Tag Archives: Democracy

The ‘Arab Spring’ Backfire

Egypt looks set for a battle between religious fundamentalists and secularists, with the military seemingly also attempting to pull strings. 

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[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen the ‘Arab Spring’ began, with Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, many Western countries and their overzealous administrations were quick to jump on the democracy bandwagon; quick was the change of discourse – away from decades of tolerable autocratic alliances, to outright denunciations of their friends of the past. Fair enough, dictatorship seems a much outdated concept with no place in the modern world; the evolution of political science has left no scope for debate in this regard. Yet, championing the cause of democracy so fervently was a mistake – the administrations of the Western world showed little tact and forward-thinking in their actions, as it has been made evident following the ousting of Mohammed Morsi.

The vehemence of external support empowered the people to act, perhaps not physically, but certainly psychologically. Concessions made by leaders in the Middle-East and, in certain cases, their deposition, meant that something which bore vague resemblance to democracy was born. The world rejoiced at the apparent demise of despotism. However, to revisit the self-immolation of Bouazizi, this almost completely missed the point. The man did not light himself on fire out of some uppity desire for democracy or political representation – this is a yearning of the intelligentsia. The masses, out in the past few weeks in Tahrir Square, belong to what would be categorised as the working class and their primary concern is often directed by necessity over want. In other words, people like Bouazizi would have appreciated the luxury of a vote, but they are much more inclined towards their own sufficiency. An end to corruption and a fair chance to make an honest living are what the masses desire; this was proved when the Egyptian military ousted the democratically elected President, to the rejoice of a nation. As Fraser Nelson of the Daily Telegraph identifies, what the people of the Middle-East needed was not democracy but instead capitalism.

In truth, democracy is nothing but a quixotic concept in the context of the near future of the Middle-East. Stability is needed before democracy can be introduced. William Hague’s insistence that stability comes from democratic institutions is correct, but not in a situation as complex as that particular region. By starting the democracy bandwagon too early, the Western powers have enabled the Egyptian public to recognise their true potency. They have learnt that laws can be broken, that the constitution can be changed, whenever they so desire. Stability is becoming an object shrinking in the distance.

Now, Egypt finds itself in a difficult place, as do America and the UK. To call the military junta it is now dealing with a consequence of a coup d’état would rescind approximately $1.6 billion of aid to Egypt and plunge it further into instability. Simultaneously, these administrations fear that Egypt is to return to its past of a political battleground between corrupt military leaders and staunch Islamists. Whilst its generals maintain they want nothing for themselves, their actions suggest otherwise: the Egyptian military already rejected a draft constitution, fundamentally because it suggested an elected civilian authority to control the armed forces. Effectively, Egypt has slipped out of the control of the Western powers; its fate rests, and power lies, in the hands of its military. The US and UK may look on and observe, but they missed their chance; whole-hearted intervention may well have been practiced a few years before but with the economic downturn and memories of past failures, both the UK and the US were reluctant to intervene in a region crying out for the establishment of a genuine capitalist system.

As for the future of Egypt? It looks set for a battle between religious fundamentalists and secularists, with the military seemingly also attempting to pull strings. What’s to stop them usurping another legitimate President? It’s a dire situation that’s just screaming out impasse.

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Photo Credit: Diariocritico de Venezuela

Turkey: Democracy In Action

Erdoğan has recently become increasingly deaf to opposition instead of displaying the pragmatism he had previously. This has catalyzed in the current street protests in a response to an enfeebled political opposition.

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[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or many it would seem spring has sprung in Turkey, although in reality that is misguided and buys into a one size fits all mentality. After Prime Minister Tayip Erdoğan was considered a rock star following the uprisings in much of Northern Africa and described as a trusted friend by Obama, the country’s “kemalist minority” appears to have got their vindication with the current protests and Erdoğan belligerence. However the protests that have erupted from the Gezi Park occupation is more than an ideological rift.

The conflict between the AKP with its openly religious leader and its opposition has been evident since even  before his election to power in the early noughties. The rise of his government has only exacerbated tensions between secularism and religious politics and  his administration has faced a number of challenges within the country throughout the term. However, the Erdoğan administration has made commendable progress on certain fronts; economically the country is booming, the military has had its stronghold loosened and the country is becoming friendlier towards its minorities. As a result of both the successes and challenges that have marked his career, media across the world have wavered between painting him as the poster boy of a democratic Islamic government or tarnishing him as an anti-democratic populist. Throughout, Erdoğan has never been adverse to ignoring resistance, he has sidelined the traditional political elite instead of bringing them into the fray and allowing them a real voice in government. This has led to hostility to what the secular portion of society sees as an assault on their values and the values of Ataturk. Nevertheless, Erdoğan has recently become increasingly deaf to opposition instead of displaying the pragmatism he had previously. This has catalyzed in the current street protests in a response to an enfeebled  political opposition. It would seem, as Firat Demir suggests, that perhaps Erdoğan has ‘succumbed to the authoritarian impulses that doomed so many other Turkish leaders before him’.

However, despite how easy it may be to paint the issues of Turkey as the problems of a fledgling democracy, it harkens back to Britain’s recent past of the Poll Tax riots of 1990. Margaret Thatcher was notoriously unwilling to listen to her party, never mind the opposition. However, she too became increasingly more “authoritarian” the longer she was in power. Much as Erdoğan has dismissed the protests and refused to back down from constructing the mall in Gezi Park that sparked the protests, Thatcher vowed to go through with her unpopular policy despite the violence and the dozens injured. Voices within the Conservative Party in the late 1980’s expressed their differences but were ignored; the AK Party similarly has no unified voice and any dissidence is disregarded, despite President Abdullah Gul, notably, has defended citizens’ right to peaceful protest.

