Archive for the ‘Democracy & Human Rights’ Category

9
Sep

showdown in scotland

Written on September 9, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in Democracy & Human Rights, Europe, Op Ed

 

GLASGOW, Scotland — All of a sudden, Scotland has gotten very interesting. That Scots would reject independence from the United Kingdom in a referendum on Sept. 18 has been conventional wisdom from Washington to Westminster for practically every day of a two-year-long campaign on the matter. But not anymore.

On the evening of Sept. 1, the Scottish Twittersphere, febrile at the best of times, went into meltdown. A fresh poll had just been released showing the “No” camp just six points ahead of the “Yes” side. The same pollsters had put the No camp’s lead at 14 points in mid-August, and a whopping 22 points earlier the same month, excluding undecided voters. Yet the Sept. 1 poll was no outlier, as Peter Kellner, the doyen of British polling,explains. As if on cue, a Sept. 6 poll now has the Yes camp holding a 51-49 percent lead. 

The latest polls give a scientific sheen to what anyone who has spent time in Scotland in recent weeks has noticed: Support for independence is building. Looking out the window of my apartment in Glasgow, I can count half a dozen blue Yes stickers and a Scottish Saltire flag (a nationalist symbol) with the same motto across the street. Most have appeared within the last month. Across Scotland, particularly in poorer urban areas, the political landscape is shifting in the nationalists’ favor. Rumors are rife that Rupert Murdoch’s widely circulated tabloid, the Sun, will declare its support for independence in the coming week.

To be sure, a Yes outcome is still an outside bet with the bookmakers. But the odds are shortening — and fast.

***

What makes this surge all the more remarkable is that the charismatic leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond, was widely seen as having lost a much-vaunted first debate with Alistair Darling, head of the No campaign, on Aug. 5. Salmond was hotly tipped — one of his own MPs predicted a “slaughter” – but in front of a TV audience of almost 2 million (in a country of just over 5 million), Salmond struggled to answer questions about what currency an independent Scotland would use and how it would transition from the United Kingdom to separate statehood.

Despite Salmond’s televised travails, however, opinion polls rose slightly in favor of the nationalists after the debate. Then, in late August, he SNP leader wiped the floor with a lackluster Darling in the second and final live clash. Unsurprisingly, pro-United Kingdom spin doctors in the pressroom looked visibly worried.

Unionist solicitudes may have come too late. The “Better Together” campaign, as the No side is called, has maintained a relentlessly negative tone, which has earned it the nickname “Project Fear.” Just days before the latest opinion poll, a Better Together video featuring a housewifeunable to think about independence amid the clatter of family life was roundly criticized for being sexist and condescending — which is particularly damaging, as the female vote could prove decisive in just under two weeks’ time. The video went viral; even BuzzFeed picked up on the “Patronising BT Lady.”

Moreover, a parade of (mainly London-based) celebrities calling on Scotland to stay in the union was more cringe-inducing than voter-swaying. Warnings against independence from international leaders — whether Barack Obama or Tony Abbott — have also had little effect on the Scottish electorate. Read more…

Published on Sept. 8th in http://www.foreignpolicy.com/ by Peter Geoghegan

3
Sep

Hong Kong’s Democracy Dilemma

Written on September 3, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in Asia, Democracy & Human Rights, Op Ed

HONG KONG — On Sunday the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress issued restrictive guidelines for the election of Hong Kong’s next chief executive in 2017. Shorn of its technical details, the proposal in effect gives Beijing the means to control who could run for the top office in Hong Kong: Voters would get to cast a ballot, but only for one of just a handful of candidates pre-selected by the Chinese government.

“By endorsing this framework,” Cheung Man-kwong, a veteran politician of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, wrote, “China has in truth and in substance reneged on her promise to give Hong Kong universal suffrage.”

Three decades ago, when Beijing and the British government, which was in charge of Hong Kong then, were negotiating the terms of the territory’s handover back to China, Mr. Cheung was among those who supported “reunification” on the understanding that Hong Kong would eventually acquire a fully democratic system.

