral Australian Parliament (besides the Senate), and is the one within which the governing majority is formed; in other words, the formation of the executive depends on having a majority in the House, not the Senate (see Australian political system). In the brief time between the announcement of the date, and the elections proper, the parties engaged in a campaign to convince the voters that they are the more trustworthy choices to deal with the core issues: keeping the economy successful, improving the infrastructure, immigration and asylum seekers, managing the social benefits, climate change etc. Although not far from each other on the most basic aspects of these issues, a few items differentiated the parties and their leaders more sharply: an emphasis from Coalition’s Tony Abbott on eliminating the carbon and mining taxes; fierce opposition from Labor’s Kevin Rudd to the conservative plans of providing maternal leave with full pay to all families; and policy nuances about how to deal with the often tragic stories of boats filled with asylum seekers originating from the poorer parts of  the Asia, Oceania or MENA .

For a more detailed insight into the issues and the general rhetoric that characterized these Australian elections, watch the first, second, or third debate (below) between the two party leaders (and potential Prime Ministers), Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott.

In Australia, voting for the House of Representatives takes place based on a preferential voting system: each voter ranks (#1, #2 etc.) all the individual candidates (each representing a different party) who compete for the one seat available in each division (district); the winner is decided after counting these rankings for each candidate (see detailed description). (As an interesting side-note: voting in Australia is compulsory.)

The elections of September 7 proved that the last minute leadership changes did not deliver the victory for Labor; instead, the Abbott-led Coalition won in a decisive fashion, garnering a strong majority of 90 out of a total of 150 House seats, while Labor’s share shrank to only 54 seats (see detailed and summary results). Tony Abbott has become thus the new Prime Minister of Australia, forming the cabinet and already starting to tackle some of the issues emphasized during the campaign.

GIBRALTAR TROUBLES

Gibraltar, the British territory at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, at the meeting point of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, once again “flared” into the headlines, as the subject of dispute between the Kingdom of Spain and the UK – or, more precisely, between the Government of Gibraltar and that of Spain, with the British government as a proxy. The tensions increased after Gibraltar’s decision this summer to drop some 70 blocks of concrete unto the bottom of the sea,  in order to impede the Spanish fishing boats from trawling the sea floor, which Gibraltarians contend is destructive of the natural environment. The problem is of course complicated by the fact that Gibraltar does not possess an internationally-recognized maritime territory, and thus its attempts at protecting natural resources clash with Spanish claims to sovereignty over those waters. But, of course, the main question of sovereignty regards Gibraltar itself,

The situation is very interesting, because it raises – in a world of “nation-states” – the question of what criteria are to be used that define the boundaries and existence of a state. What makes a given territory and its population – a state? Should the main principle be, the will of the inhabitants? Many states, UK and Spain included, would not really subscribe to this criterion – at least, not unconditionally. Is it geography? – inasmuch as some territories seem to be “a natural part” of a geographic unit? Well, some are obviously not – see Puerto Rico, Alaska, Hawai’i, or Guam.: all US territories, but hardly contiguous with the mainland. The answer – if there is an answer – is that statehood, just like everything else in the political reality, is a matter of history and existing arrangements, as much as it is of current power relationships; in other words, a combination of the status quo with the moment’s balance of forces (or relationship) between the interested parties.

What makes the Gibraltar case even more interesting, is that both Spain as well as the UK are confronted with similar situations, elsewhere: Spain with its Ceuta and Melilla enclaves, off the coast of Morocco, and the United Kingdom with regard to the Falklands / Malvinas islands, in Argentina’s territorial waters. On the one hand, Spain can point to Hong Kong, which was a similar UK territory, yet sovereignty over which was handed over, rather seamlessly, to the People’s Republic of China. On the other hand, the population of Gibraltar (just like that of the Falklands) have voted overwhelmingly, in several referendums, in favor of British sovereignty (in 1967), rejecting even tentative attempts at establishing a kind of shared sovereignty between UK and Spain (solution to which the British would have been amenable, in in 2002).

It does not help that in this type of cases bombastic rhetoric abounds, both in the media and in the political life, as all too many are all too eager to harp on the string of identity politics (the nation-state: that must be a nation, there must be a state). The Spanish state, however, has been facing much greater struggles about sovereignty, with regard to Catalonia and the Basque region; after all, those are larger, are in the heart of the mainland, and are much more significant than a “Rock” populated by 30,000 inhabitants. Britain, on the other hand, is a multi-national state (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland), with a complicated history of statehood and national self-definition; the next challenge it will face is the David Cameron-proposed referendum on Scottish independence.

Nationalism is the language of the age, still – but only one of the competing discourses that shapes politics today. Another, increasingly powerful rhetoric, is about a continuously increasing democratization, understood as the “horizontalization” of politics: direct determination, direct influence, and direct access of people over the political institutions and processes. In a world of (nation-)states, however, the first task is that of defining “the people” who are supposed to enjoy direct democracy – or, in other words, the populational and territorial parameters of the political unit within which this self-determination “of the people” is supposed to take place. Here is where the question of sovereignty (popular, institutional) still comes into play.

IN BRIEF

DETROIT, US: The city of Detroit has declared bankruptcy, becoming the largest municipality to ever do so, in the history of the US. Detroit’s long and relatively steady decline started in the 1960s, perhaps even earlier. In the 1950s, it was the fifth largest US city; today, its population is of only 770,000, among whom 18% are unemployed (in addition, 33% of its territory is vacant or unusable). Some say it all started with the riots of 1967, which only accelerated the already existing national trend of mass migration from the inner-urban, to the suburban areas. Coupled with this was the steady process of de-industrialization, which hit Detroit just like it did other major American cities (Milwaukee, Indianapolis etc.). Yet those cities have not yet declared bankruptcy. So, what happened in Detroit? It seems that what we are witnessing today is the result of several decades of mismanagement of an already deteriorating situation (see timeline), a process in which mayors, city governments, citizen groups, unions, and the media, all played their (negative) part (see this in-depth investigation into the manifold causes, from the Detroit Free Press.)

During the last four decades, a continuously shrinking population and property values lead to an ever-smaller tax base for operating the city; simultaneously, however, Detroit’s commitments to its workers, retirees, and health funds continuously increased. To close the resulting gap between income and expenditures, taxes were increased, and the city kept borrowing, and borrowing (last time, and most disastrously, under disgraced Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick); at the same time, the incomes continued getting smaller, and smaller, notwithstanding the profitable casinos opened in the late ’90s. With little money to spend on things other than these contracted debts and the aforementioned employee obligations, the services the city was supposed to provide kept deteriorating. If you add to this the high levels of taxation and a horrific crime rate, it is not surprising that people and businesses kept leaving, and never returning, further reducing the city’s income and the average quality of life.

