ESSAY: How Gabriel García Márquez introduced me to Latin America

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Whenever I go to México City, I marvel at the way its indigenous history integrates into the fabric of the city. Nahuatl words, like ‘Chapultepec,’ meaning grasshopper, and ‘Xochimilco,’ a neighborhood featuring a series of Aztec-created canals, pepper the geography of the city. Those are just two of hundreds of daily reminders rooting Latin America’s largest modern megapolis of 8.9 million in the language and traditions of its pre-Columbian past. It’s where the Virgin of Guadalupe, a young Nahuatl-speaking girl, apparently revealed herself to Juan Diego in 1531 as the Virgin Mary, instructing him to build a church, launching one of the most compelling hybrid religious followings in the New World. Even the inhabitants of the notorious Tepito barrio worship Santa Muerte on the first of November with bright flowers, cacophanous marimba and not a small amount of marijuana, in celebration of the magical chasm between what is, for many Tepito residents, a gritty life and an often grittier death.

It’s the way that México City blends the mysterious and the mundane, matches the sacred with the profane and so blends the line between the indigenous and conquistador that it’s hard to know who conquered what. For all of those reasons, I often think of it as the unofficial capital of realismo magico.

So it’s natural to me that the literary master of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez, made his home in México City for much of the last six decades of his life. It’s also where García Márquez died on April 17 at age 87.

It was his uncanny ability to blend the realistic with the magical that largely won him such adoration worldwide. But what makes the writing of García Márquez and the other authors of the 1960s Latin American Boom so electrifying to me is the way that it blended the literary with the political. Certainly, García Márquez’s writing was about family, about love, about solitude, about power, about loss, about fragility, about all of these universal themes. But his writing also explicated many of the themes that we today associate with Latin America’s culture, identity, history and politics.

His death wasn’t entirely unexpected. García Márquez was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer all the way back in 1999 and by the beginning of the 2010s, he rarely made public appearances anymore due to the grim advance of Alzheimer’s disease. By the time I made it to Latin America for the first time, he was already approaching 80, and I knew I’d have little chance of meeting him.

That’s fine by me, because I always considered him, through his work, my own personal ambassador to Latin America. Over the course of several treks through Latin America, Gabo still accompanied me through his writing – and along the way, he shaped my own framework for how I think about Latin American life.

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(8) Going up the Argentine Andes 2

When I was planning my first trip to Latin America, I brought with me a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I saved the novel for this very occasion, a trek from Buenos Aires to Mendoza and then by bus over the Andes to Santiago. Technically speaking, I was on the wrong end of the continent for García Márquez. I packed some Neruda, some Allende and some Borges — and some Cortázar, too (mea culpa, I still haven’t clawed enough time to read Hopscotch).

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Nevertheless, García Márquez’s words transcended the setting of his native Colombia. Hundred Years, published in 1967, just six years after the Cuban revolution that undeniably marked a turning point in its relationship with the behemoth world power to the north, it came at a time when Latin American identity seemed limitless, and García Márquez mined a new consciousness that wasn’t necessarily Colombian or even South American. So much of the story of Colombia’s development from the colonial era through the present day is also cognizably Bolivian, Chilean, Mexican or Argentinian. After all, García Márquez, already a well-known figure, went on a writing strike when Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile in 1973, ousting the democratically elected Socialist president Salvador Allende, who either committed suicide or was shot on September 11, the day of the coup.

It was an intoxicating read. The sleek brown corduroy blazer I picked up in Buenos Aires with the affected hint of epaulets on the shoulders soon became what I called my ‘Colonel Aureliano’ jacket. Besides, where better to buy a Spanish language copy of his work than El Ateneo, perhaps the most amazing bookstore in the world?

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Hundred Years, of course, came highly recommended from the world that had discovered García Márquez decades before I was even born. It became an instant hit upon publication, catapulting García Márquez’s popularity beyond his more established peers, including México’s Carlos Fuentes and Perú’s Mario Vargas Llosa.

