Iraq must remain a unified cosmopolitan country, as must all its neighbours

Hamid Dabashi writes: 200 years and more into the aftermath of the post/colonial history, countries like Iraq are blessed (yes blessed not cursed) by multifaceted cultures that includes their various constituents but is not reducible to them. From the Code of Hammurabi to the artwork of Rafa Nasiri, Iraqis are – all of them (Sunni, Shia, Kurds, etc.) – the proud inheritors of the very cradle of world civilisation, the very alphabet of our history. That dictators like Saddam Hussein abused that heritage for an empty and vacuous pomposity, or that the imperial buffooneries of Bush and Blair had not an iota of respect for them, does not discredit that heritage as the bedrock of a proud and confident Iraq.

That pride of place and political dignity is not in the direction of any separatist movement form Iraq or any other country. Iraqi borders may have been decided by colonial designs but Iraqi people are not a colonial product. They are the proud descendants of a magnificent civilisation that belongs to all of them. If they are Sunni, Shia or Kurd, this is a source of inspiration, diversity and pluralism for their future.

Iraqi and Lebanese Shia are blessed that they must determine their political future in conversation with other religious and ethnic groupings. They can and they will provide a model of democratic pluralism for the entire region, including and in particular for Iran where the seemingly unified 95 percent plus majority Shia hides a deeply divided and multifaceted society. Iran should not export its pathological “Islamic Republic” to Iraq or Lebanon or Syria. Iraqis, Lebanese and Syrians must offer their future democratic pluralism to Iranians. [Continue reading...]

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The ISIS peril clarifies what Arabs need

Rami G. Khouri writes: The startling developments in northern Iraq, where the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has taken control of Mosul and other cities, highlights several troubling trends that have been evident across much of the Arab World for years.

ISIS moved into Mosul and other cities swiftly and without any real combat because these underlying trends all played their role in this great unfolding drama that speaks to the troubling realities of the Arab world.

This is about much more than any individual issue such as spillover from Syria, lack of Western military assistance to anti-Bashar Assad rebels, growing sectarian tensions in Iraq, or the spread of extremist Islamist militancy. Iraq today has reached a momentous moment of reckoning for the weaknesses of modern Arab statehood and governance. External factors certainly played their roles, such as the Anglo-American war on Iraq in 2003, decades of Israeli meddling in Arab conditions, and Iran’s growing influence in the region.

These external factors, however, could only impact on conditions in Iraq because of the underlying structural problems whose consequences are now playing out before us every day. These underlying Arab-made structural problems include corrupt and incompetent governance, weak citizenship, brittle statehood, and a severe lack of cohesion among different ethnic and sectarian groups within countries.

The news that many locals have not resisted, and even often welcomed, the arrival of ISIS should clarify the intense problems that existed between the government and mostly Sunni local communities in northwest Iraq. Air attacks by the Iraqi government or military moves by foreign powers such as Iran or the United States will momentarily delay the expansion of ISIS-controlled areas. But military power in the long run remains helpless in the face of determined moves by disgruntled citizens to regain what they see as dignity, freedom and rights.

The best proof of this is the steady expansion in the numbers and capabilities of extremist Salafist-takfiri militant groups such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Nusra Front and dozens of other groups that have been repeatedly targeted by military strikes by local governments and the American armed forces. So, military attacks against ISIS and its local allies in Iraq would momentarily pause the current trajectory of the group’s expansion, but will not stop it in the long run.

The fact that some Iraqis would consider life under the draconian rules of ISIS preferable to the conditions they had endured under previous elected Iraqi governments shows how severe are the grievances of ordinary citizens under the rule of Arab tyrants. [Continue reading...]

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Will Israel’s new president, Reuven Rivlin, promote democracy?

Reuven Rivlin was elected in the Knesset today as Israel’s 10th president, replacing outgoing President Shimon Peres.