Right now, Detroit faces increasing obligations, from debt and interest on debt – with no money to pay them: not now, nor in the foreseeable future. A “bailout” from the state of Michigan or the federal government is not possible, although some help has been promised, and an emergency city manager has been appointed by Michigan’s Governor. One of the key steps in moving out of this situation has just been done – declaring bankruptcy, and thus trying to tackle the ever-piling debt.

This is a tragic story, Detroit’s – perhaps the most tragic, of all the formerly glorious American cities, which have been devastated by suburbanization and de-industrialization.

BELGIUM: At the beginning of July, in a quite unexpected  move, King Albert II of Belgium announced his decision to abdicate in favor of his son, Prince Philippe (video). Only three weeks later, Prince – and now King – Philippe, age 53,  was inaugurated, becoming the new head of state (video). Unlike in other constitutional monarchies, or in parliamentary democracies in general, the Belgian head of state has had to play an important role in the recent political history of the country. This is due to the peculiar makeup of Belgium’s society, and of the political and administrative system it has engendered. Belgium is a multiethnic and multilingual (French-speaking Walloons, Dutch-speaking Flemish, and German-speakers), multiconfessional (Catholic and Protestant), federal state, based on asymmetrical federalism. There are several levels of government: national, regional – and ethno-linguistic.

Ethno-linguistic federalism? For example, the Dutch-speaking community has its own governing structures, with authority in matters of culture and education over Dutch-speakers across the borders of the regions – which have their own administrative authorities. In other words, federalism is regional, and cultural as well – and those borders are not the same (see this detailed map of Belgian federalism). Within Belgium, the socio-cultural divisions between the various communities are so sharp, that each of them has developed its own, community-specific, complete spectrum of political parties. For example, there is a Flemish social-democratic party, which is completely different from the social-democratic party of the Walloon part of Belgium – they ale elected and activate in different parts of Belgium, but are also supposed to work together nationally (at federal level).

Given that the centrifugal tendencies are so strong, the role of the head of state, which is usually only ceremonial and representative, becomes quite important, both as the unifying symbol of the nation (?) and of the state, and as the political arbiter. For example, following the federal elections of 2010, Belgium went for a world-record 541 days (or more, by some counts), without forming a new government (yes, almost two years!). Thus, the monarch, who normally has the duty to invite the winner of the elections to form the government, had to play a very active role in managing the lengthy transition, and the coalition-building process – all in the interest of fulfilling his duty, which is to maintain the integrity and long-term welfare of the Belgian state and society. (Indeed, this is not very different from the very active role that other, normally ceremonial heads of state, need to play, in similar situations of political instability – see the role of the Italian president.)

We can be almost certain, therefore, that the new King Philippe of Belgium will have to face true historic challenges in the years to come, in order to “observe the Constitution [and] preserve national independence and the integrity of the territory”, as prescribed in the Constitutional Oath that he took at inauguration.

MALI: In July and August the Republic of Mali held two successful rounds of presidential elections – orderly, with high participation, and with undisputed results. Quite a remarkable feat, considering that only a few months earlier the state was on the brink of collapse, with only the requested and welcomed intervention of French troops stopping the country from falling completely under the control of extremist Islamist groups. And maybe it is exactly for that reason  – for having been so close to the brink, and also by way of the strong encouragement from the Western backers (France, US), that the political class and the Malian people itself managed to get through such successful presidential elections, in very difficult circumstances – a necessary first step in the re-construction of a hopefully lasting and successful political system.

The winner of the elections, and the new president of Mali, is Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), who in the first round of the vote obtained 40% of the vote, with Soumaïla Cissé, his main opponent, receiving 20%, and twenty other also-ran candidates obtained much less. Given that nobody received a majority of the vote (50%+1) in the first round, a second, run-off vote had to be held, with only the first two placed candidates in the running. Keita carried these elections as well, and in an overwhelming fashion, obtaining over 77% of the vote; Cissé had to content himself with just a tiny bit more than the percentage obtained in the first round – 22%, This is just an initial step toward the stabilization of the Malian state, but a relevant and promising one; the the challenges they face are many .

ZIMBABWE: Authoritarian ruler Robert Mugabe, who has been in power for the last 33 years, has won the fifth election in a row, becoming again president of Zimbabwe (see profile). Meanwhile, in simultaneous parliamentary elections, organized according to the revised electoral law and the 2013-approved Constitution, his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) won broad majorities in both the House of Assembly and the Senate, ahead of the main opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T; whose leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, came second in the presidential election). The third party, which managed to obtain a few seats in the parliament, is the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by the third-ranked presidential candidate, Welshman Ncube.

Contrary to the tragic happenings of the 2008 elections, which saw Tsvangirai win the first round of the presidential elections, and Mugabe “winning” a highly contested second round, results that led to clashes across the country that left some 200 people dead, this time the voting process and its aftermath were peaceful. This time, despite documented cases of intimidation, “voter tourism”, or incorrect or unreliable voter registration, there is a generalized sentiment among the observes that Mugabe might have actually won these 2013 elections. But, most of all, everybody is happy that the elections did not result in violence and bloodshed.

Up to this year’s elections, the country was run by a sort of “coalition” government, which came about after 2008, both as a means of pacifying the divided society, and as a natural consequence of the fact that the “opposition” MDC held the majority in the Parliament, while Mugabe had “won” the presidency. Part of the arrangement was that the parties would share positions in the cabinet and, more importantly, that Mugabe would continue as president, and MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai would be the Prime Minister. The period that followed actually saw some positive policy measures being implemented, which held the promise of bringing back Zimbabwe from the brink of the abyss, where the runaway inflation, collapse of basic services and spread of infectious diseases, and violent politics of Mugabe had taken it.

Zimbabwe_$100_trillion_2009_Obverse

The One Hundred Trillion Dollars Banknote – An Artefact of the Hyperinflation of the Late-2000s

According to the recently modified Constitution, Zimbabwe is now a presidential political system, with the President as both head of state and head of government (which means that there is no Prime Minister, anymore). This means that the main position in the system, at stake in these election, was that of President. As for the legislature, the new electoral law, pushed through by Mugabe in June, brought some interesting features, including a forced male and female parity in representation (!), as well as a complementing of the single-member-district, first-past-the-post voting system (which favors the larger parties) with proportional representation (!). According to the new rules, then, voters cast a single vote, for an individual representative in their district, deciding who would win that seat in the House of Assembly. However, that same vote is also counted as a party list vote (for the candidate’s party), determining the distribution of the 60 seats reserved in the same House of Assembly for women. Thus, the seats in the HoA come from both an SMD-FPP vote, and from PR lists that are reserved for women (the 60 seats are distributed based on the proportion of votes each party received – PR). Thirdly (!), the same vote for that individual candidate also counts as a PR vote for the given party for the Senate, deciding who will represent the given province in the upper house. Fourthly, and finally, that same vote also goes toward filling the seats in the provincial government – again, based on party lists. One vote – four outcomes (see detailed description). For all intents and purposes, it looks more representative, even forcibly so (gender parity); if only the voting process would not be marred by intimidation and manipulation.

