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The electorate send out a confusing message.
With the dust now settled on the 2009 elections to the European Parliament – the would be second largest exercise of democracy in the world – it is clear what the electorate want out of their leaders in response to the economic crisis, but less clear what they want out of Europe.

The centre-right EPP grouping in the Parliament made significant gains at the expense of the Socialist (PSE) group, who lost a quarter of their MEPs. Indeed it appears voters rewarded centre-right governments across the EU for their governance at a time when many had expected socialists – who promised retribution for greedy bankers and statist protection from the ravages of the recession – to benefit from the crisis in capitalism.

In Germany Angela Merkel’s CDU, as well as Nicholas Sarkozy’s Gaullists in Frnace (both centre-right), performed well against their socialist/social-democrat counterparts, with the French Parti Socialiste (PS) loosing a staggering 13 MEPs.

The governing centre-left Labour party in Britain suffered the loss of 5 seats, 2 of which at the expense of the racist British National Party. British Conservatives (centre-right) returned 26 MEPs, one up on last time. And this is where one can begin to unpick the analysis of the media’s various talking heads. For the Conservatives effectively maintained status quo and did not benefit greatly against Labour. This suggests that voters did not want to invest their trust in a centre-right party to take them through the recession (as many commentators suggested of the election results), but still wanted to punish the government, who they blame for it. Indeed, the expenses scandal currently plaguing British deputies of all parties was a distorting factor, but if one looks at results in France and the Czech republic, a similar picture emerges.

In the Czech republic, the opposition Social Democrats made enormous gains, increasing their delegation from 2 seats to 7. The national ODS government has recently collapsed and as a centre-right party did not make any gains in the European elections. Having had to be recently replaced by a technocratic government led by the country’s leading statistician, ODS could by no means be judged to have effectively managed the recession. Again the voters punished whom they viewed responsible for these harsh times and did not make ideological choices on which party would be best to take the country through the recession.

The Social Democrats in Sweden faired well also, having recovered their popularity from the 2004 European elections. They are currently in opposition to a coalition government of four centre-right parties (which won power in 2006).

Conversely, in France Sarkozy spent the campaign blaming the “Anglo-Saxon model of business” for creating the financial collapse, rather than domestic factors. Neither he, nor his right wing party, were generally perceived to be at fault for the recession, therefore the electorate rewarded him, feeling his government could manage the downturn.

This shows that voters are not conciously choosing the centre-right to guide them through the recession (indeed the EPP has far from a working majority and will still need to co-operate with both the PSE and the Liberals to pass legislation), but rather voting for whoever they feel has managed the recession well and punishing those who haven’t.

Unfortunately, this does not account for the turnout, – at around 43% – the lowest ever for a European election. Indeed it has been a successively lower figure at every election since direct sufferage in 1979, but again, this blanket figure does not take account of all the facts.

Turnout was higher in Western member states. Indeed in the UK, turnout – at 34% – was higher than three previous election years, including in 1999. It was low (but only lower in some cases) in Eastern Europe, such as Latvia – with 21%. The general trend in the UK of low and lower turnout correlates with trends in local and UK elections, as indeed it does in many other EU memeber states. So what does this voter apathy mean? The Economist’s Charlemagne feels this means a fundamental change is needed in how the EU’s 500 million citizens are democratically represented at a European level. But this conclusion is based on the premis of chronically falling voter turnout and, as shown above, this is simply not true.

The answer from Brussels is often more money, more news coverage and more powers for the Parliament. But, the sad truth is that European issues are never going to be as interesting to voters as their national issues, as a Parliament which does not form a government will never be as exciting. This failure to create a European demos is bemoaned by Graham Watson, a Lib Dem MEP and leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament, who again calls for the creation of pan-European parties. But again the evidence is against him, as the PSE, whose constituent national parties made much of running on the same manifesto and platform across Europe were rejected by voters as opposed to the centre-right parties who were far better at exploiting national issues in this election.

Therefore we are at a conumdrum. And one which will need a pretty original idea to solve.

Western leaders have turned away from the troubles of one of the world’s most repressed countries as global recession has gripped the headlines. The world must not be allowed to forget.

