Santos prepares for Oct. 2 referendum on Colombia’s FARC peace deal

(Adalberto Roque / AFP / Getty Images)
Cuban president Raúl Castro looked on yesterday as Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and FARC commander Timoleón Jiménez shook hands. (Adalberto Roque / AFP / Getty Images)

As expected, after years of negotiation, Colombia finally has a peace deal with a group of Marxist guerrillas that have been waging war against the central government for over a half-century. Colombia Flag Icon

In Havana on Wednesday, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and leftist guerrilla commander Timoleón Jiménez came to a final understanding on a peace deal that could, at long last, end the insurrection of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), following a four-year process that began in Oslo in 2012, that dominated the 2014 general election and promises to cast a long shadow on upcoming elections in 2018. A ceasefire is set to take effect next Monday.

The deal hopes to end over 50 years of violent conflict between the Colombian state (and often, right-wing paramilitary forces) and FARC, closing a chapter of brutality that stretches back to the 1948 assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a popular presidential candidate, the Bogotazo riots the followed, the ensuing decade of ’La Violencia’ and Colombia’s descent into cartel-fueled drug conflict in the 1980s and 1990s.

Next, however, the Santos government has to win a national referendum on the deal to be held on October 2.

The headlines are congratulatory now, but it’s not going to be an easy campaign to win.

In addition, the ‘Yes’ side must constitute at least 13% of all voters, adding a secondary threshold. So if turnout isn’t high enough, the referendum will not pass. Even if it does win, however, the vote alone will not necessarily secure the peace deal’s future, and it will take years (and likely millions in funding) to normalize peace in Colombia. That includes securing 7,000 rebel guerrillas who have preliminary agreed to disarm. Moreover, the deal also includes a late-breaking and controversial provision that guarantees at least 10 seats in the Colombian congress to a FARC-affiliated political movement through at least the year 2026.

The Colombian government’s position has always been that any peace agreement should be ratified by voters in a special referendum; FARC leaders instead preferred a special constituent assembly. The next five weeks across Colombia will show why they’ve been so tenacious about subjecting the peace deal to a popular vote. There’s no doubt that Santos wants to call the vote relatively quickly to prevent an even longer campaign to discredit his administration’s efforts. First, though, the Santos administration must make public the exact terms of the deal, and it must formally win an internal FARC vote. Every little detail of the deal’s terms and conditions will be potential fodder for derailing it.

As anxious, pro-European Brits might warn, not every issue should necessarily be subject to popular referendum. That’s especially true in a representative democracy, where voters elect professional politicians to make, change and enact laws. That’s especially true in cases where a minority can take away rights from a majority — whether it’s the economic rights that come with EU membership or basic marriage equality for gay men and women. Or, in Colombia’s case, securing special rights and privileges that will induce FARC’s former guerrillas to give up violent conflict in favor of everyday politics.

Moreover, since the moment Santos announced plans to negotiate with FARC, his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, has bitterly opposed him.

As Uribe’s defense secretary, Santos seemed set to follow Uribe’s hard-line, no-compromise course against FARC. Once elected in 2010, however, Santos diverged, drawing Uribe’s ire and a challenge in the form of a new conservative political party, Centro Democrático (CD, Democratic Center), which thrived in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Uribe’s candidate, Óscar Iván Zuluaga won the first round of the presidential election in May 2014 and only lost the runoff by a narrow six point margin a month later (owing his success more for his emphasis on economic growth than for his skepticism about the peace process). The 2014 runoff vote, in which Santos barely won an absolute majority (50.95%) is evidence for the broad notion that majority of Colombians can be mobilized in support of the peace deal.

But Uribe and his allies will stop at nothing to thwart the peace deal at the ballot box. Most Colombians seem well-disposed to the Santos approach, weary to end the chapter of far-left guerrilla rebellion and far-right military reprisals. The deal contains controversial aspects, including the potential amnesty of FARC rebels, and Uribe will be certain to emphasize the most unpopular elements of the deal.

Andres Pastrana, Uribe’s Conservative predecessor as president, also tried to effect peace negotiations with the FARC, but like Uribe, he opposes the current deal, this week calling it a ‘coup d’etat against justice.’ Both Uribe and Pastrana will argue that a rejection at the ballot box will make possible renegotiation and, potentially, a tougher deal for FARC rebels. But it’s hard enough to know whether FARC guerrillas will universally accept the terms of the current deal, let alone negotiate in good faith after rejection by voters.

WIthout uribismo, the Colombian government would never have been in such a great negotiating position, it’s true. Uribe’s controversial military (and US-backed) approach essentially defeated FARC as a serious threat and challenge to the government. Though Uribe faces accusations of human rights abuses, today’s peace talks directly result from his government’s victories over FARC.

A peace deal with the FARC is the chief policy achievement of Colombia's two-term president Juan Manuel Santos. (Facebook)
A peace deal with the FARC would be the chief policy achievement of Colombia’s two-term president Juan Manuel Santos. (Facebook)

If Santos wins the referendum and signs the peace deal, it will be the most important policy achievement of his two-term presidency. But, with less than two years to go, Santos is massively unpopular as Colombians blame him for a struggling economy and a much devalued peso. Earlier this year, Santos lost the support of the largest party in his coalition, the Partido Liberal Colombiano (PLC, Colombian Liberal Party), and several figures from within the wider pro-Santos camp are already competing for the 2018 elections. Zuluaga, who may run again in 2018, will obviously campaign vigorously against the peace deal. But even Santos’s own vice president, Germán Vargas Lleras, the leader of the liberal, center-right Cambio Radical (Radical Change), and one of several leading 2018 contenders, has backed away from the peace process. Polls generally give the pro-deal camp a narrow lead, but not by much.