Now some officials here are urging residents to accept Beijing’s undemocratic proposal. They say its version of the one-person-one-vote proposition, however faulty, is “a bird in hand.” But other Hong Kongers rightly suspect that accepting that plan would be like drinking from a poisoned chalice. The Standing Committee’s announcement Sunday certainly came as a shock, after weeks of regular, large-scale protests by pro-democracy groups.

Beijing has made it clear that only someone who “loves the country and loves Hong Kong” is acceptable for the top post in Hong Kong and that screening candidates for that qualification is necessary for China’s national security. There are people here, according to top officials in Beijing, who still do not accept Hong Kong’s reunification with China and are conniving with foreign forces to subvert the Chinese government, using Hong Kong as a base.

It does not much matter whether Beijing really believes what it says. What matters is that what Beijing says is an excuse for its uncompromising position. And it matters that the people of Hong Kong now face a dilemma. They can either reject the framework proposed by Beijing knowing they will be offered no other. Or they can take it, and by validating with a pseudo-popular mandate Beijing’s selection of their chief executive, allow the Chinese government to assume complete control over Hong Kong’s affairs.

Once Beijing achieves complete control, there is no reason why it would allow Hong Kong’s system to democratize. The aggressive administration of the current chief executive, C.Y. Leung, has already been bypassing long-established good practices and principles without any effective checks and balances.

It is no secret that Beijing is dissatisfied with many features of the Hong Kong people’s way of life, including a free press and an independent judiciary that includes foreign judges. (Both institutions have faced political pressure.) This is largely because the Chinese government has very different ideas about the meaning of freedom and the rule of law. The premium it places on stability and national security, and the degree of stability and security it deems necessary, are poles apart from the common values of the Hong Kong community. And to Beijing, which remains imperial in habit, it is intolerable that Hong Kong’s ordinary people should put their will above that of the government.

Read more…

By Margaret Ng, published in the New York Times on Sept. 2

6
Aug

James Mwangi grew up on the slopes of the Aberdare Mountains in central Kenya. His father lost his life during the Mau Mau uprising against the colonial authorities. His mother raised seven children, making sure both the girls and the boys were well educated. Everybody in the family worked at a series of street businesses to pay the bills.

He made it to the University of Nairobi and became an accountant. The big Western banks were getting out of retail banking, figuring there was no money to be made catering to the poor. But, in 1993, Mwangi helped lead a small mutual aid organization, called Equity Building Society, into the vacuum.

The enterprise that became Equity Bank would give poor Kenyans access to bank accounts. Mwangi would cater to street vendors and small-scale farmers. At the time, according to a profile by Anver Versi in African Business Magazine, the firm had 27 employees and was losing about $58,000 a year.

Mwangi told the staff to emphasize customer care. He switched the firm’s emphasis from mortgage loans to small, targeted loans.

Kenyans got richer, the middle class boomed and Equity Bank surged. By 2011, Equity had 450 branches and a customer base of 8 million — nearly half of all bank accounts in the country. From 2000 to 2012, Equity’s pretax profit grew at an annual rate of 65 percent. In 2012, Mwangi was named the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year.

Mwangi’s story is a rags-to-riches Horatio Alger tale. Mwangi has also become a celebrated representative of the new African entrepreneurial class, who now define the continent as much as famine, malaria and the old scourges.

But Mwangi’s story is something else. It’s a salvo in an ideological war. With Equity, Mwangi demonstrated that democratic capitalism really can serve the masses. Decentralized, bottom-up capitalism can be the basis of widespread growth, even in emerging markets.

That theory is under threat. Over the past few months, we’ve seen the beginning of a global battle of regimes, an intellectual contest between centralized authoritarian capitalism and decentralized liberal democratic capitalism.

On July 26, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary gave a morbidly fascinating speech in which he argued that liberal capitalism’s day is done. The 2008 financial crisis revealed that decentralized liberal democracy leads to inequality, oligarchy, corruption and moral decline. When individuals are given maximum freedom, the strong end up stepping on the weak.

The future, he continued, belongs to illiberal regimes like China’s and Singapore’s — autocratic systems that put the interests of the community ahead of individual freedom; regimes that are organized for broad growth, not inequality.