On Sunday, Dimi Reider wrote:

As speaker, Rivlin’s commitment to parliamentary democracy (and democracy in general) saw him turn time and again against his own party and its allies, stalling most of the anti-democratic legislation pushed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Liberman’s Israel Beitenu, while at the same time trying to instruct his fellow right-wing legislators about the dangers of nationalist populism.

As a staunch right-winger, Rivlin is opposed to partition but is emphatically opposed to racism, coupling his opposition to a Palestinian state with support for offering Israeli citizenship to all Palestinians. While this is a stance being taken up by a number of right-wing politicians in recent years, Rivlin, as a democrat, goes one step further. When I interviewed him for Foreign Policy four years ago, for instance, he spoke nostalgically of a rotation-based executive espoused by Revisionist Zionists like Ze’ev Jabotinsky – and held up by Belfast as one possible inspiration for a future of power-sharing. It’s a far cry from nationalist self-determination, or from the one state advocated by Palestinians and the pro-Palestinian Left. But it still offers infinitely more room for maneuver than anything ever plausibly offered or actually given to Palestinians by the centrist two-state Left.

Rivlin is certainly no left-winger – he hasn’t opposed any Israeli military operation and as communication minister in Sharon’s first cabinet, he presided over a major privatization drive. Still, Rivlin’s tenure as Knesset speaker earned him praise in liberal circles (including the soubriquet of “a bulwark” for democracy from The Economist), and the lasting ire of both Netanyahu and Liberman. Netanyahu, in a lamentable display of panic amplified by a petty squabble with Rivlin over some comments the latter made about Netanyahu’s wife, tried preventing Rivlin’s candidacy by canceling the presidential post at a few week’s notice, and trying to recruit American author Eli Weisel (who is not even an Israeli citizen) to stand in Rivlin’s place. Only when Weisel refused did the prime minister yield and offered Rivlin his sour-faced support. Even if Netanyahu is getting behind Rivlin only so he can eventually stab him in the back (to borrow a Yes, Prime Minister line), he apparently failed to warn Liberman of this decision, prompting the latter to denounce and renounce Rivlin and to hint he himself might support Dalia Itzik.

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Beware the return of ‘strongmen’ world leaders

In an editorial, The Observer says: There was something distasteful, and deeply disturbing, about last week’s photograph of Bashar al-Assad casting his vote in a Damascus polling station, watched by his beautifully coiffured wife, Asma, and adoring supporters. Distasteful because even as the Syrian leader brandished his ballot paper, his military forces were dropping a barrel bomb, the regime’s new terror weapon of choice, on the citizens of Aleppo. Disturbing because such a staged photograph is an established trademark of democracy around the world. It is the sort of picture elected politicians everywhere like to pose for. It sends a reassuring message of order, normality and one-person, one-vote humility. You see: the great man is just like you and me.

Except Assad is not an ordinary guy. No man of the people he, Assad is a dictator whose “presidential election”, held only in those urban areas under government control and boycotted by all credible opposition groups, was a travesty and a sham. He rules because his late father, Hafez, and Syria’s Alawite oligarchy handed him the job in 2000. Early on, he fluffed good opportunities to pursue reform. Since the initially peaceful demonstrations against his regime began more than three years ago, he has proved himself, by turns, foolish, craven and vicious. He exacerbated divisions and escalated the war by resorting to ever more extreme, indiscriminate violence. He is not an elected president. He is a killer and a war criminal with the names of 162,000 dead Syrians on his personal electoral roll.

Historically speaking, Assad is something else, too: a political “strongman” in the dismaying tradition of a region that seems pitifully prone to domination by fiercely driven, unscrupulous and often unsavoury individuals with dictatorial tendencies. In recent times, Saddam Hussein in Iraq was one such; Muammar Gaddafi in Libya was another. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, a former general, succeeded Anwar Sadat, himself a political heir to the arch-strongman, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Now, following Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011, Egypt is once again on the receiving end of strongman politics with the rise of another general, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. His ascent to the presidency was supposedly legitimised in last month’s national elections. But despite being virtually unopposed, he took only 23m out of 53m potential votes on a turnout well below 50%.