Bill Clinton, in his autobiography My Life, confesses to zoning out of class one day in law school to finish it:  Continue reading

All you wanted to know about Ukraine’s Donbass region

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For the second time in as many months, Ukraine’s crisis threatens to spiral out of control, with the Ukrainian military now trying (mostly in vain) to secure several cities in the Russian-speaking east from a band of pro-Russian separatists. Russia Flag IconUkraine Flag Icon

Just over a month ago, Russia annexed Crimea, the peninsula region in the south of Ukraine with an overwhelmingly large Russian ethnic population. For all the bluster between Washington and Moscow, you’d have thought that Crimea was as important to the international world order in 2014 as Cuba was in 1963 or Hungary was in 1956.

But the world largely seemed to accept Russia’s annexation of a region that was, after all, part of Russia until 1954. Yesterday in Geneva, after as the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union reached a somewhat thin agreement to reduce the current tension in eastern Ukraine, US secretary of state John Kerry tersely declared, ‘we didn’t come here to talk about Crimea.’

So what’s so different now? Will the latest framework, agreed just on Thursday, succeed? Was Crimea just a warmup act for a larger Russian annexation?

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RELATED: Why more protests won’t solve Ukraine’s political crisis — and why the Orange Revolution didn’t either
RELATED: What comes next for Ukraine following Yanukovich’s ouster

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Not to worry. Here’s everything (and more) you probably ever wanted to know about the Donbass, the eastern-most region of Ukraine that’s now center-stage in the latest round of the fake Cold War.

What is the Donbass?

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The Donbass — or the Donbas (It’s Донбас in Ukrainian, Донбасс in Russian, and if we’ve learned anything about linguocultural conflict, it that language matters a lot) gets its name from the Donets Basin, which is the coal-mining, heavy-industry heart of eastern Ukraine. As a formal matter, the Donbass includes just the northern and center of Donetsk oblast (an oblast is Ukraine’s version of a state), the south of Luhansk oblast, and a very small eastern part of Dnipropetrovsk oblast.  Continue reading

India Lok Sabha elections: Phase 5

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It’s election day once again in India, and today marks the fifth phase of the nine-phase marathon to determine India’s national government. Indians today will elect 121 members of the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा). That makes today’s round, just barely, the most important of all nine phases. Together with the April 24 phase next week, Indians will choose 43% of the seats in the entire Lok Sabha in just two rounds of voting.  India Flag Icon

So what are the keys to the voting in today’s phase?

Here’s our trusty map of India’s states, as a reference point before we jump into the state-by-state breakdown:

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Karnataka

The biggest prize is the south-central state of Karnataka, a state of over 61 million Indians, home to Bangalore and India’s high-tech sector. All of its 28 representatives to the Lok Sabha will be elected in today’s voting.

More than any other state in India, it’s been especially impermeable to the ‘Modi wave’ that polls predict will lift the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) and its prime ministerial candidate, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, to power.

In the May 2013 state elections, the BJP lost control of the Karnataka state government, terminating the BJP’s historic first government in India’s south. The loss had less to do with Modi than with corruption and infighting within the state party. Nonetheless, the  BJP was wiped out, losing 72 seats in the state assembly, and damaging its reputation in advance of this year’s national elections.

With the memories of the disastrous BJP state government still fresh, Karnataka could be the rare bright spot for India’s governing party, the Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस), which could pick up eight seats for a total of 14, according to the latest NDTV poll.

One of the marquee contests is in the Bangalore South constituency, where Congress’s candidate is Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekan, running against the BJP’s Ananth Kumar. 

Rajasthan 

The BJP’s most impressive victory in last November’s state elections occurred in the arid, western state of Rajasthan, India’s eight-most populous state, where Congress lost 75 seats and the BJP gained 84 in the state’s legislative assembly. It was the BJP’s best-ever performance and Congress’s worst-ever performance.

So Modi has high hopes here, in a state that lies just north of his own home state of Gujarat — if the BJP runs away with this election and forms India’s next government, it will be largely because of the lopsided  victories it’s expected to win here and elsewhere in India’s north.

Twenty constituencies, out of a total of 25, will vote in Rajasthan today, including the historic city of Jodhpur (pictured above).

Continue reading

India’s ‘Mr. Clean’ seeks fourth term in Odisha elections

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Naveen Patnaik is one of India’s longest-serving chief ministers — and one of its most popular.India Flag Icon

Though his chances of winning a fourth consecutive term in Odisha’s state government are high, he faces a difficult challenge in state elections that are being held concurrently with national elections to determine India’s next government. Odisha holds the second of two phases — the first was on April 10 — to elect its 21 representatives to the national parliament, as well as all 147 members of its state-level Legislative Assembly.

