What will Italy’s election mean for LGBT rights?


Last weekend, Nichi Vendola, the openly gay regional president of Puglia, pluckily posted to Twitter a photo of himself campaigning alongside Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), captioned ‘coppia di fatto‘ (‘de facto couple’).

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Vendola, the leader of the more stridently leftist Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom), is part of the broad centrosinistra (center-left) coalition that hopes to elect Bersani as Italy’s next prime minister this weekend, and the pun subtly reinforced the role that gay rights has played in Italy’s election campaign.

The subtlety speaks a lot to how the issue of gay rights and same-sex marriage has hummed along the surface of a campaign that’s been almost entirely fought over economic policy — he state of Italy’s finances, economic reforms, budget austerity and the encroaching control of Brussels and Berlin on Italian governance.  Nonetheless, the gay rights issue is probably the most important social issue as the election approaches.

Given that Rome, Italy’s capital, is also home to the Vatican, gay rights is also one of the most polarizing issues of Italian public life.


Vendola (pictured above) is perhaps the most vigorous advocate of gay rights and same-sex marriage in Italy, but the progress elsewhere in Europe has also underscored Italy’s lack of progress on gay rights.

With parliaments in two of Europe’s four most-populous countries — the United Kingdom and France — passing legislation that allows for same-sex marriage in the past month, there’s some pressure on Italy to follow suit.  Italy also lacks any anti-discrimination laws or hate crime laws designed to prevent crimes with a particularly anti-gay bias.  Although southern Europe isn’t traditionally as socially liberal as northern Europe, both Spain and Portugal have promulgated full same-same marriage rights — Spain did so eight years ago.

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Stuart appears to hang onto power — just barely — in Barbados


It appears that Barbadian prime minister Freundel Stuart (pictured above) has avoided the fate of Grenada’s prime minister on Tuesday — the current count for elections to Barbados’s 30-member House of Assembly shows a provisional 16-13 lead for Stuart’s Democratic Labor Party (DLP), with one seat pending a recount.barbados flag

For much of the night, however, as returns came in, the DLP appeared to be tied with the Barbados Labour Party (BLP), which was hoping for a return to power under Owen Arthur, prime minister of Barbados from 1994 to 2008.

Arthur returned to frontline politics in 2010 to lead the BLP once again, but it appears that his efforts have turned up short, despite polls that showed him with a better than even chance to return to government.  On Tuesday, former three-term prime minister Keith Mitchell swept back to power, his New National Party taking all 15 seats in the Grenadian lower house of parliament.

The DLP, which dates to 1955, and which was the party of Barbadian prime minister Errol Barrow, who governed the island nation in its first decade of independence, will have another five years in power.

The election is the first mandate for Stuart, however, who succeeded the late David Thompson as prime minister in October 2010 after Thompson died from pancreatic cancer.  Though Stuart’s majority has been reduced from 20 seats to a razor-thin 16 seats, a majority is a majority.

Stuart, an attorney by trade, previously served as attorney-general and minister of home affairs prior to Thompson’s death.

The ‘Dems’ will now have an opportunity to revitalize Barbados’s economy from its current stagnant condition — and over the next five years, Stuart will face further battles with the International Monetary Fund over a potential debt package or a devaluation of the Barbadian currency.

The Caribbean Development Bank has identified Barbados, like Grenada, as one of seven countries with unsustainable debt levels.

Djibouti election seems unlikely to bring real change


Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, the president of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, has served as the tiny port-state’s president since 1999, the successor of his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who was Djibouti’s president from independence in 1977.djibouti flag

Guelleh himself won reelection with over 80% of the vote in 2011 — an election that the main opposition figures boycotted.  Furthermore, all 65 seats in Djibouti’s parliament are currently held by Guelleh’s Union for a Presidential Majority, a coalition of five parties dominated by the People’s Rally for Progress (RPP, Rassemblement populaire pour le Progrès or التجمع الشعبي من أجل التقدم‎), which itself has dominated Djiboutian politics since 1979 and was the only legally permitted party in Djibouti from 1981 to 1992.

So you should take Friday’s scheduled parliamentary elections with a grain of salt.  Djibouti has neither any real experience with sophisticated electoral politics nor does it have any experience with peaceful transfers of leadership.

The opposition is essentially running on a platform of ‘we’re not the government.’  Hastily unified as the Union for National Salvation (USN) coalition, its leader Daher Ahmed Farah even returned from exile in Belgium where he’d spent the past nine years.

