Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Events, Horrific Events, Change the U.K. Election

By Henry Srebrnik, [Halifax, N.S.] Chronicle Herald

The election that British Prime Minister Theresa May called for June 8 was supposed to focus on the forthcoming negotiations for the country’s departure from the European Union, triggered by last year’s Brexit referendum.

But, as another British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, once replied to a journalist when asked what might happen that might change his government’s focus, he replied, “Events, dear boy, events.”

The “event” in this case was the horrific terrorist attack in Manchester on May 22 and, not surprisingly, it has now become an issue in the campaign.

On that evening, a suicide bomber struck a rock concert attended by thousands of fans in a stadium in Manchester, blowing up himself and 22 others. Many more were seriously injured.

Issues like terrorism, radicalization, and immigration benefit May’s Conservatives, especially as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has in the past said positive things about militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

He already has had trouble convincing skeptics that he has the leadership qualities to lead a campaign against extremism.

A day after the attack, May announced that up to 5,000 soldiers would be deployed on the streets amid fears that the bomber might have had accomplices preparing further attacks.

May added that troops would replace police officers at large public events including sports venues and concerts.

The bomber was known to police. In fact, two of his friends had some time ago contacted the government’s anti-terrorism hotline to share concerns about him. 

So, as in so many similar cases, the bomber’s accomplices were quickly arrested after raids on homes by the security forces. In other words, the authorities had connected the dots long before – but couldn’t do anything about it.

It also became apparent that he was in league with a larger group, based in Libya but with an active cell in Manchester. As well, according to reports, nearly 900 Britons are thought to have travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State over the years and many are returning home.

It has become de rigueur for political leaders to repeat the refrain that terrorism is impossible to fully prevent, as if it were analogous to tornados, lightening strikes or traffic accidents. With resigned fatalism, they talk about the “new normal.” 

Yet at the same time, what follows each attack is an increased growth of an entire apparatus of counter-terrorism, with police checkpoints, security cameras, the interception of phone conversations and e-mails, and much more. Thousands of people now are part of this apparatus.

Imagine if 50 years ago – think the Beatles! Carnaby Street! Swinging London! Bobbies without guns! -- someone had told us that the British military would be out in the streets and that there would be CCTV cameras watching every street corner. (I lived in England while a PhD student between 1975 and 1980 and to me it still felt very much like the sixties.)

You’d be forgiven for assuming a coup d’état had overthrown the government, the Queen was in jail, and Britain had become a dictatorship run by a junta. 

At the rate things are going, Western democracies will either become virtual police states, or find themselves eventually governed by far right political forces -- call them fascist if you will. 

If the latter, they will use massive repression and violence to counter terrorism, using nets that will swoop up the innocent along with the few who are actually guilty.

Either way, civil liberties will become only a memory. Not a pleasing prospect, is it. For all the talk about how terrorists won’t change our way of life, they already have, of course.

Monday, May 29, 2017

What's Next for Iran?

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

In the lead-up to the May 19 Iranian presidential election, most observers maintained that the electorate would be focused on one main issue.

Did the lifting of economic sanctions on the part of the United States following the nuclear agreement signed by Tehran with the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in 2015 improve the economy sufficiently to have made the deal worth the cost?

Incumbent president Hassan Rouhani’s political fortunes would depend on the answer made by the millions of Iranians who had suffered under the restrictions.

He ran in 2013 on a platform promising to reinvigorate the economy by forging the nuclear deal, ending or easing sanctions, and opening the country to foreign investment and ideas.

His more “moderate” approach to relations with the West was in contrast to his often acrimonious and bizarre predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who delighted in being a provocateur.

Rouhani’s main opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, a powerful conservative cleric, is remembered for his role in the 1988 massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners, mainly members and supporters of the Marxist opposition People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran or Mojahedin-e-Khalq.

Raisi accused Rouhani of capitulation to the U.S. in the nuclear negotiations, allowing the entry of Western consumer goods under the cover of economic liberalization, and of allowing the spread of Western culture in Iran.

He appealed primarily to poor and deeply religious Iranians, many of whom felt left out of Rouhani’s post-sanctions vision for the future.

In the end, Rouhani prevailed, with 57 per cent of the ballots cast, soundly defeating his chief opponent, who received 38.5 percent. The turnout was more than 70 percent.

“You have put Iran back on the road to progress,” Rouhani stated to his voters after his victory. Clearly, Iranians have endorsed his economic and political plans, but are they working?

True, billions of dollars have poured into the country after reaching the nuclear agreement. All manner of international businesses have been flocking in, eager to make deals.

Yet many middle-class Iranians are still frustrated by the years of high unemployment, inflation (which was above 40 percent when Rouhani was elected), declining living standards, and widespread corruption.

Prices are still rising by over seven per cent a year and unemployment remains at 12.5 per cent overall, and close to 30 per cent for people under 25.

Ordinary Iranians also chafe over the fact that about 80 per cent of the economy remains under state ownership, dominated by the powerful military, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the all-powerful Shia clergy. Both these groups have accumulated astronomical wealth.

As well, the Iranian clerical elite retain the final say, under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now in his 28th year as the country’s Supreme Leader, on Iran’s domestic politics and international relations.

The Islamic Republic’s hybrid democratic-theocratic constitution, with its checks and balances, on paper provides for a measure of popular sovereignty, yet the position of the Supreme Leader ensures that a theocrat is in ultimate control.

Candidates for all offices must prove their utter loyalty to the Supreme Leader. The unelected twelve-member Council of Guardians vets candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections. It also reviews all new laws to ensure they are properly “Islamic.”

“We are all merely facilitators of this regime,” Mohammad Khatami, the “moderate” president who served from 1997 to 2005, once remarked. The election will change none of this.