Odisha, with 41.95 million residents, is basically as populous as Argentina. It’s a sprawling state on the central coast of eastern India, nudged to the southwest of West Bengal and Bangladesh. Formerly known as Orissa, the state is the home of most of India’s Oriya/Odia language speakers. It’s one of the most Hindu states in India (over 94% of the population), with a larger Christian population (2.4%) than Muslim population (2.1%).

Politics in Odisha are essentially a three-party affair, including the familiar national parties, the center-left Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) and the center-right, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी).

But echoing an increasing trend throughout India, the dominant state-level party for more than a decade now has been the Biju Janata Dal (BJD, ବିଜୁ ଜନତା ଦଳ), which holds an overwhelming advantage in the Legislative Assembly:

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Patnaik, like so many Indian politicians, is the son of another prominent politician – Biju Patnaik, who served as chief minster in the 1960s and again in the 1990s.  Continue reading

Bouteflika headed for controversial fourth term

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Though Algeria quickly became one of the first countries where the ‘Arab Spring’ protests gained momentum three years ago, its longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika is almost certain to win a fourth term in Thursday’s presidential election. Algeria_Flag_Icon

Algerians, like many others throughout north Africa and the Middle East, coalesced in protest of higher prices, massive unemployment and the general lack of economic progress. But with memories of Algeria’s brutal, decade-long civil war of the 1990s still fresh, it was enough for Bouteflika (pictured above) to agree to end the 19-year period of ‘emergency rule,’ lift some of his government’s more oppressive measures against political expression and introduce subsidies to lower the price of food and other necessities.

Besides, most Algerians thought, he would be too old at age 77 to run for a fourth term. Nonetheless, despite a campaign to convince Algerian voters to boycott tomorrow’s vote, Bouteflika will theoretically extend his rule through 2019.

But Bouteflika’s reelection campaign says less about Bouteflika than it does about the power struggle bubbling beneath the surface. Frail and unable to walk, Bouteflika suffered a stroke last year and spent four months receiving medical treatment in Paris. No one thinks he’ll last another five years. At a recent meeting with US secretary of state John Kerry, he could barely stand up or and he seemed unable to speak clearly.

So why not groom a successor and let Bouteflika slip into a comfortable retirement? Continue reading

Nigeria emerges as Africa’s largest economy

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Earlier this month, Nigeria ‘recalibrated’ the way it calculates its gross domestic product to more effectively capture the real value of its economy.nigeria_flag_icon

It’s a step that many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are taking — including Ghana in 2010 and Kenya this year — as they refine the tools they use to measure GDP growth. Nigeria, for example, hadn’t recalculated its base since 1990. Perplexingly, e-commerce, telecommunications and the country’s growing film industry (‘Nollywood’) hadn’t previously been captured.

Not surprisingly, the recalibration caused Nigeria’s official GDP to leap by nearly 75% to around $510 billion, making it Africa’s largest economy. That shouldn’t come a surprise to anyone, in light of predictions that Nigeria would overtake South Africa sometime by the end of the decade. Nigeria is the epitome of the newly emerging Africa. Lagos, its sprawling port, is now Africa’s largest city, recently surpassing Cairo. Its population, already Africa’s largest at 173.6 million, could surpass the US population within the next three decades or so.

But Nigeria’s newfound status is more the beginning of a journey than its terminus, a journey that will become especially pertinent to global affairs throughout the 21st century as Nigeria’s impact begins to rival that of China’s or India’s.

But today, Nigeria’s GDP per capita, even after the rebasing, is just around $3,000. That’s less than one-half the level of GDP per capita in South Africa, which is around $6,600. Though the stakes of Nigeria’s relative success or failure will become increasingly important to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa and to global emerging markets in the years ahead, there’s no guarantee that Nigeria, 54 years after its independence, won’t succumb to state failure.