But due to a change in election law, Friday’s election will be the most open in the country’s history — proportional representation means that the opposition should win seats for the first time in Djiboutian history, as 20% of the seats are being awarded proportionally.  The rest of the seats will, as in previous elections, be awarded by plurality in single-member districts, so it’s pretty clear that Guelleh’s allies will retain power after the election.

In a 65-member parliament, that means 13 seats are up for grabs.

In the closest election in Djibouti’s history in 2003, the government won 62.7% to 37.3% for the opposition.  If the USN manages that result, rounding up, that means that maybe five seats will go to the USN, with the remaining 60, I am fairly confident, remaining in government hands.  So it’s a move toward openness, perhaps, but it’s certainly not a showcase of, let’s say, Jacksonian democracy.

But as Amin Rosen writes in a superb summary of Djibouti’s current geopolitical role in The Atlantic, the elections are of vital interest to American and French military interests, and given that a considerable share of Djibouti’s GDP comes from lease income from the U.S. and French militaries, neither the current government and the opposition are unlikely to interfere with those operations.  The former French colony of French Somaliland, Djibouti remains the largest French military presence outside of France.  In 2001, the government leased a former French base, Camp Lemonnier, to the U.S. military, which is vital not only to the U.S. efforts against Islamic terrorist elements in Yemen and Somalia, but also somewhat of a hub for the entire region that includes the horn of Africa and eastern Africa.  It’s been an instrumental base for the fight against Somali pirates, for example.

So in many ways, Djibouti is a kind of microsized military-colonial complex state, like Kuwait since the early 1990s, Bahrain increasingly since 2001, or like Panamá throughout much of the 20th century, that’s incredibly vital for U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond.

It’s a vital country for Ethiopia as well.  Even before the 1998 war with Eritrea that left Ethiopian-Eritrean relations hostile, Ethiopian business interests increasingly favored the lower-cost port of Djibouti for the most efficient access to the Gulf of Aden and global shipping channels, and even preferred the refineries in Djibouti to those in Eritrea.  Following the 1998 war, Djibouti is now Ethiopia’s sole link to the coast.

So Djibouti matters, as Rosen rightly notes:

Djibouti’s importance to the west’s security interests is difficult to overstate. From its perch at the mouth of the Red Sea, it is possible to monitor traffic through the Gulf of Aden, and every vessel traveling between the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal must pass within a few miles of the country’s coastline. It borders Somalia, home to the Al Shabaab terrorist organization, and the staging area for pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean.

The country has a population of just 775,000 people, two-thirds of which live in the main port of Djibouti City, and its economy is growing thanks to the rent-seeking gains from its role as a shipping hub for land-locked Ethiopia and as a hub for global security interests in the region.  But despite a GDP per capita of around $2,600 — akin to Sudan or Ghana, and much wealthier on a per capita basis than Somalia, Ethiopia or Eritrea — Djibouti has high unemployment and high poverty.

All the while, per Transparency International’s rankings for corruption, Djibouti manages to edge out some of its neighbors, but still ranks 94th, just alongside Greece, as a fairly corrupt country.

The economic inequality explains why Djibouti saw a sustained round of protests in 2011 — nothing like those that rocked Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, or even Bahrain, but enough for Guelleh to take note.

Friday’s elections in Djibouti, I’ll venture a guess, won’t transform power to the Djiboutian opposition.  But they may well mark a gradual opening of the port-state’s political space that could well allow for vibrant democracy in the years to come.

First Past the Post: February 22

East and South Asia

On Japan’s reinflationary policy.

Japan is likely to enter talks to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Police general Pongsapat Pongcharoen leads polls to become the next governor of Bangkok.

North America

U.S. president Barack Obama is meeting Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe.

Latin America / Caribbean

‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier avoids court again.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez still has respiratory problems.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Uhuru Kenyatta has pulled out of the Feb. 25 presidential debate.


Checking in on Cyprus.

The Pirate Party is sinking in Germany.

Former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi points to Mafia and bureaucracy as his country’s top problems.

Chinese investment in Greenland at the forefront, a couple of weeks before elections.

YouTrend helpfully notes in its coverage of the ‘papal conclave’ to be held around Feb. 24 or 25 that the ‘gioviale cardinale di Piacenza’ has about 33.5 cardinals supporting him, while the ‘prelato pelato di Monza e Brianza’ has about 32.  A close race indeed.

Russia and Former Soviet Union

Does an incumbent president really hold post-election talks with his challenger if the vote wasn’t rigged? The latest from Yerevan.

Life in prison for Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko?

On Moldova’s political crisis.

Middle East and North Africa

Egyptian elections will begin on April 28.

Egypt’s feud between the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Australia and Oceania

More Kevin Rudd bait.