Much like Thatcher, Erdoğan has fallen prey to the the pitfalls of being in power for too long and gaining a misplaced sense of imperviousness. Both display a misguided understanding of democracy, believing election results are enough to validate policy choices and in turn ignore voices within their own parties, the opposition and the electorate. The poll tax riots proved Thatcher to be out of touch with her country and Erdoğan’s response to the current unrest will result in a similar fate if he does not re-engage the electorate in an open and honest discussion.

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Photo Credit: AJstream

Euro-sceptic? Eur-so-silly

David Cameron’s speech is a mere publicity stunt instrumented to falsely ensure us of democratic legitimacy, through making it seem as though we all have a choice over our country’s future.

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Today Prime Minister David Cameron declared he is set to make negotiations with the EU in relevance to treaty changes and the euro. As you would expect from a politician (especially a Tory), Cameron is presenting us with a more tactical, underlying negotiation which is quite simply, “A vote for Conservatives in the next election is a vote for an in/out of the European Union referendum.

Last month, Anti-EU party UKIP increased its share of the vote from 6 per cent to 9 per cent. This rise in popularity massively reflects the British populaces increasing intolerance of the EU, and a prime reason for this is the general attitude towards immigration. Take for instance YouGov’s latest poll for the Sunday Times, which revealed, rather unsurprisingly, that 67% of people believe that immigration has been a ‘bad thing for Britain’ with the second majority, 18% believing it has been ‘neither good nor bad’.

It was Gordon Brown who coined the term ‘British jobs for British workers’. In 2011, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) produced a report that made the headlines; take for instance the Daily Mails’ choice, ‘Migration is killing off jobs: 160, 000 Britons have missed out on employment because work was taken my foreigners’ – not quite the snappy title I was hoping for. Alongside Brown’s pledge, this outbreak of outrage in the media was symbolic of the increasing mass hostility towards immigration. One could even argue not only did it encourage public opinion towards the topic, but created it too. Nonetheless, the subject of supposed scandal here is as shallow as scandal gets. Firstly, a job is a job – I’m not quite sure what makes it British. (According to Chris Bryant, this is ‘hospitality construction and agriculture’) . More importantly, the allegation that immigrants ‘fill the limited vacancies which exist in the fragile UK economy’ is pure fiction. This is the lump of labour fallacy; the notion that there is no such thing as limited jobs.

Then again, these are the type of people complaining about “no jobs”.

The article goes on to manipulatively inform its readers that immigration is ‘full of loopholes, such as an exemption for so-called “intra-company transfers”, which allow firms to bring in thousands of their existing staff from abroad’. It is absolutely absurd to undermine the act of bringing competently skilled workers into the British labour force a “loophole” in immigration policy, considering that is a chief beneficiary of immigration.

Cameron believes the best way to create a democratically accountable Europe is for the British population to vote on whether they want to be a part of it or not. He says, “It is time for the British people to have their say. This will be your country… a choice about your country’s destiny.” Other than sounding like Uncle Sam encouraging young American boys to sacrifice themselves in the name of war, it is utter rubbish. Whilst Nigel Farage has successfully infiltrated popular opinion through highlighting the costs of the UK’s EU membership, the government has failed to educate the British people on the benefits.

The only source the British people of this “democracy” have to base their views on, are newspapers – the most popular being subliminally fascist tabloids such as the Daily Mail. Cameron’s speech is a mere publicity stunt instrumented to falsely ensure us of democratic legitimacy, through making it seem as though we all have a choice over our country’s future . Well, democracy doesn’t mean shit when the people don’t know shit.

It is time for UKIP, the Tory’s and the like, to realise that leaving the EU may cover the odor of the turd that this situation is, but it certainly won’t stop the UK from being in a faecal matter.

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Photo Credit: dimnikolov

The Great China/Hong Kong Divide

Given China’s own complex situation, granting Hong Kong universal suffrage seems highly unlikely. Perhaps it is likely later on future when democracy, civil participation, voting and free speech are more understood and developed in China.

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Recently, the streets of Hong Kong were flooded with protestors demanding their new leader, Leung Chun-Ying, to resign because of his alleged illegal renovation of his luxurious mansion. Many have utilised the opportunity to vent their other discontents such as demanding gay rights, rising property costs, housing issues for growing families and the sluggish economy. Protestors accused him of being a lackey for the Chinese government, merely doing Beijing’s bidding while ignoring the needs and priorities of Hong Kong citizens. Leung has a bigger challenge than resolving his building breaches; could he foster positive relations between Hong Kong and China? Since 1997, Hong Kongers have grown more defensive of their distinct identity and remain very suspicious about the Chinese government and somewhat unwelcoming to mainland Chinese.

Criticisms of Leung being too close to China

Leung Chun-Ying was appointed as the Chief Executive of Hong Kong on 1 July 2012, beating opponent Henry Tang, who was the former Chief Secretary for Administration of Hong Kong. Tang’s popularity plummeted because of his illegal construction of a basement on his property at 7 York Road, Kowloon Tong.

Leung’s road to leadership has not been a smooth ride. In Hong Kong media, Leung is aligned with the personality of a wolf because of his apparent ruthlessness in politics. In April 2012, demonstrators demanded Leung to step down because of his seemingly pro-Beijing stance and he would only be an instrument for the Chinese government. A citizen name Lam Sim-Shing commented “Beijing blatantly interfered in our election,” and “he will be a ‘yes’ man for Beijing…”.

Some pro-capitalist politicians and media and anti-Leung protestors have accused him of being a loyal member of the Chinese Communist Party, to which Leung firmly denied. He responded: “I am not a member of the Communist Party. I am not a so-called underground member of the Communist Party. In fact, I’m not a member, and have not been a member of any political party anywhere in the world”.  He was once asked whether Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, deserved the award and he answered former Chairman of the Central Advisory Commission of the Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping, should be the first Chinese Nobel Laureate. Leung addressed his inauguration speech in Mandarin, rather than Cantonese as the previous Chief Executive, Donald Tsang, had done. Most Hong Kongers see Cantonese as the dividing line between them and mainland Chinese. Many Hong Kongers may interpret their leader would only serve to please the Beijing elites. Moreover, Leung’s introduction of Beijing’s controversial education reforms, which were announced in 2012 (will be discussed later), further reinforced anti-Leung citizens’ opinions about him.