More than a year ago, the promise of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s election victory of 1990 seemed soon to be fulfilled. Burma’s streets thronged with monks protesting against the junta’s recent hikes in fuel prices. This week long demonstration against the absolute authority of the state was heralded as a sea change in Burmese society but ended, as challenges to Burma’s ruling elite had before, in devastating failure. However, this latest protest, differing in both protagonists and approach, showed more clearly than ever before that the iron grip of Than Shwe will not slacken.

Many comparisons were drawn between last year and the protests of 1990. But it was not the street protests themselves which were unusual. Rather it was the actors who were remarked upon. The significance of the Buddhist brotherhoods taking to the streets cannot not be understated. Monks hold a sacred position in Burmese life. They are revered and respected and, before last year, they were the one enclave of society upon which the military administration would not seek to impinge their authority. Their defiance last year represented the first authoritative opposition the junta had encountered.

Many might argue that the election winners of 1990, the National League for Democracy, had authority through popular mandate. Such an argument has merit seen from the perspective of western liberalism. And indeed like the NLD, the monks were eventually crushed. This is to ignore, however, two aspects of Burmese society and history. First, the elections of 1990 were held under the grace of the military administration. Any government which was to be formed out of the elections needed the consent of the junta. Here the military held all of the cards.

Second, because of the monks’ revered position, their rebuffs and recalcitrance to the military; such as refusing to accept alms, took on a spiritual as well as political significance. The monks had religious leverage and consequently their challenge was taken incredibly seriously by the people.

Given all this, the violent repression that ensued shows that there is no area of society against which Than Shwe will not raise his hand. This is all the more depressing for democracy campaigners within Burma and without. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s constant appeals to the west for help, and the results thus far, have shown that change in Burma must come from within. According to former South East Asian ambassador Derek Tonkin, China is not as close to the leadership as many imagine. Indeed the paranoia of Than Shwe’s regime is such that advice from any foreign party would be taken with grave suspicion. The Junta’s closest allies, according to Tonkin, are more likely to be Thailand’s top generals. Recent unrest in Thailand coupled with ASEAN’s ineffectual dealings in political matters, strongly suggest pressure from change will not come from that quarter.

Some commentators wait with baited breath for Than Shwe’s death and opportunities for change. But his assumption of command 17 years ago was heralded as a new era also. The Burmese people are caught in an unfortunate catch 22. They are too afraid to act against the junta alone, but only they can initiate change. Therefore the world  must wait for discontent in Burma to reach critical mass. Whilst we wait, we must not forget.

The leader of Malaysia’s opposition coalition promised in the summer to bring down the government by Malaysia Day. Three months on, Anwar Ibrahim has offered nothing but suspense, and political change in Malaysia looks less likely than ever.

 

All is quiet on the wires. The journalists have stopped writing. In fact, the promise of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to form a new government on the coattails of a mass defection from the Malaysian government benches might very well never have happened.

This at least appears to be the case. The deadline given my Mr. Ibrahim to effect a change of power was September 16th, Malaysia day. Now over two months on, even allowing for the “delay” that Mr. Ibrahim said might happen due to a Parliamentarians’ visit to Taiwan, it is evident that this dramatic change of power will not happen. The question is, was it ever really going to happen? If not, why did Anwar promise it? Finally, what hope is there for the future of democracy in Malaysia?

On the first point, Mr. Ibrahim may have thought that a large defection was possible, given the unpopularity of the ruling Barisan National (National Front) coalition and his personal landslide victory at a by-election in the summer. Many young Malaysians are tired of the corrupt regime and are avid readers of internet blogs, such as the fiercely critical Malaysia Today blog, run by Raja Petra. Along with this is the festering resentment by the large Chinese and Indian minorities of the preferential treatment received in all aspects of life by “sons of the soil” [read: ethnic Malays]. The ethnic minority parties are part of the opposition coalition and it is doubtful whether many ordinary Chinese or Indians feel represented by Barisan National. These trends show a desire for change from many quarters of Malaysian society. However, the ruling party, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) still holds a vice like grip on Malaysian society. The party controls most official media, both in print and on the air and the traditional party base is a bedrock of stability. Whilst Barisan lost its supermajority in the lower House this year, it still retained a majority it has held since the nation’s independence. The unpopular Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi is due to be replaced before the next election by his deputy Najib Razak, which may also help turn the tide of opinion.

