Archive for the ‘Topics’ Category

5
Jun

elections

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been re-elected in a landslide, officials said on Wednesday, capturing another seven-year term in the middle of a bloody three-year-old uprising against his rule that has devastated the country.

Syria‘s parliament speaker, Jihad Lahan, announced the final results from Tuesday’s election, saying Assad garnered 10,319,723 votes, or 88.7%. Laham said Assad’s two challengers, Hassan al-Nouri and Maher Hajjar, won 4.3% and 3.2% respectively. The supreme constitutional court put turnout at 73.42%.

After the results were released, Damascus erupted into a thunderous, rolling clap of celebratory gunfire that appeared to include heavy weaponry. On the streets of the capital, men cheered and whistled. Some broke into the familiar pro-Assad chant: “With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Bashar!”

Assad’s victory was always a foregone conclusion, despite the presence of other candidates on the ballot for the first time in decades. Voting was held only in government-controlled areas, excluding huge tracks of northern and eastern Syria that are in rebel hands. The opposition and its western allies, including the United States, have denounced the election as a farce.

The win boosts Assad’s support base, and provides further evidence that he has no intention of relinquishing power.

For the first time in decades, there were multiple candidates on the ballot. In previous presidential elections, Assad and before him his father, Hafez Assad, were elected in single candidate referendums in which voters cast yes-no ballots.

The government has sought to present this vote as a democratic solution to Syria’s three-year conflict, although a win for Assad is certain to prolong the war. Much of northern and eastern Syria is in rebel hands, and those in the armed opposition show no signs of relenting in their fight to oust Assad.

The war, which activists say has killed more than 160,000 people, has left the international community deeply divided, with the US and its allies backing the revolt against Assad, who enjoys the support of Russia and Iran.

That division persisted in perceptions of Tuesday’s vote.

In Beirut, US secretary of state John Kerry sharply criticized the Syrian election, calling it “a great big zero.” He said it can’t be considered fair “because you can’t have an election where millions of your people don’t even have an ability to vote.”

“Nothing has changed from the day before the election and the day after. Nothing,” Kerry said during a one-day visit to the Lebanese capital. “The conflict is the same, the terror is the same, the killing is the same.”

The European Union joined the US in condemning the election, saying in a statement that “it cannot be considered as a genuinely democratic vote.”

In Damascus, meanwhile, a delegation led by the government’s chief international supporters said Syria’s first multi-candidate presidential election in over four decades was transparent and free, and would pave the way for “stability and national agreement.”

The delegation of officials from more than 30 countries, including legislators and dignitaries from Iran, Russia and Venezuela, toured polling stations on Tuesday. In a final statement read Wednesday by Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of the Iranian parliament’s committee on national security, the delegation blamed the US and its allies for “crimes committed against the Syrian people.”

Published on 4 June in http://www.theguardian.com

29
May

With its triumph in Sunday's European election, Marine Le Pen's far-right Front National is hoping to move from the margins to the mainstream.

Marine Le Pen shed tears of joy after her triumph in European Parliament elections on Sunday. When she arrived after midnight at a Parisian night club for the victory celebration with her fellow party members, the head of the far-right Front National (FN) embraced fans and family before letting the champagne flow. Marine’s father Jean-Marie, who was re-elected to the EU body for the seventh time, was also on hand to congratulate his daughter. “It was a historic victory,” he said.

By Monday morning, the emotional evening had already been forgotten and strategists were once again busy at work at the party’s headquarters in Nanterre. Until Sunday’s election, the Front National had occupied but three seats in European Parliament — one each for Marine, her father and his political companion Bruno Gollnisch — and had led a largely unnoticed existence on the political fringes in Brussels. Now, though, the party’s caucus will grow by 21 representatives.

After pulling in a triumphant 25 percent of the vote, the Front National will now have the largest number of seats of any French political party in the European Parliament. Marine Le Pen has every intention of using the party’s presence at parliament’s headquarters in Strasbourg and Brussels for political gain. Some within the far-right in France are already considering their political futures — all the way up to the presidential palace in Paris.

