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 (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.]


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:


USA: Presidential Elections 2012

Electing the President

On November 6, 2012, Tuesday (it is always the first Tuesday of November), the United States will vote for a new president. The states, that is, the Electoral College, constituted of electors from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia (which is not a “state”). In other words, given that this is a federal system, the head of the executive (and head of state) is not elected through popular vote, but by electors representing the constituting parts of this federal arrangement (which in the USA are called “states”).

The population does go to the voting booth, but through their vote they in fact delegate representatives (electors), who then will cast a ballot for the given candidate. Each state is assigned a number of electors equal to the total number of its Senators and Representatives in the U.S. Congress. Whichever candidate obtains most votes (not the majority) in each state, is allotted all the electoral votes of that state, i.e. all the electors who pledged to vote for  the specific party’s candidate. If the Republican candidate obtains the most votes in Nevada, then all the electors will be Republican and would have pledged their votes to the official candidate of the Republican party. (The official candidate of each party is chosen through the primaries process, which culminates with the National Convention of the given party.) This is the process in most states, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, where only two of the electors are chosen in a winner-take-all manner, the remaining electors being determined according to who wins each congressional district; the electoral votes, therefore, for these two states, can be split, which can not happen in the other states.

In order to win, therefore, a candidate on the ballot in all the 50 states (and DC) must win a majority of the votes in the Electoral College, that is, 50%+1 of the 538 electors = 270 electors. American presidential elections, then, are a mathematical game in which knowing which state is decidedly of one particular political leaning or the other, and which states are “undecided”, matters a lot. In many ways, the election is decided by those few states which are still (and usually) “up for grabs”. The Washington Post has a nice breakdown of the currently available scenarios regarding the states that are still in play, and what are the paths available for Barack Obama and for his challenger, Mitt Romney, to winning this election.

The White House [source]

Obama or Romney… but does this mean that there are only two candidates available? No: in each state there are several other candidates, which can also appear on the ballot, if they or their party meet the specific requirements of that state; some states even admit write-in candidates (that the voter literally writes on the ballot). Given, however, that the US is a two-party political system (for reasons that we will not examine now), the two main parties that have most of the resources, media attention, influence and, frankly, popular following, will also dominate the presidential elections. The so-called “third parties” do campaign, however, and they organize their own, parallel presidential debates.

The Debates

The televised presidential debates have become, since their beginning in the 1980s, key events of the national electoral campaign process. They are organized by an independent organization, with the cooperation of the major media organizations. This time there were three debates, which actually had a significant impact on the campaign. In the first debate,  Mitt Romney managed to clearly outperform the incumbent, with a commanding yet reassuring presence; in the second, which was “town-hall” style, Barack Obama was much more in his medium (while Romney less so), and came poised to make up for (and make people forget) the much-criticized first debate; in the third one, their performances were more even, but given that the subject was foreign policy, Romney was less incisive and less sure of himself.

The first debate:

The second debate:

The third debate:

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USA: More Republican Debates

The process of campaigning for winning the right to represent the Republican Party in the 2012 presidential elections continued with two more televised debates.

On September 12, a debate organized by – and focused on – the Tea Party movement, with questions from Tea Party members; the media sponsor of the debate was, somewhat unexpectedly, CNN. You can watch the first part of the debate here:

On September 22, a debate organized by FoxNews, in Florida, featuring a new candidate -Gary Johnson, the libertarian-leaning former governor of New Mexico. You can watch the entire debate here:

At this point the field looks as follows:

Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is somewhat of an establishment candidate. A very rich businessman, he represents the ruling trends in the Republican mainstream, and has a knack at adapting to the discourse of the moment. His performances in this year’s debates are much more polished, secure, and balanced than the ones when he was running against McCain in the primaries for the 2008 elections. Given Barack Obama’s relative lack of popularity, he might look like a feasible alternative to the independents or the undecided Democrats. Someone said (very well) that he seems to be the only one running a general election campaign, in these primaries (adopting a tone that addresses more than just the narrow party base).

Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, used to be until about a month ago the darling of the Tea Party-ers and of Evangelicals. But – and this is how fast things move in American politics – his lackluster performance in the primary debates have seriously eroded that status (you can see a very embarrassing example of that in the last debate, when he managed to ruin a perfect opportunity to attack Romney for his “flip-flopping” – his documented ability to radically change positions, as the political context demands it). Right now, the focus of the competition seems to be on the rivalry between Perry and Romney.

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USA: Republican Presidential Candidates’ Debate, Iowa

If you missed it, here is the video of the full debate between the candidates competing to win the Republican Party’s electorate’s nomination, as that party’s official candidate in the presidential elections of November 2012. Indeed, the presidential primaries* are already in full swing – well, in the Republican party, at least. Barack Obama, notwithstanding the voices to the contrary, has his Democratic Party nomination all but assured, which is normal for an incumbent president. This of course does not preclude the apparition of counter-candidates, but the Democratic field is fairly empty right now. In the other major American party, however, the waters are frothy, the piranhas are out, and are fully engaged in the battle; so much so, that some candidates have already dropped out (Tim Pawlenty), and there are good chances that a few others will join the fray.

* The presidential primaries are a way of selecting who will be the official candidate of a given party in the general elections for the position of US President. Unlike in most other political systems, in the US, as a result of a gradual process that lasted about 150 years (and achieving its current form around the middle of the twentieth century), generally speaking it is the members of each party who have the power to select the party’s candidate (nominee) in the elections, and not the hierarchy of that party.