Misagh Parsa, a sociology professor at Dartmouth College, in her book Democracy In Iran: Why it Failed and How it Might Succeed, published last November, traces the country’s increasing inequalities in wealth and income, corruption and cronyism, and a “brain drain” of highly educated professionals.

But the hard-liners will not give up real power easily and have managed to quash pro-democracy activism at every turn since 1979, especially during the violence that erupted during the 2009 election that allowed Ahmadinejad to remain president.

Khamenei has veto power over all policies, while Rouhani has been unable to even secure the release of reformists from house arrest.

Will Rouhani manage to break the hard-line monopoly on the state-run radio and television, and increase freedom of press?

The Islamic Republic will in the next few years face a more important struggle, that of who will succeed the 77-year-old and ailing Khamenei. This will not be resolved at the ballot box and in fact Raisi, as a major religious figure, remains a potential successor to Khamenei.

Colombia's Violence May Not Be Over

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fought the South American governments of that country for more than half a century before signing a peace deal last year.

By the time it ended, the conflict had left more than 230,000 dead and millions displaced from their homes.

It was one of the world’s longest-running and vicious guerrilla wars, with countless atrocities committed by the FARC, the Colombian armed forces, and brutal right-wing paramilitary groups and death squads.

The FARC had been formed as the armed wing of the Communist Party in 1964 and many FARC fighters had virtually grown up in the jungle, with little education other than FARC propaganda.

“There is one less war in the world,” President Juan Manuel Santos said upon winning the Nobel Peace Prize last Oct. 7 for his efforts at ending the 52-year-old conflict. “It is much more difficult to achieve peace than to wage war.”

He was indeed correct. On Oct. 3, Colombians had unexpectedly rejected an initial agreement in a national referendum by a narrow margin. It had been signed Sept. 26 by Santos and FARC Commander in Chief Rodrigo Londono, known as Timochenko. Guests were dressed in white at the ceremony in Cartagena, to symbolise peace.

Former president Alvaro Uribe, a hard-line opponent of the deal, had advocated voting against it. But when Santos, who had been Uribe’s defence minister, become president in 2010 he was determined to end the violence.

Following further negotiations, Santos and the FARC on Nov.12 announced a “new final deal,” which Santos, who controlled a majority in Congress, was able to push through without a new referendum.

FARC rebels agreed to give up their arms under UN supervision in 26 “transitory normalization zones” in rural areas scattered around the country. The FARC and the government established a deadline of May 31st for final disarmament.

The FARC will become a political party, and, before long, former guerrillas will be able to run for public office.

In exchange, the government promised billions of dollars in aid and land reform. Santos also committed to protecting the rebels from reprisals by right-wing groups.

But Colombia is not out of the woods yet. Because the end of the FARC insurgency has left a power vacuum, criminal groups are attempting to fill it.

They are occupying the regions left behind by the FARC, all hoping to wrest control of the cocaine trade, illegal gold mines and other criminal enterprises which once financed the rebels.

 “They want to control the illegal economies that have fueled Colombia’s war,” Colombia’s human rights ombudsman, Carlos Negret, indicated.

In response, Santos announced in March that 960 new police agents would be assigned to rural areas. Clearly, that’s far from enough.

In order to finance their activities, the FARC had become involved in the narcotics trade, exporting cocaine to the world.

Under the peace agreement, the government and the guerrillas agreed to promote crop substitution programs through voluntary eradication pacts: the farmers would pull out their coca bushes in exchange for subsidies, land titles and technical assistance to grow something else.

Since January, more than 55,000 families throughout the country have signed on.“We cannot allow drug trafficking to coexist with peace and reconciliation,” said Néstor Humberto Martinez, Colombia’s chief prosecutor.

The problem, of course, is that few other crops are as profitable as coca. In fact, cultivation of the plant rose 18 per cent last year from 2015.

In any case, can former FARC fighter be re-integrated into civil society? Bruce Bagley, international relations professor at the University of Miami, notes that many Colombians still don’t trust them and “consider them monsters who have committed atrocities.”

So did Santos deserve the Nobel Peace Prize? It’s way too soon to tell.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Polish Jew Who Created a Synthetic Language

By Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary, AB] Jewish Free Press
The 100th anniversary of the death of Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of the Esperanto language, is being observed this year.

Zamenhof, a Jewish physician, was born in the northeastern Polish city of Bialystok in 1859 and died in Warsaw in 1917. Bialystok belonged to the Russian Empire at the time and, as a polyglot city of Belarusians, Germans, Jews, Lithuanians, Poles, and Russians, was the scene of ethnic tensions.

From his youth Zamenhof occupied himself with poetry and drama; he wrote, among other pieces, a five-act tragedy based, interestingly, on the myth of the Tower of Babel – the Biblical story recounting the origins of the world’s different languages.

As told in the Book of Genesis, people once spoke the same language. But, because they banded together to build a tower in Babylon that glorified their own achievements, rather than those of their deity, God punished them by creating a myriad of languages so that they could no longer communicate with each other.

Zamenhof was saddened and frustrated by the many quarrels among the different ethnic groups in his native city, caused, he thought, by the lack of one common language. Though a polymath fluent in a large number of languages, for Zamenhof the diversity of languages was a curse, not a blessing.

“I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all men were brothers, and, meanwhile, in the street, in the square, everything at every step made me feel that men did not exist, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews,” he later recalled. (Indeed, in June 1906 some 200 Jews were killed in a pogrom in the city.)

He hoped to rectify this by inventing a universal tongue. A world without linguistic barriers, he believed, might produce a world without war. Perhaps it was only appropriate that a Polish Jew would try to cut through this Gordian knot and create a universal tongue.

