Senegal: Islam, democracy, sexy

Not Iran this time!

I’ve been in Senegal the last couple of weeks. And, you know? Senegal is (1) 90% Muslim, and (2) a vibrant democracy.

The opposition won the last couple of elections. The press is free — sometimes obnoxiously so. Human rights violations are relatively rare. (Nonexistent, really, by African standards.) Senegal has never had a military dictatorship, a civil war, or a coup. Okay, the first couple of Presidents ruled for twenty years each, but they seem to be past that — the current President won a free and fair election. He’s also term limited, and everyone is already looking forward to a gloriously democratic free-for-all in a couple of years when he steps down.

I don’t want to overstate here. Senegal has all the usual African problems. It’s desperately poor. About a third of the population is still illiterate. There’s spectacular corruption. The President is clearly grooming his son for the succession; this involves putting Junior in the path of some rather large business opportunities. And while Senegal is a democracy, I might hesitate to call it a fully functional liberal democracy. Media that criticize the President too sharply may get hassled or shut down, government money is poured out like water to win elections, and many Ministers and members of Parliament are pretty openly for sale.

On the other-other hand, the opposition won the midterm elections last year, sweeping the President’s party out of almost every local government. To his obvious irritation and dismay. You don’t see that happening in Turkmenistan or Belarus.

So why doesn’t Senegal get any respect? Continue reading

The Transition is Over

“Transition to democracy” was one of the European politics geek’s terms of art ever since 1989; there’s even an AFOE category devoted to transition and accession to the EU. According to Tim Garton Ash, one of his old dissident friends kept a large file of documents under the rubric “TD”; he suggested, wisely, that it ought to have been TC, for “Transition from Communism”. There’s even Transitions Online.

The transition is over. It’s now clear that even the aspiration for it in Russia is dead; the “administrative resources” are now aiming for a one-party Duma. TOL itself is more optimistic; they reckon there is a chance for a significant Communist revival, which would at least mean the opposition was a real, existing political party. However, who can do anything but laugh at the thought of e-voting in Russia? E-voting everywhere else in the world has been bad enough, and its well-publicised fiascos will deaden any criticism of Russia’s version.

It’s the end of an era. Earlier this week, I watched a BBC documentary about the shutdown of the BBC World Service’s programmes in Central and Eastern Europe; a whole microculture of Polish and Bulgarian broadcasters in West London signing off. They, of course, can claim that it’s mission accomplished, especially as the Kazcynski Kidz lost the elections.

The next point to watch here is the fate of the OSCE, and specifically its office of democratic institutions and human rights; Putin has promised to “reform” it. (As you know, Bob, AFOE hates the word “reform”.) It should be pretty clear what “reform” will consist of; a dictators’ club veto on publishing anything critical. This is something that badly wants watching, as I doubt there is much political will in the West to keep it going.

If we want to take the EU as a magnet for democracy, peace, and other good stuff – basic norms of civilised behaviour – ODIHR needs either support, or else to be transferred into the competence of the European Union, safe from post-Soviet vetoes or US fiddling.

Serbia is stable and associated! (Bosnia, not so much)

So Serbia will get a Stability and Association Pact with the EU (SAA). The pact was initialed last week; barring a catastrophe, it will be formally signed in January.

An SAA is the step before formal EU candidacy, so this is good news for Serbia. It looks like Brussels is trying to strengthen the “liberal and Western” strain of Serbia’s politics before December, when problems are likely to arise with Kosovo. (The current round of Kosovo negotiations is likely to expire on December 10.)

The big loser here, of course, is Carla del Ponte. The SAA was supposed to wait until Serbia had “cooperated fully” with the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). Serbia’s cooperation has been slow, reluctant, half-hearted, and in no sense “full”; Ratko Mladic is going to die comfortably in bed, and the current leadership of Serbia is good with that.

Back in March, I noted that the Belgians (backed by the Dutch) had put a freeze on candidacy negotiations because they wanted to see real cooperation with the ICTY. Well, eight months is a long time in politics. Apparently the Belgians and Dutch were argued around. The current paralysis of the Belgian government may have had something to do with this.

Albania got its SAA last year, and newly-independent Montenegro a few months ago. Bosnia thus becomes the only country in the region without one. Bosnia’s goverment just formally collapsed this week, and they may well be going back to the polls in January or February. So, it looks like they won’t get their SAA initialed until next year at the earliest. Continue reading

Spain’s postnational local election?

Richard Corbett MEP directs us to this BBC report on Spain’s rash of political parties dominated by immigrants from other European countries, especially Germany and Britain. In one municipality, San Fulgencio, there are some three such parties, including one run by a former policeman that declares its opposition to immigration.

This immediately raises an interesting question of language. As Corbett points out, the BBC reporter refers throughout to “ex-pats”, who are apparently something quite different to “immigrants”. I am an expatriate, you are a local, he is an immigrant, they are bogus asylum seekers taking our jobs? I suppose it’s not surprising that these large, usually politically silent, communities should export their political preferences with them – one can well imagine people who fit into UKIP, the BNP, or the Tory hard right fitting into what Edward Hugh calls Spanish separatism.