Time will tell whether Sisi is the firm-handed, sure-footed leader Egypt needs, as his backers claim. But one thing is already clear: he is no democrat and most Egyptian voters know it. Egypt’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, remains in jail after his ousting last year by Sisi’s armed forces, along with 15,000 of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. An estimated 1,400 people have died. Sisi’s intimidatory shadow hovers over Egypt’s institutions, including the judiciary and media. An official personality cult is in the making. And in an approach that has resonated as far as Bangkok, where Thai military coup leaders seem to have taken a cue from Sisi, Egypt’s new strongman stresses stability over human rights and civic freedoms. How he plans to tackle Egypt’s crushing economic and social problems is less certain. However he does it, he is sure to do it firmly.

Strongman politics is both contagious and increasingly back in fashion across the Middle East, where the democratic promise of the Arab Spring revolts has mostly turned to dust and tears. [Continue reading...]

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Major terrorism trial could be held in secret for first time in UK legal history

The Guardian reports: A major terrorism trial is set to be held entirely in secret for the first time in British legal history in an unprecedented departure from the principles of open justice, the court of appeal has heard.

The identities of the two defendants charged with serious terror offences are being withheld from the public, and the media are banned from being present in court to report the forthcoming trial against the two men, known only as AB and CD.

The unprecedented secrecy has been imposed on the proceedings after the Crown Prosecution Service obtained legal orders to withhold the names of the defendants and allow the trial to take place in private on the grounds, they said, of national security.

At the court of appeal in London, Anthony Hudson, representing the Guardian and several other media organisations, challenged the orders, which will allow a secret criminal trial to take place for the first time in legal history. [Continue reading...]

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Blame the state for sham Arab democracy

Rami G Khouri writes: The recent string of “elections” across the Arab world raises profound questions about the Arab world’s apparent difficulty in adopting institutions and practices of liberal pluralistic democracies.

But is the problem really about the ability of Arab social values to accommodate democracy, or is there a deeper problem related to the clumsy nature of statehood that has emerged in this region during the past century?

The “elections” I refer to include spectacles in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the Lebanese presidential election-selection that was not even held on time due to political bickering among the country’s sectarian leaders. The Egyptian, Syrian and Algerian cases repeat the ugly legacy of the modern Arab tradition of family-run security states and dictatorships that put on a show of voting to secure approval ratings of 87 or 93 or 97 percent, complete with adoring crowds of supporters of the “Great Leader.” [Continue reading...]

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Should citizens have a right to rebel?

Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez writes: Thailand’s Red-Shirt and Yellow-Shirt factions don’t agree on much, but they do have one thing in common: invoking Section 69 of the now-suspended Thai Constitution, which grants citizens a “right to peacefully resist any act committed to obtain powers to rule the country by means not in accordance with the modus operandi as provided in the Constitution.”

For years, during the slowly escalating crisis of protests and political polarization that eventually precipitated Thailand’s recent coup, leaders of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s ruling party warned against elite plots to subvert the democratic process—an outcome for which the “right to resist” served as a shield. Meanwhile, opponents of Thailand’s former government also invoked the provision, arguing that the real interruption of the constitutional order occurred with the hijacking of national institutions by a harsh and subversive majoritarian populism — one machinated from afar by the exiled billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies.

Thailand is not alone. In a study I co-authored with Tom Ginsburg of the University of Chicago and Emiliana Versteeg of the University of Virginia, we scoured the world’s constitutions looking for similar rights to resist. At present, 37 countries, representing roughly 20 percent of all nations, have such rights. The percentage is growing, having more than doubled since 1980.

For Americans, who are often by nature suspicious of government, this right may not sound like a bad idea. Granted, there is something paradoxical in the idea of a constitutional provision empowering individuals to resist, or in some cases openly rebel, against the very same authorities and institutions so meticulously established elsewhere in the same document. Nevertheless, it makes sense that the final say on matters of governance should lie with the people, and that such a clause might well serve as a valuable insurance policy in the future. [Continue reading...]