Zamenhof left Bialystok to study medicine in Moscow and Warsaw but continued on his project. In 1887, he published the book Lingvo Internacia (International Language), later known as the Unua Libro (First Book), under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto (Dr. One Who Hopes).

A year later he produced two more volumes, Dua Libro de Lingvo Internacia (The Second Book of the International Language) and Aldono al la Dua Libro (Supplement to the Second Book). He also produced Russian–Esperanto and German–Esperanto dictionaries.

From 1889 on, living in Warsaw, he edited the monthly La Esperantisto, which was published in Nuremberg; he also founded the Universala Esperanto-Asocio (World Society of Esperantists).

“Zamenhof created Esperanto as a counterweight to national languages, which he believed divided people and were a source of conflict,” asserted Przemyslaw Wierzbowski, head of the Bialystok Society of Esperanto Enthusiasts.

“Today, we know that it’s economic, ethnic or religious differences that divide people, but Esperanto still has the goal of uniting us, helping us communicate,” he added.

By 1905, there were more than 300 Esperanto associations around the world. That same year, nearly 700 people from about 20 countries attended the first Esperanto world congress, in the French city of Boulogne-Sur-Mer.

At its height, it was embraced by working-class Jews, French intellectuals, East Asian leftists, Baha’i believers, Shinto sectarians, and Brazilian spiritists. It was a time when French was in decline, English not yet completely ascendant, as world languages.

Zamenhof translated many works into Esperanto, including the Torah, which he finished shortly before his death. Known for his idealism, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 13 times without success. For a while, there was even a campaign to make Esperanto the official language of proceedings at the League of Nations.

As Princeton University Esther Schor writes in her 2016 study Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language, it was meant to be “neutral, nonethnic and nonimperial,” and would “commit its users to transcend nationalism.”

The outbreak of the First World War was a major disappointment to Zamenhof and took a toll on his health, leading to his early death at age 57.

Things would get even worse in Europe after his death. Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels called it “a language of Jews and communists”; all three of Zamenhof’s children would be killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.

His artificial language is exceptionally easy to learn. It has 16 basic rules, no exceptions and only 1,000 root words. It derives most of its words and grammar from European languages. Some 75 percent of the vocabulary comes from Latin and Romance languages and around 20 percent from Germanic tongues.

The remainder is drawn from Slavic languages, while most of its scientific terms come from Greek.

Zamenhof hoped Esperanto would become a lingua franca, a global language, a position held at various times in the past by other tongues -- Latin in the Roman world, Aramaic in the Middle East, and, increasingly, English today.

It didn’t happen. Still, this year the 102nd Esperanto congress will take place in Seoul at a time when more than one million people speak the language and Esperanto is even an option on Google Translate.

Though countries around the world have commemorated Zamenhof on stamps, and city streets are named for him, the city officials in Bialystok refused to honor a UNESCO-sponsored “Zamenhof Year” in 2017.

On Dec. 12 of last year, Bialystok’s City Council rejected Mayor Tadeusz Truskolaski’s motion to commemorate Zamenhof’s 100th anniversary. Councillors for the conservative ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) voted against the proposal.

Wierzbowski reported that the councillors opposed to it saw Esperanto as a dead language that has no value for mankind.

But Zbigniew Nikiforowicz from the opposition liberal Civic Platform claimed that the decision was due to “an unfavorable stance inside PiS towards anything that is not ethnically Polish.”

Nationalists, for whom native languages are emotionally and spiritually sacred, would probably sneer that only a “rootless cosmopolitan” could have invented Esperanto. Zamenhof may have created a universal language, but for Polish nationalists, he was just a Jew.

Still, the city of Białystok has joined the UNESCO-sponsored ceremonies marking Zamenhof’s anniversary observed in 2017 under the patronage of UNESCO. “It is a good opportunity to recall this outstanding figure, the creator of the world’s most popular artificial language,” remarked Mayor Truskolaski.

In any case, a few Esperanto words have been incorporated into Polish. “In Warsaw, the municipal bike system is called Veturilo (vehicle in Esperanto), while the name of the soft drink Mirinda means ‘amazing,’” Wierzbowski said, adding that Esperanto continues to evolve.

“Recently, we were discussing what word to use for drone. ‘Drono’ won out in the end.”

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Ghana Celebrates Sixty Years of Sovereignty

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

It was the first sub-Saharan country to become independent after the Second World War, and would be succeeded by dozens of others in the decades to follow.

The British colony known as the Gold Coast adopted the name Ghana, for the ancient kingdom which flourished until the eleventh century, when it achieved independence in 1957.

It was a time of great hope for the future of a continent which until then had been almost entirely ruled as parts of European empires. Many of these hopes would be dashed over the next 60 years, and Ghana too would undergo periods of authoritarian rule.

As elsewhere in Africa, there were a multitude of different ethnicities and religions in the new state, many of them hostile to each other.

Some of this went back to the days of the slave trade, when some groups had been complicit in capturing and selling others to European slavers.

Ghana’s history is intricately tied to slavery, Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, an English professor from the University of Cape Coast, has noted.

There were large slave forts along the Atlantic coastline, built for the purpose of processing human beings awaiting sale to slave ships which would drop anchor along the coast. Barack Obama visited one in 2009.

Still, following the end of the slave trade, the Gold Coast came to be regarded as the showpiece of Britain’s colonies: it was the richest, and its people the best educated.
Kwame Nkrumah, its first leader, had been educated in Britain and the United States. His Convention People’s Party formed the first post-independence government.

 But he became a tyrant in the years following independence, suspending the constitution in 1964 and creating a one-party state. The economy rapidly declined and he was finally deposed in a coup d’état while on a visit to China in 1966. Decades of military dictatorships, one following another, ensued.