Mass protests erupted in early January when Leung was accused of illegally renovating his flat that breached the Buildings Department regulations. According to The Guardian, Hong Kong media discovered he had constructed “a trellis, a metal gate, a canopy over his garage” on his property just six months after winning his election. Now Leung is facing pressure from protesters and authorities to give an explanation.

Thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Hong Kong. According to The Guardian protesters held up signs that depicted Leung as a wolf, and calling him a liar. From other sources, some illustrated Leung with a long nose – resembling Pinocchio and one protester wore a wolf costume with the Chinese Red Guard uniform. One of the protesters claimed Leung “is not honest. As chief executive, he cannot convince the public that he is leader with credibility” and “I don’t want Hong Kong to be led by a person without credibility”. Another citizen complained they have not the right to vote for their own leader; “we don’t even have a vote, he is elected by a small group of people. We cannot use our voting right to express our view no matter how his performance is”.

The Great Divide Between Hong Kong and China

The protests clearly show us there is still a deep divide between Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong was ceded to British rule when the Qing Government was defeated in the First Opium War (1839-1842). After signing the Treaty of Nanking 1842, influence and connections from China became very limited and Hong Kong had lived under western-style democracy. The sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred back to China in 1997, ending more than 150 years of British control and China had agreed to have a “one country, two systems” policy. Yet, since the reunification, many Hong Kongers are still concerned Beijing would meddle in its affairs and enforcing laws that would threaten their free speech and democracy.  Some protesters were seen waving the British colonial flag; a clear indication that democracy and free speech were guaranteed when they were under British jurisdiction. However, one must note that even during the colonial days, Hong Kongers could not vote for their Governor.

According to a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Program at the University of Hong Kong in 2011, it revealed that Hong Kongers do not perceive themselves as Chinese citizens but rather, ‘Hong Kong citizens’. Only 16.6% identified themselves Chinese citizens.  Despite a majority of Hong Kong citizens being of ethnic Han descent, writing Chinese characters and retaining aspects of Chinese traditions, they see themselves as been distinct from their mainland Chinese counterparts.

Several incidents reflect contemporary relations between the two sides. In 2011, the popular song sung by Hong Kong singer and actor Eason Chan, Under Fuji Mountain, was replaced with lyrics (by Hong Kong citizens) that deride mainland Chinese people as “stealing, cheating, and lying” and “thanks to Mainland China, Hong Kong is now deteriorating inch by inch”. This edited version, called Locust World, has become a big hit in Hong Kong.  According to China Smack, some Hong Kongers would sing this song to mainland Chinese.

Many Hong Kongers are resentful towards increasing Chinese immigration, seeing them as threats to Hong Kong’s identity and holding them responsible for raising property prices. Lots of Chinese tourists come to Hong Kong and although this brings great economic benefits, yet some local residents cannot withstand some of the tourists’ unrefined and discourteous behaviours. There have been growing incidents where heavily pregnant Chinese mothers travel to Hong Kong to give birth due to Hong Kong’s better medical facilities and for their children to gain residency in Hong Kong. With the growing number of Chinese mothers, Hong Kong’s soon-to-be mothers have been, unfortunately, shunned aside by hospitals.

Last year, there was an incident on a train in Hong Kong which reflects contemporary attitudes of Hong Kong people to mainland Chinese people. A man saw a child eating on the train and he told the mother eating is not permitted on trains. Rather than being praised for his efforts in abiding by the law, a fellow passenger (from the mainland) derided his Mandarin and a heated argument exploded. Another passenger intervened and stated “don’t bother. Mainlanders are just like this”. This confrontation was caught on video and went viral and Hong Kong viewers praised the man as a hero.

To many Hong Kongers, they feel they should not be pressured to be ‘Chinese’ in the way that is expected from mainland China. Margaret Ng, a legislator, commented:

“We are Chinese without being only Chinese. We can accept western civilisation without identifying with the west. We observe universal values without losing our own cultural identity”.

Controversial National Education Reforms 2012

In September 2012, thousands of angry protesters marched against the national education reform policy introduced by Beijing. Demonstrators indicted Beijing of trying to ‘brainwash’ students and young people on patriotism to China, supporting a one-party system and implementing education policies that would wipe out free and independent thought.

One protestor named Joshua Wong claimed “we’re here on a hunger strike…because the government is not listening to the people’s voice”. Beijing maintained the reforms aimed to educate Hong Kong youths more about Chinese history, culture and forging positive links between the two sides. These are the following aims  the Beijing government claimed:

“The government council’s guidelines on the new curriculum highlight goals for improving morality, positive attitudes, self-recognition, judgment, identity, and responsible decision-making. Those moral qualities included “Chinese values” such as “benevolence, righteousness, courtesy and wisdom,” but also an interest to “foster universal values, including peace, benevolence, justice, freedom, democracy, human rights.”

Leung did not oppose to the education reforms. But seeing the intensity of the protests, Leung announced  the reform would not be compulsory but up to schools to decide. He declared: “we’re giving the authority to the schools,” and “this is very much in line with our school-based education policy”.

With growing discontent about China and mainland Chinese, mounting property prices, poverty, housing issues and Hong Kong citizens demanding universal suffrage, Leung has a difficult and gruelling job.  Hong Kong-China relations remain convoluted as there is an interesting interplay of political and cultural differences due to 150 years of separation and different values and many Hong Kongers not referring themselves Chinese citizens but insist they have their own unique identity. It seems positive relations are hard to achieve now. However, Hong Kong has just been returned to Chinese administration for a mere 16 years and in this generation of Hong Kong citizens, they are still adapting to the transition.