Nigeria spent its first decade stuck in a tripartite ethnic struggle that ended in a devastating civil war, followed by bouts of military rule from which it emerged imperfectly in 1999. Lingering security challenges, like those posed by Boko Haram, a Muslim insurgency from Nigeria’s northeast, continue to expose the country’s ethnic tensions and the religious and socioeconomic gap between the relatively prosperous Christian south and the relatively underdeveloped Muslim north. Incipient political institutions plagued by a culture of corruption for decades, with less than fully formed democratic norms, could easily erase the stability gains made since the 1999 return to democracy. Although oil wealth has since the 1960s given Nigeria a financial means to solve its lengthy list of developmental, educational, and environmental problems, the mismanagement of oil revenues have so far transformed the wealth into a classic resources curse.

Existential challenges

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Even before independence, British colonial rule divided what is today’s Nigeria into a Northern Protectorate and a Southern Protectorate, and the two parts of today’s Nigeria were governed, nearly until 1960, as discrete units. Continue reading

Why the US needs to start thinking about a Scottish policy

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I write in The National Interest on Tuesday that as the pro-independence ‘Yes’ campaign narrows the gap with unionists in advance of the September 19 referendum, and it becomes more feasible that Scotland could become an independent, sovereign country, the United States needs to start thinking about a cohesive foreign policy regarding Scotland.scotlandUSflag

First minister Alex Salmond (pictured above in New York earlier this month) is leading the ‘Yes’ campaign, and he’s been a thorn in US-British relations for quite some time — both to US president George W. Bush (Salmond vehemently opposed the US invasion of Iraq) and to Barack Obama (Salmond’s government in 2009 released Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted for his role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, on health grounds).

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RELATED: Momentum shifts in favor of Scottish independence

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But if Scotland becomes an independent country, it will require a huge rethink for the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and the United Kingdom, and the economic, diplomatic and security  consequences of what would presumably be a ‘special’ tripartite relationship among the United States, Scotland and the United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland:

Though polls still show that the ‘No’ camp is leading, U.S. policymakers should be taking the possibility of an independent Scotland more seriously and, accordingly, preparing for the possible repercussions of a successful ‘Yes’ vote for U.S.-Scottish relations.

No third country has a greater stake in the outcome of the Scottish vote than the United States, which would have to reconfigure its ‘special relationship’ with what presumably would be the ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland,’ while formulating a wholly new relationship with an independent Scotland. It’s a relationship that the United States has never had to consider seriously, given that when Scotland and England merged with the Act of Union in 17o7, the original American colonies were still sixty-nine years away from declaring independence.

Do read the whole piece here

Photo credit to Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images.

Libya hits new security low as interim prime minister resigns

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Just a little over a week after Libya’s prime minister Ali Zaidan was sacked over the country’s deteriorating security situation, its newly appointed interim prime minister Abdullah al-Thinni has resigned after threats on his life and the lives of his family members. Libya_Flag_Icon

In the United States and Europe, Libya long ago fell from the headlines, despite the support that NATO allies provided to the rebels that sought to oust Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

But over three years after Gaddafi fell from power (he was captured during an attempt to escape his hometown of Sirte and brutally murdered by a mob), Libya is not in particularly good shape.

Oil production has allegedly fallen to just 12.5% of its Gaddafi-era levels, as the central government and regional militias play a game of tug-of-war over potential oil revenues. Meanwhile, the Libyan government is unable to guarantee security throughout much of the country, especially outside Tripoli.

Al-Thinni (pictured above), who formerly served as Libya’s defense minister, made it clear that he’s stepping down after an attempted attack on him and his family:

“My family and I suffered a brutal attack last night and shooting terrified local residents and put lives in danger,” Thinni said in a letter addressed to the [General National Congress] and published on the official Prime Ministry website. “I will not accept one drop of blood to be spilled because of me and I will not allow myself as Prime Minister to be a reason for Libyans fighting.”

Much of the problem lies in the eastern region of Cyrenaica, the cradle of the Libyan revolution against Gaddafi, and a traditional stronghold of opposition to Gaddafi’s 42-year rule. Continue reading

Macedonian right seems headed for fourth consecutive win

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Of all the former Yugoslav states, none has a more difficult path to full EU membership than Macedonia — for reasons that have less to do with its economy than with its culture. macedonia

In what has to be the most inane conflict in international affairs, Greece has blocked Macedonia’s potential EU (and NATO) accession for years over a dispute involving the naming of the country. The term ‘Macedonia’ covers both the Republic of Macedonia that bears its name and a greater geographic region that encompasses northern Greece as well. Greece worries that Macedonia’s use of the name ‘Macedonia’ violates its own cultural and historical heritage. The reality is complex. What is today’s Republic of Macedonia was ruled by the Ottoman Empire from the first half of the 15th century until the empire’s collapse. Macedonia was annexed by Serbia in 1912, and it was incorporated as a serparate state in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1944 before it emerged as an independent country with Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the early 1990s.