Other popular 2018 contenders less politically close to Santos will be in the pro-deal camp. Sergio Fajardo, a former Medellín mayor and governor of Antioquia, is likely to run as the candidate of the Partido Verde (Green Party). So might the left-wing Gustavo Petro, a former Bogotá mayor and M-19 guerrilla. Uribista allies tried to remove Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla, as Bogotá mayor (traditionally, the second-most important elected post in Colombia) in 2013 and 2014, ostensibly over the issue of garbage removal. It took a ruling from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to reinstate Petro as mayor.

Petro’s example — the M-19 disarmed years ago and never represented the same level is that as FARC — shows just how radioactive, for both sides, the amnesty and political participation aspects of a peace deal could be. Notwithstanding Santos’s promises, a significant portion of the Colombian political elite will be incredibly wary of the possibility that former left-wing rebels could one day gain power through the political process. The 2018 elections, ultimately, will represent a second-run referendum on the peace deal. Even a vote for peace in October, therefore, doesn’t guarantee the peace process’s ultimate success.

Muhummad Yunus is exactly the person Clinton should have been meeting

Hillary Clinton met with Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammed Yunus in Dhaka as US secretary of state. (AFP)
Hillary Clinton met with Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammed Yunus in Dhaka as US secretary of state. (AFP)

It’s only Tuesday, but it has not been the best week for former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. USflagbangladesh flag icon

Just a day after reports that the FBI discovered nearly 14,900 emails that Clinton should have turned over as work-related emails to the State Department (she turned over 30,000 and marked the rest as private), the Associated Press reported on Tuesday afternoon that, in an analysis of 154 private individuals that Clinton met while secretary of state, 85 of them were at least one-time donors to the Clinton Foundation, an international health charity organization — if true, that means that around 55% of her meetings with non-government and non-foreign officials were with Clinton Foundation donors.

First, it’s unlikely that Clinton, in four years at State, met just 38 people on average annually from the private sector, so there’s so doubt about whether the AP’s denominator is accurate. Secondly, without any other proof, a meeting is not anything more than just a meeting, especially after a thoroughgoing investigation from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation almost certainly reviewed the question of quid pro quo corruption. Third, it’s credible that many private-sector actors (especially wealthy individuals with storied careers in academia, finance, technology or otherwise) might have given money to a high-profile charity like the Clinton Foundation. Finally, and most importantly, while Clinton is not exactly a paragon of government ethics, it beggars belief that she would sabotage her own obvious 2016 presidential hopes by engaging in crude pay-to-play corruption.

It’s true that both Hillary Clinton and her husband have both shown ridiculously poor ethical judgment when entrusted with power, and it was only in July that FBI director James Comey (narrowly) declined to recommend criminal charges for Clinton’s handling of classified information on a home server that she used for email while at State. Both Clintons, already wealthy from book royalties, have also shown reckless greed in taking millions of dollars in speech fees from corporate and foreign interests since leaving office.

But short of one truly horrific example, and a particularly immature staffer in Doug Band, there’s not a lot of scandal involving the Clinton Foundation. (The example, reported last year to surprisingly little fanfare, involves a murky Canadian financier named Frank Giustra, a leading figure in a sale of a uranium company, Uranium One, that won approvals from State and numerous other US agencies. The deal, ultimately, handed over rights of one-fifth of US uranium reserves first to Kazakh and then to Russian control).

By and large, the Clinton Foundation a charity that leverages the Clinton family’s name and experience toward better global health outcomes. In that sense, it’s no different, really, than the Carter Center or any other private-public effort that a former US president undertakes.

In politics, though, especially in the crucible of US election-year politics less than 80 days from a presidential election, reality is less important than perception. And Clinton most certainly has a perception problem with the Clinton Foundation and the idea that it’s become a pay-for-play racket. Moreover, the Clinton Foundation gets generally great marks from charity scorecard watchdogs like Charity Watch. Despite the phony statistics of right-wing news media, the Clinton Foundation spends an admirably 88% of donations on programming.

But the most especially ridiculous aspect of the latest uproar over the Clinton Foundation is that one of those 85 individuals that Clinton met is Muhammad Yunus, the former head of Grameen Bank. Frankly, it would have been diplomatic malpractice not for Clinton to have met Yunus during her time at State, when Yunus was increasingly under attack from his own government.

By 2011, Bangladesh’s increasingly autocratic and corrupt leader, Sheikh Hasina, had expelled Yunus and fully expropriated Grameen Bank. Though the Bangladeshi government once tried to accuse Yunus himself of embezzlement, it eventually ousted him from Grameen on the basis that, then at age 72, he exceeded the retirement age. Continue reading Muhummad Yunus is exactly the person Clinton should have been meeting

South Africa’s largest city Johannesburg gets new opposition mayor

Herman Mashaba, who founded 'Black Like Me,' a leading hair product company in South Africa, is now Johannesburg's mayor. (Facebook)
Herman Mashaba, who founded ‘Black Like Me,’ a leading hair product company in South Africa, is now Johannesburg’s mayor. (Facebook)

Though the Democratic Alliance (DA) didn’t win the greatest number of votes in local elections in Johannesburg municipality in the country’s local elections on August 3, the party’s mayoral hopeful, Herman Mashaba, was elected Monday as mayor in the most populous municipality of South Africa.south africa flag

Mashaba, a successful businessman who hopes to bring a more market-driven approach to running the South African metropolis, won the votes of 144 council members, ousting the popular incumbent Parks Tau of the African National Congress (ANC), who won just 125 votes. Another DA official, Vasco Da Gama (no relation to the explorer), was also elected speaker of the Johannesburg council on a chaotic day in which one of the ANC’s council members collapsed and died amid the voting.

