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

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Around the World (May 18, 2013)

Italy: New President & New Government

After  an undecided election and two months of uncertainty (chronicled here and here) about the options available for forming a government and electing a new head of state, the main Italian parties agreed on re-electing 87-years old Giorgio Napolitano as President of the Italian Republic, and on forming a kind of “grand coalition” in support of a new government. Napolitano’s re-election, albeit contrary to his original intentions, of not standing for re-election, paved the way for reaching the more important goal, of forming a new and stable government. Why was Napolitano’s election conducing to the formation of a government?

On the one hand, he is a personality amenable to both major parties (center-left Democrats and center-right People of Liberty), and thus “finding” a compromise candidate was actually possible; although the Democrats could have pushed through a candidate without Berlusconi’s support, that would have doomed any chances of forming a government. It took five voting sessions, in the special electoral assembly, to return to the choice of the outgoing President; along this tortuous process, the center-left experienced significant turmoil, including a change in leadership (Bersani resigning), and that also contributed to making an agreement with the center-right possible. Finally – but just as importantly – at the swearing-in ceremony Giorgio Napolitano gave a powerful, emotional speech (video), in which he chastised with harsh words the entire Italian political elite; according to many, this was a catalyst that gave a significant impetus to the said elite, to reach a compromise in the interest of the country. The arrangement they reached is a coalition government in which both the center left, the center right, as well as Monti’s alliance would participate, thus giving it (at least on paper) the broad parliamentary support needed in order to attempt the serious economic, social and political reforms that Italy needs (composition of the cabinet). The new center-left premier, Enrico Letta, is a sober and moderate figure, one that is able to inspire trust, even beyond the political fault-lines. The only political force remaining outside these arrangements, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, whose representation in Parliament and anti-political stance had an important role to play in the recent impasse, has expressed its opposition both to Napolitano’s re-election and to Letta’s coalition government.

Serbia and Kosovo Reach An Agreement

On April 19, the leaders of Serbia and of Kosovo have reached an important EU-brokered agreement addressing the status of the four ethnic Serb municipalities in the north of Kosovo (North Mitrovica, Zvečan, Zubin Potok and Leposavić). Although “parts of” Kosovo, these municipalities have been under a sort of self rule, which actually translated into a weak rule of law and the flourishing of underground, even criminal economic activities, and a survival of the region only due to significant financial support from Serbia. Under the new agreement, however, this region will form one unit that will become an integral part of Kosovo, subject to its laws and institutions, while retaining  some autonomous decision-making powers in the realm of  economic development, education, healthcare and town planning, and populating its judiciary and police forces with local people. The consequences of the agreement, although interpreted differently by the two sides, are far reaching; for Serbia, it opens the doors for starting the negotiations for joining the EU; for Kosovo, it signifies an implicit affirmation by Serbia of Kosovo’s independent status; for the EU and its foreign minister (i.e. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy), Katherine Ashton, this is a significant success, and a step toward solving the long-term NATO and EU involvement in the region. It also demonstrates the continued attractiveness (and “soft power”) of the “EU carrot” – of the promise of integration into the economic, social and legal structures of the Union; in many ways, this is another instantiation of the accomplishment of the original objectives of the EU: to become a space of peace and prosperity. The signing of the agreement was certainly helped by the fact that the leaders involved have well-established nationalist credentials among their people: Serbia’s prime minister, Ivica Dačić, was at one time Slobodan Milosevic’s spokesman; the deputy prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, used to be an extremist nationalist; Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaçi,  is a former guerrilla leader. The text of the agreement was approved with large majorities by both parliaments: by the Kosovo Assembly on April 22, and by the Serbian National Assembly on April 26. The only obstacle remaining – and quite a significant one – is the actual implementation of the agreement, given that the leaders and population of the said municipalities remain opposed to it; however, given that Serbia is the de facto financier of these municipalities, there are few options for them but to accept the deal.