Here are the results – which, as mentioned, have been contested only half-heartedly by most Western countries, and that have been equally half-heartedly endorsed by the African Union and the Southern African Development Community. According to the official data, Robert Mugabe received an astonishing 61% of the vote from the first round of the presidential elections, versus Tsvangirai’s 34%, thus obtaining a majority and winning the presidency already in the first vote. In the House of Assembly elections,  Mugabe’s Zanu-PF won 160 of the 210 seats, while MDC-T (Tsvangirai) got 49, and MDC (Ncube) only 1. In the Senate (elected through proportional representation),  ZANU-PF obtained 37 seats, MDC-T 21, and MDC 2. (See detailed results here and at kubatana.net.)

Notwithstanding the generally peaceful elections, it is pretty clear that Mugabe is still in control  – like before them, like always; his reign is strong, he has purged the country of opposition many a time. However, he is now a “sprightly” 89-years old, and it is very possible that he will not live through the end of his 5-year mandate. Right now, however, he is as defiant as always, against the Western countries and his rivals, and continues to enjoy significant influence within the AU and the SADC. Furthermore, he pledged to continue his policies, including his signature “indigenization“, which has seen his governments presiding over violent take-overs of “white-owned” property (individual or business), by supporters of the regime, thugs, and the government itself.


Around the World (June 15, 2013)

UK: The Dizzying Euro-Spiral of the Tories

As expected, David Cameron’s ultimatum regarding Britain’s relationship with the European Union – reform or (a kind of) exit – has put him and his party in an unnecessarily difficult position, creating an either/or situation that perhaps was not called for. Within the party, it opened a Pandora’s Box, amplifying and providing a platform for the Euro-skeptics, while forcing the pro-Europeans to take a vocal stand as well; in other words, dividing the party on a key issue. The results are apparent: there has been a flurry of newer and older leadership figures making appearances in the media, taking one or the other side on the issue. The Tory backbenchers spoke out as well, when half of them voted for an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, in which they deplored the omission of any reference to the planned 2017 referendum on the EU. This was a symbolic gesture, but a highly unusual act of censure nevertheless, and its echoes reverberated throughout the political sphere (even if the amendment was defeated, as expected, through the combined vote of the other half of the Tories, and of the Labour and LibDem MPs). It might be the first time since 1946 that members of a governing party voted against the Queen’s Speech, which in fact is the government’s statement on its political program for the next period.

To add fuel to the fire, in recent local elections UKIP – a party whose very raison d’être is opposition to everything EU – fared very well (shockingly well, for a two-and-half party system like England’s), benefiting from a protest vote that gave them 20 times (!) the number of local council seats they had won in 2009. Moreover, the opinion polls show UKIP enjoying the support of 20% of the population, with Labour at 37%, the  Conservatives  at 27%, and the Liberal Democrats at 7%. Of course, given the first-past-the-post British electoral system, this still means that they would not get any seats in the next Parliament. However, it does represent an added pressure on the Tories, which will necessarily sharpen – and shape – the  debate within the party, and will by no means make Cameron’s life easier. There have already been rumors of a split within the party (to UKIP’s benefit).

At this point, therefore, under fire from within and from without, David Cameron’s party looks like a ship uncertain of its direction, populated by a partially mutinous crew. While Ed Milliband’s leadership of the Labour Party and the LibDem’s results in the polls are equally unimpressive, they are at least able to put up a (mostly) united front, opposing Cameron’s EU plans (and the opposition includes Cameron’s governing partner, Nick Clegg). The positives though for Cameron are that, as tortuous as his positions are, they do reflect the complicated relationship of the British public with the European idea, and also that opposing the EU referendum would not be a popular position (it would be like another one of those EU-related decisions taken over the heads of the citizens). At the same time, UKIP’s rise in the polls, the very vocal squabbles within the party, and the improbability of the European partners agreeing to a radical reform like the one he demanded, might eventually force Cameron in a corner in which he does not want to find himself: of being the Prime Minister who leads Britain in an unfortunate sort of exit from the EU. And that surely would not be a happy outcome for Britain, economically and politically.

Canada: Troubled Times for Toronto’s Mayor

He was elected in 2010 by a majority formed mostly of suburbanites, small business-owners and ethnic minorities, to the chagrin of the left-leaning elites of downtown Toronto. He rode in on a populist platform, promising to fix a municipal government that had been characterized by mismanagement and waste. He made his name by constructing an image of being a “man of the people”, and by cultivating a close relationship with, and responsiveness to, his constituency. It has always been his habit to give out the personal cell number, and to respond in person to the citizen’s complaints, going out on the field. Because of his colorful, nonconformist image, he had attracted comparisons with London Mayor Boris Johnson; because of the recent developments, the (in)famous name of former Washington, DC Mayor Marion Barry has been brought up repeatedly.

A few weeks ago, the news exploded that the US gossip website Gawker and the Canadian daily The Toronto Star had both been offered video footage of Rob Ford, Mayor of Toronto, smoking crack cocaine in the company of dubious characters. The footage was offered for sale at the price of $200,000. Since none of these outlets were able to come up with that money, what resulted were written testimonies from Toronto Star journalists and Gawker writers, and an effort by the latter to collect the money from readers (the Rob Ford Crackstarter). A couple of weeks later, both outlets made it public that they lost contact with the people who originally offered the tape, and that it is very probable that the footage is no longer retrievable.

Where does this leave Rob Ford? After the news broke, it took him several days to come out with an official declaration, in which he denied the charges. His – and his supporters’ – main defense is that these are fabricated accusations coming from ideological adversaries, mainly the liberal-leaning Toronto Star. To his misfortune, such troubles seem consistent with previous controversies in which he had been embroiled: accusations that he was intoxicated while at a public event, that he groped a female colleague, that he was seen reading while driving. At the same time, it is equally true that his election (which he won decisively, with 47.1%) has shocked, and his personality (some say genuine, some say outrageous) has continued to appall, the Toronto establishment. In fact, the latest “scandal”, before the cocaine allegations, had him accused of putting small advertising magnets on people’s cars, and thus campaigning for his causes; which seems more amusing than scandalous. Yet he is not a stranger to scandal, which is why the recent news stories have hit pretty hard; several of his key collaborators, both at City Hall and from his political circle, have resigned or have declared that they will not continue to work for him, until these issues are resolved. Furthermore, the recent allegation come in what was, from a governance perspective, a difficult situation already.