Not until 1992, with the drafting of a new constitution, did multi-party democracy return to the country. Under President Jerry Rawlings’ National Democratic Congress (NDC) rule, from 1992 to 2000, Ghana once again became the most politically stable and prosperous nation in West Africa.

In a free and fair election held in 2000, John Kufuor of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) won the presidency, beating Rawlings’ vice-president, John Atta Mills of the NDC. Kufuor was re-elected in 2004 for a second four-year term, again beating Mills. He retired in 2008.

President Nana Akufo-Addo, Ghana’s current head of state, won the Dec. 7, 2016 presidential election on behalf of the NPP against the incumbent, John Mahama of the NDC.

Akufo-Addo had lost twice before to the NDC, first to Mills, who finally won the presidency in 2008, and then to Mahama, who succeeded Mills after the latter died, in 2012.

This time, the 73-year-old Akufo-Addo, a human rights lawyer who comes from an eminent political family, won 53.8 per cent of the votes after a hotly contested race.

Gold, cocoa and, more recently, oil, form the cornerstone of Ghana’s economy and had helped fuel an economic boom. Until recently Ghana was hailed as a model for African growth.

But since 2013, its economy has endured a growing public deficit, high inflation, and a weakening currency. Gold, oil and even cocoa bean prices all dropped, resulting in its seeking a $918 million bailout from the International Monetary Fund in 2016.

This left Ghana with a restive population that spelled doom for Mahama’s re-election chances.

Akufo-Addo had gone into exile during the years of military rule. But from Europe, he could be heard on the BBC World Service, calling for a return to democracy. With the end of dictatorship, he returned home and became the first national organiser of the NPP.

He recently appealed to Ghanaians living in and out of the country to rally behind his administration, as he seeks to return the country onto the path of prosperity.

 “What we need to understand and believe is that we can also make it in Ghana, and improve the standards of living of our people. We can do it,” he reiterated.

“Our mission is clear, to make Ghana the most successful and business friendly economy in Africa,” declared Vice-President Mahamadu Bawumia. “This government will control the debt and get Ghana working again.”

Trump, Comey and the Russians

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
The furor over President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey on May 9 was unprecedented. CNN and MSNBC had their “breaking news” signage on-screen for the entire next few days. But even more hysteria was in the offing.

Since the United States has descended into some kind of alternate reality, the man whom Hillary Clinton herself had judged to be “responsible” for her loss, and hence abhorred by the Democrats, suddenly became, for the same people, a martyr.

The dismissal was now considered a blow to American democracy, the start of a dictatorship, something as bad as Watergate – a ridiculous comparison, as that had involved a criminal offense, unlike Comey’s sacking.

These cynical and hypocritical reactions served only to make those voicing them look silly to most Americans.

A few days later the Washington Post carried a story by Jennifer Rubin with a headline that could have come from the National Enquirer, as Trump’s opponents once again tried to tie him to Vladimir Putin.

“Bombshell: Trump Tells Secrets to Russia,” published May 15, asserted that the president revealed highly classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in a White House meeting on May 10.

According to her, unnamed current and former U.S. officials said that Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution, an establishment think tank, worried that Trump “will do what he wants, no matter how mad.” They clearly want to make this the “smoking gun” to get rid of him.

Of course the immediate calls for Trump’s impeachment even before this were only to be expected. They’ve been demanding that from virtually his first day in office.

Although not directly calling for Trump’s removal, but certainly, were it true, making it imperative to do so, was an incredible May 12 article in the New York Times asserting that Trump is a fascist, politically similar to Benito Mussolini.

“American Fascism, in 1944 and Today” was written by Henry Scott Wallace, the proud grandson of Henry A. Wallace, a well-known “fellow-traveller” and pro-Soviet sympathizer who ran for the presidency in 1948 for the Communist-backed Progressive Party.

“The main question today is how our democracy and our brash new generation of citizen activists deals with it,” Wallace concluded. Kafka couldn’t have made this up.

A political neophyte who has never held elective office, Trump may be in over his head. He certainly is out of tune with the political culture in government.

As well, the liberal Lilliputians, as in Gulliver’s Travels, have been tying him down with metaphorical legalistic pieces of thread.

Still, I doubt that Trump has yet done anything impeachable. But another solution comes to mind for the political elites, and is already being suggested in the mainstream press.

The 25th Amendment to the Constitution allows for the removal of the president if a majority of the cabinet informs the Congress that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” and, should the president contest his own removal, a two-thirds vote by Congress to confirm the cabinet’s judgment.

The ideal solution, for Trump’s opponents, would be for Trump, knowing this is in the offing, to simply say “who needs this?” He’s not a professional politician and doesn’t need the grief. After he quits, the whole circus around his supposed ties to Russia will fade away, as things return to “normal” under Mike Pence.

This would still be tantamount to overturning a democratic election, regardless of the excuses used.

But the “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton called Trump’s supporters, would take this lesson to heart, and America would devolve into such mutual animosity that it would become like many a Third World country where a coup removes a government the elites don’t like.

Can American democracy recover from this mess?

Monday, May 15, 2017

Election Exposes Divisions in Indonesia

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The southeast Asian archipelago of Indonesia, with a population of some 255 million, is the world’s largest Islamic nation – almost 90 per cent of the population practises the Muslim faith.

The country has long been a beacon of religious tolerance, but this may be changing. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta’s ethnically Chinese and religiously Christian governor, recently lost an election after being accused of disrespecting Islam.

The governorship of the largest municipality in the country is widely seen as a steppingstone to the presidency. Purnama became the governor of Jakarta when as vice-governor, he took over from Joko Widodo, who left the post when he was elected president of Indonesia in 2014.