Even though Greek politicians have had much more to worry about in recent years than a naming contest with a small, neighboring country of just 2.06 million people, the battle lines between Macedonia and Greece have become tighter as ever following the election of Nikola Gruevski  (pictured above) in 2006 on a center-right, nationalist platform that’s exacerbated the world’s silliest international dispute after Greece actively vetoed Macedonian accession to NATO in 2008. Continue reading

Abdullah leads in early Afghan vote count

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It’s early yet, but with just 10% of the vote counted in Afghanistan’s presidential election, the runner-up from the 2009 race, Abdullah Abdullah, narrowly leads the initial counting from the April 5 election.afghanistan flag

The results point to a tight race between Abdullah  (pictured above), a former foreign minister between 2001 and 2005, and Ashram Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister and World Bank official.

While there’s reason to believe that the remaining 90% to be counted could vary significantly from the first 10%, the initial results come from 26 of 34 provinces, so there’s a compelling basis to believe that Abdullah and Ghani will proceed to a runoff later this year.

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RELATED: Afghanistan hopes for calm as key presidential election approaches

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Abdullah led with 41.9% of the vote, followed closely by Ghani with 37.6%. Far behind in third place with 9.8%, is Zalmai Rassoul, who served as Afghanistan’s foreign minister from 2010 until late last year, when he stepped down to run for the presidency. Though outgoing president Hamid Karzai is neutral, Rassoul is widely seen as the candidate of the Karzai administration, and Karzai’s brother, Quayum Karzai, endorsed Rassoul when he dropped out of the race on March 6.

What to make of the initial results?

With the caveat that the final preliminary count isn’t due until April 24 and, the definitively final results won’t be announced until May 14, it seems almost certain that Abdullah and Ghani will face each other in a runoff — and Abdullah is apparently already reaching out to Rassoul, anticipating a second round.

Though Karzai has increasingly distanced himself from the US government under the presidency of Barack Obama, both candidates would improve ties with the United States, and both candidates support instituting a status-of-forces agreement that contemplates a small security role for the US military after most US troops largely withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of this year.

Ghani has spent much more time living and working in the United States, and accordingly, most US and European diplomats are quietly rooting for his success, though either Ghani or Abdullah would likely represent an improvement in US-Afghan relations. He taught at Johns Hopkins University, worked at the World Bank, was a finalist to become secretary-general of the United Nations in 2006, and worked with UN special representative Lakhdar Brahimi on the Bonn Agreement that served as a framework to transition from US military forces to an Afghan-led government in the early years after the 2001 military action to remove the Taliban from power.

In contrast to the 2009 vote, which drew turnout of around 30% to 33%, the 2014 election recorded turnout more like 60%. That vote was widely marred by fraud and political violence. After strong pressure from the United States and other international voices, Karzai’s government agreed to a runoff against Abdullah, though Abdullah ultimately refused to take part in the runoff, given the evidence of fraud from the previous round.

Both US and Afghan officials hope to avoid a similarly farcical result in 2014, which could undermine the election’s ultimate winner.

Though most of Afghanistan’s leaders in the past three centuries have belonged to the dominant Pashtun ethnic group, Abdullah claims dual Pashtun and Tajik ethnicity. Ghani, for his part, has recruited one of the most notorious warlords in Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is Uzbek, as one of his running mates.

Photo credit to Hashmatullah/AFP.

India Lok Sabha elections: Phase 4

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After a huge third phase in which 91 constituencies of India’s election were decided on April 10, Saturday’s fourth phase of India’s general election is barely a trickle — just seven seats. India Flag Icon

It’s the last ‘miniature’ phase of the election — the next five phases, through May 12, will determine the remaining 432 (out of 543) seats of India’s Lok Sabha (लोक सभा).

The April 12 phase coincides with elections to determine Sikkim’s legislative assembly, and it will elect Sikkim’s sole representative to the Lok Sabha.

The Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF, सिक्किम प्रजातान्त्रिक मोर्चा) dominates Sikkimese politics, and its chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling, who has been in power since 1994, hopes to win a record fifth consecutive term in office. Though the SDF isn’t formally part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), it might be expected to back Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) if it has enough strength to form a government, as widely expected.

Where are the other six constituencies?

  • In Goa, another small state, notable for its pristine beach resorts and its Portuguese influence, will elect both of its representatives to the Lok Sabha. The BJP narrowly controls the state government, and the BJP and its national rival, the Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) currently split Goa’s two Lok Sabha seats.
  • In Assam, the largest of the ‘seven sister states’ of India’s far northeastern corner, where 14 seats are up for grabs, three constituencies will vote on Saturday. Five of its constituencies held elections in India’s first phase.
  • Tripura, another northeastern state, which also elected one of its two representatives to the Lok Sabha in India’s first phase, will elect the second on Saturday.

Without offense to northeastern India, Goa or Sikkim, the fourth phase won’t determine the country’s next government.

The photo above shows a statute in the city of Namchi depicting Guru Rinpoche, the patron saint of Sikkim.

Chamling hopes to break record as India’s longest-serving chief minister

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Sikkim is the least populous state in India, with just 610,577 residents.India Flag Icon

It’s also one of India’s more remote states, nudged in the Himalayan mountains with Chinese Tibet to its north, Nepal to its west and Bhutan to its east. Darjeeling, the town in West Bengal state known so well for the tea of the same name, lies just south of Sikkim. In the colonial period, in fact, Darjeeling was part of Sikkim.

But its state elections will take the spotlight briefly this weekend, when its chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling tries to win a fifth consecutive term — if he does, he could become the longest-serving chief minister in India’s history.*

Chamling leads the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF, सिक्किम प्रजातान्त्रिक मोर्चा), which is about as dominant a regional force as you’ll find in India. Not only does it hold Sikkim’s one seat in the national parliament, but it holds every single at in Sikkim’s 32-member legislative assembly.  Continue reading

Lessons from Hungary’s election — and challenges for its future

Guest post by Dániel Kiss

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Last Sunday Hungary had a paradoxical election. Politicians and commentators had forecast that this vote would set the future direction of the country. It would determine whether prime minister Viktor Orbán and his nationalistic party Fidesz – Magyar Polgári Szövetség (Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance), would be able to strengthen their hold on power, or the leftist opposition would run Hungary according to more mainstream ideals of capitalism and liberal democracy. In fact the election turned out to be something of a flop, with only 61.2% of the electorate casting their vote. Only one parliamentary election in the country saw a lower rate of participation since democracy was restored in 1989.Hungary Flag Icon

The results too were paradoxical. Opinion polls had forecast a major victory for Fidesz. Some commentators had chosen to disbelieve them, as they thought that a significant number of voters would not feel free to say that they would be voting against a party that is known to have punished its opponents. In fact the polls turned out to be correct, and Fidesz won by a broad margin. It is not yet clear exactly how many seats they will win, as some votes (including those of Hungarians living abroad) still have to be counted four days after the election. However, it is likely that they will take 133 of the 199 seats in parliament, or just over two-thirds of the total. That means that they will hold on not only to power, but also to their supermajority of two-thirds of the seats. This supermajority has enabled them to change every law of the country since 2010, and to enact a new constitution that came into power in 2012. The left-wing opposition have not only failed to bring down Orbán’s government, which had been their aim at the election, but they have barely dented his majority in parliament. Orbán celebrated what he called “a victory that shook the sky”.

In fact the results are less favourable for him than they might appear, and they hold risks for all parties concerned. In the previous parliamentary elections of 2010, Fidesz won 52.7% of the national vote. This time the party only won 44.3%, according to the most recent figures, despite the strong support of ethnic Hungarians living abroad, who were enfranchised by Fidesz in 2011. The left-wing opposition coalition, consisting of the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSzP, Hungarian Socialist Party) and four recently founded small parties, won 26.2%, which is significantly better than the 19.3% won by the Socialists in 2010. The other large force opposing Fidesz, the far-right-wing Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom (Jobbik), also increased its share of the national vote from 16.7% to 20.7%, while the green liberal party Lehet Más a Politika (LMP, ‘Politics Can Be Different’)  saw its share fall from 7.5% to 5.3%, which is just above the threshold of 5% that is required to send deputies into parliament from the national list. Still, this is not a bad result, given that LMP split in 2013 and a number of its deputies founded one of the parties that has allied itself with the socialists.