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Tiananmen Square 25 years on: ‘Every person in the crowd was a victim of the massacre’

Ma Jian writes: On 4 June 1989, when the Chinese Communist party (CCP) sent 200,000 soldiers in armoured tanks to suppress the peaceful pro-democracy protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, causing hundreds if not thousands of fatalities, it was unimaginable to me and most of my compatriots that, 25 years later, this barbaric regime would still be in power, and the massacre would be rendered a taboo. But despite the party’s most ardent efforts to wipe the episode from history, memories of the massacre refuse to be crushed. On the milestone 25th anniversary, Tiananmen is more important than ever.

The death toll of the Tiananmen Democracy Movement may pale in comparison with the millions who perished in the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. Its significance, however, lies not in the number of casualties but in the nobility of its aspirations and the power of its legacy. The CCP and its western apologists like to claim that China, with its vast population, long, unbroken history and cultural traditions, has no desire – or indeed need – for constitutional democracy, and is much better off following its own “exceptional” path of political dictatorship combined with a market economy. But Tiananmen showed the world that the Chinese people are no different from everyone else. When given the chance to express their views freely, they seized it and howled in unison their desire for democracy, freedom and human rights. Although their understanding of the concepts was elementary, they instinctively grasped, like the protesters in Place de la Bastille and Wenceslas Square before them, that these ideals formed the foundation of any civilised and humane nation. To claim that the Chinese are unsuited to, or not yet ready for, democracy and freedom is to view them as less than human beings. [Continue reading...]

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Who’s in control — nation states or global corporations?

Gary Younge writes: The night in 2002 when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won his landslide victory in Brazil’s presidential elections, he warned supporters: “So far, it has been easy. The hard part begins now.” He wasn’t wrong. As head of the leftwing Workers’ party he was elected on a platform of fighting poverty and redistributing wealth. A year earlier, the party had produced a document, Another Brazil is Possible, laying out its electoral programme. In a section entitled “The Necessary Rupture”, it argued: “Regarding the foreign debt, now predominantly private, it will be necessary to denounce the agreement with the IMF, in order to free the economic policy from the restrictions imposed on growth and on the defence of Brazilian commercial interests.”

But on the way to Lula’s inauguration the invisible hand of the market tore up his electoral promises and boxed the country around the ears for its reckless democratic choice. In the three months between his winning and being sworn in, the currency plummeted by 30%, $6bn in hot money left the country, and some agencies gave Brazil the highest debt-risk ratings in the world. “We are in government but not in power,” said Lula’s close aide, Dominican friar Frei Betto. “Power today is global power, the power of the big companies, the power of financial capital.”

The limited ability of national governments to pursue any agenda that has not first been endorsed by international capital and its proxies is no longer simply the cross they have to bear; it is the cross to which we have all been nailed. The nation state is the primary democratic entity that remains. But given the scale of neoliberal globalisation it is clearly no longer up to that task.

“By many measures, corporations are more central players in global affairs than nations,” writes Benjamin Barber in Jihad vs McWorld. “We call them multinational but they are more accurately understood as postnational, transnational or even anti-national. For they abjure the very idea of nations or any other parochialism that limits them in time or space.”

This contradiction is not new. Indeed, it is precisely because it has continued, challenged but virtually unchecked, for more than a generation, that political cynicism has intensified.

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” argued the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. “In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

The recent success of the far right in the European parliamentary elections revealed just how morbid those symptoms have become. [Continue reading...]

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The civilisational dementia that empowers Google

Jaron Lanier writes: Why did Google have to make its prototype driverless vehicle look like a child’s toy car? What does it mean? Are we to be children guided by Google-knows-best?

This is not to criticise the concept. I am very much in favour of self-driving vehicles. My mother died in a car accident, and the engineering case for bringing more automation into transportation is sound. Nor is it to criticise the motivations of the people at Google, who are well meaning and are friends of mine.

