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.

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Around the World (February 9, 2013)

Queen Beatrix of Netherlands to Abdicate

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

EU Council Agrees on Seven Year Budget Plan

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

German Leader Resigns Following Accusations of Plagiarism

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

Tunisia Opposition Leader Killed – Mass Revolts Follow 

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

Failed Attack on an Ethnic Turkish Political Leader in Bulgaria

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