The ‘Long March’

The first step in the “long march,” as Marine Le Pen has termed it, is the creation of a party group in the European Parliament comprised of skeptics of the euro common currency, EU opponents and the far-right or right-wing populists. Doing so would provide the parties with greater access to money and key posts and would also raise their profile. To create a group, at least 25 members of parliament from seven different EU member states must join together in a bloc. Given the divergent ideologies on Europe’s right wing, that won’t be an easy task.

The only true support Le Pen can count on is from the Austrian right-wing Freedom Party. Right-wing populist parties in Belgium and the Netherlands failed to deliver on Sunday, managing only disappointing results. Meanwhile, radical political forces in Denmark and Britain have said they will not join an alliance with the Front National.

Despite Le Pen’s triumph — which the front pages of France’s newspapers described as a “Big Bang,” a “repudiation” and even an “earthquake” — right-wing populists will remain a minority among the 751 members of the European Parliament. “They won’t have enough influence to determine policy direction,” FN expert Joel Gombin told French news station BFM. “On the contrary,” the sociologist said. “The relatively good showing of the euro opponents will force existing EU parties to increase their cooperation.”

That, though, is of little consequence for Le Pen and the Front National. This election cycle clearly demonstrated that the party’s anti-EU message, and its criticism of an EU that takes power away from member states, is attractive to both workers and young voters.

To be sure, the French far right’s success is also the product of French voters’ frustration with the country’s economic malaise and a growing disillusionment with established political parties. Indeed, the Socialists and the conservative UMP are increasingly perceived as being muddled, unreliable or even corrupt. To capitalize, Marine Le Pen has refashioned Front National’s ideology from the ground up, and now appears to many in France as a modern and dynamic force.

Conquering France One Step at a Time

Thus, Sunday’s success is seen as but a stage victory among Front National’s leaders. They have set their sights on more than EU institutions in Brussels; they also want power back home. “Conquer France first, then destroy Europe,” Louis Alliot, deputy head of the party as well as Marine Le Pen’s companion, said of the strategy.

With 4.5 million votes, the party didn’t fare as well on Sunday as it did during the 2012 presidential election, when it attracted 6.5 million French voters. Still, the party did manage to attract around 11 percent of all eligible voters, which has sparked hopes among FN supporters for the 2017 presidential campaign.

In order to position Marine Le Pen as a realistic alternative to the mainstream parties, the far-right is focusing on conquering the country one step at a time. Next year’s regional elections could prove decisive. Of the 21 regional administrative bodies where elections are to be held, 20 are currently led by the Socialists.If the left fares as poorly in those elections as it did on Sunday — the Socialists managed just 14 percent — the FN could profit from its continued decline. Marine Le Pen could also stand a real chance in a match-up against President François Hollande. Current polls show that, with a public approval rating of just 11 percent, Hollande is the most unpopular president of France in decades.

But is Le Pen’s shot at the presidential palace little more than wishful thinking? “In the past, the Front National has only had bastions of support in certain areas,” says political scientist Gombin. “But with this election, FN has become a national party. Next to the traditional left and right, it has now risen to become France’s third political force.”

Translated from the German by Daryl Lindsey

By Stefan Simons in Paris

http://www.spiegel.de, Published on May 27th. 

27
May

Chappatte cartoon: Protest vote in Europe

 

On the day the Bastille was stormed in 1789, King Louis XVI wrote in his diary, “rien“. Few European leaders will have typed “nothing” into their iPads today, but there is a real danger that, in response to the revolutionary cry across the continent, they will in effect do nothing. Today’s rien has a face and a name. The name’s Juncker. Jean-Claude Juncker.