On the other hand, China has only recently emerged from political turmoil, social instability and an impoverished economy which it had experienced decades ago and is still dealing with priorities such as poverty, improving education in regional and rural areas and corruption etc. However, this is not to say Hong Kong is not an important region to China. Last year, the Chinese government announced new plans to assist Hong Kong with its social and economic development.

Given China’s own complex situation, granting Hong Kong universal suffrage seems highly unlikely. Perhaps it is likely later on future when democracy, civil participation, voting and free speech are more understood and developed in China.

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Nouri al-Maliki: Iraq’s Newest Dictator?

The comparisons to the Hussein regime should not be over-stretched. The deep emotional significance of drawing such a parallel, and the limits of Nouri al-Maliki’s power compared to his predecessor, should give those espousing such a view serious pause.

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For Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s recent political history remains a specter haunting his regime. Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian rule left little precedent for national, democratic reconstruction according to what external and domestic policymakers had hoped. It is thus unsurprising that the current ruling party has enacted policies that resemble those from a far more sinister past, and Maliki’s practices have been compared to Saddam’s; most importantly, he has arrested political dissenters and established central government control over the security forces. His recent response to the protests sweeping Iraq this past week have raised afresh these analyses. Yet the comparisons to Saddam’s regime should not be stretched too far. The deep emotional significance of drawing such a parallel, and the limits of Maliki’s power compared to Saddam’s, should give those espousing such a view serious pause.

Maliki has certainly exhibited tendencies that spark fear amongst Iraqis. In a September editorial, The Guardian argued that “Nouri al-Maliki’s has some way to go before he matches Saddam Hussein’s terror – but the charge sheet is growing.” For example, as US combat forces departed the country in December 2011, Maliki issued the notorious arrest warrant for his vice-president, Tariq al-Hashimi. Soldiers and tanks led by Maliki’s son surrounded Hashimi’s house, detaining several bodyguards who later, after torture, confessed that the vice president had organized illegal death squads against his political rivals. He was soon sentenced to death in absentia for his alleged crimes. The Guardian concluded by bluntly noting that “Iraqiyya [Hashimi’s party]…is not the first victim of Maliki’s power grab.”

Maliki has reinforced his grip through the Iraqi military, reshaping the chain of command so that his office has full control over personnel placement and field strategy. The Iraqi Special Forces have become a personal guard for the Prime Minister, as has the intelligence and judiciary branches. Having confronted the Sunni opposition, many fear that his next targets will be the Sadrists and eventually the Kurds using his strengthened psuedo-legal military options.

Yet there are several key differences between his and Saddam’s regime that must not be ignored. Above all, Maliki simply wields far less power than did his despotic counterpart. The Prime Minister’s inability to coerce the Kurdish President Massoud Barzani into turning over Hashimi in 2011, for instance, underscores this reality. Unlike Saddam, Maliki has nearly no influence or control in Iraqi Kurdistan. Supported by Turkey, Iran, and the United States, Kurdistan is essentially off-limits to Baghdad, lest Maliki violently exacerbate tensions with his regional neighbors.

The Sunni political bloc to which Hashimi belongs, albeit battered, has its foreign allies too. As much as he tries, Maliki cannot eliminate the Sunni opposition, as its leadership would immediately turn to Saudi Arabia if seriously threatened. And he does not have the influence to prevent such links. He can only intimidate and isolate the Sunnis — which he continues to do with limited success — but can never silence their voice.

Even amongst the Shia faction, deep divisions undermine Maliki’s ability to meaningfully consolidate his power. Moqtada al-Sadr, the indefatigable leader of the Sadrist movement, has repeatedly spoken against the ruling party. For all his maneuvering, Maliki has relatively little opportunity to significantly damage or silence the Sadrist minority; Sadr, a “black sheep” in Iraqi politics, needs only align with Iraq’s other opposition leaders to pose a serious threat to Maliki’s grasp on Baghdad, a move he is willing to make if Maliki further strips his political options.

These empirical differences between Maliki and Saddam must be viewed alongside a far less exact, emotional element. Comparisons between the two leaders often ignore the serious and painful realities of the terror with which Saddam Hussein ruled. It is neither accurate nor fair to make such offhand comparisons when the reality does not match. There is little doubt that Maliki’s actions are authoritarian, harsh, and legally questionable, but it is also important to remember that Saddam’s true cruelty, paranoia, and unfeeling political calculations with the lives of his citizens tore far deeper wounds across Iraq. In many respects, Maliki’s ruling style is a product of the stillborn democracy left in the wake of the American departure. His rule will never conform to the ideals of egalitarian and representative government that US leaders espoused. But to compare it to Saddam’s merely exacerbates the situation by pushing the current regime to adopt more insular policies, while at the same time ignores the problem’s roots.

To be sure, the trend towards authoritarianism that Maliki’s government is following does not inspire optimism, nor should it be encouraged. But it should be recognized for what it is, and not compared to a regime it will never truly resemble. How can foreigners understand Maliki? If they look past the Saddam era for answers, the results will be far more enlightening.

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Photo credit: The U.S. Army

Somalia & Democracy: An Oxymoron?

It takes years of learning, patience and dedication to achieve a full democracy and it is the hope of every Somali to see Somalia holding fully democratic elections in 2016—a hope that can be achieved.

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On August 20th, Morgan Lorraine Roach of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington based think-tank, wrote an article titled Somalia’s Government Transition Maintains the Status Quo. In her article, she argues that the process of creating the new permanent government that is to replace the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was flawed and undemocratic. She further argues that due to the flawed and undemocratic process that created the new permanent government, the Obama Administration should not reward poor governance by: withholding bilateral assistance to the new government, continuing to support the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and recognizing Somaliland. This article serves as a response to her arguments.

