Browsing articles in "Governance"
Jan 23, 2014

The Magic Mountain

A session of the Montreux, Switzerland, conference on Syria (from BBC).

A session of the Montreux, Switzerland, conference on Syria in a hotel of the town (from BBC).

On Wednesday, a long-expected international conference backed by the United Nations began in Montreux, Switzerland. Its participants, representatives from 40 countries (including the U.S. and Russia) and delegates from the Syrian government and some factions of the Syrian opposition, discuss the so-called Geneva communiqué. This document was issued in 2012 as a result of another international meeting about the Syrian conflict. In general, it provides a framework within which the war will come to an end, including the stop of violence, the formation of a transitional government with full executive authority, and the holding of elections, among other things. After a one-day break, the meeting will resume on Friday in Geneva.

The first day of the encounter was dedicated to speeches from all the delegations attending it. Leaving rhetoric aside, this first glance at the conference illustrates the obstacles that very likely it will find in the near future. The most salient point of divergence is that while the U.S., most of the foreign delegations, and the Syrian opposition insist that Bashar Al-Assad must step down and cannot be present in a transition government, the official Syrian representatives assure that the continuation of Al-Assad as president is not to be discussed. Further, for the Syrian government the conference is not about discussing the formation of a transition authority (even more, Syria is the only participating delegation that did not subscribe the Geneva communiqué), but about the Syrian people’s demands of “eliminating terrorism”, “terrorists” being how they refer to Al-Assad opponents (in addition to the fact that there have been reports of Al-Qaeda activity in Syria). Therefore, there are different and diverging goals among the attendants to Montreux and Geneva.

Another aspect that could complicate the conference is its measures of success. It would be very unlikely that the main goal of the Geneva communiqué, the constitution of a transition government, is achieved. However, there are other more specific goals that will be discussed in the second part of the meeting. While the Montreux event featured speeches from each delegation, Geneva will hold more head-to-head mediated conversations between the parts in conflict. It is expected that the talks in these sessions go around issues such as the provision of humanitarian assistance and the protection of human rights in the areas of conflict, the facilitation of the flow of people between zones controlled by the government and by the opposition, or the continuation of the provision of basic public services throughout the country. The extent to which deals can be struck in these issues is still to be seen, but it appears they have more chances of success than topics related to the transitional government.

But even within that reduced set of expectations about the conference, whatever results it could bring could find further difficulties to be implemented in the ground. This is mainly due to the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition. Its largest and arguably most visible section for external viewers, the Syrian National Council, is not sitting at the table because it refuses to discuss anything until Al-Assad leaves power. The leader of another large group, the National Coordination Committee, refused to participate because its delegation did not have sufficient time to prepare itself. Finally, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces yielded to pressures from other countries and agreed to take part in the discussions, although many of its members did not agree with this because they wanted guarantees that Al-Assad would step down.

The picture above could suggest that the prospects for the conference in Geneva are grim. However, it must also be underlined that the current assessment is made taking as after just one day of work in which top-level diplomats (mostly foreign ministers from the participating countries) gave speeches. The session in Geneva could be more productive, constructive, or at least less polarized, given its interactive nature and the presence of mediators. At the same time, the top objective, the formation of a transition government without Al-Assad, could almost be ruled out. Once works in Geneva begin and some time as gone by we can have a clearer idea about what to expect from this conference.

Jan 22, 2014

The other 62%

Poll officials counting ballots of the constitutional referendum in Egypt (from Al Jazeera)

Poll officials counting ballots of the constitutional referendum in Egypt (from Al Jazeera).

Last week Egypt held a constitutional referendum. After many months of work and frequent controversies, the constitutional draft was ready to be submitted to the Egyptian citizens for a vote of confidence. 98% of the voters supported the new document. This figure has been largely taken as an overwhelming support for the constitution and the people who is behind it, namely the Army and the Army-appointed president Gral. Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi. Yet, the participation rate was at a low 38%. What would the remainder 62% of voters have to say about the document?

One answer is that they could be against what the constitution and its supporting group represent. There have been some reserves in calling the constitution democratic. For instance, Islam continues to be the state religion, and it is uncertain whether the political influence of the military has been reduced. This is, the role of religion and the Army have not been entirely constrained, what would be expected in a democracy. Thus, the constitution would have fallen short of the democratizing expectations which surrounded Hosni Mubarak’s downfall three years ago. People dissatisfied with the outcomes of the political processes in Egypt would feel the constitution is “more of the same”.