But the notion that a company that makes its money almost exclusively by collating personal information for the express purpose of manipulating human behaviour (that’s you, Google) would also be in charge of moving people around is dangerous: deliriously absurd, a sign of civilisational dementia. Can you imagine if your car lingered in front of billboards during your journey or forced you to a particular store on the way home? What if automatic delivery trucks preferred one vendor to another? It is possible to imagine Google attempting to kill Amazon that way, or vice versa.

Obviously, information is power. That means information is wealth. If we must accept yet more extreme information concentration in order to benefit from the increased safety and convenience of better transportation, then it isn’t worth it. This idea that a marked loss of democracy is worth the safety or convenience has always been dangled before us, and has always been wrong. [Continue reading...]

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What was democracy?

Thomas Meaney and Yascha Mounk write: If information technology turns out to have world-historical significance, it is not because of its economic promise, still less because it may facilitate the toppling of dictators. It is because information technology makes plain that the story democracies have told about themselves for more than two centuries has been a bluff.

Democracy, as we know it in the modern world, is based on a peculiar compromise. The word to which we pay such homage means the “rule of the people.” But insofar as we can claim to govern ourselves at all, we do so in a remarkably indirect way. Every few years, the citizens of modern democracies make their way to the polls to cast their votes for a limited set of candidates. Once they have acquitted themselves of this duty, their elected representatives take over. In the daily functioning of democracy, the public is marginal.

This is not what democracy once looked like. In ancient Athens, the citizens constituted at most one-fifth of the population—the rest were women, children, resident aliens and slaves. But those Athenians who did count as citizens had a direct voice in matters of justice and war. The idea that a people should meet in public to discuss what to do was not unique to the Greeks — several indigenous societies across the world deliberated in similar ways — but nothing approaching direct democracy has been tried on a mass scale in the modern world.

The American founders were adamant that it could not be otherwise. The body of the people, John Adams declared, “can never act, consult, or reason together, because they cannot march five hundred miles, nor spare the time, nor find a space to meet; and, therefore, the proposition, that they are the best keepers of their own liberties, is not true. They are the worst conceivable; they are no keepers at all.” Adams was dismissing one of the last gasps of the radical republican tradition—the Anti-Federalists, mostly composed of farmers and minor artisans in the colonies. Their arguments for making political life in America as local as possible were trumped by the founders’ superior propaganda and their vision of a republic that would encompass a much larger territory. Since then, for more than 200 years, almost every political thinker has conceded that the constraints of time and space make direct democracy impracticable. Even those who did not share the founders’ contempt for popular rule — Robespierre, Bolívar, Lenin — have acknowledged that representative institutions are unavoidable.

As long as direct democracy was impracticable within the confines of the modern territorial state, the claim that representative institutions constituted the truest form of self-government was just about plausible. But now, in the early twenty-first century, the claim about direct democracy being impossible at the national level and beyond is no longer credible. As the constraints of time and space have eroded, the ubiquitous assumption that we live in a democracy seems very far from reality. [Continue reading...]

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Taking sides in Ukraine

By Charles Turner, Open Democracy, April 21, 2014

Shortly before her death, Susan Sontag published an essay on that indispensable chronicler of Stalin’s rule, Victor Serge (1890-1947). Reflecting on the fact that works like Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1949) were for some time regarded with hostility on the American left, she writes:

‘The decades of turning a blind eye to what went on in communist regimes, specifically the conviction that to criticise the Soviet Union was to give aid and comfort to fascists and warmongers, seem almost incomprehensible now. In the early 21st century, we have moved on to other illusions – other lies that intelligent people with good intentions and humane politics tell themselves and their supporters in order not to give aid and comfort to their enemies.’