Greater Johannesburg, with around 7.5 million people, is the third-most populous metropolitan area in sub-Saharan Africa, after Lagos and Kinshasa-Brazzaville. It’s an amazing opportunity for the DA to weaken the two-decade grip that the ANC has held on power in South Africa and most of its major cities (excepting Cape Town and Western Cape province, which have become strongholds for the Democratic Alliance). 

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RELATED: DA impresses with wins in South African municipal elections

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That the ANC — Nelson Mandela’s ANC (!) — still the only party to rule post-apartheid South Africa, and not by a small margin, has lost control of Johannesburg is an incredible blow. The ANC’s woes are compounded by clearer losses to the DA in two other municipalities: Nelson Mandela Bay, a municipality that includes Port Elizabeth, the largest city of Eastern Cape province; and Tshwane, which includes Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative and executive capital.

Under a new, youthful black South African leader in Mmusi Maimane, the Democratic Alliance will now have three years and three cities to demonstrate that it is ready to compete directly with the ANC across the entire country and govern in a responsible manner. Under the leadership of Maimane and several fresh faces, the Democratic Alliance seems to be shedding its unfair image as a party of white South Africans devoted to defending white interests. Mashaba, 56 years old, is a well-known businessman who founded a hair care products company, Black Like Me, in the 1980s, and leveraged his success to build a wide business empire.

His pro-capitalist approach to economic policy means that he will attempt to boost private-sector job creation while working to reduce corruption. Though he will have a five-year term as Johannesburg mayor, the DA will have relatively less time to showcase that it is fit to run the national government before the next set of general elections in 2019. Continue reading South Africa’s largest city Johannesburg gets new opposition mayor

What Italy’s Tangentopoli in 1992 political trauma can teach Brazil in 2016

Interim president Michel Temer was booed at the opening ceremony for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. (Facebook)
Interim president Michel Temer was booed at the opening ceremony for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. (Facebook)

Given ancient Rome’s delight in all things Hellenistic, it’s perhaps surprising that it took until 1960 for the Italian capital to win its turn hosting the Summer Olympic Games.brazilItaly Flag Icon

Those 1960 Games, however, showcased a Rome that, in barely more than a decade, rose from the ashes of World War II’s devastation. Under the guidance of U.S. and western allies and under the aegis of the Catholic, conservative Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democrats), the 1960 Games forecast a competent and determined Italy that would, for the next three decades, leap forward economically in surprising and creative ways.

Though Italy today seems often trapped in sclerotic and tradition-bound ways, it wasn’t outlandish to say that Italy in 1960 was still a country of the future.  

That evergreen label, too, is affixed to Brazil. It’s the country of the future, the old chestnut goes… and it always will be.

When Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Olympic Games in 2009, it looked like that future, always just beyond the horizon, was finally within reach. In 2010, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva marked the last of eight years in power. With GDP growth of 7.5%, the frothiest Brazilian economy in a quarter-century, and with extreme poverty nearly eliminated across Brazil through a series of social welfare, transfer and educational programs, it was a victory lap for a figure who had become the most mythic colossus of the Latin American left. Though Brazil’s 2010 boom was part of a short-lived emerging economies bubble, things were still looking up for Brazil as recently as 2014, when Lula da Silva’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, narrowly won reelection – the fourth consecutive term for the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), defeating both Marina Silva, a charismatic third-way economic leftist and evangelical Christian who would have been Brazil’s first leader of African descent, and conservative Aécio Neves, a telegenic and well-regarded senator and successful former governor of Minas Gerais.

Even then, it was still possible to regard the historic 2016 Games, the first to be held in South America, as notice that at long last, Brazil would be a country of the present. Instead, the country today is in political and economic crisis. Far from announcing Brazil as a major economic power, the Rio Games themselves have become a symbol of economic inequality and government misrule. At best, they have been an opportunity (as much for Brazilians as for Trump-weary and Clinton-fatigued Americans) to forget politics for two weeks.   Continue reading What Italy’s Tangentopoli in 1992 political trauma can teach Brazil in 2016

Photo of the day: A haunting victim of Aleppo’s siege

A dazed child receives medical assistance after another horrific day of urban warfare in the battle of Aleppo.
A dazed child receives medical assistance after another horrific day of urban warfare in the battle of Aleppo.

It’s important for the rest of the world to see what’s happening in Aleppo. Even when it’s ugly. Even when it means a child dazed and confused by the horrors of war. The video is even more heart-breaking. Our hearts should cry for what’s happened in Syria for 5.5 years. It’s disgusting.Syria Flag Icon freesyria

It’s going to get worse in Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, now divided between a western half still controlled by Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian army and an eastern half held by Sunni, anti-Assad rebels. The fighting is now fierce, and it has been for weeks. Both sides have committed atrocities. Dwindling water, food, power and medical care for over 2 million residents means that Aleppo could also spiral into a humanitarian crisis.

Russian bombs are making it worse.