Orban’s speech comes at a time when democracy is suffering a crisis of morale. Only 31 percent of Americans are “very satisfied” with their country’s direction, according to a 2013 Pew survey. Autocratic regimes — which feature populist economics, traditional social values, concentrated authority and hyped-up nationalism — are feeling confident and on the rise. Eighty-five percent of Chinese are very satisfied with their country’s course, according to the Pew survey.

It comes at a time when the battle of the regimes is playing out with special force in Africa. After the end of the Cold War, the number of African democracies shot upward. But many of those countries are now struggling politically (South Africa) or economically (Ghana). Meanwhile, authoritarian Rwanda is famously well managed.

China’s aggressive role in Africa is helping to support authoritarian tendencies across the continent, at least among the governing elites. Total Chinese trade with Africa has increased twentyfold since 2001. When Uganda was looking to hire a firm for an $8 billion rail expansion, only Chinese firms were invited to apply. Under Jacob Zuma, South Africa is trying to copy some Chinese features.

As Howard French, the author of “China’s Second Continent,” points out, China gives African authoritarians an investor who doesn’t ask too many questions. The centralized model represses unhappy minority groups. It gives local elites the illusion that if they concentrate power in their own hands they’ll be able to move decisively to lift their whole nation. (Every dictator thinks he’s Lee Kuan Yew.)

French notes that popular support for representative democracy runs deep in most African countries. But there have to be successful examples of capitalism for the masses. There have to be more Mwangis, a new style of emerging market hero, to renew faith in the system that makes such people possible.

President Obama is holding a summit meeting of African leaders in Washington this week. But U.S. influence on the continent is now pathetically small compared with the Chinese and Europeans. The joke among the attendees is that China invests money; America holds receptions.

But what happens in Africa will have global consequences in the battle of regimes. If African nations succumb to the delusion of autocracy, we’ll have Putins to deal with for decades to come.

Published on Aug. 4 in the http://www.nytimes.com by David Brooks

16
Jul

Thailand’s Inevitable Revolution

Written on July 16, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in Asia, Democracy & Human Rights, Op Ed

In recent weeks, the military junta in Thailand has been working hard on rehabilitating its image. A battalion of soft-spoken diplomats has been dispatched on an international charm offensive, lecturing policymakers and journalists on their good intentions and popular support. Just don’t ask them to prove it in an election.

Their efforts are aimed at promoting a distorted understanding of events — an exercise that the United States and Europe seem all too willing to accept. They want the world to believe that the May 22, 2014, military coup is somehow a “normal” feature of Thailand’s political culture, and as such, the junta should get a free pass.

If things continue along this path, we are due to have a replay of the aftermath of the 2006 coup. At the time, Western governments eventually gave their support to the military’s plan to introduce a new constitution that severely watered down representation and allowed them to keep appointees permanently entrenched in the Constitutional Court and Senate. It’s little wonder why the situation has culminated in violence and repression once again several years later, and undoubtedly what will happen if they remain unchallenged in 2014.

The military has already prepared its transition. A provisional constitution drafted by the junta will be introduced containing less than 50 sections. A cabinet will be formed in September as well as a 250-member “reform council,” all filled with people exclusively handpicked by the coup, which will then be followed by an election where the military will be able to re-install their colleagues in the Democrat Party — otherwise known as “The Party of the Army.”

Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, a member of the Election Commission, has already chillingly told European diplomats only “moral” people will be allowed to win the elections.

The recent revelation that planning for this coup began four years ago, with close coordination between the accused murderer former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban (and former Democrat Party member) and General Prayuth Chan-ocha, should raise major red flags. This coup wasn’t a last resort or necessity to solve political deadlock — it was a premeditated, calculated agenda to steal control of the instruments of power and demolish a popularly elected government.

What must be understood about Thailand’s seemingly endless cycle of coups and repression is that this is not necessarily a political struggle, but a struggle against history. There is an unstoppable and growing political awakening taking place that is crashing up against traditional elites who view their fellow citizens as feudal serfs.

Since 1932, Thailand has never seen a period of true political stability due to this struggle. In her excellent book “Revolution Interrupted,” the academic Tyrell Haberkorn describes Thailand’s history as occasional periods of silence punctuated by violent cycles of coups and repression. The protagonists may change, but the role of the Thai Army is always the same.