The City of Toronto (fifth largest municipal unit in Northern America, disposing of a budget of about 10 billion dollars) is governed by a City Council, which contains 44 members elected from individual wards, and a Mayor elected by the entire city. Besides being a member of the Council, the Mayor also acts as a CEO; but he can not make major changes in policy, without having the support of a majority in the Council (details). In the last period, however, Rob Ford has proven himself less than adept at building and sustaining such coalitions and, in consequence, has been handed several stinging defeats in the Council. In response to this, as a true populist, he decided to appeal directly to his base – the so called “Ford Nation” that voted him in office, and in general the citizens of TO – through a weekly radio show (thus bypassing “the establishment”).  His brother, Doug Ford, himself a city councilor, is Rob’s main partner in this endeavor – and, more generally, in his political career. But the next mayoral elections are not far away, being scheduled to take place in October 2014. Will the embattled mayor manage to repair and salvage his public image? More importantly, will he manage to create the coalitions in the City Council  (which depend on his public image), which will allow him to implement some of his ambitious policy projects? This last question is probably the one that will decide his political fate, because the voters will surely evaluate him first and foremost based on fulfilling his key electoral promise, of ending the “Gravy Train” – the financial waste, mismanagement and corruption that had characterized the City of Toronto government before his arrival. The Conservative Party, with which Rob Ford is affiliated (and which is currently in power at national level), can only hope that, just like in the case of Boris Johnson, a center-right politician will manage to remain in power and run successfully what is usually considered a fiefdom of the other parties (of the left), which had suffered from severe mismanagement. Of course, for this to happen, Rob Ford (twitter; portrait) will have to not mismanage his own life, first of all.

Sweden: Youth Riots in Stockholm’s Suburbs

Such news always come across as shocking – for the outside observers, maybe even for the given society writ large. A few years ago, before the economic crisis, it was the Greek youth; before that, the young French people of the banlieues; a year or so ago,  pictures of senseless violence were coming out of London and other parts of England; and now, news and images of young rioters from the suburbs of Stockholm in Sweden (photos; video). It started in Husby, a suburb of concrete housing near Stockholm, and it continued for a few days, spreading to other areas as well, with hundreds of young people in their teens or 20s setting fire to businesses, destroying cars, and clashing with the police.  The initial reaction is always: “Why?” The immediate answer usually brings up race, religion, class. The truth, however, is that one common factor in all these apparently senseless events – which do not have any specific goals, but have a direction: against society, authorities, surroundings, “them” – is that they arise from a context of deep hopelessness, from a culture of gratuitous violence, and from a life lived without a promising horizon. According to data published by various news sources, unemployment in the suburb of Husby is two to three times higher (6-9%) than in Stockholm (around 3%), and is much higher among the youth (20%). Culturally, many of these young people do not feel integrated in the society at large, both because of the immigrant background of their families, their social standing, and their immediate environment; not being in school or employed, their main channel of socialization is through the peer groups on the streets. Since the problems seem easily describable in broad social terms, surely what is needed is more social programs; indeed, the Swedish authorities were quick to promise better, ampler programs for this population. Yet these suburbs already have cultural centers and social programs, and a good 12% of the inhabitants are beneficiaries of financial support. The Swedish police, while intervening when needed (with trepidation, given the unusual character of such violence in a fairly homogeneous, peaceful society like the Swedish one), expressed their hope that the local “community”, the civil society, will themselves step up to address the root causes of these acts. Yet it is clear that these young people are no longer contained by their own families; the local residents themselves (many of whom are from immigrant backgrounds) have expressed shock and incomprehension at the possible motivations of these youths; and many of them have put the blame squarely on these young persons’  irresponsibility. But what comes across, again and again, is the depressing, hopeless outlook on life – especially for young persons – in these drab suburbs of concrete; and this is why a better understanding of the situation might arise from materials like this investigative piece on the life of youngsters in these suburbs.

[Note: for those of us whose Swedish is less than perfect, Google Translate can be a helpful tool.]

Burma: Ethnic Conflict Flares Up

Before the advent of multiparty politics in Burma and the slow but seemingly steady transition to democracy, it was not extraordinary to see in the West a car donning the bumper sticker, “Free Burma!”. And now, as Burma is indeed transitioning to democracy, old questions arise again about what is behind that name, “Burma”. Is there such a thing as “a” Burma? Well, the reality is that this country is one of the most ethno-culturally diverse ones in the world; its population of over 55 million comprises some 135 ethnocultural groups, speaking over 100 languages and dialects  (report). In fact, Burma was not meant to be a unitary state; after gaining independence from British rule, the original plan was to build a federal system. But this was not mean to be, and successive regimes have tried to create a unitary state through force and propaganda, defining and imposing a “national identity” mostly designed around Buddhism. Of course, this was met with limited success; although most of the news in the past two decades have revolved around the conflict between the military junta and the political opposition (embodied by Aung San Suu Kyi), the deep(er) and (more) lasting divisions in the country, the ones that have continued to cause armed conflict and bloodshed in these 65 years of independence, and have not ceased to fester, are those along ethno-cultural lines. But the years of national and nationalist propaganda have not passed without leaving marks; just like in former Yugoslavia, where ethnic identity is based as much on religion as on language and region, Buddhism has become instrumentalized and enveloped by a much stronger, more prevalent identity – by a virulent national ideology.

Thus, the recent, brutal violence in Lashio and Meiktila have taken place along religiously-defined communal lines, but have not been “religious”, but typical examples of ethno-nationalist conflict. Unfortunately, just as typically, these recent conflicts have been appalling in their violence: besides the widespread devastation of property, tens of people have been killed (overwhelmingly Muslim, and among them many young), and thousands have been displaced.

[Warning: Graphic images!]

Because of the said incorporation of Buddhism in decades of nationalistic rhetoric, one of the prominent players is the so-called “969” movement and its instigator, Buddhist monk U Wirathu; and Buddhist monks have taken an active part in the recent violence, shoulder to shoulder with other men, women, youth. (This would only be shocking if one would hold to the naive assumption that “Buddhist monks” is an abstract, unitary, universally pacifist category; the reality is that “Buddhist monks” are part of the given society, and partake in its mores; see the role of the Buddhist monasteries in the power struggles of medieval Japan.)

What is the Burmese government doing? While the security forces stood by or even assisted in these violent events, its judiciary arrested and condemned only a few Muslims. Ethnic- and racially-infused nationalism seems to be alive and well as a guiding modus operandi, within the institutions of the state. On other fronts of the interethnic conflicts in Burma, however, the government has been very active and quite successful, making significant progress toward agreeing with the military groups associated with some of the larger ethnic groups (like the Kachin and the Shan).

But the multiethnic and multi-religious nature of the Burmese society is such an inescapable datum of the Burmese state, that there is simply no way to go forward, without addressing this in a decisive and coherent manner. This is especially true in a period as vulnerable as the transition from an authoritarian regime (which, through its strong institutions, has held these potential conflicts in check) to a yet undefined democratic arrangement; in such moments, the only thing known for sure is that the old checks are gone, and the institutions that would define the new order do not exist as yet – and thus there is the potential for disorder.  But in order for Burma to survive and even prosper as a state, substantial solutions will have to be found; perhaps through a redefinition of the state along federal lines, perhaps through a re-construction of a national narrative along civic, political or historical lines – but away from the inherently divisive, ethnic or religious lines. This, of course, is easier said than done, and might sound like the idealistic imaginings of remote theoreticians; however, the nearby example of Indonesia and of the the solutions it has found in a similarly diverse and conflict-ridden context might prove quite useful.