However, the constitution includes some precepts that contrast with attitudes of the government headed by Mohammed Morsi, toppled by the military last summer. For instance, there is a prohibition to create political parties based on religion, race, gender or geography, which practically outlaws the Muslim Brotherhood. As well, in spite of the official character of Islam, there are provisions guaranteeing the protection of religious minorities. Quite notably, the document says that women cannot be discriminated from being appointed to senior positions in the public and judicial administrations, and, for the first time in Egypt, the state has the responsibility to protect women from all kinds of violence. The inclusion of these rights marks a clear contrast with the previous rule of Mubarak and the short-lived administration of Morsi and the Brotherhoon. Those whose power could be affected by these new rights, particularly the Brotherhood, could be among the 62% who did not go to the polls. They would have felt it was an exercise aimed at damaging them, and would not legitimize it by participating in it.

That said, it is worth noticing that the 38% turnout rate in last week’s referendum is in fact higher than that of the previous vote of confidence for a constitution back in 2012 (33% of participation, with 64% of voters supporting the constitution), when the document was heavily influenced by the Brotherhood and there were more grounds to doubt of its democratic credentials. Despite all its problems, including those already visible by the institutions it designs and those that can be foreseen in enforcing the new rights, this version of the constitution generated more enthusiasm than its predecessor.

In such an agitated political system it is difficult that no group feels threatened by practically any new constitution. There will always be losers and winners in the process of trying to define who the actors will be and under what rules they will play. Also, due to the upheaval of such process (evident in political maneuvers but also in violent episodes, not absent from this referendum), people who would like to participate in it but cannot make their voices heard, or who feel alienated from it, could not be very eager to respond to the call of officials to go to the polls. In the end, the low turnout rate in the referendum could be read as a symptom of the convulsed process of political change in Egypt.

Jan 20, 2014

China´s Limited Liberalization

Li Dongsheng at a news conference in 2007. Source: Frederic J.Brown/AFP

Li Dongsheng at a news conference in 2007. Source: Frederic J.Brown/AFP

By Erika Hernández

China’s recent anti-corruption policies seem give the apparent image of democratization. Anti-corruption policies inherently recognize political and civil rights by simply denouncing abuse of power. But as Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter address in their seminal work on transitions, democratization not only encompasses liberalizing certain public spaces and relieving some pressures but it also furthers inclusiveness. Inclusiveness is understood as allowing a greater participation by the citizens, be that by permitting competing parties to exist or developing accountability mechanisms such as freedom of information agencies. But there exists evidence against deepening democratization in China. The recent arrests of transparency rights advocates has confused many observers that hope for democratic change. Yet, this astute strategy resembles that of “liberalized authoritarian regimes,” often adopted by other former communist regimes like the former Soviet Union and Cuba.

China’s President Xi Jinping has attempted to crackdown corruption since 2012. Today, China’s Vice Minister of Public Security, Li Dongsheng, is the most recent target of this policy. However, the investigation is related to another more important one. Zhou Yongkang’s assets, China’s former Politburo member and former internal security czar, have been under close inspection for alleged corruption. Zhou’s major attainment was creating a robust and feared domestic security apparatus that controlled the police, courts and intelligence. But holding Zhou accountable for illicit activities not only suggests emerging factions within China’s Communist Party. It can also imply that the top echelon’s calculations have steered towards maintaining the security forces under control, perhaps to prevent internal dissension and even a possible coup. Some analysts disagree in that there is no evident faction formation nor is President Xi aiming at attacking the opposition (Leigh-Moses 2013).

Under the Corruption Perceptions Index of 2013, Transparency International classified China’s place at the 40th most corrupt out of a total of 177 countries. China seems to be less corrupt than Mexico (34th), less so than Russia (28th) but more corrupt than the Czech Republic (48th) and Turkey (50th). To some extent, China seems to have done its part for cracking corruption by installing the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). However, this seems to be putting China’s economic future at risk. According to China’s Hurun Report Luxury Consumer Survey of 2014, one third of the wealthy Chinese have emigrated perhaps in order to attain a better education but also possibly as a result of the new anti-corruption schemes. The report indicates that between 658 and 450 billion have already been deposited in offshore accounts. Compared to China’s hold of 3.34 trillion dollars in foreign exchange reserves (CIA 2013), a continued reserve outflow can increasingly debilitate its economic prowess in case of housing bubble.