Purnama’s ethnicity and faith made him a double-minority in Indonesia. Still, he sought to be elected in his own right in this year’s gubernatorial election.

The first round of voting took place Feb. 15, with Purnama, at 42.9 per cent, holding a narrow lead over Anies Rasyid Baswedan, a former education minister and a Muslim, who ran second with 40.5 percent.

With neither gaining over 50 per cent, a run-off took place on April 19.

Purnama was already on trial for blasphemy after making remarks last September about the Qur’an which some Indonesians considered insulting. Worse was to come. He was sentenced to two years in jail on May 9 for blasphemy, a harsher-than-expected ruling.

The blasphemy law, rarely used before 2004, has now been deployed in more than 120 cases, helping build support for Islamists and silence dissent, remarked Andreas Harsono, the Indonesia representative for Human Rights Watch.

Efforts to stop Purnama led to rallies that were among the largest in recent years. Militant groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) organized massive demonstrations.

As the second round of voting neared, the leader of the FPI, Habib Rizieq, ramped up the attacks. Banners appeared in front of mosques threatening voters with denial of Islamic burial rites should they support him.

It worked. Baswedan crushed his rival by 57.96 to 42.04 per cent in the runoff.

“A half-minute destroyed his career,” said Komaruddin Hidayat, a former rector of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University Jakarta. Indeed, Purnama’s trial could leave him vulnerable to being jailed.

 “Intolerance is already there and has been rising,” according to Endy Bayuni, editor in chief of the Jakarta Post newspaper.

Bonar Tigor Naipospos of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, a research institute in Jakarta, stated that “Islamization is deepening in society, especially in urban areas and cities.”

Under President Suharto’s authoritarian dictatorship, which lasted from 1965 to 1998, radical voices and organizations were pushed underground and activists were imprisoned. The transition to democracy, however, provided political space for their return.

Extremists have become more prominent since the turn of the century and have formed various militant groups, chief among them Jemaah Islamiyah, which staged attacks on targets perceived as un-Islamic, such as nightclubs. They were behind the 2002 Bali bombing, which killed more than 200 people.

Indonesia’s Constitutional Court recently struck down a law which would allow the government to annul discriminatory local religious-based laws regulating morality.

With the introduction of democracy and the decentralization of power to the local authorities, more than 440 such local ordinances have been adopted.

All of this may not bode well for the moderate Widodo and the political parties that support him, ahead of the 2019 presidential election.

Even so, Indonesia remains a largely moderate country known for a tolerance for other religions and ways of life, and support for radical groups is still limited to a fringe of Indonesian society. The major political parties remain committed to a democratic and pluralist society.

Are Trump's Opponents a "Resistance"?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Hillary Clinton described herself as “part of the resistance” during an interview with the CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour on May 2.

She also continues to refuse to accept her defeat in last year’s presidential election, blaming her loss on interference by then FBI Director James Comey and Russian hackers. As far as she’s concerned, she didn’t lose; the election was in effect “stolen.”

“I was on the way to winning,” she contended, until the combination of Comey’s letter on October 28 to Congress informing it that he had reopened the bureau’s investigation into her use of a private e-mail server, and the Russian WikiLeaks, “raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me but got scared off.”

Comey addressed this at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on May 3. Clinton’s e-mails, containing classified information, were being forwarded to former Congressman Anthony Weiner by his wife Huma Abedin, a top aide to Clinton, he explained. Actually, most were simply backed up onto his computer.

Still, it does mean that Weiner, who was being investigated separately for possible inappropriate communications with a minor -- a felony-- had Clinton’s e-mails on his own computer. This, and not simply her use of a private e-mail server, was part of the reason it sank Clinton’s candidacy.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, fired Comey as FBI director on May 9, apparently because, as far as the president is concerned, the FBI director wasn’t tough enough on Clinton. Trump contended that the director had given Clinton “a free pass for many bad deeds’’ when he decided not to recommend criminal charges in the case.

While Clinton continues to blame everything and everyone but herself for the defeat, Shattered, the recently published account of her campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, paints a very different picture.

It was, wrote New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani on April 17, an inept and dysfunctional campaign, an epic “Titanic-like disaster made up of a series of perverse and often avoidable missteps by an out-of-touch candidate and her strife-ridden staff.”

Can’t everyone who loses an election blame some unforeseen event? Had Iran not taken American embassy personnel hostage before the 1980 election, Jimmy Carter might have beaten Ronald Reagan.

Had Ross Perot not run in 1992, George H.W. Bush would probably have retained the White House, and it would have been the last we’d have heard of Bill Clinton.

But Hillary Clinton has a sense of entitlement second to none and won’t give up. “I’m back to being an activist citizen, and part of the resistance,” she announced.

I’ve never before seen the people out of power in the United States use a word, “resistance,” which conjures up the necessity of fighting against an illegitimate regime, one that was not democratically elected.

Such language wasn’t thrown around even in the disputed 2000 election, which was won far more controversially by George W. Bush against Al Gore.

As well, some political scientists have begun to use the negative term “Trump regime” rather than “Trump administration.” The implication is that it is no longer a liberal democratic government.

But Trump isn't Marshal Philippe Pétain and America isn’t a Vichy France governed by puppets controlled by Hitler (or in this case, Vladimir Putin) – though Clinton seems to think so. (She insists Trump remains tightly aligned with the Russian president.) Trump isn’t even Marine Le Pen and the National Front.

And whatever they may think, Clinton and Barack Obama aren’t Charles de Gaulle’s Free French trying to liberate their country from a foreign power.

Trump has not yet in any way overstepped his constitutional powers, and the judiciary and Congress are doing a more than adequate job of quashing much of his program. the country retains a critical free press and civil liberties.

