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.]

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Around the World (March 16, 2013)

Hugo Chavez Dead

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

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

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

Pope Benedict XVI Resigns – A New Pope Is Elected

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

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

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

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

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

Bulgarian Prime Minister Resigns

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

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

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

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

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

Kenyan Elections

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

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

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

Meteor Explodes Over Chelyabinsk, Russia

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

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