The Obama Administration in Crisis

These weeks the Barack Obama-led executive is passing through what is probably its most difficult period, following revelations of abusive behavior by its tax institution, a continued lack of clarity about what happened in Benghazi, Libya last year, and the discovery of the fact that its Justice Department has been conducting wide-ranging investigations of journalists’ activities. The Internal Revenue Service-related scandal has to do with its targeting of “conservative” groups, while evaluating their tax-exempt status, i.e. in the course of deciding if they engage in political activities, which would make them taxable entities. The code words that the IRS used in selecting the targeted groups (such as “Patriots”, “Bill of Rights”), the sheer intrusiveness of the inquiries, and the slow response time of the agency, give the impression of a politically motivated activity by an institution of the state that has no role to play in politics. The events of September 11, 2012 in Benghazi have been used by the Republicans from the start, to attack the executive, accusing it of either being grossly incompetent, or of intentionally misleading the public and the Congress. The way in which the various actors in the administration have vacillated in their reactions to and description of the events, and the overall reluctance to provide, even nine months later, a transparent accounts of who did what, why, and under whose orders, did not help put an end to those accusations. Finally,  the DOJ revealed recently that it has secretly (albeit legally) obtained over two months of phone records belonging to 20 telephone lines assigned to the Associated Press; in addition, the Washington Post recently described the extensive investigation of a Fox News journalist’s interactions with a government official, in relation to some leaked information. These recent revelations cement the image (that has been developing for a while) of a White House that is probable the most aggressive administration in documented history, in terms of aggressively fighting and pursuing such so-called “leaks”.

The intersection of all these “scandals” looks very much like a “perfect storm”, from the perspective of Barack Obama’s political adversaries, but the negative reaction extends beyond party lines.  A US president’s political power is mostly based on influence, and this is why presidents entering the last two years of their mandate are called “lame ducks” – because there is little public support, positive image, or positions n government that they can transaction, in exchange for support from members of the Congress or at state level. Barack Obama has started his second and last term determined to push through with a very ambitious agenda, including some political unicorns like immigration reform, gun-control legislation, entering the implementation phase of the new health care law etc. Fresh from a solid elections victory, he looked to be in the best position to attempt this, because of the public’s demonstrated support, and a lack of direction,  ambition or legitimacy on the part of the Republican Party. Right now, however, only six months later, the Republicans seem newly energized, trying to craft a narrative that would tie together all these scandals, in the hope of forcing this administration to turn the corner into the “lame duck” stage sooner than anyone would have expected (with added benefits for the Congressional elections of 2014).  How the Obama administration will fare through these scandals will be crucial, therefore, in terms of its objectives, and of the mark that the President wants to leave in US history (a central concern of all presidents). Until now, the White House has been taking a different strategy, regarding each of these scandals: reacting quickly and strongly against IRS’s abuses; taking the line that the DOJ is simply doing its duty, with regards to leaks affecting national security; and characterizing GOP’s attacks on the administration, in relation to Benghazi, as over-inflated political rhetoric. The success of these White House defense strategies, and the degree to which the President will maintain the public’s support, will also depend on how he will manage his relationships with the Democratic members of Congress (a relationship that has never been too simple or too close) and with a press corps that until now has been largely favorable (and even cooperating).

Syria: Where Is the “Red Line”?