So if, given the evidence, the defection was never really going to happen, then why did Anwar set himself up like this? Wishful thinking or delusion may have played a part. But Mr. Ibrahim has proved himself too effective an operator in the past to get drawn into such a vanity trap. Tactical bluffing would seem a more likely reason. Built on the premise of an imminent threat of a mass defection, it would precipitate a mass defection. Ultimately it was a strategy which did not pay off. Mr. Badawi clearly outmanoeuvred Anwar Ibrahim, both geographically and politically. Barisan MPs where sent on a fact finding mission to Taiwan just before National day, so as to delay any possible action. Barisan MPs also appeared remarkably loyal for a party based on the ownership of power and not ideals. Indeed, at a time when the government was at its weakest, in the wake of losing its supermajority in Parliament, the opposition has the best opportunity in Malaysia’s history to unseat the ruling party. The very fact that it failed in this endeavour is a testament to Barisan’s strength.

If anything, this suggests that the political landscape of Malaysia is far from radical change and that opposition activists, such as Mr. Petra, will have to content themselves with blogging and the internet as their only outlet. For opposition parties and MPs, such as Anwar Ibrahim, there is no place for them yet in Malaysian politics.

 

The inheritors of Kemal Ataturk’s secular republic appear not to be Istanbul’s urban elite or Turkey’s overbearing army, but rather the Islamist AKP.

On Wednesday Turkey’s constitutional court, the highest in the land, ruled by a razor thin majority of six to five that the party of government, Justice and Development (the AKP) was not sufficiently in breach of the secularist values of the nation to warrant dissolution. Neither were 82 different party MPs, including the Prime Minister Reccip Tayip Erdogan and the President Abdullah Güll pursuing an overly Islamist agenda enough to require them to be banned from politics. Rather the party received a punitive fine, withdrawing half of its state funding to illustrate that it was not entirely absolved.

This was a case, brought earlier this year by the court’s chief prosecutor, that sent shockwaves through the country and had the sentence gone the way of the prosecutor, Mr. Abdurrahman, the national and international repercussions would have been grave. The suit in essence accused the government of being too Islamic and thereby not serving the interests of the state. The merits for such a case are however few and far between.

Much of the case focused attention on Prime Minister Erdogan’s Islamic past. Mr. Erdogan was originally trained as a cleric. Furthermore Mr. Abdurrahman has made use of Mr. Erdogan’s past inexperience as a young and green MP for AKP’s predecessor, Welfare. Mr. Erdogan made the mistake of reading an Islamic poem in public. Also Mr. Erdogan made an unfortunate statement suggesting that democracy was simply “a train” from which you disembarked “once you have reached your destination”. However, the prosecutor’s main argument, arguably the policy which precipitated the suit, was the AKP’s overturning of the ban on the wearing of headscarves in universities. This vote has divided public opinion in Turkey and has become the divisive issue of the day. Muslim women feel they are unprotected under the law as it unfairly discriminates against their custom, whilst secularists argue it is an infringement of the country’s secular legacy and hence must not be allowed.

International spectators have widely agreed however that this does not constitute overt Islam nor is an agenda visible to turn the country into an Islamic republic. The justices of the Court agreed. Still this was a surprise decision. The court has not previously shied from banning political predecessors to the AKP such as former parties Welfare and Virtue as well as 9 other political parties in the past. However the unique nature of this case and indeed arguably the most significant reason for the outcome of the case is that the 11 justices could foresee the national crisis that could have tolled the death knell for real democracy in Turkey and the last best chance for a modern Muslim democracy. The difference between banning the AKP to previous zealous dissolutions that the court enacted in the protection of secularism is the over whelming mandate that it received from the people last summer. Expelling the people’s undisputed choice from politics would have shown that democracy in Turkey was fragile, transient and fallacious.