It’s a typical late Sontag passage, challenging and measured. Yet it doesn’t quite hang together. Indeed, the second sentence gives the lie to the first: she says that turning a blind eye persists, albeit now directed at – or away from – new targets (she was probably thinking of militant Islam), but if that is true then what happened before may be all-too-comprehensible, the continuity of practice suggesting that turning a blind eye may be a standard feature of a certain type of political commitment. After all, the first version of it that seemed incomprehensible in 2004 had persisted into the 1970s, decades after people had felt the need to choose communism as the lesser of two evils; though the two most notorious right-wing regimes of the 1930s and 1940s had gone, there were still other examples aplenty of ‘fascist’ regimes. So Trotskyists, for instance, uneasy heirs of Victor Serge, didn’t so much turn a blind eye to what went on in communist regimes as squint at it through a lens that allowed them to call it ‘state capitalism’, thereby making themselves critics of Moscow without aligning themselves with cold war hawks and their dictator friends.

The current Ukrainian crisis has seen blind eye turning on all sides. Much of it has been directed by left liberals at or away from Russian foreign policy, on the basis that open criticism of Russia might make one a bedfellow of those hypocrites in the White House. Hence Russia’s armed seizure of Crimea and organisation of a farcical referendum is regarded as troubling, but not something we need to shout too loud about because Crimea is really Russian anyway (or at least has been since 1783); hence Putin’s support for the despotic regime of Bashar-al-Assad is passed over in silence for fear that criticism of it will make one a supporter of the Syrian opposition, and hence the United States that is arming it; and when Putin calls the extremists in Kyiv who ousted President Yanukovych ‘fascists’, it rings alarm bells loud enough to cancel out the sound of those that Putin himself triggers.

From the other side there is not so much blind eye turning as dewy-eyed romanticism, led by the Yale historian Tim Snyder: where Putin saw only extremists in Maidan square, Snyder implies that Ukraine is already ready to join the EU because the leader of a group of frightening looking men in combat fatigues is really a gay hairdresser from the Donbas, while the new deputy minister for whatever is a Jewish transvestite whose mother was a disabled German preacher. I was never much impressed by this sort of argument: in 2000 a Polish friend tried to impress me with the fact that in that Catholic country the president was a former communist (Aleksander Kwaśniewski), the prime minister a Protestant (Jerzy Buzek) and the foreign minister a Jew (Bronisław Geremek). Five years later it was being ruled by a coalition of the surreal Kaczyński twins, Andrzej Lepper’s thuggish Self-Defence party and the far-right League of Polish Families.

I have also seen articles that begin with questions like ‘how should people on the left respond to events in Ukraine?’, but these are worse than useless: the real task is, with old Kant, to think for oneself. In the current crisis I think that that entails more than seeing faults on all sides, easy though that is. The charge of ‘hypocrisy,’ for instance, can be directed everywhere: John Kerry invokes the sanctity of territorial boundaries while approving drone attacks in Pakistan, Vladmir Putin warns that the (temporary) Ukrainian government might wage war on its own people while he himself supports Assad in Syria, and the new EU-friendly Ukrainian prime minister was on television a few years ago advocating a blanket ban on the use of the Russian language.

So here, for what it’s worth, is what I think. Firstly, the absurd spectacle of John McCain and some naïve Euro MPs in Maidan Square notwithstanding, and while there may be many Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine who do wish to be citizens of the Russian Federation, the use of military force – and that is what the seizure of government buildings in Eastern Ukraine is – to make the latter point is no more justified than would be Hungary’s occupation of southern Slovakia to protect the rights of the Hungarian minority, and is no more right than was the use of military force in Iraq. Anyone who marched in London against that, on principle should march against this. Secondly, Putin’s Eurasian Union project, devised by an admirer of Carl Schmitt, can only work – and here Snyder is right – if it consists of a series of autocracies: what he fears above all is not fascism in Ukraine or the spread of NATO; he has had that on his doorstep since 1999 when the accession of Poland took it up to the border of Russia’s Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad, formerly Prussia’s second city Königsberg, and the home of old Kant; and his late lamented Soviet Union had NATO on its doorstep for thirty years with Turkey’s membership. No, what Putin fears more than anything is even more of his doorstep being occupied by democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and a respect for human rights. Were Ukraine to enter the EU, or even prepare to do so, its people might at least have a hope of aspiring to these. As part of the Eurasian Union – or as is possible if Russia invades, part of the Russian Federation – that hope would vanish. The third alternative, being put about by people in the West who enjoy these benefits already, namely that Ukraine might act as a buffer state between the EU and NATO and the Russian Federation, is grotesque. The interwar period alone shows that the history of weak European states going it alone without being part of a larger economic and security structure is dismal: this is why when they were invited to join the EU and NATO in the 1990s the governments of Eastern Europe of all stripes were not the victims of soft power but rather accepted with alacrity. Ukraine, the Ukrainian people, should be given the chance to choose which way it wants to turn. It can be given that chance, and that might include either the federalization of the country, or the option to split in two, with Russian speaking Eastern Ukrainians not free but secure under Putin’s gathering wing, and a rump Western Ukraine a full member of the EU and NATO with all the risks – and possibilities – that that entails. But it cannot do this with a gun pointing at its head. On this occasion the one pointing the gun is in Moscow, not in Washington.

Charles Turner is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. This article was originally published in the independent online magazine www.opendemocracy.net

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National Popular Vote: New York State climbs aboard

Hendrik Hertzberg writes: On Tuesday, the State of New York took a baby step — or maybe a giant leap! — toward making the United States of America something more closely resembling a modern democracy: Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill joining up the Empire State to the National Popular Vote (N.P.V.) interstate compact.

As I’ve explained many times (fifty-one, to be exact), N.P.V. is a way to elect our Presidents the way we elect our governors, our mayors, our senators and representatives, our state legislators, and everybody else: by totting up the voters’ votes — all of them — and awarding the job to whichever candidate gets the largest number. And it does this without changing a word of the Constitution.

Impossible, you say? No. Quite possible — even probable — and in time for 2020, if not for 2016.

Here’s how it works: Suppose you could get a bunch of states to pledge that once there are enough of them to possess at least two hundred and seventy electoral votes — a majority of the Electoral College — they will thenceforth cast all their electoral votes for whatever candidate gets the most popular votes in the entire country. As soon as that happens, presto change-o: the next time you go to the polls, you’ll be voting in a true national election. No more ten or so battleground states, no more forty or so spectator states, just the United States—all of them, and all of the voters who live in them.

Unless you’ve been following this pretty closely, it will surprise you to learn that, before this week, ten states (counting D.C.) had already signed on. Now it’s eleven, and between them they have a hundred and sixty-five electoral votes—sixty-one per cent of the total needed to bring the compact into effect. [Continue reading...]

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The overwhelming power of money in American politics

Al Jazeera reports: It’s not just your imagination: The influence of money in politics has indeed drowned out the voices of American voters, a new analysis shows, with runaway corporate lobbying and a lack of campaign finance reform to blame for giving much more political weight to the wealthy.

Researchers at Princeton University and Northwestern University compared the public’s influence on 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002, finding that more often than not, the interests of wealthy groups and individuals won out over the demands of the general public. For instance, when 80 percent of the public asked for a change of some sort, they got their way only about 43 percent of the time.

The study, its authors say, points to the overwhelming power of wealthy lobbying groups and individuals backing certain interests in American politics, and the marginalization of voters and public advocacy groups.

“I expected to find that ordinary Americans had a modest degree of influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups would serve to promote those interests,” Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton and a co-author of the study, wrote in an email to Al Jazeera.

“What we found instead was that ordinary Americans have virtually no influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups as a whole do not reliably side with the wishes of the average citizen.” [Continue reading...]

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Narendra Modi: A threat to the world’s largest democracy?

The Guardian reports: More than a dozen of India’s most respected artists and academics – including the novelist Salman Rushdie and the sculptor Anish Kapoor – have written to the Guardian to express their “acute worry” at the prospect of Narendra Modi, the controversial Hindu nationalist politician, becoming the country’s prime minister.