In March of this year several reports signaled the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, in the northern town of Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo. This was followed by other incidents with allegations of chemical attacks, and by statements suggesting that this might not be the first time when such weapons have been used. Syria is known to have a large stash of chemical weapons, and the fear was always that the government might actually deploy them against the rebel forces. The matters are complicated by contradictory accusations, with the Syrian government and some international observers stating that it was the rebel forces who might have used chemical components, while most international actors (US, France, Britain, Israel) and the  Free Syrian Army (FSA) blame it squarely on the Syrian regime, saying that only they would possess the capacity and the will to do so.  It is also not clear if these were actual chemical weapons, like the (nerve gas) sarin, which the regime possesses and might have used before, or simply chlorine, which is a readily available cleaning supply, and thus accessible to any of the forces engaged in the conflict.  The reports have however put the international actors, and especially the US, in a difficult position, as the use of chemical weapons has been qualified a while ago as a “red line” that, once crossed, would necessitate a more direct intervention on behalf of the population.  It is also clear that the “red line” expression was used originally in reference to the possibility of large scale use of chemical weapons, which would have devastating consequences – and not about local incidents. However, if large scale is an issue, then one has to wonder what actually constitutes a “red line”, given that, since the beginning of the conflict, more than 90,000 people have lost their lives, and more than one million have become refugees (summary). The ongoing vicious war of the Assad regime on the Syrian population, and the messy civil war that is being waged today at the cost of thousands of innocent victims, might have already crossed that “red line.” Yet it is not simple to see through the various, more or less organized groups battling the regime; as always in a mass uprising, their motivations, goals and composition vary with the place, the moment, and the group in question.  It is clear however that there are institutionalized opposition structures, such as the FSA and the Syrian National Coalition, which have become “official” partners of the international actors on behalf of the “rebels”, and who could be used more actively in the effort of ending the ongoing bloodshed. Meanwhile, Syrian society is being torn apart, probably with long term consequences (unsurprisingly similar to post-war Iraq); and those who bear the brunt of the conflict are, as always, the non-involved civilians and the minorities (eg. the Christians).

In Brief

According to the authorities, Hugo Chavez’s former right-hand, Nicolás Maduro, narrowly won the April 14 presidential elections in Venezuela, which were called after the former president’s death. The elections were followed by violent street clashes, amid heavy contestation of the results by the supporters of the opposition and of its presidential candidate,  Henrique Capriles – and amid a continued and vertiginous worsening of the economic situation.

On May 10, for the first time in history a former ruler of a country was condemned for genocide by a court from his own country. The trial of Efrain Rios Montt, the ex-military dictator who ruled Guatemala during a portion of its 36-years long civil war, concluded by finding him guilty of taking part in a genocide against the native Ixil Mayan population, and condemning him to 80 years in prison.

One of the defining political leaders of the second half of the twentieth century, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, passed away on April 8. As a Prime Minister she left behind a complex legacy, combining  political centralization with an emphasis on the free market and on individualism, and an aggressive foreign policy with a certain insularism. Illustrating the mark that her career left on the public consciousness, the funerals (video) were attended by notable figures from all aspects of public life, from politics to economy and entertainment.

Representatives of the Ladies in White Cuban opposition group finally managed to travel to collect the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded them by the European Parliament in 2005. The Ladies in White is  a Church-based group of wives and relatives of people jailed for political reasons in Cuba.

The new Monarch of The Netherlands, Willem Alexander, was enthroned on April 30 (video). He takes over as head of state after his mother’s, Queen Beatrix’s resignation earlier this year. (An interesting detail: the pop song commissioned to celebrate this event was met with widespread criticism and derision; see video.)

In April, at a distance of just a few days, different parts of Iran were rocked by powerful earthquakes (of 6.3 and 7.8 magnitudes on the Richter scale, respectively).  Iran sits on a major tectonic fault line, and its inner regions have been historically the victims of very strong earthquakes, such as the 2003 one in the Bam region, which resulted in over 25,000 deaths.

What Do Iranians Want?

[Press CC for English subtitles.]


[FEATURE] David Cameron’s EU Speech

cameron eu 6On January 23rd, the day following the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty (which, as mentioned in an earlier post,  was a key moment in the construction of the European Union), the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave an important speech addressing the future of the EU, and also the futures of the Tory party in the UK.

Besides addressing two different sets of worries, the speech was necessarily directed at two different audiences, which resulted  in a difficult balancing work, trying to combine and present these as one coherent program – probably reflecting Cameron’s own complex position on the issue, as well.

The two major problems identified in the address are the crisis of the Euro zone (or, on a broader scale, the economic competitiveness of Europe facing the rising economies of Asia) and the crisis of democratic legitimacy of the EU’s governance structures; briefly put, prosperity & popular support.

Nobody would disagree with this twin diagnosis; many would, however, with the solutions proposed by the British PM. Even more so, it is highly debatable if the very definition of the EU offered in the speech fits the reality of the EU’s origins and purposes, even 50 years on.

Read the rest of this entry »


UK: The Human Dimension of the Riots in England

Without the police intervening, the locals had to stay outside their shops and houses, in order to protect them. This was done in many places, including London. In Birmingham, however, three young people were murdered by the rampaging gangs.

The father of one of the victims emerged as a sort of voice of sanity and decency, amidst all the lawlessness. Here is Tariq Jahan addressing the people of his neighborhood:

 

And here is his declaration, later:


UK: David Cameron’s Parliamentary Statement on the Riots

David Cameron’s “Statement on public disorder” from the extraordinary session of the British Parliament addressed both the events of the past days and what the government intends to do next, as well as some longer term plans. The Prime Minister’s statement came across as determined, forceful; indeed, he managed to strike the right tone, delivering “straight talk” to the Parliament and to the British public. In his intervention, Cameron made sure to define the riots as criminal acts, while at the same time acknowledging that, on a longer term, the deeper societal roots of these events need to be addressed. “Responsibility for crime always lies with the criminal. But crime has a context.” – Cameron said.

His statement was followed by a reply from Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour party, which was not a counter-attack (as it would usually happen, during Prime Minister’s Questions, but a similarly decisive condemnation of the recent acts of thuggery and mob-rule on the streets of England, complemented by a balanced inquiry into some of the proposed response policies.

This whole meeting of the Parliament, and the positions expressed by both leaders (of the majority coalition and of the opposition), are indeed a witness to why Britain is still a model democracy, notwithstanding its problems. What would have happened if the leader of the opposition would have taken the side of the rioters? Or if a significant number of members of Parliament, or perhaps even a less than significant one, would have done that? The entire leadership role of the political elite would have been undermined, and one thing that the people of Britain truly need at this moment, and one thing they did not receive from the police during these past few days, has been leadership.

This does point towards an element that is less talked about nowadays, because of all the (understandable) emphasis on democratic mechanisms: the vertical dimension of politics, namely that decisions need to be taken by certain people at a certain moment, and that deliberation can not go on forever. Americans have an expression for it: “the buck stops here.”

In many states around the world, states where democratic politics rest on shakier grounds, this might have been an occasion for certain politicians to gain political capital. Are not in fact the rioters members of the public as well, entitled to their grievances and opinions? Democracy, however, is not simply a mechanism of transforming polls (aggregating opinions) into policy. The loathing of democracy expressed by the ancient Greeks referred to such an understanding of it, especially given that what they had was direct democracy, not representative democracy.; for them, mob rule was an immediate potentiality, not an interpretation of political events.

Representative democracy has in fact an aristocratic element to it; decision makers, although elected, need to play fully their role as opinion- and policy-shapers. They need to be leaders.

On the other hand, the machinery of democratic politics will not work, or will not survive, unless it is grounded in a democratic culture that is structured around a few key values.  Hence the importance of the Constitution in the US, or, as we are seeing it now, of the organic constitution of the British tradition of democratic politics, of a “certain way of doing things” in Britain. Without such commonly assumed and cherished values, a political system that possesses only the trappings of a democracy (such as an elected government) but not its foundations, can not last. These key values of democracy, however, can be learned, just like any other values, and can become part of the very identity of the members of a given society. There is no society without hope, in this sense.

You can watch David Cameron’s statement and the following discussion on Parliament TV.