Rather the AKP has been allowed to endure, albeit with a warning. This decision reflects to a large extent the record of the party’s governance in proving its secular credentials. Whilst it controversially attempted to overturn a law banning headscarves in universities, hence by extension supporting political Islam, this has been the extent of their religious transgressions. The AKP has during its time in government worked to improve the lot of ordinary Anatolians and to increase the prosperity of their developing nation. Indeed Turkey’s interest in becoming a safe, stable and secure democracy is best served in allowing the AKP to continue as it has.

The AKP has presided over by far the most impressive economic record of any government in Turkey’s history. It has achieved what every secular government before it has failed to do, facilitate Turkey’s path to European integration through beginning accession talks. This had been the quarry of secular governments before it, but always pitifully unachievable due to the lack of economic advancement and convergence with Europe over human rights. Before the AKP, foreign direct investment was minimal. Today it flows in freely and abundantly.

Success with Europe is unquestionably the AKP’s greatest achievement in government. The records of previous governments pale in comparison. So does the current opposition, which is in a shambles and no fit state to present a credible alternative to the public or to lead. The simple fact is that whilst the ‘support’ for Islam from the AKP may run counter to Ataturk’s wishes, the AKP has done more to develop Turkey as a country than any other government in Turkey’s past. Ataturk’s dream of a robust democracy is unquestionably safer in the hands of the AKP rather than the army, facilitators of past coups, or the secularist elite, who are afraid of their own countrymen.

After 10 years in hiding, one of the world’s most wanted men will be brought to book. Will Serbia finally be able to put its tortured past behind it and look to the future?

 

            On Monday the 21st, the office of the Serbian president released a short and undetailed statement announcing “Radovan Karadzic was located and arrested tonight.” There is little information at present as to the circumstances under which such a detainment occurred, only that in accordance with the Hague Tribunal’s directive he was brought before Belgrade’s war crimes court. The capture was celebrated as a “milestone” by the chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. President Tadic of Serbia must also be celebrating this small victory for his pro Europe party in meeting another condition for EU accession talks. With another Yugoslav war criminal arrested and another loose end of the country’s unpleasant past tied up, surely now a modern Serbia can look to the prospects of its future, rather than its past.

            One of the most important prospects looming in Serbia’s near future is the possibility of accession to the EU. The capture of Karadzic this week has made this a more likely possibility as it fulfils a precondition for accession. The EU enlargement commissioner Ollie Rehn stressed in 1995 the importance of bringing Karadzic “to justice…that is the only way of achieving reconciliation and moving towards EU membership.” The importance of Serbian integration into the EU cannot be stressed enough. Slovenia, the only one of the former Yugoslav republics to yet join the EU experienced significant change in its transition from communist state to EU member. Its intent to join the EU had tangible effects on its economic growth as GDP p.a. accelerated, most noticeably in the 2002-4 period between the invitation to join and accession to the EU. This stood in contrast to the recession experienced in the 2000 –2001 period before EU membership was certain. The arrest of Karadzic means that less and less holds Serbia back from huge economic development through membership of the EU.

            Indeed the government in power, that of the pro-EU Boris Tadic, wish to follow in Slovenia’s footsteps and were working on a stabilisation and association agreement with the EU until it was blocked by the Netherlands in February. This is a tangible sign of progression from the former war torn state. Furthermore this is evidence of political maturity as Serbian’s support less and less the divisive and xenophobic nationalism which tore Yugoslavia apart. A certain sign of healing and a hope for the future.

            A more symbolic sign of conclusion is the final breakup of Yugoslavia, occurring initially with Montenegro seceding in 2006 and Kosovo in 2008. The ending of the Federation that had been the Socialist Yugoslav republic in essence closes the chapter on Tito, Milosevic and the post-war era. This was a time of frugality and political restriction which many in the Balkans hope not to experience again, not least because of the consequences of putting the wrong man in the strong man position, as so clearly Slobodan Milosevic was. Now freed from an ostensibly unworkable federation, in which few parties were happy, Serbia’s infighting can stop, allowing it to focus (as shown in its recent parliamentary elections) on the prospect of Europe.