A Flawed and Undemocratic Process

Due to the Somali people not being able to vote for the members of the new permanent government of Somalia the process of creating the new government of is in no doubt undemocratic. Due to the security situation in some parts of the country and Al-Shabab controlling the southern regions of Somalia, a countrywide election could not have been possible. Instead of a democratic election, a system was used that is undoubtedly the next best option given the constraints and the desire to form to a representative government.

For a very long time Somali elders have been the leaders of Somalia. For centuries they have served as judges under the Somali customary legal system known as Xeer, and most recently during the last twenty years of the Somali civil war due to the absence of proper judicial institutions. Respected by many, they are considered to derive their authority as the guardians of their various communities, and the Somali nation. With the absence of direct elections due to security issues, the Somali elders are the next best solution in terms of creating a representative government and it is indeed a step forward to a full democracy in Somalia.

The creation of the new permanent government was guided by the Somali elders, from appointing the 885 members of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) which approved the draft constitution, to the selection of the new members of parliament. This is not to say the process was perfect—far from it in reality. There have been reports of corruption during the appointment of the members of the new parliament, and threats that have been issued to the members of the Technical Selection Committee (TSC) which is charged with ratifying and overseing the selection of the new legislators.

But, compared to the previous members of the parliament selected in Kenya and Djibouti, the members of this new parliament are considered to be the most qualified and educated MPs Somalia has had during the last three decades. This is due to the TSC requiring the new legislators to be at least high school graduates, free from having ties with any warlord, and not to have committed any atrocity during the civil war. The TSC have so far rejected close to 70 parliamentary nominees who have not met the above criteria.

International Community Support

The United Nations, United States, European Union and other international partners have welcomed the inauguration of the new Federal Parliament of Somalia, and rightly so. “The Somali people have waited 20 years for peace to take root in their country. Now is the time to begin a new chapter in their history,” said the spokesman of the Secretary General of the U.N. The congratulations come after the international community has supported and funded the TFG during its mandate.

Although senior members of the TFG have been accused of corruption, the government has achieved some progress in its fight against Al-Shabab. For the first time since the civil war, Mogadishu has managed to regain some normalcy. It is in the interests of the international partners, including the United States, to see this success replicated to other parts of the country under Al-Shabab rule.

At the present, the major concerns of the U.S and other international partners of Somalia is not bad governance but the threat of Al-Shabaab and the problem of piracy in the region. The author’s proposal of the Obama Administration to withhold bilateral aid to the new government directly goes against these U.S interests. The withholding of bilateral assistance to the new government will significantly weaken the government’s aim to rebuild the institutions of the country and its fight to liberate the areas controlled by Al-Shabaab. Funding only AMISOM forces and not Somalia’s security forces will also cause major problems. If history can tell us one thing it is that Somalis do not allow foreign armies to be in their country for a long period of time. As soon as AMISOM manages to liberate the territories under Al-Shabab rule, there is a high likelihood of Somalis demanding AMISOM to withdraw from Somalia. Withholding aid to train and fund the Somali security forces will only ensure that there will be no well-trained Somali forces to take over the command. Further, withholding of bilateral assistance to the new government will not stop corruption and bring good governance, but collapse a government that badly needs international support to succeed.

These interests aside, the international community has a responsibility to ensure that the resources and funding allocated to the Somali nation are used as intended. The creation of the Joint Financial Management Board at the London Conference on Somalia by the international community is a step forward in tackling corruption, increasing accountability and transparency. As the Somali institutions develop, it will then be up to the Somali people themselves to ensure corruption is eradicated.

On the issue of Somaliland’s recognition, the U.S and the other members of the international community recognizing Somaliland will only cause conflicts and division in Somalia. There is no doubt that Somaliland has achieved some success during the last twenty years, but the only way to avoid a fresh conflict and the bloodshed of the Somali people are direct talks and negotiations between the new government and Somaliland leaders.

A Significant Milestone for Somalia

“Somalia’s new system of governance is set up for failure.”

Morgan Lorraine Roach.

One thing the author seems to be getting wrong is that this is not a new governance system for Somalia but a  significant milestone and a path to a representative democracy. Many democratic systems around the world, including the United States, weren’t built overnight. It took learning, patience and dedication to achieve a full democracy. It is the hope of every Somali to see Somalia holding elections in 2016—a hope that can be achieved. But for now, considering the situation Somalia is in, the system in place is the next best thing to a representative government.

Putin: From Hero To Zero?

As opposition grows in the former Soviet state, is Vladimir Putin’s credibility diminishing in the eyes of the Russian people despite his recent re-election?

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[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s Putin took the oath to become President, an office he first occupied 12 years ago, he said that serving Russia “was the meaning of my whole life”. If that is the case then he certainly has done a good job so far. During the Putin era, Russia has changed considerably. The country has doubled its GDP, paid off its foreign loans, reasserted its regional influence and tricked the Russian citizens into thinking that Russia is an authentic democracy.

Yet not all is well in the quest for Putin to serve Russia without any hindrance. The protests seem to be only growing in strength and their cry for political representation and respect is growing louder. Putin could have left politics 12 years ago as a hero and as one of the best leaders of Russia. Yet he decided to come back for more and test the crowd’s patience. To understand why Putin decided to do that is not easy as not much is known about the man behind the steal exterior.

By observing how he ruled the state of Russia during his first term as President, it is possible to argue that Putin is certainly power hungry and has an uncontrollable need to regulate power using the institutions he built up himself. As his time as President wore on around the year 2004, Putin succumbed to the urges to consolidate control and purge potential rivals. The money which flooded in through oil and gas sales certainly helped Putin to stamp his authority and more importantly keep the Russian citizens happy by increasing their wages and pensions. The price that the people had to pay was authoritarian control under Putin and a lack of decent opposition, be it political opposition or a truly free press.

In exchange for loyalty (often in the form of votes), officials further down the bureaucratic chain, from regional governors to local police chiefs, can oversee their fiefdoms however they like, collecting millions or allowing abuse to flourish. On a more international level, the current Chechnya President Ramzan Kadyrov also sits in the pocket of Putin as he said in the Russian newspaper in 2009: “I am wholly Putin’s man. I shall never betray him; I shall never let him down. I would rather die 20 times.” Ultimately Putin has built a peculiar set of relationships. His game plan is: support me and I might support you back. Disobey me and you will regret it. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former multi billionaire Russian tycoon who was put in prison certainly learned the hard way not to disobey Putin.

Nevertheless, how will Putin be able to deal with the masses of protestors who disobey him? Russia’s profound economic and social transformation during Putin’s tenure has created for the first time a true middle class, largely comprised of educated urban professionals living in Moscow. As this section of Russian society has become more secure financially, they are beginning to worry about having a political voice. The recent upsurge in technological advances and internet access in Russia, with greater access to the Western media, has also helped to ensure that the middle class ask for more.

It is ironic how the same people who want Putin out are the ones who have to thank him for ensuring their economic and social stability. Some may call them ungrateful, yet in every normal democracy, it is the citizen’s right to ask for fair elections and last December’s parliamentary elections which were marked by widespread evidence of falsification certainly didn’t not meet the standard required by the people of Russia. The problem does not merely lie within the confines of urban cities; rising standards of living in small villages are leading to higher expectations and local grievances, whether about poor infrastructure or particularly corrupt officials with discontent directed back at Russia.

The way Putin has dealt with the above problems is simple: he has provided the citizens with choices and freedoms everywhere except politics. The Russians can now afford to open their own business, travel abroad on holiday and become part of the consumers as witnessed in the West. As long as the citizens are given the freedom to make something decent out of their lives, not many of them will bother protesting in the freezing Russian streets. Having said that, if Russia continues to feel the effects of the global economic crisis and financial stability continues to falter, the citizens may turn on Putin at the flick of a finger.

We are still yet to see where Putin takes Russia during his new Presidential term in office. If he plays his cards right, he may still keep his status as one of the best politicians in the country. However, if his bluff fails, he may end up going from hero to zero and he would have nobody to blame but himself.

China: Domestic Pitfalls & Incoherent Foreign Policy

China does not represent a danger to the international community over the next 10 years but its new leaders must combat the prospect of an economic downturn.

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[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of the most demanding tasks today is to provide a detailed depiction of China’s current social and political complexities, a mission that probably even George Kennan, the famous author of the X article about the sources of the Soviet conduct, would be able to accomplish systematically.

Indeed, despite the massive bulk of social, cultural and militarily analysis on China and its history, making precise predictions about the trajectory of China as a global actor can result in fragmented and scattered intellectual efforts without any general evidence or visible trends to compare with.

By approaching such a fascinating and hard question with the greatest humbleness, I will try to trace a general trend explaining the current situation of China.

Broadly summarizing, today China presents a couple of relevant problems: on the one hand a set of worrying domestic issues concerning the political and social plight of its ruling class and citizens; on the other hand, a series of contradicting steps in international politics that would scare even the most prudent and careful strategic thinker. As a result, to an external viewer, contemporary China seems to be a confusing giant in search for a new identity after 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth ended with the 2008 global economic meltdown.

After the death of Chairman Mao in 1976 and the reform package launched by Den Xiaoping soon after, the Chinese ruling party has assured a long period of economic rise and, in doing so, has strengthened its legitimacy as the only instrument capable of guaranteeing China’s stability, unity and security. In exchange for economic and physical protection, Chinese population has given up any claim about the liberalization of political and civil rights, by signing a sort of “gentle agreement” with its own rulers in order to achieve a common interest. After all, as China possesses neither a multiparty system nor a democracy, there was no need to be concerned with political representation, especially after decades of political weakness and the socially devastating effects of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Accordingly, the course of Chinese economic growth in the last years has deeply characterized its society and the nature of its foreign relationships.

On the domestic level, China is affected by an endless number of challenges, worsened further because of the scale of its population. First of all the environmental problem, caused by the massive industrial pollution and the process of desertification in the inland Chinese areas. Secondly, the relentless aging process of the Chinese population, as a result of the one-child policy promoted in 1978. According to recent estimates, by 2050 the largest part of the Chinese population will be formed by elderly, with significant impacts on productivity and social expenditures. This demographic decline is coupled with a growing regional disparity and imbalance between rich and poor areas, which compels massive migrations from the rural and less wealthy areas of the country to the seacoast, with increasing costs in terms of country-land’s de-urbanization. Lack of food safety, the bad quality of healthcare services, the Tibetan quest for self-determination and spreading corruption (not only among public officials but even among the common people – to such an extent that a six-year-old Chinese girl expressed the desire and the dream to become a corrupt agent in her future), provide for a very baffled, although not exhaustive, depiction of what Chinese society is today.

In addition, the logic of Chinese foreign policy is characterized by a substantial incoherence: on one hand their policy-makers clearly pursue politics of resource supplying through fertile-land purchases and investments in Africa, Latin America and Central Asia, for example; on the other hand, China purportedly doesn’t want to interfere in other countries’ affairs.

The ongoing international tensions in the South China Sea and the pressures by states such as Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines and South Korea to keep the US military umbrella in the region, are the best example to describe such a costly paradox, given the longstanding Chinese diplomatic effort to reassure and tighten good relationships with its neighbours, for instance by promoting the concept of “peaceful rise”.

As partial explanation to this incoherence, is the involvement of an extensive range of political players in shaping foreign policy, such as the pragmatic Communist party, the growing assertive PLA and the profit-seeker industrial complex: the final outcome is an uncertain and ambiguous approach to international politics.

For the next ten years, by virtue of its domestic issues, China will be not representing a real danger for the international community. Nonetheless, a decrease of the employment rate to 5-6% could prompt a large scale of mass mobilization and jeopardize the stability of the country. The problem of a Chinese economic downturn, largely underestimated in the West, should be promptly faced through incisive economic and political reforms by the new class of political leader that are going to be elected next October.

It’s That Condor Moment: The West & The Middle East

Terrorism is not the result of irrational hatred, and whilst the populations of the Middle East respect the West, they do not want the West to fix their problems.

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[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith the Fifth Afghan War soon coming to a close, it is an important moment to reflect on the conflict that the war sought to end. The Middle East and South Asia are vital regions in the Global War on Terror. The two regions are still afflicted with political problems that all too often manifest themselves in violence. This article does not attempt to suggest that the two regions share the same political problems, but there are three general lessons we can extrapolate from our experience in the Islamic world over the past 11 years. Our strategy has not worked – we arguably face a greater threat from terrorism and the two regions are even less stable than they were in 2001. We desperately need a new strategy, and these lessons painfully learned from the War on Terrorism will help us understand what we need to change.

1. Terrorism is not always the result of an irrational hatred

One of the overwhelming features of the rhetoric discussing the War on Terror is that the people who we are fighting hate us for our freedoms, who we are and what we stand for. We mistakenly believe that the reasons behind terrorists’ actions are as irrational as the means they employ to achieve their goals. If we are to draw any benefit from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we must realize that terrorism that we see at home and abroad is very often the result of how our foreign policy is perceived in the Muslim communities across the world. The Islamic world feels, rightly or wrongly, that they owe very little to governments that they perceive have promoted only tyranny in order to benefit their own security.

We fooled ourselves that Western gold would buy Muslim acquiescence to our policies in their homelands. Western countries, in particular the US and the UK, have spent an extraordinary amount of treasure in the previous eleven years to end terrorism and its causes in the Islamic world. Its failure to do so has led us to believe that Muslims are destined for a future of despotism, authoritarianism, corruption and ever-increasing hatred. The view that terrorism is a tactic employed by the irrational has clouded our ability to see the real problems that cause it to persist. The cold, hard truth is that our attempt to combat terrorism has been particularly inefficient. Our insistence on a ‘no compromise’ policy with those we consider to be terrorists has resulted in overly-complicated solutions that simply do not work. Afghanistan is the perfect example of this – we tried to avoid dealing with the Taliban through a very complex, expensive and time-intensive state-building strategy that has unquestionably failed. By continuing the war, we have created more numerous and more radical Islamic groups in the Af-Pak border region that harbour an even more intense hatred for the West than their predecessors who fought against the Soviets.

2. Whilst many in the Muslim world are angry with the West, they still respect and value its support

The events of the Tunisian Spring that have recently come to light have revealed some very interesting nuances of how the Middle Eastern communities view the West. Amongst the thousands of diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks, US diplomats’ comments on the corruption of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia have revealed themselves to have the greatest impact on the course of Middle Eastern history. Tunisian internet activists were able to exploit and disseminate the US diplomats’ comment that criticized the ruling family’s opulence whilst many Tunisians struggled to feed their families (Ben Ali’s son-in-law kept a tiger caged in his garden that consumed four chickens daily at a time when most Tunisians could not afford meat). The revelations of the regime’s corruption was not news to the ordinary Tunisians – they were all very acquainted with Ben Ali’s corruption and extravagance. However, the US’s (no longer) private recognition of the corruption was incredibly important for mobilizing the Tunisian spring, as activists believed these cables to be the proof that the US would not support Ben Ali’s rule in the face of popular opposition. Two weeks after the publication of these cables, the Tunisian Spring was initiated by Muhammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. This was certainly no coincidence.

If one were to look at the history of US-Tunisia relations, there would be little to suggest that the ordinary Tunisian would hold any warm feelings towards America. Its policies have help extend the longevity of the Ben Ali regime, which for 24 years had exploited their citizens for their own profit. On the contrary, the impact of the embassy cables shows that many Middle Eastern communities (though not all) still respect the US and the West’s judgment despite the tension of the past eleven years.

3. The Middle East does not want us to fix their problems for them

This leads on from the previous point. Whilst the Tunisian activists and protestors appreciated the US’s disapproval of the Ben Ali regime, they do not want to solve Tunisian’s problems for them. Perhaps the best description of the Tunisian view towards the US’s promotion of democracy in the Middle East was expressed by web activist Yassine Ayari as ‘like virginity sponsored by Durex’. Middle Eastern populations are already well connected to the Internet and, as Ayari subsequently pointed out, this has informed many Tunisians of the various failures of Western models of democracy. This is not to say that they are opposed to establishing democracy in Tunisia, but they will be the ones who decide what form their version of democracy takes. This does mean that Islamism will very likely play a prominent role in the Middle Eastern model of democracy. This is a reality that we cannot ignore or can do much to change.

9/11 caught the West off guard. Up until that point, the impact of Middle Eastern and South Asian conflict was only felt in the local regions, with little overspill on the global stage. The attacks were the moment when these conflicts landed squarely on the West’s doorstep. Our response typified that of the inexperienced to a surprise attack – uncoordinated, rushed and lacking solid direction. Our withdrawal from Afghanistan needs to be the lull when we reassess the situation, consolidate our position and adopt a different approach. 

Myanmar

Some thoughts on Myanmar and the problems posed by a divided society.