Unrest in Turkey

At the end of May, a group of about 100 people gathered in Gezi Park in Istanbul to protest a planned redevelopment that would affect one of the few remaining green areas in the city. This small manifestation soon developed into marathon demonstrations that spread to the nearby Taksim Square and to other 48 cities in Turkey, sparked at first by the brutal intervention of the police against the initial group of protesters, but fueled for weeks by a deeper resentment toward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party  (AK – Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi). But why would there be such enmity among these demonstrators towards Erdogan? This is the Prime Minister that eliminated the heavy hand of the military from Turkish politics and public life, after 50 years during which the  military has dominated the state, even putting it through several coups d’état. This is the head of the executive under whose leadership Turkey has experienced a period of continued economic growth, for the first time in a long time, while the rest of the world was undergoing a major crisis. At his initiative, the Constitution of the republic was reformed in the direction of strengthening civilian rule and the representative institutions; and these reforms were supported by a strong majority of the population, and were hailed by the EU as decisive steps toward democracy. Erdogan even managed to reach a ceasefire agreement in the longstanding, bloody conflict of the Turkish state with the armed factions of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). It is unsurprising, then, that Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the first Prime Minister in Turkish history who managed to win three successive elections (’02, ’07, ’11), obtaining for his party 50% of the popular vote in the last elections. Then why these protests?

There are a few characteristics common to these protesters.  Most of them are not politically affiliated, and for many this is the first act of political participation; a large number are educated, middle class; many belong to the generation of  social media & individualism. First and foremost, the overwhelming majority of these protesters are united by their distaste towards what they perceive as Erdogan’s government’s attempt to redirect Turkey (notwithstanding the obvious economic and democratic advances) toward a non-secular course, more in line with the Islamist inspiration of the ruling AK party. They cite in this regard laws such as the banning of the sale of alcohol between 10 pm and 6 am; and actions that they perceive as coming from authoritarian tendencies: plans to ban kissing in public, attempted laws against abortion and adultery etc. Similarly,  the brutal intervention of the police played into a deeper irritation with the generally abrasive, confrontational style of the Prime Minister, underlining the accusations that his policies and politics have divided the country. And indeed, during most of these troubled weeks, Erdogan did little to consciously shed this abrasive image: he called the protesters “extremists” and “looters” (names which they wore with pride); he accused them of being organized by shady foreign economic interest (a fairly risible accusation, given the participation of far left groups, among others);  has continued to direct the police to intervene with unnecessary brutality, instead of trying to meet and reach a compromise (thus, as a result of violence from both sides, five people have died and thousands – protesters and policemen – have been injured). An added problem, however, is that the demonstrators could not  – and still can not – speak with a united voice, true to the fact that they do not constitute a coherent mass: there are those who manifested against the redevelopment of Gezi Park; there are extreme left wingers; there are nationalists; there are many of the middle-class, who came out in solidarity or just against Erdogan. Furthermore, none of the parties of the parliamentary opposition can claim to represent them either: they are either nationalistic forces or they belong to the recent Turkish past, one that was military-dominated and economically-underdeveloped; a past for which these protesters have no fondness.

What is the current situation? After weeks of protest, Erdogan’s government agreed to meet with representatives of  the demonstrators, and also agreed to hold off the proposed developments, letting the courts decide on the matter, and even putting the decision to a popular vote.  This seems to have effected a calming down of the situation, except for a few hardline groups. But what are the deeper conclusions to be drawn from these events? On the one hand, they confirmed the adage that, when politics fails, the only remaining option is violence. In other words, they confirmed the goodness of (democratic) politics, of having institutions that would mediate the conflicts inherent in any society, through agreed rules of debate and decision-making. When these political institutions fail, or when they fail to transmit and process these inherent societal conflicts, the only other way to solve it is  – on the streets. Secondarily, they illustrate a deeper problem, related to the philosophical or ideological foundations of democratic politics. Both “sides” in this crisis (if we can talk of “two sides”) are, by and large, supporters of Turkey’s democratization; as mentioned, Erdogan has done more than anyone in recent history in this direction. Yet their assumptions differ. Erdogan and AK are grounded in, and imagine a Turkey founded on, an Islamic society and culture (and nobody can deny that Turkey has always been, as a society, Islamic). The protesters, however, have been shaped by decades in which the official ideology was that of laicity: a secular state whose secularism is understood not as non-intervention in religious affairs (as in the American conception), but as an exclusion of religion from the state and the public sphere (as in the French Revolution-inspired laïcité). Moreover, some of these protesters base their ideas about democracy on vague notions of Western (European) liberal democracy; while others are motivated by left wing or radical ideologies; and others by nationalism. Moving from a military-dominated, illiberal democracy to a democratic (and prosperous!) state is not a simple path, especially when the society is clearly divided as to the fundamental assumptions that should guide their lives – and perhaps the state as well.

In Brief

In June Central Europe was hit by massive floods along the Danube and Elbe rivers and their tributaries; in Germany (photo; video of Passau; reportage), the Czech Republic (photovideo of Prague), Hungary (video; photo), Austria, Slovakia, Switzerland, the historical levels of the waters forced thousands to leave their homes and left over 20 people dead; yet these numbers would have been much higher, were it not for the measures implemented after the floods of 2002. The deep involvement and strong leadership demonstrated by an Angela Merkel or Viktor Orbán will probably also have a positive effect on how they will be judged in the soon-to-come elections.

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In Syria, the documented death toll of the civil war has reached 93,000, of which over 6,000 are children. Meanwhile, one of the leaders on foreign affairs in American politics, Senator John McCain, sneaked into the country to meet with opposition groups. In an act of defiance of the West’s efforts, Russia delivered anti-aircraft missiles to the Assad regime; in response, the Obama administration announced that it decided to expand the support it gives to the rebel groups, to include arms as well; while the European Union decided to lifts the arms embargo, thus allowing the member countries to pursue their own individual policies in this regard. Currently the Assad regime seems to have gained the upper hand on the battlefield, with support from Hezbollah and probably Iran. Within the rebel groups and organizations, besides those that have been recognized as legitimate conversation partners by the West (like FSA, partially SNC), there are also Islamist factions that have perpetrated vicious acts of violence against the members of other religious minorities. In fact, it seems that a “rebel victory”, given the problematic ideological profile of some of the opposition groups, will have devastating consequences for the Syrian Christians, who had previously enjoyed a protected status.

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The African Union celebrated its 50 years’ anniversary, a period that has seen incontrovertible economic and social development on the continent, but also the failures of the AU to take charge of the problems facing it – whether because of a lack of political will, of cumbersome decision-making procedures, or a dearth of resources.