A disastrous “the same only more so” response from Europe’s leaders would be signalled by taking Juncker – Spitzenkandidat of the largest party grouping in the new European parliament, the centre-right European People’s party – and making him president of the European commission. The canny Luxembourgeois was the longest-serving head of an EU national government, and the chair of the Eurogroup through the worst of the eurozone crisis. Although he has considerable skills as a politician and deal-maker, he personifies everything protest voters from left to right distrust about remote European elites. He is, so to speak, the Louis XVI of the EU.

The danger also lies in what now seems likely to happen inside the European parliament. The most probable development is a kind of unspoken grand coalition of the current mainstream party groupings, centre-right, centre-left, liberal and (at least on some issues) greens, to keep all the anti-parties at bay. If another six of the more xenophobic, nationalist parties accept the lead of the Marine le Pen’s triumphant Front National, papering over their differences to form a recognised group within the parliament, that will give them funding (from European taxpayers’ pockets) and a stronger position in parliamentary procedure, but still not enough votes to overpower such a centrist grand coalition.

Surely that is a good thing? Yes, in the short term. But only if that grand coalition then supports decisive reform of the EU. It should start, symbolically, by refusing ever again to make its absurd regular commute from its spacious quarters in Brussels to its second luxurious seat in Strasbourg – the EU’s version of Versailles – at an estimated cost of €180m a year. If, however, the unspoken grand coalition does not deliver more of what so many Europeans want over the next five years, it will only strengthen the anti-EU vote next time round. Then all the mainstream parties will be held responsible for the failure.

The one silver lining to this continent-sized cloud is that, for the first time since direct elections to the parliament began in 1979, overall voter turnout has apparently not declined. Turnout varies greatly from country to country – in Slovakia it was estimated to be 13% – but in France, for example, significantly more voters showed up than last time. What pro-Europeans preached for so long has finally come to pass: European citizens actively engaging in an EU-wide democratic process. But, irony of ironies, they do so to vote against the EU.

So what were Europeans telling their leaders? The general message was perfectly summed up by the cartoonist Chappatte, who drew a group of protesters holding up a placard shouting “Unhappy” – and one of their number shouting through a megaphone into the ballot box. There are 28 member states and 28 varieties of Unhappy. Some of the successful protest parties really are on the far-right: in Hungary, for example, Jobbik got three seats and more than 14% of the vote. Most, like Britain’s victorious Ukip, draw voters from right and left, feeding on sentiments such as “we want our country back” and “too many foreigners, too few jobs”. But in Greece, the big protest vote went to the leftwing, anti-austerity Syriza.

Simon Hix, an expert on the European parliament, has identified three main schools of unhappiness: north Europeans outside the eurozone (Brits, Danes), north Europeans inside the eurozone (the kind of Germans who secured several seats for the anti-euro party Alternative für Deutschland) and south Europeans inside the eurozone (Greeks, Portuguese).

That leaves the east Europeans, many of whom are unhappy in their own ways. The fact that the Unhappy come at the problem from such different angles makes it harder to address. The Syriza voter’s dream for eurozone policy is the Alternative für Deutschland voter’s nightmare.

Yet one thing they all have in common: fear for the life chances of their children. Until about 10 years ago, the general assumption was that things would be better for the next generation of Europeans. “Europe” was part of a larger story of progress. But a Eurobarometer poll earlier this year found more than half saying that the lives of children in the EU would be “more difficult” than their own.

There is already a generation of European graduates who feel they have been robbed of the better future they were led to expect. They are members of a new class: the precariat.

In such a dramatic moment for the whole European project, it is worth going back to the very origins, to the 1948 Congress of Europe, where the veteran advocate of Pan-Europa, Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, admonished his fellow founders: “Let us never forget, my friends, that European union is a means and no end.” That is as true today as it was then. European union is not an end in itself. It is a means to the end of delivering better – more prosperous, free, secure – lives for its people.

So what we need now is a radical focus on delivery. Enough of those endless institutional debates. The question is not “more Europe or less Europe?” It is: more of what and less of what? For example, we need more of the single market in energy, telecoms, the internet and services, but we may need less Brussels-led policy in fisheries and culture.