If anyone is putting democracy in danger it isn’t Trump, but people who refuse to accept his election. The Democratic Party is no longer the opposition; it is “the resistance.”

Assume the Democrats win next time – we may see some real so-called resistance from all those Trump voters. They see that Democrats have utter contempt for them.

Why should they accept the results of an election, they’ll argue; the other side didn’t. Clinton is sowing deep divisions in the country.

If you think I'm being hyperbolic, just keep in mind the way people are tossing around that slogan “resistance.” That's “war talk,” not electoral politics, and sooner or later it might not be just a metaphor. Words have consequences.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

French Election: Discontent, Baggage and Re-alignment

By Henry Srebrnik, [Halifax, NS] Chronicle Herald

Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen in the run-off French presidential election May 7, by the wide margin of 66 to 34 per cent.

I see two lessons from this outcome.

First of all, one third of French voters either abstained or turned in blank ballots. The turnout of about 75 per cent was the worst since 1969.

These are by definition not happy campers; most are probably left-wing people, especially those who voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round. They are unhappy with Macron’s globalist, big business vision, but would not cast a ballot for a perceived fascist.

Of those who did cast ballots, more than one third supported a far-right party linked by its opponents to anti-Semitism, xenophobia, the collaborationist Second World War Vichy regime, and so on.

This couldn't have happened without the post-2008 economic crisis in Europe that is making so many people desperate.

Macron won by a landslide in Paris and its affluent suburbs, but Le Pen’s anti-globalization platform was popular in places where deindustrialization has led to high poverty, low wages, and unemployment. It’s a warning the victors would be wise not to ignore as they celebrate.

Secondly, if an anti-globalist, anti-European Union party wants to win the next French presidential election five years from now -- assuming Macron doesn't do much to improve things -- the National Front needs to be dissolved.

It carries too much baggage, including Marine Le Pen’s own name. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party in 1972, was virtually a Holocaust denier.

In Macron, the centrist political establishment came up with a new face, a supposed independent, in effect jettisoning both the Socialists and Gaullists; the right has to do likewise.

After all, unlike in Anglo-Saxon states, in France parties are less stable and their names mean far less. The Gaullists have had a number of different party names since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

Mélenchon also created a new movement, though it was just another political version of the old Communist Party, which backed him.

Donald Trump couldn’t have beaten Hillary Clinton if he could have been actually linked to, say, historically segregationist parties.

Without the names Le Pen and National Front, but with much of the same geist and political agenda, the result might have been much closer, perhaps no more than 55-45 per cent for Macron. The opposition couldn’t have as effectively attacked someone with no “past” the same way they did with Marine Le Pen.

Macron now faces a new hurdle: Under the French semi-presidential system, he must share power with the National Assembly. Elections for that body are scheduled for June 11 and 18; like the presidential election, it’s a two-round system.

At the moment, five parliamentary groupings hold seats, along with 25 independents. Macron’s new “En Marche!” movement must somehow gain enough seats in the 577-seat chamber to govern effectively. As of now, he has none.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Romania Remains a Corrupt Country

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The 1989 transitions from Communism to electoral democracy were generally quite peaceful in the Soviet bloc countries of eastern Europe. The big exception was Romania.

There, some 20,000 people were killed as dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s secret police, the Securitate, fought it out with his opponents, including the regular army.

Estimates suggest that the Securitate had a higher proportion of representatives per population than anywhere else in the Communist block and that by the 1980s as many as one person in thirty had been recruited as a Securitate informer.

The task assigned to the Securitate was to remove all so-called class enemies or counter-revolutionaries, by whatever means necessary, in the name of national security.

In the 1950s there were 72 forced labour camps in Romania, to which they were deported. The DO (forced residence) stamp – a mark of systematic discrimination – remained in the identity cards of these Romanian citizens until the revolution of 1989. Many others were summarily executed.

Ceausescu, who assumed power in 1965 when his predecessor, Romania’s first Communist leader, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, died, established an even more brutally efficient police state, which enabled him to maintain an iron grip on power until the dying days of Communist rule across Eastern Europe. 

Ceausescu promoted a cult of personality that was unprecedented in Romanian history and that served as the foundation of a dictatorship which knew no limits. To prevent the emergence of other power centres, he relied increasingly on members of his family, especially his wife, Elena, to fill key positions. 

In an effort to pay off the large foreign debt that his government had accumulated through mismanaged industrial ventures in the 1970s, in 1982 he ordered the export of much of the country’s agricultural and industrial production. 

The resulting extreme shortages of food, fuel, energy, medicines, and other basic necessities drastically lowered living standards and intensified unrest.

Once the Communist dominoes started falling one after another, Ceausescu’s own downfall had become overdetermined.

It began on December 16, 1989 with minor incidents in the Transylvanian city of Timisoara, where the Hungarian minority in this region of Transylvania felt particularly oppressed. The following day Ceausescu ordered his security forces to fire on antigovernment demonstrators there. The demonstrations then spread to Bucharest, the capital. 

On Dec. 22, when the army joined the opposition, the Ceausescus fled the capital but were soon captured. Tried and convicted by a special military tribunal on charges of mass murder and other crimes, they were executed three days later.

A loose coalition of groups opposed to Ceausescu quickly formed the National Salvation Front (NSF) to lead the country but its commitment to liberal democracy was dubious. Indeed, former Communists dominated politics until 1996.

The Romanian economy suffered badly in the global financial crisis of 2008, prompting the government to launch a draconian austerity programme in 2010. This led to major street rallies and clashes with police in January 2012.

A new centre-left government under Prime Minister Victor Ponta of the Social Democratic Party made progress in reducing the budget deficit and public debt, but corruption allegations undermined its credibility and led to its collapse in 2015. He had in any case found it difficult working with the country’s president, Traian Basescu, who had won office under the banner of the right-of-centre Justice and Truth Alliance (DA).