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RELATED: Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

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Here in the United States, as we indulge ourselves in a presidential election focused on xenophobia, division and isolationism, when we should be thinking deeply about economic and social policy and global leadership, we may even hear the cries to ‘do something’ above the cowardly screeching  of Trumpismo.

Given the huge American military, most will naturally think first of a military solution. But of course the most effective things that the United States could do are things that it will not. One is to provide more financial aid to Lebanon that can assist the country in assimilating and caring for a deluge of around 1.5 million refugees (though the US government did find $50 million to fund the country’s military earlier this month).

Even more effective would be granting refugee status to more of the victims of Syria’s civil war here in the United States when a trickle of just 10,000 refugees — itself a massive increase — remains deeply inadequate and uncharitable for a country built on immigration.

Lungu wins narrow victory in Zambia as opposition cries foul

While Edgar Lungu has won a narrow victory for reelection, he shouldn't be celebrating just yet. (Facebook)
While Edgar Lungu has won a narrow victory for reelection, he shouldn’t be celebrating just yet. (Facebook)

Everyone in Zambia always expected that its August 11 presidential election would be close.zambia

But the circumstances of Edgar Lungu’s narrow victory, officially pronounced on Monday by election officials, do not bode well. By a margin of around 13,000 votes, Lungu edged the 50% threshold required to avoid a runoff with his chief opponent, Hakainde Hichilema, a five-time presidential contender and the leader of the opposition.

The result leaves the country divided sharply on political, regional and ethnic lines and subject to weeks or even months of additional political uncertainty.

Hichilema has demanded a recount and is challenging the result in court. He has good reason, starting with the four-day lag between election day and the final tabulation of results. No results, as of Wednesday, were available for the constitutional referendum or the parliamentary elections that also took place August 11 to choose all 156 members of the National Assembly. A delay in counting votes from the capital, Lusaka, has cast additional suspicion on the possibility that the Lungu government might have won the election through fraud. Even the European Union’s observers have expressed their skepticism about the fairness of the voting.

It hasn’t helped help that Lungu leaned on state media significantly throughout the campaign, and that his government went out of its way to shut down The Post, one of the leading opposition newspapers in the country earlier this year. Nor did it help that Zambia, which has seen several peaceful transfers of power from one party to a different party, endured a greater amount of political violence than in past election years (though still quite mild by, say, Kenya 2007 standards).

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RELATED: Hichilema hopes to win rematch in Zambia’s presidential race

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Hichilema, meanwhile, expected to benefit from disenchantment with Zambia’s ailing economy and a depressed global market for its most important export, copper. His party, moreover, the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), benefitted from the support of several high-profile defectors from Lungu’s Patriotic Front (PF). Results show that Hichilema did predictably well in the south of the country, Lungu won most of his votes in his northern base and, however narrowly, in the vote-rich capital, Lusaka, and in the Copperbelt province in central Zambia.

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In fact, the results don’t look especially different from the results of last January’s presidential by-election, when Lungu (then Zambia’s defense minister) succeeded the late Michael Sata, though Lungu’s margin of victory (around 100,000 votes) is much wider in this year’s election than in the 2015 race (around 28,000). The 2016 election, moreover, featured much higher turnout — perhaps befitting the fact that Lungu, if his victory is confirmed, is now set to serve a full five-year term through 2021. Continue reading Lungu wins narrow victory in Zambia as opposition cries foul

Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)
Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)

Aleppo, the most populous city in Syria, has become in August the center stage for one of the most tragic urban battles of the country’s five-and-a-half year civil war.freesyria Syria Flag Icon

The first battle of Aleppo that began in July 2012 and lasted for months, brought some of the worst of the earliest fighting to an industrial and cultural capital home to some 2.5 million Syrians before the war.

By early 2013, after thousands of deaths and widespread urban destruction (including parts of Aleppo’s old city and the Great Mosque of Aleppo), a stalemate developed between the eastern half, controlled by various Sunni rebel groups and the western half, controlled by the Syrian army that supports president Bashar al-Assad.

Last week, rebel forces — including the hardline militia formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra — broke through to Ramouseh, a key sector in the southwest of the city. Among other things, Ramouseh is home to some of the most important bases in the area for the Syrian army. More importantly, the rebel offensive hoped to open and secure a corridor between the besieged eastern half of Aleppo to other rebel-controlled areas to the south of Aleppo that could provide a pathway to food, water, power and other supplies to the rebel-controlled portions of Aleppo.

As of last week, the rebels had the upper hand after pushing into Ramouseh. Over the weekend, however, the Syrian army reclaimed some of its territory and effectively halted the rebel advance with punishing support from the Russian military.

(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)
(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)

Meanwhile, civilians across Aleppo (in both the government- and rebel-controlled areas) face a growing risk of a humanitarian crisis, lacking access to basic necessities like electric power, food and water in fierce summertime conditions. Intriguingly, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu also claimed over the weekend that Russian and U.S. forces were close to taking ‘joint action’ on Aleppo. It’s odd because Russian president Vladimir Putin firmly backs Assad, while US officials have expressed the view that Assad’s departure alone can bring about a lasting end to the civil war. One possibility is a pause in hostilities to allow aid workers to provide food, water and medical care to civilians caught in what has become one of the deadliest battles in the Syrian civil war to date.

As the battle for Aleppo dominates headlines about Syria’s war, it is quickly becoming a symbolic fight for Syria’s future. Continue reading Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

Is Hillary Clinton really a hawk?