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In a shocking decision in February, the International Olympic Committee voted to remove one of the most ancient sports – wrestling – from the list of Olympic disciplines.  Behind the surprising decision is the intention to force the governing structures of the sport to finally address a host of issues that have been brought to their attention repeatedly, to no avail: women’s representation in its organizations, a streamlining of its cumbersome rules (which suffered many changes, yet remained obscure and unappealing to the public) etc. The shock had its effect, and one of the first acts was to elect a new president of FILA (the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles) in the person of Serbian Nenad Lalovic, who immediately engaged in an intense program of sport diplomacy (besides implemented the required internal changes). Among these  efforts were a highly mediatized public competition between wrestlers of USA, Iran and Russia at the Grand Central train station in New York; press conferences at the UN; apparitions on popular talk shows etc. There are of course popular initiatives as well in support of the sport, a sport whose greatest tournament is actually the Olympics (unlike soccer, for example, where the World Cup is much more important). A first victory has already been already obtained, with the recent decision of the IOC Executive Board to include wrestling on the short list of sports (together with baseball/softball and squash) on which the general assembly of the International Olympic Committee will vote in September, for the one spot available for the 2020 Olympics.

Rumble on the Rails: USA vs. Iran vs. Russia, at the Grand Central Terminal in New York


Around the World (April 6, 2013)

The Cyprus Crisis

The crisis in Cyprus seems to have started in 2009, when state expenditures started rising, under communist president Demetris Christofias.  Due to these policies, in 2011 Cyprus lost access to capital from the international markets, and instead of turning to the international institutions for a loan (which would have involved social costs), it negotiated a €2.5 billion loan from the Russian Federation.  At the end of 2011 the Cypriot banking system suffered a serious hit, when the value of the Greek state bonds, in which it was (patriotically) invested quite heavily, was cut in half, as a result of the crisis in Greece; in consequence, the banks lost about €4.5 billion (while Cyprus’s national GDP is of about €17 billion). But Cyprus is a member of the euro zone, and as such the state and its banking sector need to respond to certain financial strictures, required in order to manage the  common currency. The key demand at that time was the re-capitalization of the banks, but as the international investors had little interest in buying from Cyprus, in 2012 the government had to enter into a slow and much delayed process of negotiations with the Troika (the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank). The fact that it was an electoral year (the lead-up to the presidential elections of 2013) further muddled the situation, slowing down the decision-making process and not allowing for a clear picture to emerge. Finally, after prolonged negotiations, on March 16, 2013, the Troika and Cyprus agreed on a €10 billion bailout deal (the fifth country to enter such a deal, after Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain).

This crisis seems to have started in 2009, but Cyprus’s systemic problems are much older in fact, and have to do with it becoming an offshore financial center (explanation). This started a few decades ago, when Cyprus signed double taxation treaties  with a number of countries, including the USSR. The way it works, is that economic entities from other countries transfer their earnings through Cyprus, where they are taxed at a very low level, en route to some offshore accounts (like the Cayman Islands etc.). The advantage brought by the double taxation treaties is that these economic entities are not taxed again in their home country, and thus retain a larger part of the earnings. In addition, due to the aforementioned economic relations, after 1991 Cyprus has also became one of the favorite banking locations for the nouveaux riches of Russia (with all the shady implications). Providing financial  services was such a productive activity, that offshore tax planning became a key branch of the Cypriot economy; in fact, even the current president used to earn his living in that sector. But this also meant an immense disparity between the size of the banking sector and the actual economic power of the country; by 2011, the assets of the banking sector represented an astonishing 835% of the national GDP.

This is why, when the bailout deal was agreed with the Troika, these irregular  aspects had to be taken into consideration. As part of any bailout deal, the receiving government has to contribute by raising a part of that capital and by making structural reforms; accordingly, the Cypriot government was asked to raise €5.8 billion. Initially, the agreed plan was to introduce a one-off bank deposit levy of 6.7%, on all accounts under €100,000, and of a 9.9% one on larger deposits.  Due to public pressure and to a lack of political support in the parliament, the law needed to implement this measure failed to pass the legislature. The requirement for national capitalization did not go away, however, therefore the measure was changed:  two major banks, Laiki and Bank of Cyprus, will undergo restructuring; the first one will be split into a “bad bank”, with the rest of the accounts  being transferred to Bank of Cyprus;  all the resulting accounts under €100,000 will be fully protected, but all deposits over that sum will have 40% to 60% transformed into shares in the bank (recapitalization). In addition, in order to prevent a run on the banks, strict limits were placed on the amounts customers can move from the banks; in fact, for a while, the entire banking sector was in a prolonged vacation, until the details of these policies were being worked out.

What does the future hold for Cyprus? Let us look at Iceland: in 2008 it went through a similar crisis, caused by an over-inflated and over-exposed banking sector; after a period of social and political turmoil, its government passed  a series of determined measures, which included similar capital controls (some of which are still in place), but which also focused on protecting the individual citizens, instead of a wholesale bailout of the banking sector; today, it is enjoying a remarkable 2.7% annual growth and a 1,5% budget deficit. Capital control measures were also passed in Malaysia during the Asian economic crisis; while widely criticized at the time, they have proven very effective.  In Cyprus, however, the problem is compounded by a socio-political status quo riddled by inefficiency and lack of transparency; investigations published in opposition newspapers in recent days claimed that many politicians had their loans quietly written off by Cypriot banks, while more than 130 companies had the opportunity to move out more than €500 million from Laiki, in the run-up to the March negotiations with the Troika. A positive thing is that Cyprus still has a lot of state -owned enterprises, which could be privatized; and there has been talk of off-shore gas reserves around Cyprus, which could also constitute a solid source of cash (at least theoretically). The economic situation is also compounded by the peculiar and cumbersome context of an island still-divided between the Turkish-controlled north, and the Greek-governed South (which constitutes the actual state of Cyprus we are discussing); as well as by the geopolitical implications of its immediate neighborhood  – Turkey, Greece, Syria, Israel, Lebanon.

Finally, there is the lingering feeling that, once again, tough economic measures have been imposed by international institutions, under German leadership or influence (a Germany which is understandably reluctant to impose on its own citizens the risks and sacrifices involved in such bailouts). In any case, this is the general feeling among the population of Cyprus – that they are being punished by the EU for no fault of their own. If this will lead to a greater accountability of the Cypriot government, from the same general population (as it happened in Iceland),  that would certainly be a good outcome.

Sarkozy’s Return in Peril?