Every step that produces a single job for a currently unemployed European should be taken. Every centimetre of red tape that puts someone out of work must be torn up. This is no time for Junckers. The moment demands a European commission of all the talents, led by someone of proven ability like Pascal Lamy or Christine Lagarde, entirely dedicated to the task of convincing the legions of the Unhappy that there is a better future for their children, and that it lies with Europe.

That is what should happen. But will it? I have a dreadful feeling in my bones that future historians may write of the May 2014 elections: “This was the wake-up call from which Europe failed to wake up.”

Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist. His personal website is www.timothygartonash.com. He directs the 13-language websitefreespeechdebate.com, and is writing a book about free speech

 

Published on Monday 26 May 2014 in the www.theguardian.com

 

22
May

How Putin Won Big in China

Written on May 22, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in Asia, Energy & Environment, Op Ed

Done deal. Photographer: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin has achieved what Western leaders feared: He has cut a big, long-term deal to supply natural gas to China, a pivot to the East that makes Russia much less vulnerable to whatever sanctions the West might impose.

The gas contract had been 10 years in preparation, mostly because the parties haggled relentlessly over the price. The parameters of the deal made public by Alexey Miller, chief executive officer of Russia’s near-monopoly gas producer, Gazprom, suggest the final price will be roughly $10 per million British thermal units. That is less than Russia may have wished for, but about as much as it makes sense for China to pay. Data from Platts suggest that the weighted average price of gas from Myanmar, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan came to about $10.14 last year. This year, Gazprom expects to export its gas at the average price of $10.62 per million Btu, but traditional consumers in Europe are trying to bargain it down.

Crucially, the deal opens up a major new market in case Europeans make good on their threat to cut their dependence on Russian gas supplies. China has signed up to import 38 billion cubic meters per year, more than its total 2013 pipeline imports (they reached 27.7 billion cubic meters) and about 20 percent of Russia’s 2013 export volume. China can easily take more, too. The country currently gets two-thirds of its energy from coal, which it is eager to replace with gas for environmental reasons. The current gas imports are a drop in the bucket compared with the potential market size.

Two more bonus points: It’s likely that China will help Russia finance the enormous infrastructure investment — estimated at more than $30 billion — required to uphold its end of the deal, and China will probably be paying in renminbi, making the deal safe from any Western sanctions.

A joint statement signed ahead of the deal sounds like an anti-Western pact. Echoing the Russian position on the Ukraine crisis, it contains this thinly veiled invective against U.S. and EU policies:

The parties stress the necessity of respecting nations’ historic heritage, their cultural traditions and their independent choice of sociopolitical system, value system and development path, of counteracting interference in other countries’ domestic affairs, of rejecting the language of unilateral sanctions, or organizing, aiding, financing or encouraging activity aimed at changing the constitutional system of another country or drawing it into any multilateral bloc or union.

Coupled with a spate of smaller contracts and agreements, this is all Putin could have wished for. China apparently sees no downside to strengthening its partnership with Russia. It is getting a reliable source of much-needed energy, calm along a 2,600-mile border and easier terms for companies wishing to invest in Russia’s vast natural resources. As for the West, it is dependent on China to produce its industrial goods and maintain a high level of investment in its public debt. Beijing is unlikely to suffer any political fallout from embracing Putin when he’s a pariah in Western capitals.

Putin, for his part, is virtually assured of coming out a winner from his Crimea adventure. The alliance with China allows him to crawl off into the reeds like a sated crocodile. He is no longer hungry, for the moment, and there is no immediate threat of total isolation. The only problem for him is that China is clearly the stronger partner in the alliance: The Beijing talks were politically much more important for Putin than for his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Russia could end up China’s satellite if it does not at least partially rebuild a relationship with the West. That, however, is a problem Putin can deal with later.