Certainly, we can discern a progression through perhaps three phases. To begin with, these places were tourist resorts (hence the infrastructure problems that motivate much of this political activity, the lead times being long). Then they began to be retirement communities, with the demographic shift and the run-up of the property market. Now, interestingly, not only are the retirees living longer, but the expat (or immigrant!) population is getting younger, in a symbiotic process with the appearance of an expat economy.

Tourists are politically irrelevant, at least in the context of an open society. Retirement communities may have been thought to be so. If people have families and businesses, though, they can’t help but have interests that are affected by local politics. Corbett raises an interesting point when he postulates a British Polish Party. After all, they would be starting at stage three already, although the fact a lot of them intend to leave would be a countervailing force.

I wonder how many more extranational political parties the EU will see?

Bloggers for Bronislaw

It is simply intolerable that a EU member state’s government should try to dismiss an MEP elected by the people. I think everyone can agree on that, right? It’s for the public to decide who should represent them. It’s for the member states as a whole to decide on the overall organisation of the EU. It’s for the European Parliament to decide on its own rules of procedure.

Not if you’re Poland’s comedy prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczyinski, who wants everybody to sign a statement that they are not, have never been, and never will be a Communist. Never mind that Poland already did this in 1998. Never mind that this includes everyone who had a position of responsibility up to 1989. Never mind that the Polish president until a couple of years ago was a former commie, and the hens didn’t stop laying.

As Major Major in Catch 22 says, the thing is to catch them before they know what allegiance is and keep’em pledging. Bronislaw Geremek and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, veterans of Solidarity’s intellectual side and the first post-communist government both, have refused to sign the pledge on principle, and now the Kaczyinskis are trying to end their mandates.

I wasn’t aware that an MEP was responsible to his or her home government – in fact I’m pretty sure they aren’t, and I’m meant to be an EU specialist. Even Maggie Thatcher was unable to browbeat the British commissioner, or for that matter the MEPs. This is profoundly anti-democratic, and worse, anti-constitutional – it’s an exercise in rule by whim, and if the EU is anything, it’s a community committed to constitutionalism.

Depressingly, looking up Tim Garton-Ash’s 1990s essays, I find reams of stuff on “lustration”, aka sacking people you don’t like, which all seems to come to the conclusion that it was risky, but fortunately it’s all over and Poland is a normal country. News: it’s not anywhere near as normal as we hoped. Sadly, the opinion-current behind the current government is the same that was calling the ex-communists and most of the dissidents by the same horrible name in 1991 – “zydokommuna” or “Jewishcommunists”. Nice friends you got there.

I’d like to see a blog storm about this.

State of Democratic Emergency!

Or should that be a undemocratic state of emergency?

In past AFOE threads, we’ve been discussing the Italian elections, as you no doubt saw. One thing that came up is the possibility that Silvio Berlusconi might not behave himself in the event that he looks like losing. This is after all a man who has no compunction about changing the law to avoid being prosecuted, associating with barely concealed mafiosi, and generally flouting the principles of the Italian constitution. It’s by no means impossible that, losing power and immunity, he might end up in jail. Can he really be trusted, then, not to try to rig the ballot and to go away if he loses?

This week’s events have lent much point to this discussion. Berlusconi’s behaviour has become a little odd, to say the least. After walking out of a TV discussion, he proceeded to harangue the members of Confindustria for making up all Italy’s economic problems as part of (you guessed it) a communist plot, and finished up by announcing that a “state of democratic emergency” existed after a minor fracas broke out near one of his speeches.

Worryingly, he seems to be assembling the ideological foundations of anti-democracy; he argues that there is a plot by secret communists who incorporate the judiciary, the procuracy, the media and even the top executives of Italian industry, and that the state is in danger from a violent opposition movement aligned with them. They are also part of the communist conspiracy. Perhaps he will soon discover that they are also terrorists.

Is this not something like the arguments of Carl Schmitt’s Ausnahmezustand? To deal with these violent communists who are endangering democracy and the rule of law, presumably, democracy and law must be suspended. If the election is close, I think there is a small but non-trivial chance that he will try to announce that, “to restore order”, the elections will be “suspended” or some such. Fortunately, any such action would have seismic economic and political consequences, national bankruptcy being the most immediate, which ought to deter the people he would need to carry with him from supporting such a move.

Yes, there is a “state of democratic emergency” in Italy. I don’t think it’s too wild to say that Silvio Berlusconi is it.

Italian Elections 2006 III

Well Romano Prodi and Silvio Berlusconi finally got to meet up in front of the TV cameras last night, even if they didn’t exactly enter into face to face combat. The poll consensus seems to be that Prodi won it on points.

The debate seems to have centred around economic themes, and Euractiv has a summary of it here. Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti has been trying to put a brave face on things, by claiming that Italy is now “on the right tracks” and that the situation of Italy’s “public finances is good”. Mario Draghi, the new governor over at the Italian central bank does not seem especially convinced, since he was claiming only last week that the Italian economy had run aground.

Again unsurprisingly a poll held shortly before the debate showed that a large number of Italians are still undecided about how they will cast their vote, even if there is some evidence that the Prodi coalition may be hanging on to their lead.

Roberto over at Wind Rose Hotel has the third of his election posts now up. He draws our attention to the latest contributor to the ‘great debate’, semiologist and erstwhile novelist Umberto Eco (link in Italian). Eco has indicated he might consider leaving Italy were Berlusconi to be re-elected. Democracy, according to Eco, is in danger in Italy. Angelo Panebianco, writing in Corriere della Sera (which has remember endorsed the Prodi coalition), takes issue with Eco and asks: why so much theatrical drama?:

For two reasons, I think. The first is that such dramatisation is exactly what attracts the kind of ‘intellectual’ audience which has chosen Umberto Eco, and especially Umberto Eco, as its very own champion and reference point. The hate for Berlusconi among this section of the public is palpable and evident, we have surely all of us found this in recent years in scores of private conversations and in the fascinating phenomenon of collective psychology. …..

The second reason for the dramatisation, I think, is to do with a problem which is typical of our (Italian) culture. It is an ancient legacy here, for many, to mistake democracy, which is a method of resolving conflicts by counting heads instead of breaking heads them……..(to mistake this process) forthe realisation of their own ideals. To mistake the victory or defeat of their political views for the victory and defeat of democracy: this is a kind of childhood illness of democracy.

Well it seems that Italy is a society which is rapidly ageing but where ‘childhood illnesses’ abound. Reading the piece by Panebianco I could not help but think, not of Umberto Eco, but of Nanni Moretti, whose films I thoroughly enjoy, but whose perceptions of contemporary Italian society have always struck me as being ‘warped’ to say the least. Democracy is not in danger in Italy in this election, it is not even in doubt. What is in danger, and about this there should be no doubt, is the Italian pension system and the mid-term economic well-being of Italian society. Far from the Italian pension system having been reformed and fine-tuned to the extent which Tremonti alleges, the necessary adjustment has only recently started on the road, and this small step was taken only after the last minute tussle and haggling (in part with represantatives of Berlusconi’s insurance industry interests) which was needed to salvage at least one piece of reforming legislation from 5 years of a decidedly ‘reform unfriendly’ government. What Italy needs at this point in time is a government which is serious about introducing the Lisbon agenda in Italy. This would not be a Berlusconi-lead government. Will it be a Prodi-lead one? This is what remains to be seen. If it turns out that neitherof the alternatives are up to the task, then Eco may well, in a certain sense be right: Italy will then have a crisis of democracy, but not, I think, the one he has in mind.

Planting The News?

Wow! The FT today has a very long and extensive story about how the US military have been ‘placing’ stories in the Iraqi press. While I don’t disagree with the observation by one commentator in that “I don’t think that there’s anything inherently evil or morally wrong with it” in a war situation, I do agree with another Pentagon spokesman quoted who argues that it is more than just efficacy which is at stake:

“Here we are trying to create the principles of democracy in Iraq. Every speech we give in that country is about democracy. And we’re breaking all the first principles of democracy when we’re doing it,” said a senior Pentagon official who opposes the practice of planting stories in the Iraqi media.

All this takes me back to my Afoe post last week about alleged suggestions that it might be a good idea to bomb the Doha headquarters of the Arabic satellite TV channel al-Jazeera. The point is, you don’t bomb people just because you disagree with their opinions. That in fact is terrorism, not anti-terrorism, and if you want a free and independent pressthen that is what you have to accept, that it won’t necessarily agree with, or support you. The big danger is that the official Iraqi press loses credibility through this kind of thing, and as a consequence the fragile Iraqi democracy also loses credibility.

Parliament Live on Blogs

One of our lurkers turns out to be from the Media section of the European Parliament. Today and tomorrow the EP is webcasting a conference on technology and democracy, with a prominent role for blogs.

Mystery in European Parliament…!
just like you, the European Parliament is well aware of the increasing power and importance of blogging, which hasn’t only started to blur the lines between the private and the public, between journalism and opinion, between citizen and politician, but has also opened up new questions in the field of democracy and democratic control. As part of the activities that will accompany the launch of its new website, the European Parliament has decided to hold several debates dealing with the fast-moving developments in digital society on the 12th and 13th of September, the first of which is entitled Web logs: competition, challenge or chance? Who’s afraid to open Pandora’s Blogs? Participants in the debate will include several well-known journalists, bloggers and experts in the field, who will no doubt ensure a lively debate that should be of special interest to bloggers, as well as anyone interested in the relationship between digital technology and democracy. We would therefore like to invite you to join us on the Europarl website (http://www.europarl.eu.int/eplive/public/default_en.htm), where the event will be broadcast live on the 12th of September starting at 3PM via web streaming.

Wishing you all the best in your blogging endeavours,
Yours Sincerely,
José Manuel Nunes LIBERATO
Directeur, DIRECTION A – MEDIA

If you go to the site, click on “Round Tables on the Information Society” and then scroll down to “watch”. As I read the schedule, there’s only half an hour left today, but several hours tomorrow.