Less than a year after a relatively close electoral win over Nicholas Sarkozy, Socialist president François Hollande is “enjoying” some of the lowest approval rates of any sitting French president. Appropriately,  there has already been talk of a possible Sarkozy comeback into politics and participation in the 2017 elections, as he is still the most prominent representative of the center-right, and an exponentially more charismatic personality than Hollande.  These perspectives are threatened, however, by the very visible recent actions of the French judiciary system versus Sarkozy . These recent developments have to do with long-standing accusations that in 2007 Sarkozy had profited from the mental and physical weakness of one of the richest persons in France, Liliane Bettencourt, to obtain financial support for his presidential campaign. Even without knowing the outcome of the investigations, the image of the former chef d’État being summoned to interrogatory are due to leave a mark on his public image, adding to the divisive legacy of his previous public persona.The current events also give us an interesting insight into the relatively enclosed and rigid world of the  French elite; which is even more interesting, given the official mythology of egalitarianism. It also signals the increasing power and courage of the French judiciary,  whose institutional independence developed gradually, in the last few decades; and perhaps on the decreasing staying power of the president’s (formal and informal) immunity. It has been a slow process, from several of Mitterrand’s collaborators ending up in jail twenty years after the fact, to Chirac receiving a two-months suspended sentence a few years after leaving office, to Sarkozy being asked to come in for questioning only a few months after the end of his presidency.

Oligarch & Opponent of Putin Found Dead

On March 24, Boris Berezovsky, another Russian oligarch who had been a loud critic of Putin and had found refuge in London, was found dead in his apartment. The cause of death is not clear, but, unlike in the case of Alexander Litvinenko, the police have not found any traces of radioactive materials – or of foul play – at the home. This seems to be supported by reports that in the last year or so Berezovsky had been under a great deal of financial and personal pressure, undergoing a major financial loss, of about £3 billion, as a result of a lawsuit between him and Roman Abramovich, and being involved in another costly lawsuit with his former girlfriend (and mother of two of his children).  According to some, he was increasingly dissatisfied with his life in London, he had been suffering from depression, and wanted to reconcile with the Kremlin and return to the homeland – having changed his mind about Russia, the West, and his positions; others, however, adamantly dismiss this scenario and insist on the possibility of foul play. Whatever the facts, Berezovsky was one on a long list of oligarchs who had obtained their immense wealth in dubious circumstances during the early 1990s, and who, after Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, had to choose between working with the new regime, and organizing against it. Some chose to adapt to the system (see Mr. Evtushenko), and some chose to oppose it – the most famous case being that of Mr. Khodorkovsky, who is still in prison.

Coup D’État in the Central African Republic

On March 24, Séléka rebels took control of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (map). This is a country rich in many coveted resources (such as diamonds), but also a country that has suffered from chronic political instability and under-development ever since its independence. President and strongman François Bozizé, who himself came to power in 2003 through a coup, and was until recently supported by neighboring Chad, and periodically by the French forces in the country, fled to Cameroon, and blamed the attack on Chad. Meanwhile, South Africa withdrew its soldiers from CAR, supporting reports that they had become the new patrons of Bozizé, to the discontent of Chad’s strongman Idriss Déby. One of the Séléka rebel leaders, Michel Djotodia, has declared himself CAR president, suspending the existing institutions of the state – and stated his intention of preparing the country for democratic elections in three years’ time. Most observes received these statements with skepticism; it seems that this is just another case of taking control of the main source of wealth, the state; indeed, although there would be plenty of natural resources, the main source of income for the Central African Republic is foreign aid. The African Union and the major countries invested in CAR (like the US) have until now refused to recognize the new Djotodia regime. The disorder and turbulence characteristic to such power-grabs continue, meanwhile, in Bangui.

Escalation of Belligerent Rhetoric From North Korea

Given the very little verifiable information, and the poor channels of  communication with the regime, it is still not clear what the actual intentions are, behind the escalation in the rhetoric and actions of Kim Jong-Un‘s regime. For some, this seems like a continuation of his father’s policies of periodically provoking the West and South Korea, and receiving aid in return; this might also have to do with an attempt from the young ruler to assert and concentrate his control over the military and the party structures (which would be a reasonable assumption, given Kim Jong-Un’s relative inexperience and newness to the position).  However, some of the communication coming out of Pyongyang, including the publicizing  of contingency plans to strike at mainland USA (although they do not possess this capacity), as well as the closing of a key industrial complex ran in partnership with  South Korea (which is one of the main sources of income for the country), and the little influence that China seems to have at the moment over the regime, have put many on the edge.  One of the greatest dangers in such conditions is for a conflict to be started accidentally, as military assets are within range of each other, and bellicose rhetoric has put everyone on high alert.

Here is some footage of the drumming up of “support” from the poor people of North Korea; note the ill-fitting uniforms and the obviously coerced choreography.


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.


Around the World (January 26, 2013)

French Military Involvement in Mali

The control of the very weak government over the Malian state was severely compromised back in April 2012, when an alliance of Tuareg rebels (who want an independent state in the north) together with hard-line Islamist groups took controlof almost two-thirds of Mali, in the northern part of the country, which includes the larger cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Since it would be unacceptable for both the other African states and for the rest of the world to allow fundamentalist groups (such as MUJAO, Ansar Dine, and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb) to establish such a strong foothold in northern Africa, and even take control of a state, last year was spent with (mostly failed) efforts to enhance the capacity of the Malian army, and with expressed (yet never-materialized) intentions to send African troops in support of the country’s government.

Finally, on Friday, January 11 France, who has a long-standing history of presence in the region, and military assets in neighboring countries, has launched a (mostly) aerial mission in support of the governmental army. French president François Hollande expressed his intention to continue to expand this involvement, including an estimated 2500 French ground troops. Although several African organizations or groups of states, including ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) and the African Union, have pledged several thousands of troops, up to this point, mostly because of logistical and financial difficulties, only a couple hundred have arrived, from Senegal, Nigeria and Togo.  Other EU countries as well as the US have been asked or have already begun offering logistical help to the French and to the Malian troops, including  air-fueling capabilities, training resources and equipment.

In more recent developments, in what is the most significant military success of this campaign, French-led military forces have taken back control of the city of Gao from the Islamist groups.

Hostage Crisis in Algeria

In what is apparently a retaliation for the French intervention in Mali, an oil rig managed by BP, the Norwegian Statoil and the Algerian state oil company, located in a remote desert area about 40km / 25 miles from the town of In Amenas. was attacked and taken over on January 16 by a group associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Algeria has known decades of internal conflict (to the brink of civil war, and maybe beyond) between Islamist groups and the government, during which its military has built up an ethos (and a position in the society) that is based on an immediate and unmitigated response to violent actions from such groups. In consequence, and contrary to promises made to the British PM David Cameron, on the next day, January 17, the Algerian army launched a violent attach on the oil rig, where several hundred people were held hostage (among them about 700 Algerians and 100 foreigners) . During the resulting four days stand-off (detailed story) some 40 civilians and 23 militants have lost their lives (first-hand account).

Numerous victims were Japanese citizens, which gives us a sense of the complicated world created by the intersection of the interests of multinational corporations, trans-national terrorist networks and a political world ruled by states. Thus we have a situation where the governments of Japan and of Romania are equally concerned about a terrorist attack in Northern Africa (international death toll), attack that is linked to a French intervention in yet another country in the region.