Moreover, the government’s liberalization policies are asymmetric to those of increasing demands for inclusiveness. Xy Zhiyong, a professor at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, was detained this past July for advocating asset disclosure of government officials. He was accused for organizing in public spaces with numerous people (Roberts 2014). Other fifteen anti-corruption advocates were also detained last spring for joining protests demanding accountability on government officials’ wealth. The Chinese government views these as disrupting public order but illicit enrichment can also be considered as disrupting the economic order. If the new anti-corruption policies are holding more and more officials accountable and the government is not accepting being challenged by the emerging civil society, then the commitment to accountability is questionable. It is highly possible that with these new policies, the Chinese government is seeking greater legitimacy. This suggests that the government understands that the citizenry does not openly approve the ruling methods, which can be confirmed by the recent protests. The question is, how longer will the citizenry continue to approve the government’s methods if it suppresses citizenry’s accountability demands while allowing a limited transparency offer?

For many of us, China’s current policies are déjà vu. Parallels appear with other communist systems: Cuba and the former Soviet Union. Cuba has aimed at advancing policies (actualización) that call to increase discipline in public works to combat corruption within the Communist Party cadres and in the society but that restrict citizenship organization. For its part, Mikhail Gorbachev implemented a broad transparency policy, Glasnost, along with furthering economic and limited political liberalization, Perestroika, which incapacitated the system in managing the economic transition. Could China’s new transparency policies continue to cause reserves flight, which countries like the United States depend upon? Furthermore, is the government promoting transparency in order to allure foreign investment to counter Chinese capital flight? Would a possible economic crisis increase citizens’ protests? Will the government be unable to contain massive protests with a weakened security apparatus? Might the government counter citizens’ demands through pursuing populism like Venezuela? These are only a few questions that can only be answered as these events unravel – or not – in the following years.

Jan 9, 2014

Twenty Years Later

A meeting of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in January 2007 commemorating the anniversary of its uprising (from La Jornada).

A meeting of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in January 2007 commemorating the anniversary of its uprising (from La Jornada).

During the first minutes of 1994 a surprising event took place in Mexico: in the southern state of Chiapas an insurgency announced its existence and declared war against the national government. The Zapatista  National Liberation Army (EZLN) came into light the very moment in which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) entered into force. The NAFTA was publicized by the still ruling PRI as the touchstone of modernity for Mexico: the country would cease being a third-world nation and would become a privileged partner with the richest economy in the world. The EZLN reminded everyone that, despite the pomp of the Agreement, there were very large sectors of the population which were illiterate, undernourished, did not enjoy access to health services, or were ignored in public decision-making; no modernity could exist under such circumstances. Twenty years later, is the anti-modernity claim of the EZLN still valid?

In its initial communiqués, the EZLN made it clear that it was serious about the armed way. Its members took over some towns in Chiapas, and its leader, Subcommander Marcos, announced the intention of the group to being a march towards Mexico City in order to oust President Carlos Salinas, who had just begun his last term in office. However, the EZLN was quickly surpassed by the Army. Combats lasted twelve days and the rebels were not able to make substantial advancements beyond their initial positions. The military side of the rebellion and its war against the Mexican state were defeated. In any case, the message persisted: despite being a trade partner of the richest country, Mexico could not be said to be modern because of the great poverty under which a lot of people lived.

Afterwards, the insurgency reinvented itself as a pro-indigenous people’s rights movement. This made sense: indigenous groups are the most marginalized sectors in Mexican society across practically any indicator, and Chiapas is one of the states with the largest diversity of indigenous population. In a way, the discourse of the EZLN remained the same. Its confrontational tone against the state and the PRI was substantially erased, but its substance, marginalization and poverty, remained. Lengthy negotiations between the EZLN and the government ended in the so-called San Andrés Agreements, which explicitly acknowledged to indigenous people the same rights given to Mexicans in general. Even more, in an attempt to foster democracy, some further changes were introduced. For instance, the new figure of “usages and customs” was included in electoral legislation, allowing communities to elect their authorities according to their own traditions, not necessarily under the party system. Additionally, state and national authorities agreed to grant some government autonomy to municipalities where there was a considerable indigenous population. Finally, policies were designed and implemented to protect the cultural identity of these groups (such as language preservation) and to improve their life conditions.

Two decades have passed since the initial uprising and, in spite of the San Andrés agreements, it is not clear at all that such changes have produced an improvement in the life conditions of indigenous people. For instance, the government recognizes that around fifty percent of the country’s population can be considered as poor, very likely including most of the indigenous people. In occasion of the 206 and 2012 presidential elections, Subcommander Marcos participated in a series of meetings throughout the nation retrieving some of the EZLN’s anti-systemic features. Although at that time the PRI was no longer the ruling party (in 2000 and 2006 the rightist PAN won the presidential election, to be defeated in 2012 by the PRI) and the authoritarian system was being dismantled, Marcos noticed that little had changed for those who were marginalized. Joblessness, illiteracy, and lack of access to health services were still prevalent throughout the poor and indigenous. Even more, these groups had a very hard time to make their voices heard in mainstream media and political parties, for which many Mexicans were not aware of the dire situation of marginalized groups. The party identified with authoritarianism left the presidency but poverty continued; the problem was not the party, but something to be found deeper into the system which democratization did not alleviate.