Then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visits American troops in Tripoli in 2011. (US Embassy in Libya)
Then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visits American troops in Tripoli in 2011. (US Embassy in Libya)

In Vox on Tuesday, Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky argued that, as president, Hillary Clinton would be too focused on her domestic political agenda to be too bothered with foreign policy, whether she’s really a hawk or a dove or [name your bird of prey].USflag

I worry that lets Clinton off the hook for some poor policy decisions over the course of her career, both as a senator from New York and as the nation’s leading diplomat as US secretary of state. After all, it was vice president Joe Biden who proclaimed in Jeffrey Goldberg’s famous piece for The Atlantic earlier this year on the ‘Obama doctrine’ that Hillary ‘Hillary just wants to be Golda Meir.’

That same profile gave us the following nugget into Clinton’s mind on international affairs:

Many people, I noted, want the president to be more forceful in confronting China, especially in the South China Sea. Hillary Clinton, for one, has been heard to say in private settings, “I don’t want my grandchildren to live in a world dominated by the Chinese.”

Suffice it to say that, as the 45th president of the United States, Clinton wouldn’t quite welcome the end of unipolarity just yet.

But I also worry for another reason, summed up in four words by former British prime minister Harold MacMillan: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ George W. Bush, until September 2001, wasn’t supposed to be a foreign policy president, either. You don’t choose your issues in the Oval Office; the issues choose you. (One reason, among many, why Donald Trump remains such a terrifying presidential nominee).

To steal a concept from Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution, who might be the only person left in the United States who’s managed to turn the 2016 general election into an exercise in intellectual growth, I’d like to engage in my own version. I’ll call it  ‘foreign policy hindsight 20/20 for me, but not for thee.’ Continue reading Is Hillary Clinton really a hawk?

Hichilema hopes to win rematch in Zambia’s presidential race

Zambian president Edgar Lungu, pictured here in a meeting with Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, hopes to win reelection to a full five-year term this week. (Facebook)
Zambian president Edgar Lungu, pictured here in a meeting with Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, hopes to win reelection to a full five-year term this week. (Facebook)

In a region rife with lopsided one-party democracies dominated by independence-era freedom movements (South Africa, Mozambique, and Namibia) and clear autocracies (Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe), one country stands out for free and fair elections that aren’t also forgone conclusions.zambia

It’s Zambia, a country of 16.2 million people, which will hold its fifth presidential election in ten years on August 11, a rematch of last year’s election that takes place as the Zambian economy, the continent’s second-largest producer of copper, enters a troubled period as global commodity prices remain depressed. That’s meant fewer revenues for the Zambian government over the last two years, a wide increase in public debt and a gaping hole that’s led to power outages, deep rises in the price of food and other economic difficulties.

The winner of the Thursday election will almost certainly be forced to seek a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund this autumn, along with the kinds of conditional austerity that will cause real economic pain in the years ahead.

A re-run of the January 2015 by-election — with higher stakes

The 2016 election amounts to a rematch from the January 2015 by-election to replace the late Michael Sata, who died unexpectedly in October 2014. Sata’s governing party, the Patriotic Front (PF), ultimately chose Edgar Lungu (who is now just 59 years old), who had previously served as Sata’s justice minister and defence minister. Briefly, Sata’s vice president, Guy Scott, a white Zambian, held the title of acting president and, for a short time, considered running against Lungu for the presidency.

Instead, Lungu’s chief competitor became four-time presidential contender Hakainde Hichilema, a businessman and the candidate of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND).

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Lungu narrowly won — by a margin of less than 28,000 votes, on a populist campaign that rested largely on the record that Sata accumulated before he died. Hichilema campaign largely on a campaign that promised greater fiscal and technocratic competence in a period when copper prices were already falling. They are, to a large degree, running on the same rationales in 2016.

Lungu and the PF dominated in the north, center and east of the country, including the densely populated urban areas in the capital city of Lusaka and, to a lesser degree, Copperbelt province. Hichilema easily won the south, the west and the northwest.

(BBC)
(BBC)

This time around, the two candidates are locked into a rematch, but with much larger stakes — the 2016 winner will govern Zambia for five years, not just 18 months. That, perhaps, explains why the campaign has veered into a troubling amount of political violence this summer. The violence, which forced Zambia’s electoral commission to ban campaigning in Lusaka for 10 days in mid-July, has caused some hand-wringing among both local and foreign observers, who worry that the violence is a sign that the campaign could erode democracy in Zambia. It’s true that the Lungu government shut down the country’s largest independent media organization, the Post, earlier in the spring, eroding the concept of press freedom across the country.

Zambia’s democratic bona fides remain strong

Headlines in Western news outlets about Zambian democracy ‘hovering on the precipice,’ however, are certainly overblown. Democracy is more deeply institutionalized in Zambia than in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, and it features one of a handful of just a few truly competitive political systems in southern and central Africa. Continue reading Hichilema hopes to win rematch in Zambia’s presidential race

Why Erdoğan is not — and will never be — Putin

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Reccep Tayip Erdoğan met at the G-20 summit, which took place in Turkey, last November. (Facebook)
Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Reccep Tayip Erdoğan met at the G-20 summit, which took place in Turkey, last November. (Facebook)

It’s clear that things are looking up for the bilateral relationship between Russia and Turkey.Russia Flag IconTurkey

At the beginning of last December, the two countries locked into a troubling standoff after Turkey shot down a Russian airplane that had repeatedly crossed into Turkish airspace. The diplomatic standoff came at a time when Russian president Vladimir Putin was using Russian military force to boost the efforts of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to push back Sunni rebel forces. In response, Putin slammed trade restrictions against Turkey.