Modi, the candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is currently leading all opinion surveys and many analysts believe he is assured of victory when results of the six-week phased poll are announced next month.

Tens of millions of Indians voted on Thursday in Delhi, the capital, and in volatile areas in the centre and east of the country where Maoist insurgents are active. Turnout has so far been high in one of the most bitterly fought elections for many decades. The Congress party, in power since 2004, currently appears headed for a historic defeat.

The letter to the Guardian, also signed by British lawyers, activists and three members of parliament, says that Modi becoming prime minister would “bode ill for India’s future as a country that cherishes the ideals of inclusion and protection for all its peoples and communities”. [Continue reading...]

Jason Burke writes: India has long been prone to periodic bouts of communal violence, and political opponents, cynically or otherwise, repeatedly cite the 2002 rioting [in Gujarat] to highlight the threat of sectarian conflict if Modi wins the coming elections. Though Modi has not been convicted, they point out, associates have been sent to prison for their role in the violence. There are also many ordinary Indians, and not just India’s Muslim minority, who are deeply committed to a tolerant, pluralist, progressive vision of India and who believe Modi would divide and damage their country.

Others see things differently. For tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of people across India, what happened in 2002, or at least what they believe happened, does not so much raise doubts about Modi’s claim to lead the country, but reinforce it.

In a school run by the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] close to the Meerut rally site, on the eve of the meeting, members of the organisation gathered for a conference on encouraging traditional sports. Their worldview is nationalist and conservative. Incidents such as the 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in Delhi are a result of “moral decadence” and western culture, they say, while the boundaries of “Bharat”, the Sanskrit-origin word they use to describe their country, should encompass Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tibet, Bangladesh and Burma. One veteran claims India faces three problems: “corruption, inflation and Muslims”. Modi has an answer to all three, he insists. Rajendra Agrawal, the BJP member of parliament representing Meerut’s 1.4 million voters, stresses that Hinduism’s message is one of peace and tolerance but “one day … Islamic aggression will have to be dealt with”.

A key question is how far Modi has moved from the hardline vision of the organisation he joined at the age of 10. In recent years, there have been tensions between the politician and the RSS. The candidate’s pragmatic, business-friendly, globalised outlook is at odds with the traditional self-reliance of the nationalist movement. The RSS did not take it well, either, when Modi suggested that India needed to build toilets before temples.

Christophe Jaffrelot, a political scientist who specialises in extremism in south Asia, says Modi has effectively “emancipated himself” from the RSS high command, who traditionally outrank even senior BJP figures. Yet, he adds, Modi may well “do anyway what the RSS has wanted to do for decades because he is perfectly in tune with their ideology.” [Continue reading...]

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Supreme Court delivers another blow to American democracy

The New York Times reports: The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a major campaign finance decision, striking down some limits on federal campaign contributions for the first time. The ruling, issued near the start of a campaign season, will change and most likely increase the already large role money plays in American politics.

The decision, by a 5-to-4 vote along ideological lines, with the Court’s more conservative justices in the majority, was a sequel of sorts to Citizens United, the 2010 decision that struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions. But that ruling did nothing to affect the other main form of campaign finance regulation: caps on direct contributions to candidates and political parties.

Wednesday’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, No. 12-536, addressed that second kind of regulation.

It did not affect familiar base limits on contributions from individuals to candidates, currently $2,600 per candidate in primary and general elections. But it said that overall limits of $48,600 by individuals every two years for contributions to all federal candidates violated the First Amendment, as did separate aggregate limits on contributions to political party committees, currently $74,600.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for four justices in the controlling opinion, said the First Amendment required striking down the limits. “There is no right in our democracy more basic,” he wrote, “than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”

Dissenting from the bench, Justice Stephen G. Breyer called the decision a blow to the First Amendment and American democracy. “If the court in Citizens United opened a door,” he said, “today’s decision may well open a floodgate.” [Continue reading...]

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