Ponta’s successor, Dacian Ciolos, fared little better, and left office amid widespread discontent this past January. Sorin Grindeanu of the Social Democrats now leads a center-left coalition.

But Grindeanu got into trouble almost immediately, when his government passed an emergency ordinance that would allow the release of dozens of public officials convicted of corruption from prison.

He contended that the decree was needed to ease overcrowding in prisons but critics maintained he was trying to release allies convicted of corruption.

Mass protests involving hundreds of thousands of demonstrators ensued, forcing Grindeanu to scrap the decree, which would have weakened anti-corruption measures. 

But graft and nepotism within the political class remain the norm, and are blamed for high levels of poverty, polarization, and social and economic injustice.

Mircea Geoana, a former Romanian foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, has warned that economic nationalism and authoritarianism remain popular among Romanians, particularly those in the less affluent, poverty-stricken small cities and underdeveloped rural regions.

Though Romania joined NATO in 2004 and the European Union three years later, it remains far from being a consolidated democracy.

Mexico and U.S. Have Troubled Relationship

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

People have been heaping scorn on U.S. President Donald Trump ever since he announced his intention to build a wall along the Mexican-American border. It has been seen as a manifestation of racism and xenophobia. 

At his June 2015 announcement speech, Trump’s remarks about undocumented Mexicans being criminals and rapists sparked an intense furor.

His desire to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement is seen in the same vein. Trump holds NAFTA responsible for “waves” of illegal migrants from Mexico since the agreement was enacted in 1993.

Throughout American history, Mexico has been considered “the other.” As Laila Lalam, a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, has written, “In this kind of rhetoric, the border separates not just nationals from foreigners, rich from poor and north from south, but also order from chaos, civilization from barbarians, decent people from criminals.”

In his 2005 article “Placing ‘Touch of Evil’, ‘The Border’, and ‘Traffic’ in the American Imagination,” published in the Journal of Popular Film & Television, Jack M. Beckham II analyzes three popular motion pictures, released in, respectively, 1958, 1982, and 2000.

They demonstrate, he suggests, that American-made cinema focusing on the border often functions as a cultural response to American policy changes that affect it and immigration. They don’t paint a pretty picture.

But let no one mistake Mexico for, say, New Zealand. It is indeed a violent country, and the border is particularly dangerous. In fact, much of the land border is already fenced off. 

If anything, since the declaration of a drugs war by then President Felipe Calderon in 2006, things in Mexico have become worse. More than 150,000 Mexicans have died of related violence and this doesn’t even include the 26,000 disappeared, many ending up in unmarked mass graves. 

The country had more killings in the first quarter of 2017 than in the start of any year in at least two decades. For January through March, there were 5,775 killings around the country, up 29 per cent from the same period in 2016.

Few atrocities receive much international attention, one exception being the widely publicized disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in the state of Guerrero in 2014. The mass murders still remain unsolved – as do 98 percent of all killings.

Ciudad Juarez, a slum-ridden border city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, is dominated by drug cartels who murder with impunity. Last year set a record for homicides.

Further down river, Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas, is a place where illegal immigration, drugs and weapons converge. Numerous stores have shut down ever since a turf war between cartels struck the city. 

The same is true for Nuevo Laredo, south of Laredo. I’ve been to both of these Mexican border cities and one could feel the tension.

Mexico is a country where even journalism can be a deadly trade. In the 2016 book The Sorrows of Mexico, an anthology of reporting by seven of Mexico’s leading journalists, editor Lydia Cacho’s “Fragments from a Reporter’s Journal” recounts the twenty hours of torture she experienced in 2006 when exposing sex traffickers.

She is lucky to be alive. According to an April 29 New York Times article by Azan Ahmed, its Mexican bureau chief, at least 104 journalists have been murdered in the country since 2000, while 25 others have disappeared, and presumed dead. 

The Mexican state of Veracruz is the most dangerous place to be a reporter in the entire Western Hemisphere.

Last year, 11 Mexican journalists were killed, the highest number this century. In March, a newspaper in Ciudad Juarez shut down after nearly 30 years after three journalists from other news organizations were killed. Even corrupt mayors and police officers have threatened journalists.

Ahmed knows his colleagues in the Mexican media often cannot reveal criminality. “It’s incumbent on us to do the kinds of stories that they can’t do,” he stated.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Turkey Slides Further into Authoritarianism

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been auditioning for the role of Ottoman sultan – a position vacant since Mehmed VI abdicated 95 years ago – since at least 2003.

That year he became the country’s prime minister, following the parliamentary election victory of his newly-founded Justice and Development Party (AKP). He drew closer to the goal when he became president in 2014.

Is he now on the cusp of almost absolutist power? It seems within his grasp.

On April 16, following a long and contentious campaign, which even involved politicking among expatriate Turks in Belgium, France, Germany, Holland and elsewhere, Turks voted in a constitutional referendum that would allow for vastly increased presidential powers.

The voters approved, by a margin of 51.41 to 48.59 per cent, the creation of a new political system. The result was surprisingly close, given the advantages Erdogan enjoyed. But turnout for the divisive vote, at 85.32 per cent, was high. 

The new political structure will abolish the office of prime minister and replace the existing parliamentary system of government with an executive presidency, giving the head of state supreme power.

Erdogan now has wider powers over matters of legislation, finance, appointments and civil society.
He will now be able to bypass parliament completely and introduce legislation by issuing decrees with the force of law.  He will also have the power to dissolve parliament and call new elections.

Judicial independence will disappear as the amendments will allow the president to appoint half of the country’s most senior judges. Erdogan can rule until 2029. There are no checks and balances.