 

By Leonid Bershidsky; Published on May 21, 2014

http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-05-21/how-putin-won-big-in-china

21
May

A Finland Model for Ukraine?

Written on May 21, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in Democracy & Human Rights, EU Expansion, Europe, Op Ed

 

WASHINGTON — After months of war fever over Ukraine, perhaps the biggest surprise is that citizens there will be voting to choose a new government in elections that observers predict will be free and fair in most areas.

This electoral pathway for Ukraine seemed unlikely a few weeks ago, given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his covert campaign to destabilize the Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine. There were dire warnings of a new Cold War, and even of a ground war in Ukraine. The country seemed at risk of being torn apart.

If this Finland-like status is what Ukrainians support (and recent evidence suggests their new leaders may indeed choose this course) then it should be a welcome outcome for the West, too. Ukraine’s problems are internal; it needs ideological coherence more than territorial defense. It needs the breathing space that nonalignment can provide. The Ukrainian people can’t be barred from seeking membership in NATO or the European Union, but it’s unimaginable that either body would say yes, perhaps for decades. So Putin can breathe easier on that score.

Maybe the elections will dull the self-flagellating domestic rhetoric in America that Putin’s menacing moves were somehow the fault of President Obama and his allegedly weak foreign policy. Obama has made mistakes, especially in the Middle East, but his Ukraine policy mostly has been steady and correct. He recognized that the U.S. had no military options and fashioned a strategy that, with German help, seems to have deterred Putin from further recklessness.

If the election goes forward (with Putin maintaining his current “wait and see” stance), Obama deserves credit for crisis policymaking of the sort recommended by the respected British strategist Lawrence Freedman. “The basic challenge of crisis management is to protect core interests while avoiding major war.” Freedman wrote in a March essay on the blog “War on the Rocks.” He argued, even then, that criticism of Obama’s allegedly weak stance was “overdone.”

The case for “Finlandization” emerges in a monograph prepared recently by the State Department’s Office of the Historian. It argues that “Finnish foreign policy during the Cold War successfully preserved Finland’s territorial and economic sovereignty, through adherence to a careful policy of neutrality in foreign affairs.” Ukraine’s new government may pursue a similar nonalignment, judging from the leading candidate, billionaire oligarch Petro Poroshenko, who has pro-Western ties but also served in the Moscow-leaning government of deposed president Viktor Yanukovych.

The State Department study also noted that nonalignment allowed Finland “to serve as a bridge between the Soviet bloc and the West.” Helsinki became a meeting ground for arms-control and human-rights talks that eventually transformed Eastern Europe. A similar bridging role for Ukraine would be welcome, as it would draw Russia west, away from an atavistic strategy of creating a Eurasian trade bloc to re-establish Soviet-style economic hegemony.

For all the war talk, Ukraine has really been a test of nonconventional forces and covert action rather than military intervention. Putin, the ex-KGB officer, launched a deniable “stealth” invasion of Crimea in February, using troops without insignia. He continued the pressure in eastern Ukraine by working with pro-Russian irregular militias, though their unruly behavior eventually seemed to worry even Putin. He may have threatened invasion but he never seemed eager to roll his tanks across an international border.

What seems to have slowed Putin’s allies in Ukraine is similarly unconventional. It wasn’t Ukrainian government troops that restored order in eastern cities such as Donetsk and Mariupol. The army’s performance was middling, at best. Stability returned because of the deployment in at least five eastern cities of steelworkers and miners apparently dispatched by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, who opposed a breakup of his country.

“This has to be Ukraine’s choice,” argues Karen Donfried, the new president of the German Marshall Fund (where I’m a trustee) and former National Security Council director for Europe. If Ukrainians seek an accommodation with Moscow, it must be their desire for self-limitation, not a policy imposed by Washington or Berlin.

The stabilizing factor here will be a Ukraine that makes its own decisions.

davidignatius@washpost.com
Published on May 21, 2014 in the Washington Post.
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