US: White House and Cabinet Shuffles

When a US president wins re-election, i.e. when he starts a new term, it is usually expected, in the very fluid world of American politics, that he will change some of the key positions in the Cabinet and perhaps also among his staff. (The Cabinet is a key component of the executive, as it is composed of all the heads of executive departments – usually called “secretaries” (in most other political systems these are called government ministries and ministers, respectively). Since this is a presidential system, and the president “embodies” the executive, these “secretaries” do not represent specific constituencies, as it would happen in parliamentary systems, where they would be prominent politicians from the parties forming the governing coalition. Thus, the changes are relatively easy to make, since these people serve “at the pleasure of the president”. The reason why such changes are expected, on the other hand, is that the image and “energy’ projected by the president and his team, are key dimensions of their capacity to influence public opinion and the policy-making process (since constitutionally they do not play a direct role in the formulation or passing of legislation – again unlike other political systems).

Besides the Cabinet, another important institution in the US executive is the White House Office, part of the Executive Office of the President. These are the people who work most closely with the president, helping him exercise his duties and powers, but are also the closest to the president, physically (in the “West Wing“) and personally. However, unlike the heads of departments, who need to be approved individually by the Senate, as constitutionally mandated (as they are constitutionally described), these employees who work most closely with the President can be appointed (and dismissed) by him at will.

Among the recent changes made to the staff of the White House Office, the one that has to stand out is the new Chief of Staff, position that will go now to Denis McDonough, who until now worked mostly on foreign and security affairs (at least on paper; last position was Deputy National Security Advisor).

The changes to the Cabinet (who remains, who leaves) include John Brennan for CIA Director, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary, Senator John Kerry for Secretary of State (i.e. “foreign minister”), and Jack Lew (former WH Chief of Staff)  for Treasury Secretary (more on these appointments). Key positions, but overall safe choices, except for Chuck Hagel, whose nomination raised a truly bi-partisan storm, because of some past statements about US policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine; storm that has subsided, however, once he won over some key senators (especially Democratic ones, the upper house having  a Democratic majority).  Although it is customary for the US Senate to acknowledge and approve all the President’s nominees for the cabinet (and the Supreme Court), “deferring to him” on this issue, this is a tradition that stands because most nominees are generally acceptable (not too weak, not too controversial); in order to makes sure that they have such candidates, a careful vetting, formal and informal , precedes all such nominations, including private meeting with key senators. Sometimes presumptive nominees “lose their position” even before they are actually nominated. For example, Sen. John Kerry became the official name for the Secretary of State position only after the previously circulated name (Susan Rice) generated all too much public noise from the Republican Party and the media associated with it. The hearings for the Senate’s approval of these Cabinet positions have already started (John Kerry hearing), and at least one of them promises to be quite interesting.

In terms of what these appointments mean, they have already received ample commentary; in any case, they do seem to reinforce the image of a president for whom loyalty and trust are essential, and who exhibits  a programmatic determination to go beyond his own party boundaries when choosing persons for the Cabinet (notwithstanding that these are people with whom he knows he can work together, on the specific policy area, and in whose institutional competence he trusts).

Portuguese Conman Revealed: In Search of Populist Heroes

Looking of voices that would express the public frustration with the austerity measures implemented by many governments in the recent years, movements and opinion leaders have appeared not because they have some miraculous solution, but because they seem to encapsulate the popular anger and dissatisfaction with the situation. A recent (and amusing) such process took place in Portugal, where a fake economic expert academic rose to prominence in the last ten months, his stormy anti-austerity tirades being received by the people with standing ovations (literally). It turned out, however, that instead of being an internationally recognized economic expert, Artur Baptista da Silva is a former inmate, who made up his international credentials (but who may or may not have some studies in the field).

Indeed,  populist movements (and leaders) rise as the very public and very vocal expression of inchoate but acute popular dissatisfaction, especially during significant (economic) crises. They tend to pass on, however, in almost as vertiginous a manner as they appear, because the content of their public presence is mostly the reaction to a situation -and thus it is hard for them to outlast that situation, or the lack of concrete, practicable solutions.

Violence in Egypt, Two Years After the Revolution

One of the consequences of revolutions is that they destabilize the established sources of authority for the institutions that maintain the control of the government over the state –  territory and population. Usually, we go along with these institutions of the state, which maintain order, because their legitimacy is unquestioned. However, especially after violent revolutions, this everyday, commonly assumed order is severely questioned. Unless the institutions that result after the revolutionary changes succeed in establishing themselves based on commonly accepted rules (elections) and of general conformity with the goals of the revolution, a state of disorder can follow. And even if they manage to establish themselves, that radical change in societal order that was the revolution (whether it was peaceful or not) will continue to leave open the possibility that “this was not the last – or the best – alternative that we can try”; take, for example, the entire century of instability and turbulence that followed the  radically disruptive French Revolution, or see, even today, the continued questioning in Central and Eastern Europe of the foundations of the order established (successfully!) after 1989.

Similar complaints are being heard in Egypt, two years after the beginning of the Revolution – that the public, societal order has not yet been re-established. Thus, the events of the last days, although not linked, are certainly connected in a deeper way; one has to remember that the lack of legitimacy mentioned above is even more acute, and felt like a vacuum, in the case of  a transition from an authoritarian reghime (which imposes a strict order) to a democratic society (where a slight “disorder” is the natural state). Thus, in the past week, Egypt has seen both deadly riots in Port Said, in protest of a court sentencing 21 local fans to death for their role in the clashes and chaos during a soccer game a year ago (that resulted in about 74 deaths) – as well as massive public protests in Cairo and other cities against what is felt to be President Morsi’s and his governing Muslim Brotherhood’s continued actions and intent to derail the establishment of functioning democratic institutions.

The Africa Cup of Nations – AfCon South Africa 2013

Meanwhile, the premier football (soccer) competition of the African continent, which takes place every four years, started on January 19, in South Africa. Over the following three weeks, the national teams that qualified to the competition will play each other, first in the group stage, and then in eliminatory matches, up to the final on February 10  (calendar). It is in the nature of international soccer both to transcend national boundaries, by the common sharing in the joy of the game, but also to vicariously represent national and local identities, in all their pleasant or ugly forms. (Very famously, during every game of the best club team in the world, FC Barcelona, tens of thousands of supporters reserve a good few minutes to call for the independence of Catalonia; the players of the team, most of them born or raised there, are truly “troops” battling for the pride and identity of the region.) Another attractive aspect of the competition is that soccer is a sport that does not require an advanced economy,  in order for it to be practiced at mass level, and on a daily basis; thus, some of the best players in the world come from Africa. Similarly, it is a pleasure to see at AfCon the national teams of some of the countries mentioned above, in less than fortunate circumstances; the teams of Mali, Algeria, but also those of DR Congo (Congo-Kinshasa), Ethiopia, Niger etc. Here is a taste of the competition: