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

4
Jun

June 4th will mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square movement which shook China in the spring of 1989. Although there is no doubt that its relevance has been exaggerated outside of China, it is the largest protest which has occurred against the Communist Party of China during its reform period starting in the 1970s. This anniversary allows us to reflect upon this often misinterpreted event, while looking more broadly at some of the political changes in China which have followed.

What happened in 1989?

Between mid-April and the beginning of June in 1989, China experienced protests in cities all across the country as a result of government reforms which were being implemented. The epicenter of this movement took place in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where protestors, mostly students, had been camped out for weeks in protest of corruption, decreasing quality of life, and prohibition of freedom of speech.

Outside of China, this movement tends to be represented as an effort to establish democracy in China. The Chinese government, on the other hand, condemned this movement as antirevolutionary, declaring it to have come mainly from outside the country. As a result, any form of discussion or commemoration is prohibited. However the reality is far more complex and diverse than these two contradictory views.

It wasn’t so much a planned uprising as a spontaneous revolution; heterogeneous and disorganized designed to reform the system of government not to replace it. Against a backdrop of economic slowdown, high inflation, and dismantling of public services and rampant corruption, Chinese students looked eagerly at the changes occurring in the Soviet Union and asked “Where is the Chinese Gorbachov?”

During the first weeks of the protest, the constructive attitude of the protestors clashed with the stubbornness of the authorities. This was highlighted in an editorial in the People´s Daily on April 26th and further through the martial law imposed on May 20th. This radicalized the student protestors. One of the most influential student protestors commented a few days before the violent suppression of the protestors that the student´s objective should be to provoke a massacre by the Chinese authorities, only then could they create the necessary support to overthrow the current regime.

The massacre finally occurred during the night of June 3rd and 4th when the leadership of the regime ordered the military to stop the revolution in Beijing. In the following days and weeks, arrests, trials and executions followed. And despite the predictions of many, there were no elements of a subsequent national uprising.

What actual impact did the movement from 1989 have?

In retrospect, it seemed to be described as a romantic or voluntary movement, perhaps too emotional, irrational and irresponsible. Chinese dissidents have established somewhat of a tragic interpretation to the events, which is especially relevant in the interpretation of Han Dongfang, one of the most active unionists during the time of the protests. Han described the movement as a fruit that was not yet mature:

“The people were so hungry that when they discovered the fruit, they stormed upon it and swallowed it whole. This produced a sharp pain in the stomach and a bitter taste in the mouth. Should they have eaten the fruit? You could say no, but they were so hungry….you can also say yes, however to eat something that was so green, was not wise.”

This is not to preclude that they should continue criticizing the brutal repression suffered, or to use the 1989 movement as a symbol in favor of the liberalization of Chinese politics. Ignorance and indifference are the most frequent reactions amongst the Chinese population when confronted with the task of recognizing the events from 25 years ago. One of the most startling observations is the apparent disconnect between modern university students in China and those who took up the protest 25 years ago. Throughout the 20th century, Chinese students have taken to the streets on numerous occasions to speak their voice. On the contrary, modern day Chinese students seem to be shockingly apolitical, and in regards to social unrest, seem to largely be of the opinion that their country does not need saving.

However, from an outside perspective, the bloody crackdown on the protests continues to be a lasting stain on China´s international image harming relations with other countries. Could it be safe to say that the actual influence of this tragedy is much greater at the international level than at the internal one within China?

 

 

What are the perspectives for political change in China?

One of the principle lessons that the Chinese authorities took away from the Tiananmen movement was that economic development was not sufficient to keep power. During the second half of the 1980s, Chinese leaders discovered through their own experience that no government has the recipe to guarantee a quick and uninterrupted economic growth. This made it that much more pertinent to seek out legitimate alternative sources from which they could consolidate their economic power. Nationalism has been one of their principle means of doing so.

In other words, it was not probable that there would be important political reforms in the short term, as there was not a significant demand neither inside nor outside of the regime. Even though they were quite critical of the regime, the majority of the Chinese population didn’t consider replacing them for another. As a result, we can say that the democratization of China is a theme much more thought about outside then inside their own borders.

What are the most probable scenarios?

Looking at the current situation it seems that only a profound economic or international crisis could provoke a short term end to the monopoly which the Communist Party of China holds over the political state. However if the Communist Party of China wishes to maintain an acceptable level of economic development as well as the territorial integrity of China, the safest bet is towards a process of progressive political liberalization. The Chinese authorities are well aware that society is dynamic and if you wish to remain in power, you should adapt to said changes. Another option which has been done in other Confucian societies such as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, is that they implement a democratic regime in China. Along these lines, it is possible that within a few decades, a Chinese Nationalist Party could arrive to directly compete with the Communist Party of China within a unified China.

However, since we don’t have a crystal ball which allows us to see the future of China, we can only wait and see what future awaits the Chinese. In order for a more liberal and free China to emerge, two things will need to happen: on one hand Chinese authorities will have to accept the possibility that their society demands a regime change which does not guarantee the perpetuation of power of the Communist Party of China. On the other hand, the West may have to accept the reality that the Chinese society will want a system of governance different than our own.

Will we all be okay with that idea?

Mario Esteban is head researcher on the Asia-Pacific for the Real Institute Elcano and professor of East Asian studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid | @wizma9. He also teaches  a class on China in the IE Master in International Relations.

3
Jun

Spain’s King Juan Carlos to abdicate

Written on June 3, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in Europe, News

 

Juan Carlos coronation

After 39 years on the throne, King Juan Carlos of Spain will abdicate in favour of his son Crown Prince Felipe, the king said in a televised address on Monday.

Hours after the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, broke the news, the king explained his decision on Spanish television and radio. He highlighted his pride in the “transformation of Spain” and the “tremendous amount achieved by all” since the country’s transition into democracy.

“Today, when I look back, I cannot help but feel pride and gratitude towards all of you,” he said.

The decision to step down, he said, was made after his 76th birthday in January. His son Felipe, he assured Spaniards, “has the maturity, preparation, and sense of responsibility necessary to assume the title of head of state and open a new era of hope which combines the experience and momentum of a new generation.”

Once one of the world’s most popular monarchs, more recently Juan Carlos has been plagued by a series of scandals that have sent his popularity plummeting. A poll by El Mundo last year found that nearly two-thirds of Spaniards thought the king should abdicate.

In contrast, Prince Felipe, a former Olympic yachtsman, has come out relatively unscathed. Frequently photographed while taking their two daughters to school or at shopping malls, Felipe and his wife Letizia Ortiz – a former television news anchor -have cultivated an image of leading a relatively modest lifestyle.

Fluent in English, French and Catalan along with Spanish, Felipe studied for a year in Canada before undertaking three years of military training in Spain’s army, navy and air force academy. A law degree in Madrid soon followed, as well as a Masters in international relations at Georgetown University in Washington, DC

“His goal, his only goal, is to serve Spain. It has been deeply ingrained in him that he must be the country’s main servant,” his mother Queen Sofia once said.

The poll showing rising public support for Juan Carlos to abdicate was astunning reversal for a leader who in 2012, had earned the approval of almost 80% of Spaniards. Taking the throne just two days after the death of Franco in 1975, Juan Carlos won the respect of Spaniards by steering the country from dictatorship to democracy, including foiling a coup attempt in 1981.

But as Spain fell into financial crisis, the king’s standing sank. A particularly low point came when it was revealed that he had taken a luxurious trip to Botswana to hunt elephants, just weeks after telling a reporter that he was so distraught about the growing ranks of the unemployed that he was having trouble sleeping.

The royal family’s image was further tarnished by a long-runningcorruption investigation into the king’s daughter, Princess Cristina, and her husband Iñaki Urdangarin.

Many, particularly young Spaniards, began to see the king as part of Spain’s problems, drawing parallels between him and the economic and political powers that had driven the country into the economic crisis. While the king’s approval rating dropped steadily, that of his son Felipe remained stable at around 66%, leading many to suggest that the monarchy would be better off if the king abdicated.

In Monday’s announcement, Rajoy praised Juan Carlos, calling him a “tireless defender of our interests”. He added: “I’m convinced this is the best moment for change.”

Spain is now expected to change its constitution to make sure Felipe’s first-born daughter Leonor can succeed him.

The royal family has said its wants the change to ensure she is next in line to the throne in the event that Felipe’s wife gets pregnant again and gives birth to a boy, who would become monarch under the current constitution.

Analysts say that could open the door to political negotiations for additional proposed constitutional changes, including demands by the leading opposition Socialist Party to grant Catalonia more autonomy or special financial benefits to ease separatist feelings.

Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia, declared that the king’s abdication would not derail his plans to hold the vote asking Catalans whether they want to secede from Spain. “We have a date with our future on 9 November,” Mas told reporters after the king gave his speech.

Rajoy’s government must now pass a law creating a legal mechanism for Felipe’s assumption of power, which will then allow Juan Carlos to set a date for his formal abdication.

 

Published on 2 June in http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/02/spains-king-juan-carlos-to-abdicate

2
Jun

Brazil’s World Cup Is An Expensive, Exploitative Nightmare

Written on June 2, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in Americas, Op Ed

The world’s “beautiful game” is about to stage its biggest tournament in the country that is its spiritual home. The realities on the ground in Brazil, however, are far different from how its ringmasters had envisioned. Stadiums haven’t been completed; roads and airports not built. Ten thousand visiting journalists may find themselves unable to make deadlines due to poor Internet and mobile service.

More ominously, there is a rising tide of discontent that threatens to turn the streets into war zones. History may well record the World Cup in Brazil as the tipping point where the costs meant the party just wasn’t worth it anymore. Nao Vai Ter Copa has become a national rallying cry. There Will Be No World Cup. People want bread, not circuses. It’s OK to love the game, but hate the event. The governing body of the game, FIFA, is not amused.

Events like World Cup and the Olympics have become obscenely expensive, with few trickle-down rewards to the citizens who bear the brunt of the costs for the benefit of the few. The people of South America’s largest country were promised the dawn of a new age of prosperity that these mega-events heralded. In a country where corruption is insidious, all-encompassing, and a virus that suffocates all semblance of progress, it is bricks, steel, and mortar that the people see, not new hospitals, schools, or public transport. Even then, Itaquerao stadium, as an example, won’t be ready in time for the opening kickoff in São Paulo on June 12. “Is this what we get for $11 billion?” the people are asking. It is a fair question.

A new type of democracy has sprung up as a result; a unity of thought and expression that is uniquely Brazilian. Citizen collectives with names like Direitos Urbanos (Urban Rights) and the Landless Workers Movement (MTST) were formed to create avenues of options for people who have had to make way for ordem e progresso—the national motto of Brazil inscribed on the flag. Order and Progress.

U.S. journalist Dave Zirin, in his recent book Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and Brazil’s Fight for Democracy, says the three Ds—displacement, debt, and defense—are at the heart of the other Ds—such as discontent and disgust.

“The calls for protest aim to highlight the pain as well as show the world who is behind the curtain, pulling the strings,” he said. “There is a highly sophisticated plan that just as the government’s World Cup plans for Brazil are designed for international consumption, there is also an unprecedented global spotlight. The great journalist Eduardo Galeano once wrote, ‘There are visible and invisible dictators. The power structure of world football is monarchical. It’s the most secret kingdom in the world. Protesters aim to drag FIFA from the shadows and into the light. If they are successful, it will leave a legacy that will last longer than the spectacle itself.’”

During a congressional hearing by Brazil’s tourism and sports commission this year, former FIFA World Player of the Year and 1994 World Cup winner Romario, now a popular politician and member of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, was quoted as saying, “We can’t expect anything from FIFA, where we have a blackmailer called [General Secretary Jerome] Valcke and a corrupt thief and son-of-a-****h called [President Sepp] Blatter.” Read more…

 

Published on 30/05/2014 in http://www.thedailybeast.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. 

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