A lot can happen, however, in nine months, and yesterday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan traveled to Moscow to mend somewhat broken relations with Putin, who announced that the country would slowly lift economic sanctions against Turkey on the path to restoring normalized relations.

Erdoğan, last month survived a coup attempt from within elements of the Turkish military that, for a few hours at least, seemed like it had some chances of success. The first world leader to call Erdoğan to pledge his support?

Putin.

With Erdoğan placing blame for the coup on the shoulders of Fethullah Gülen (who lives in exile in Pennsylvania) and his Gulenist followers in Turkey, the crackdown has been swift and deep. In the past four weeks, Erdoğan has purged many Turkish institutions of tens of thousands of officials suspected of having any ties to Gulenism. That includes the military and the police forces, but also over 20,000 private school teachers, 10,000 education officials and agents within other government ministries. Erdoğan has also ordered the shutdown of around 100 media outlets, which echoes a decision earlier in March to seize Zaman, one of Turkey’s most popular independent newspapers.

Last May, prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu resigned after a series of files (the so-called ‘Pelican Files’) were released to the public and that showed the former foreign minister, who led the governing Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) to a minority victory in June 2015 and a majority victory in November 2015, was increasingly uncomfortable with Erdoğan. His misgivings included both the push to concentrate power within the Turkish presidency (following Erdoğan’s shift from prime minister to president in 2014) and with the increasingly militant approach to Turkey’s Kurdish population — after over a decade of progress for Kurdish minority rights and a detente with the PKK, a militant, communist Kurdish militia.

Binali Yıldırım, the new prime minister, formerly a transport, maritime and communications minister and a loyal Erdoğan supporter, has been far more willing to countenance the shift from a powerful parliamentary government to a presidential one.

It has been clear since the late 2000s that Erdoğan was not the pure democrat that his supporters (and many sympathizers in the United States and Europe) once believed, and it’s been clear since the Gezi Park protests in 2013 that Erdoğan has no respect for the kind of liberal freedoms — expression, assembly, press, speech and otherwise — that are so important to a functioning democracy. In the wake of the July coup attempt, Erdoğan’s instinct towards the authoritarian has only sharpened. (Though, to be fair, imagine the kind of response that would follow from an American president if a military coup managed to shut down New York’s major airports, take control of public television and bomb the US Capitol).

That his first post-coup visit abroad was to Russia to visit Putin will, of course, be a source of increasing anxiety among US and European officials, who need Erdoğan’s assistance on at least two fronts: first, stemming the flow of migrants from Syria that cross through Turkey en route to Europe and, second, facilitating US, European and NATO efforts to weaken and ultimately displace ISIS from their territorial berth in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Continue reading Why Erdoğan is not — and will never be — Putin

Naruhito could soon become Japan’s next emperor

Naruhito, Japan's crown prince, would assume the Chrysanthemum Throne if his father Akihito were permitted to abdicate. (Sebastien Bozon / AFP - Getty)
Naruhito, Japan’s crown prince, would assume the Chrysanthemum Throne if his father Akihito were permitted to abdicate. (Sebastien Bozon / AFP – Getty)

Japan’s long-serving emperor, Akihito, stunned his country Monday in a video address, during he heavily hinted that the Japanese parliament should consider permitting his future abdication.Japan

The emperor did not fully endorse legislation to allow abdication, out of respect for the tradition that emperors do not intervene directly in Japanese politics. But at age 82, Akihito, who has suffered from increasingly poor health in recent years, made it abundantly clear that he believes that his retirement would be a good thing for the Japanese people — if the current government finds a way to amend the imperial succession laws. In addressing the Japanese people directly, and in reinforcing the emperor’s role as a symbol of postwar pacifism, Akihito also contrasted with the post-imperial views of prime minister Shinzō Abe, perhaps the most nationalist of Japan’s postwar civilian leaders.

No matter what happens, Akihito’s address signals that his son, the 56-year-old Naruhito, could take a much more high-profile role in the future. If the Diet enacts legislation permitting abdication, Naruhito might even soon become Japan’s new emperor.

The abdication question is now just one of several issues on Abe’s desk after his dominant Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō) made gains in elections last month in the House of Councillors, the upper house of the National Diet (国会, Kokkai), the Japanese parliament. Among other things, Abe has postponed a long-planned increase in the national consumption tax and has doubled down on what’s already been nearly four years of fiscal and monetary stimulus to improve Japan’s long-stagnant economy. Above all, he still harbors dreams of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution by amending Article 9, the famous provision that outlaws war and technically forbids a standing Japanese army (though, in reality, the so-called Japan Self-Defense Forces have more personnel than the United Kingdom’s army).

Akihito’s Monday afternoon address, however, brings the Japanese imperial tradition to the forefront of Japan’s often muted (by American standards, at least) political agenda. The Chrysanthemum Throne dates back nearly three millennia as the world’s oldest continuing hereditary monarchy. Japan’s emperors, however, traditionally wielded more moral and spiritual power than actual power. That was true in the Tokugawa era, and it’s been true since the end of World War II when the United States and its allies rehabilitated the imperial institution to use Hirohito, who reigned from 1926 to 1989, as a link from pre-war to post-war Japan.