            However, both Kosovo and Montenegro have left deep scars, namely along the lines of ethnic division. As cleanly cut as the national borders are, the Diaspora of cultural identities are not. There is a Serb minority in the North of Kosovo which identifies with the mother country strongly. Indeed many Serbs in Kosovo, like those in Serbia itself, have refused to recognise the secession of the fledgling state. This has added new grievances to the already long list that has served to create animosity between the Albanian majority in Kosovo and the Serbs. The usually responsible head of President Tadic has succumbed to an unfortunate, but perhaps politically unavoidable bout of nationalism on this count. His government has refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence. This decision was driven by a number of factors. Primarily the presence of a general election (that Mr. Tadic’s party was widely expected to loose) required campaign politics to soothe the fears of conservative Serbians who had enough to swallow with Mr. Tadic’s support for EU integration. The main nationalist party in Serbia had wide support for anti-EU policies due to the Union’s part in Kosovo and was expected to align with the other half of Mr. Tadic’s coalition, led by Mr. Kostunica. Trying to salvage one’s government is understandable. So is having a personal objection to the break-up of one’s country. Being a Serb Mr. Tadic was perhaps entitled to that feeling of patriotism. However, it is obvious to everyone that there could be no prevention, change or reverse to Kosovo’s action. Stubbornness from a responsible leader seems like only so much grand standing and petulance and reflects too much the tendencies of the political xenophobes that abound in Serbia’s opposition parties. Here one can see that Serbia has still not recovered from Yugoslavia’s break up. Its party politics reflect a country too afraid of the outside world and still longing for the dream of a Greater Serbia. In this respect, the country is not ready for the future.

            A more obvious problem for Serbia in moving on from its past is that Radovan Karadzic is not the end of the story. Whilst he will certainly be made to atone for Srebrenica, Ratko Mladic is still at large. This man was a central figure in the perpetration of some of the worst atrocities suffered by civilians during the troubles of the last decade. His capture is another precondition set by Ollie Rehn for accession talks to start. Whilst to all intents and purposes those talks have already started, it is hard to see their completion or Serbia’s accession without men such as Ratko Mladic, a man accused of Crimes against Humanity, being brought to justice.

            Mladic’s freedom is evidence that Serbia’s past still has loose ends to tie up. The country is not ready to move on because it can’t. The ghost of genocide stands in its way. The only way Serbia will free itself from its past and finally begin its progress to modernity and prosperity is through Europe, a way blocked no longer by Radovan Karadzic, but Ratko Mladic. Mladic’s rogue status is more than just a thorn in Serbia’s side, it is a roadblock to accession. His arrest warrant is gathering dust. Let us hope that it is not for much longer.

How the stroke suffered by Zambia’s president Levy Mwanawasa highlights Africa’s perennial problem, the mediocrity of its politicians.

 

            In the hours before the African Union summit, on June 29th in Sharm El Sheikh, Levy Mwanawasa, the serving president of Zambia was rushed to hospital following a stroke. He was later moved to a hospital in Paris to be observed by doctors there, following emergency surgery in Egypt. In recent months Mr. Mwanawasa has become one of Zimbabwe’s sharpest but regrettably few African critics. As chair of the regional development community SADC, he was in a unique position to bring considerable weight to the table in pushing for a democratic resolution to a crisis that many regional leaders seemed to have ignored. This is why his incapacitation all the more damaging to the few such as Jacob Zuma, F.W. de Klerk, Raila Odinga and Mompati Merafhe, who wish to displace Robert Mugabe and relieve the long suffering Zimbabwe. The individual circumstances of these regional statesmen mean that they cannot effect the change that Mr. Mwanawasa has the power to do.