Today we are in a silent period, where opposition to the coup has been frozen through threats, intimidation, interrogations and show trials. There are credible rumors of atrocities taking place far from the public eye, while right in the center of Bangkok people have reportedly been arrested for reading Orwell, holding sandwiches and carrying signs with slogans such as “Long live USA.”

Such wildly repressive behavior is what we have come to expect from the people who brought us the 1976 Thammasat University massacre and the 2010 Bangkok massacre. These acts of unaccountable violence and repression by the military are likely to continue, as no member of the Army has ever suffered a loss of “prestige” for toppling an elected government or ordering troops to fire upon protesters.

How we react to the Thai coup matters. As the Australian academic Nicholas Farrelly has argued, the actions of the U.S. government in response to Thailand’s past coups has guaranteed “any stigma associated with military government never overwhelmed international acceptance.”

It’s time for a new approach. The junta’s transition plan must be rejected and understood for what it is: a blatant attempt by one minority to dominate the majority. The soldiers must be told to return to the barracks and stay there. The U.S. government as well as the European Union must demand an immediate handover to an independent civilian administration that is capable of overseeing free and fair elections, leading to a new constitution by the people through elected representatives, not coup-appointed figures.

Most important, targeted sanctions must be immediately applied against members of the Thai army to restrict their travel privileges and freeze their bank accounts, as well as those of the businesses and corporations that sponsored the overthrow of the government. These individuals committed a grave crime, and it is time they be treated as criminals.

The reason why we no longer see regular military coups in places like Africa and Latin America is because it has become internationally unacceptable. There’s no reason to expect any less from Thailand, especially given the tide of history.

Robert Amsterdam serves as international counsel to the Organization of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy.

Published on July 16, 2014 in http://www.realclearworld.com

10
Jul

The US takes great pains not to be seen to interfere in other people’s elections. In Afghanistan, any whiff of involvement is deeply toxic. Everyone remembers the 2009 poll and repeated allegations that American officials were manipulating the vote – allegations confirmed by Robert Gates’s memoir this year, in which the former defence secretary said US diplomats tried to tilt the playing field to nudge Hamid Karzai from power.

So it would have taken a lot to get Barack Obama to pick up the telephone and call Afghanistan’s election candidates last night, warning them they would lose aid if they tried to seize power unconstitutionally.

That phone call is a sign of the worst case scenario that foreign governments are entertaining: a shadow government formed by Abdullah Abdullah, a former Northern Alliance figure, and civil war. Iraq’s bleak headlines may offer a glimpse of Afghanistan’s future.

But even the best case scenario is looking like a disaster, leaving the West’s carefully honed exit plans in tatters. That plan demands a string of medium-term commitments to ensure that Afghanistan can make the jump to sustainability, demands that will have to remain on hold as the election crisis is resolved one way or another.

With combat troops heading home this year, Kabul is yet to sign a security deal with Washington to allow trainers and special forces to stay until 2016. That will not happen until a new president is installed.

In September, Nato nations will gather for a summit in Wales. World leaders will discuss everything from cybersecurity to the unfolding emergency in Iraq. Afghanistan needs to muscle its way high up the agenda, and perhaps try to persuade Nato countries to fund not just the 228,500 troops agreed but something closer to the 350,000 or so currently deployed.

That’s not going to happen if we have weeks and weeks of election squabbling, a president backed by only half the country – or Hamid Karzai in his last lame duck weeks – attending the summit.

Figures released by the United Nations today show the problem. The death toll in the first six months of this year shows a 17 per cent rise on last year to more than 1500. The figures reflect that more of the fighting is taking place close to inhabited areas.

Never mind the worst case scenario, and a total breakdown into Iraq-style conflict. Even the best case scenarios will slow down the international aid that Afghanistan needs if it is to have any hope of a stable, secure future.

Rob Crilly is Pakistan correspondent of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph. Before that he spent five years writing about Africa for The Times, The Irish Times, The Daily Mail, The Scotsman and The Christian Science Monitor from his base in Nairobi.

Published on 9 July in http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk

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