Hirohito, in the immediate postwar period, admitted publicly that the emperor was not, in fact, a god. Akihito’s wife, Michiko, is the first commoner to serve as empress, and they have tried to make the throne more accessible to the Japanese people. Naruhito, in particular, has indicated that he would like to continue to break down some of the formality surrounding the imperial family. Continue reading Naruhito could soon become Japan’s next emperor

DA impresses with wins in South African municipal elections

Mmusi Maimane, the new leder of the opposition Democratic Alliance, hopes the promising 2016 municipal elections are a harbinger of greater success in 2019. (Facebook)
Mmusi Maimane, the new leder of the opposition Democratic Alliance, hopes the promising 2016 municipal elections are a harbinger of greater success in 2019. (Facebook)

The problem with South Africa’s opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has always been that it is viewed as a party for wealthy whites — even when its former leader, Helen Zille, was a longtime anti-apartheid journalist. south africa flag

The rap on the DA’s new leader, Mmusi Maimane, is that the 36-year-old was far too inexperienced to navigate the South Africa’s complicated racial politics, long dominated in the post-apartheid era by the African National Congress (ANC). Even under Maimane’s leadership, ANC leaders and others routinely slam the Democratic Alliance, somewhat unfairly, for a ‘legacy of racism.’

But the DA’s success in last week’s municipal elections may force South Africans to reconsider their views both about the party and its young leader. Voters across the country recoiled at the economic malaise, corruption and other shenanigans that have accumulated under Jacob Zuma, the country’s president since 2009, handing several victories to the DA, which fell just shy of winning in Johannesburg, South Africa’s most populous city.

In the May 2014 general election, the Democratic Alliance had its best showing to date, even though it meant winning just 22.23% of the vote nationwide, compared to 62.15% for the ruling ANC. Historically, the DA has managed to attract a wide majority in Western Cape province and in the city of Cape Town, but it has struggled elsewhere in an uphill battle to convince voters to abandon the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela that’s still synonymous with the end of apartheid.

More than two decades after the ANC came to power, however, unemployment is on the rise, GDP growth has slowed, and Zuma faced a rebuke earlier this spring from South Africa’s top constitutional court, which ordered him to repay some of the $23 million in public funds that Zuma spent to renovate his Nkandla home. One of the much-hyped BRICS economies, South Africa hasn’t achieved GDP growth over 4% since 2007, and growth slowed increasingly in the past three years — the economy is expected to grow by just 0.1% this year.

Election officials confirmed late last week that the Democratic Alliance won in Nelson Mandela Bay, a municipality that includes Port Elizabeth, the largest city of Eastern Cape province.

nelson mandela bay 16

Over the weekend came even more stunning news that the Democratic Alliance narrowly edged out the ANC in Tshwane municipality (which includes Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative and executive capital) and only narrowly lost Johannesburg. Both cities are in Gauteng province, which has been a Maimane target for a while, dating back to his own mayoral run in Johannesburg in 2011.

tshwane16Voters across the country voted on August 3 for municipal councils at several levels of government. The largest prizes include the councils of eight metropolitan municipalities, which include South Africa’s most populous cities.

In addition to Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg, those eight municipalities also include the DA-controlled Cape Town and four additional councils that the ANC easily retained (including, for example, the eThekwini municipality that includes Durban).
johannesburg 2016The results mean that the DA (in Pretoria and Port Elizabeth) and the ANC (in Johannesburg) will both scramble either to align with the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) or to try to govern with a minority.
Continue reading DA impresses with wins in South African municipal elections

Thai voters set to vote on new military-backed constitution

Prayuth Chan-Ocha has served as the 'interim' prime minister of Thailand since the military took power in May 2014.
Prayuth Chan-Ocha has served as the ‘interim’ prime minister of Thailand since the military took power in May 2014.

Anyone who cheered on the failed coup in Turkey need only turn to Thailand to understand just what it means to have a democracy ‘guaranteed’ by the military.thailand

On Sunday, August 7, voters across the country will take part in a referendum that will decide whether Thailand adopts a new constitution — one that would place significant political powers in the hands of the Thai military, in essence making permanent the role of the armed forces, which have governed the country since a May 2014 coup. For instance, the draft constitution includes a new provision that would allow the military junta’s executive council — the euphemistically named National Council for Peace and Order (คณะรักษาความสงบแห่งชาติ) — to appoint all 250 members of the Senate in a newly reconstituted bicameral national assembly. Among other things, that would give the Thai military veto power over any future prime minister, future elected governments, their policy agenda, the Thai bureaucracy and the country’s judiciary.

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RELATED: Why you should believe the worst about Thailand’s coup

RELATED: How Yingluck’s rice subsidy backfired in Thailand

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Under the new constitution, all 500 members of the lower house, the House of Representatives, are to be determined by a proportional representation voting system that makes it almost impossible for a single party or movement to win an absolute majority. Most observers believe that this is a direct ploy to disenfranchise a majority of Thai voters who have supported populists over the last two decades who have promised to redistribute wealth away from wealthy elites.

The referendum follows an atypical campaign, which is to say that there hasn’t exactly been a true campaign. Opponents of the new constitution face severe restrictions against speaking out for a ‘No’ vote, and some have received lengthy prison sentences for doing so. That’s standard course for the ruling junta, which has sentenced Thai citizens to prison for comments — even on Facebook or other social media — for speech deemed ‘offensive to the royal family.’

In a sense, the military government, headed for over two years now by a retired army officer, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, is in a ‘heads-I-win-tails-you-lose’ situation.

With no true ability to mobilize, opponents of the draft constitution are at a disadvantage. With no outside election monitors or real checks on ballot integrity, we might never know the true result if the official result is not tallied transparently. Even if the military government allows the ‘No’ camp a victory, Prayuth has made it clear that the government will simply submit a new constitution en route to fresh elections that are set to take place sometime in 2017. Notably, if voters reject the constitution on Sunday, it will be the second failed effort, after the military jettisoned a first draft last September.

In broad strokes, Thailand is no stranger to military coups or to newly promulgated constitutions. But from 2001 through 2014, a single family came to dominate Thai politics, ably capturing the hearts of a majority of Thai voters, especially among the rural poor and especially in the country’s relatively less developed north. Continue reading Thai voters set to vote on new military-backed constitution

Trump boosts Nehlen in August 9 primary vs Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, faces a unique primary challenge on August 9. (Facebook)
Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, faces a unique primary challenge on August 9. (Facebook)

Don’t look now, but House speaker Paul Ryan may have just one week to salvage his career.USflag

OK, that might be hyperbole, but the longtime Wisconsin representative is facing perhaps the stiffest challenge of his nearly two-decade career in elective office.

For the better part of a decade, Ryan has been the face of movement conservatism in the United States. From the beginning of the Obama administration, Ryan quickly filled a role as something of the dean of conservative policymaking on Capitol Hill, earning for himself a reputation as a radical intellectual of the American right, who would routinely propose budgets that would so drastically reshape taxes and spending in the United States, even his predecessor as House speaker, Newt Gingrich — no shrinking violet on the American right — dismissed some of his ideas as ‘right-wing social engineering.’

Nevertheless, Ryan’s ascent in American politics is stunning. He served as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012; had the Romney-Ryan ticket won that election, Ryan would have played an important role in formulating economic policy for the Romney administration. Reluctantly — very reluctantly — Ryan agreed to run for House speaker last year after John Boehner stepped down and the frontrunner, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, suddenly dropped out.

In many ways, Ryan’s has been a fairy-tale rise in American politics and, even today, he is a plausible future president in 2020 or beyond.

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RELATED: A brief history of Republican speakercide

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That may be changing, however, in the age of Trump.

By all appearances, Ryan was already facing an uncomfortably tough primary challenge from local businessman Paul Nehlen. But that challenge became a bit tougher on Sunday evening, when Republican presidential nominee nudged supporters toward Nehlen via Twitter:

On Monday, Trump refused to endorse Ryan in his primary, openly mocking the House speaker with the same kind of equivocating language that Ryan used in May when he refused to endorse Trump for the presidency:

Trump praised the House speaker’s underdog opponent, Paul Nehlen, for running “a very good campaign.” Trump said that Ryan has sought his endorsement, but that as of now he is only “giving it very serious consideration.”

“I like Paul, but these are horrible times for our country,” Trump said. “We need very strong leadership. We need very, very strong leadership. And I’m just not quite there yet. I’m not quite there yet.” Trump’s refusal to back Ryan represents an extraordinary breach of political decorum and signals that the Republican Party remains divided two weeks after a national convention in Cleveland staged to showcase party unity.
Continue reading Trump boosts Nehlen in August 9 primary vs Paul Ryan

Oman may (or may not) have a looming succession crisis

Despite health problems in recent years, Oman's sultan, Qaboos bin Said al Said, has not publicized his succession plan, if any even exists. (ONA)
Despite health problems in recent years, Oman’s sultan, Qaboos bin Said al Said, has not publicized his succession plan, if any even exists. (ONA)

I write for The National Interest today about another potential political headache for the Middle East on the horizion — the apparent lack of successor to the widely beloved sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said Al Said.oman

It’s safe to say that in his 46-year reign, which began when he ousted his own father from power in 1970, Qaboos has political and economically forged the modern state of Oman. In so doing, he has become a crucial figure in defusing regional crises:

Omani diplomats, equally at ease in Washington and Tehran, were crucial to bringing together U.S. and Iranian negotiators as early as 2009, paving the way for the early first steps of the landmark nuclear energy deal between Iran’s Islamic Republic and the ‘P5+1’ governments inked earlier last year. Presumably with Iran’s encouragement, Oman also last year hosted peace talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels who now control much of Yemen.

Omanis chiefly practice Ibadism, mostly distinct to Oman, Zanzibar and eastern Africa, that predates and is distinct from both Sunni and Shia Islam. In practice, Ibadis are relatively moderate Muslims, and Ibadism’s distance from both Sunni and Shiite has helped make Oman an important peacekeeper in the Muslim world. Oman is a close ally of Iran, but it was also a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981, even while it has aided American anti-terrorism efforts in the region. In January, for instance, the United States transferred 10 Guantanamo detainees to Oman. It has no real military might, nor does it project economic strength (its $58.5 billion economy is dwarfed today even by Syria’s), but its ability to project soft power in the region is off the charts. Moreover, with Iran, it guarantees safe passage of Middle Eastern oil through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passage linking the Persian Gulf to the wider Arabian Sea.

The problem is that the 75-year-old Qaboos, has no brothers, no wife, no sons and, by all accounts, hasn’t particularly groomed anyone as his successor, even as he spent much of 2014 and 2015 fending off a health scare that most observers believed to be colon cancer. Continue reading Oman may (or may not) have a looming succession crisis

MAKING WORLD POLITICS LESS FOREIGN