            Jacob Zuma is the leader of the ruling ANC party in South Africa. He recently won the leadership contest against sitting president Thabo Mbeki and will contest the presidency for the ANC in the next election. However, in his current position Mr. Zuma has been frustrated in his calls for more urgent and tangible action over Zimbabwe by the foot-dragging of Mr. Mbeki. President Mbeki, who was given a mandate by SADC to mediate between President Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has obstinately denied the failure of his ‘quiet diplomacy’, which in recent months has comprised a friendly and pandering attitude to Mr. Mugabe and has caused the MDC to “lose faith” in Mr. Mbeki’s impartiality and request a full time mediator. Mr. Mbeki, demonstrating his marginal attitude towards Zimbabwe claimed in march that there was “no crisis” in Zimbabwe. This dichotomy of attitudes between Mr. Mbeki and Mr. Zuma has presented the latter with a problem. Although Jacob Zuma is leader of the ANC, he is not leader of his country and consequently does not have the international influence of Mr. Mbeki. Mr. Mbeki is also freed from the ‘onus’ of having to answer to the electorate, being both constitutionally barred from a third term as president and beaten to the position of ANC leader by Mr. Zuma last year. Therefore he has seen fit to follow his own path, ignoring the opinion of the ANC and Mr. Zuma. Because of this situation Mr. Zuma is unable to pressure Mr. Mugabe and his statements on the Zimbabwean crisis such as “riding roughshod over democracy”, whilst prescient and welcomed by the international community are largely empty in Robert Mugabe’s eyes due to the support of President Mbeki.

            F.W. de Klerk, a former president of South Africa has suffered from a similar problem. Despite being a respected elder statesman at home and abroad for helping to end apartheid South Africa and in his involvement with politics in later years, he, at present, has no political office and is largely in retirement from public life. In an interview recently with the BBC Mr. de Klerk called for “change” both on South Africa’s policy towards Mr. Mugabe and “change from within Zanu-PF itself”. He suggested the most likely course to resolution would involve the “moderates” from the ruling party dislodging the old guard. He was also critical, yet cautiously so, of Thabo Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy”. He felt that this had proved of no avail and tougher action was needed, although what this constituted remained unspecified. Ironically it appears that Mr. de Klerk believes that the time for negotiation has passed. Regardless of this, Mr. de Klerk’s lack of public office seriously debilitates his influence on events in Zimbabwe.

            Mr. Merafhe, Vice-President of Botswana has taken a particularly strong line against Zimbabwe, calling for Zimbabwe’s exclusion from both the AU and SADC. This again bucks the trend of silence from African leaders on the transgressions of their peers. It also reflects the position of Botswana’s government, which has publically criticised Mr. Mugabe’s election as of “doubtful” legitimacy. At the AU meeting in Sharm El Sheikh, Mr. Merafhe was perhaps the most strident and comprehensive critic of Mr. Mugabe’s return to power. However, the muted statement emerging from the meeting suggests that this was not enough to influence Mr. Mugabe’s stance. It is clear that Mr. Merafhe was representing a minority in that meeting.

            One who would have supported him and Botswana’s position is Mr. Odinga, Prime Minister of Kenya. Raila Odinga wants Zimbabwe to be suspended from the AU, a powerful message to send to Mr. Mugabe. This would be harmful simply due to its difference from the conventional reticence of African leaders from involving themselves in each others’ affairs. However, President Kibaki of Kenya had in January won an election by false means. Tactics such as vote rigging, ballot stuffing and widespread mob violence, traits of the Mugabe regime, were used in Kenya to secure a victory for Mr. Kibaki. The President of Kenya therefore would be loath to support any movement to dislodge a fellow false President. This has resulted in mixed messages emerging from Kenya, diluting the influence Mr. Odinga might have of effecting the Zimbabwe situation and in building an African consensus against Mr. Mugabe.

            It is clear that for those who had the opportunity to denounce Mr. Mugabe at the AU meeting in Egypt and try to reach a democratic resolution, they were too few and far between; Mr. Merafhe’s main obstacle. Some, such as Mr Odinga, lacked the necessary weight and authority, due to Kenya’s divided position. Had Mr. Mwanawasa been there, the story may have been different. Being the head of state for his country, not only could he determine its policy towards Zimbabwe as he had done, but he also would have had the authority conferred upon the highest statesmen. His contribution to the arguments of Mr. Merafhe and Mr. Odinga could have made a difference to the outcome of the toothless public statement produced by the AU, which called for Mr. Mbeki to continue his efforts.

       The real outcome reflects the deficit of principles in Africa’s politicians. That of 53 states, the statesmen of only a handful stood up to Mr. Mugabe. Furthermore, the absence of one made the difference between genuine diplomatic pressure and regional laissez-faire. Africa’s leaders truly are a gaggle of despots and dictators, with only a brave few attempting to atone for the continent’s surplus of sin.

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