The success of Fidesz can partly be explained by the continuing appeal to voters of its combination of nationalistic rhetoric with anti-market, statist policies. The party also managed to outmaneuver the Socialists in the run-up to the elections. The Fidesz government forced utility companies to lower their tariffs to private consumers twice by 10%, which met with considerable approval in a country where many people struggle to make ends meet. Continue reading

Egypt’s El-Araby: ‘We don’t have an energy strategy’

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Most of the coverage of Egypt’s transition period of the past three-plus years has focused on fundamental political, security and religious issues. egypt_flag_new

But the precarious state of the Egyptian economy has underlined the tumult of Egypt’s political process at every stage. Youth unemployment and stagnant growth, in part, fueled the January 2011 protests in Tahrir Square that ultimately toppled longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. The failure of his elected successor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, to address the fundamental problems of Egypt’s economy was also a significant factor in the June 2013 protests that ultimately encouraged the Egyptian army to push him out of power.

Nearly a year later, the military-led government has enacted a new constitution — though it stifled all sorts of freedoms and killed or imprisoned thousands of Egyptians in order to do so. It now seems prepared to go through the motions of a sham presidential election to install the only recently retired army chief and defense minister, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, as Egypt’s next strongman.

So it was with some curiosity that I attended a brief talk earlier today featuring H.E. Ashraf El-Araby (pictured above), Egypt’s minister for planning and international cooperation, hosted by the exemplary Middle East Institute in Washington DC.

El-Araby is a unique technocratic figure in the government — he served in the same role during much of the Morsi administration between August 2012 to May 2013, and he worked from 2006 to 2011 in the technical advisory office of the planning ministry. He earned his doctorate from Kansas State University, and he spent much of his career within Egypt’s National Planning Institute.

If El-Araby’s thinking represents the state-of-the-art on what will become Sisinomics (which is shaping up more like Wolfgang Schäuble than Gamal Abdel Nasser), I wasn’t incredibly optimistic about what I heard. That’s not because El-Araby isn’t a talented economist or an honest broker in Egypt’s increasingly authoritarian government, but because it’s so hard to see a path where the political and military leadership carry out the difficult steps that could transform Egypt’s economy. Continue reading

Despite bond sale, Greece is still pretty far from normal

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On Wednesday, a bomb exploded outside the Bank of Greece.Greece Flag Icon

Though it injured no one, it was a stark reminder that, despite today’s apparently successful bond sale, Greece is pretty fucking far from okay, to steal a phrase from Pulp Fiction.

Astonishing just about everyone, Greece held its first bond sale for the first time in four years, raising  €3 billion ($4.2 billion) at a freakishly low yield of 4.95% for a five-year issue. But demand for the bonds was more in the range of €20 billion ($27.8 billion), which is over 10% of current Greek GDP:

The order book includes €1.3bn of orders from the arranging banks, but is a striking confirmation of the ravenous appetite for eurozone periphery debt. One person close to the deal said there had been more than 550 different investor accounts placing orders.

€3 billion is not a lot of financing compared to the €240 billion that Greece has received through two bailouts funded by the ‘troika’ of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank. For Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras and his coalition government, the sale was more a symbolic success than anything else — it’s a signal that Greece is once again open for business in the international bond market and emerging from the worst of its debt crisis:

“The international markets have expressed in the clearest possible manner their trust in the Greek economy, their trust in Greece’s future,” he said. “They have shown trust in the country’s ability to exit the crisis, and sooner than many had expected.”….

Deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos also hailed the country’s return to the markets, arguing that it was a “major achievement that Greece did not turn into Argentina or Venezuela.” He also launched a strongly worded attack on SYRIZA, which objected to the bond issue, accusing the leftists of being “political parasites that live off the [EU-IMF] memorandum.”

“They should be ashamed of themselves,” he said. “Instead of appreciating this moment of joy for the Greek economy and society, they are miserable.”

Despite the government’s victory lap, Greece is still a mess, it remains stuck in a depression with a political system under duress.

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