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[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith changes going on inside the country which would have seemed impossible several years ago, the last 18 months have been a tumultuous one for the Republic of Myanmar and this has generated a great deal of optimism within the West that the government is serious about becoming a truly democratic and accountable society. No longer is there any talk of Burma as the authoritarian state which has presided over fifty years of repression, isolationism and economic stagnation and is notorious for its’ militaristic state practices. Rather, the buzzwords of choice within the country and the wider media have become optimistic and proactive terms such as ‘reform’, ‘reconciliation’ and ‘engagement’. Myanmar for the first time in over fifty years has a civilian president who seems genuinely committed to liberalisation, as evidenced by the country’s, ‘nascent transition to democracy’. However, in spite of these encouraging signs there is a problem which looms large and has the potential to massively impinge upon the country’s democratic prospects. This article is an attempt to highlight this problem, namely the problem posed by an inherently divided society and the ways it can be overcome.

Within Myanmar over the last 18 months, much progress has been made toward democratisation by the new government following the ending of 50 years of military dictatorship. Despite originating in controversial circumstances from elections in 2010 which were widely condemned by the wider world, the nominally elected government has led an unexpected and ‘startling liberalisation’. Whilst the elections were denounced by UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon as being, ‘insufficiently inclusive, participatory and transparent’, president Thein Sein and cabinet have defied the sceptics and taken many positive steps towards the establishment of a more inclusive society. They have released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and allowed her to reengage with the political process, re-established diplomatic ties with the US and the UK, released over 600 political prisoners and allowed the opposition party National League for Democracy to run in the upcoming by-elections.

Nevertheless, whilst the actions of the government have been promising to Western observers looking in, it seems to me that they have focused too much attention on surface level factors to the detriment of more longstanding issues. Rather than attempting to reconcile its’ ethnic minorities to the democratic project and in so doing achieve an internal peace that would be extremely conducive to further reform and liberalisation, Myanmar has focused on political factors at the expense of societal factors. The civilian led government has focused on issues where there is more likely to be an immediately tangible return without realising that it is those issues beneath the surface that are more important to the long term success of their project. Although the release of 600 political prisoners is certainly a welcome event that exemplifies the NDSP’s commitment toward a democratic future, it is a relatively simple and instantaneous act. Whilst that is not to belittle the achievement, it can be argued that this step was easy and it is the more difficult issues that now need to be addressed.

Myanmar is a heterogenous society and yet it is a society which as a result of the flagrant persecution of its’ ethnic minorities by the junta over many years, is united only by common heritage. Divided both ethnically and geographically between the dominant, ‘Burmans, concentrated in the central valley of the river Irrawaddy’, [and the] Karens, Shans, Mons, Chins, Arakanese, and numerous other ethnic minorities… scattered around the peripheral region’, there is no overarching identity. Due to the brutal subjugation by the junta of the country’s minorities, Myanmar’s sense of collective identity has been fractured and relations between the government and the various ethnic groups are extremely strained. Correspondingly, it can be remarked that the success of the democratic reforms taking place in Myanmar are dependent on how effectively the new government is able to promote a more encompassing national identity which unifies its’ people under one banner. Instead of papering over the cracks and focusing on those actions which are more likely to appease the wider international community, there should be a shift in emphasis within the government which recognises Myanmar’s diversity and endeavours to promote a more conciliatory approach to its minorities. While disparities between groups can be effectively articulated and institutionalised in a democracy, Myanmar’s burgeoning democratic ambitions have yet to be realised and there is a lot of suspicion among the margins over whether the ruling elite is really committed to change. Consequently, the government should recognise this and engage socially with all groups.

On a recent trip to Kachin state, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to the Kachin about the need to rediscover the ‘Panglong spirit’, a phrase utilised to bring back memories of an agreement between the government and its’ ethnic groups that granted autonomy within an internal administration. With the Kachin being the last minority group still in open conflict with government forces, the speech hinted at a more conciliatory future for the country. Arguing that, ‘the basis of peace is understanding each other, trusting each other and respecting each other’ Aung San Suu Kyi’s words seem to signal a willingness at least on her part to engage openly with those who have been suppressed. Whilst her words are not the words of the government, the very fact that she was allowed to deliver such a speech suggests that the ruling elites are beginning to come round to the idea of engagement and domestic unity.

The problems with the reforms taking place within Myanmar at the moment are twofold. Firstly, the current regime seems to be focusing on those reforms that are readily achievable and where there is some immediate return. Secondly, the reforms taking place are primarily political and systemic. The nominally elected government of Myanmar must recognise the fragility of its’ present position and endeavour to deliver internal peace and accord between its’ divergent groups before the reform process is hampered. In attempting to incrementally establish a democratic society, the government of Thein Sein must differentiate itself from its’ less than illustrious path and openly acknowledge the facade of unity that attempts to disguise the deep disparities that run between its ethnic groups. If it truly wants to actualise accountable, legitimate and all encompassing reforms then it would be wise to begin this process at home. Although there is an argument that the recent reforms taking place within the country are marked by a desire to see Western sanctions lifted in order to increase investment within the country, this goal should not be pursued at the expense of reforms elsewhere. Indeed, in the same way that it is important not to place all your eggs in one basket, it is integral that the civilian led government of Thein Sein doesn’t simply premise the transition to democracy on the lifting of economic sanctions. In dealing with the problem of a divided society, internal peace, unity and the need to rediscover the ‘Panglong Spirit’ are integral to the success of this nascent democratic transition.

[toggle title=”Bibliography”]

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Dickinson, Daniel. (2010) Conditions for elections in Myanmar were “insufficiently inclusive”: UN. [online] Available at: http://www.unmultimedia.org/radio/english/detail/106200.html (Accessed 27 February 2012)

Economist. (2012) Myanmar and Singapore: Among Friends. Available at: http://www.economist.com/node/21546047 (Accessed 27 February 2012)

Lin, Zinn. (2010) Burma junta bids to quash the ‘Panglong spirit’. Asian Correspondent. Available at: http://asiancorrespondent.com/43481/burma%E2%80%99s-junta-blame-on-the-coming-of-second-panglong-conference/ (Accessed 26 February 2012)

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