The referendum illustrated the growing rural-urban split in Turkey. While the major cities of Adana, Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir opposed extending the president’s powers, he prevailed in the smaller, more traditionally religious smaller towns and countryside. Regions of the Anatolian interior voted Yes, with the share often topping 70 per cent in favour. 

Ethnicity also played a role. Erdogan has been battling Kurdish separatists in southeastern Turkey for the past few years, and most people in those districts rejected the proposals, with up to 70 per cent voting No.

The rate of rejection was especially high in the militant Kurdish towns where the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has strong support.

The authoritarian noose has been tightening around Turkey’s neck for years, but especially since the abortive military coup last July, which Erdogan blamed on a reclusive religious preacher and former ally, Fethullah Gulen, now living in exile in Pennsylvania. 

The president accused him of running a shadowy parallel network within the country by placing followers in key government, academic, media, and military positions.

Erdogan has taken advantage of the failed attempt, declaring a state of emergency and mounting a gigantic purge. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested, and numerous schools, universities, newspapers, radio and television stations, and publishing houses, have been shut down.

The referendum result has deep impacts on Turkey’s bid for European Union membership, which is already a distant prospect, if, as seems probable, Turkey reinstates capital punishment, something that has been abolished within the EU.

But Erdogan probably now sees the EU as an impediment to his enhanced powers. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticized the “lack of equal opportunities, one-sided media coverage and limitations on fundamental freedoms,” which “created an unlevel playing field” for the referendum. 

Erdogan told the OSCE to “know its place,” adding that its “political report would be disregarded by Turkey.”

Erdogan sees Turkey’s natural place not in a Brussels-centred EU but as a leader of the Muslim world, whose partners should be Pakistan, Malaysia, Egypt, Iran, and Indonesia.

He also cares more about being in the good graces of China, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and American president Donald Trump -- and Trump was the only Western leader to congratulate Erdogan.
Turkey is moving towards what political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way have labelled “competitive authoritarianism.”

In such regimes, formal democratic institutions remain, but incumbents violate their rules so often and to such an extent, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy.

In a 2009 book entitled The Life and Death of Democracy, the political theorist John Keane referred to what he termed “democide” – the decision of a nation, by more or less democratic means, to murder their democracy. It has happened before, most notoriously in 1930s Germany.

An Election That Has Shaken Europe

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PE] Guardian
The first round of the French presidential election held April 23 told us what we already knew: the French political system is in total disarray and the country is in deep trouble.

Eleven candidates were on the ballot. Of the top four contenders, only one, François Fillon, a former prime minister, represented a traditional French party, the moderately conservative Gaullist Republicans. 

He served as a prime minister from 2007 to 2012 under President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Marine Le Pen led the far-right Front National (National Front), which has always stood outside the established party system, while the centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon were really one-man shows.

Both men founded their own groups just last year. Mélenchon called his movement “La France Insoumise” (“France Unbowed”), while Macron, the preferred choice of the “Davos” European Union globalists, ran under the banner of his own vehicle, “En Marche!” (“Onward”).

As for the Socialist Party’s candidate, Benoit Hamon, he didn’t even make it into the top four, thanks to the unpopular outgoing Socialist President François Hollande.

Going into the second round, scheduled for May 7, were Le Pen and Macron, the top two finishers, with almost 23.9 and 21.4 per cent, respectively. Fillon and Mélenchon each received just below 20 per cent.

Now there will be a battle over the future, not just of France, but over globalization and the fate of the EU.

The political establishment in France has rallied behind Macron, who had been Hollande’s minister of the economy before splitting with the president. This will enable Le Pen to portray him as a continuation of the status quo.

“The great debate will finally take place,” she said. “French citizens need to seize this historic opportunity.” Le Pen called Macron “Hollande’s extension,” adding that in Macron’s world, “the rich man reigns.”

Since the 2007 financial crisis, economic growth has been stagnant. Unemployment stands at almost 10 per cent, youth unemployment is 25 per cent, and in some de-industrialized parts of the country permanent loss of work is the fate of many.

This sense of alienation is summed up in three books published by the French social geographer Christophe Guilluy. 

They constitute a critique of what he calls the “total cultural fracture” between a few cities – Paris in particular – blessed by prosperity, and the increasing “field of ruins” beyond. 

La France Périphérique: Comment on a Sacrifié les Classes Populaires  (The France of the Periphery: How the Lower Classes Were Sacrificed) describes the way globalization has virtually destroyed much of the old working class in France, especially those living outside those urban areas. 

In those fortunate cities, it has created two strata-- an affluent bourgeoisie and a large, poorly paid, largely immigrant, mass of people who are effectively their servants.

These metropoles are home to all the country’s educational and financial institutions, as well as almost all its corporations and the well-paying jobs that go with them. 

Cheap labour, tariff-free consumer goods, and new markets have made globalization a windfall for such prosperous places, Guilluy asserts. 

But what of those workers unable to prosper in this economy?  A poll conducted in 2014 by Ipsos found that 74 per cent of French workers saw globalization as a threat -- while 68 percent of managers saw it as an opportunity.

Since those who control the production of culture (the media, academia, and the arts) are the beneficiaries of globalization, complainers are marginalized, their grievances dismissed as unworthy of attention.

The real divide now is not between left and right – neither candidate of the two major parties is on the May 7 ballot -- but economic stratification within and between the metropoles and the peripheries, and this will not end the malaise engulfing France. 

Macron will win, but it will be closer than the polls predict, as he will not gain the support of most of Mélenchon’s voters. 

Mélenchon, who received almost 20 per cent on April 23, ran a campaign denouncing banks, globalization and the European Union, just like Le Pen, and has refused to endorse Macron.