What had failed for the EZLN? Was it that the Mexican government (because of sheer negligence, true complexity of those issues, or something in between) failed in improving the life conditions of the indigenous and the poor? Or was it that the EZLN should have followed another, more effective, strategy, such as formally entering politics as opposed to resembling a social movement after its military defeat? With the set of energy, electoral, and fiscal reforms approved during the last months, the government has insisted that Mexico will now become a modern country (the same claim made in relation to the NAFTA two decades ago). Whatever the answer to the question mentioned above, it cannot be overlooked that claims of modernity must be taken with caution when none of the reasons that fueled the rise of the EZLN in 1994 has substantially changed.

Dec 16, 2013

The Catalonian State?

Artur Mas, President of Catalonia, announcing the celebration of a referendum to decide the independence Catalonia. He is accompanied by representatives of the parties that form his coalition government (from El País).

Artur Mas, President of Catalonia, announcing the celebration of a referendum to decide the independence Catalonia. He is accompanied by representatives of the parties that form his coalition government (from El País).

Last week, the President of the Catalonian government, Artur Mas, announced the questions that will be included in a referendum scheduled for November 2014 in relation to the creation of a Catalonian state and its eventual independence. Is Catalonia heading towards sovereignty?

The current trend for full autonomy in Catalonia appeared in 2011 as a reaction against the national government’s budget cuts on appropriations to local administrations in the midst of the financial crisis. Artur Mas used sovereignty as one of his re-election campaign banners in 2012. Although it is not possible to know if the determining factor was the financial issue, Mas and his Convergence and Union (CiU) Catalonian nationalist party won. However, they got just 30% of the vote, and were forced to negotiate with other parties the formation of a coalition government.

As 2013 came to an end, Mas was unable to get his budget for next year approved. As in other countries in crisis, the question was to find some kind of balance between more taxes and more cuts without affecting citizens up to the point that the government could fall down. In the last weeks, Mas struck a deal with the Catalonian Republican Left (ERC): more taxes to the rich, confirmation of cuts in health, welfare and education done in previous budgets, privatization of public assets, and a re-allocation of public spending. The first two features of the budget were damaging for Mas and CiU’s support. In exchange for this, they required that no additional cuts were included and that the banner of sovereignty was relived and formally supported by ERC. It was then that Mas, accompanied by other members of his coalition government, announced the two questions for the referendum (“Do you want Catalonia to become a state?”, “If so, would you like it to be independent?”) and its proposed date.

Mas’ statement was not an entirely unexpected event for the national government, as that had been his campaign banner and he had made reference to the topic throughout the year. At the same time, his determination was rather surprising for the Spanish government because, in contrast with the Scottish devolution, there is no agreement of any kind between local and national authorities. Even more, Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, was quick to say that the referendum would not take place because it was illegal (the process for having a legal referendum is lengthy, requiring, among other things, the approval of the Supreme Court and the King). In addition, Hermann von Rompuy, President of the European Council, commented that if Catalonia seceded it would have to build from zero its relation with the European Union, as none of the benefits that Spain has with the EU would be translated to an independent Catalonia.

As well, many analysts are skeptical about the referendum. First, there have been some critiques to the possibility that it is just a recourse used by Mas to strengthen his coalition government and to prevent losing support from its allies or Catalonian citizens. Although he could truly believe in the idea of an independent Catalonia, the rush with which the referendum was announced, even though he is aware of the legal requirements he is violating, could strengthen the thesis that, at this point, sovereignty is more a tool of discourse and coalition-making than a sound project. Furthermore, others have looked at the proposed questions, noticing that some people could associate “independence” with more administrative autonomy instead of sovereign statehood, which would complicate the interpretation of whatever result of the exercise.

The critiques to the referendum have led many to think that the referendum will not take place. Mas himself, for instance, has mentioned that if the national government takes action to stop the referendum from being carried out, he will desist in it. As any other politician, Mas has an array of resources to defend his goals, among which staying in power and maintaining the ruling coalition together could be paramount. However, as other historical experiences show, using nationalist feelings for political purposes can turn out to be a very risky bet whose consequences are not easily controlled.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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