Feb 5, 2014

Democracy and elections in Thailand

Protests in Bangkok against Prime Minister Yingluck Sharawara, widely seen as a corrupt leader (from Al Jazeera)

Protests in Bangkok against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, widely seen as a corrupt leader (from Al Jazeera).

On Sunday, Thailand held legislative elections. This was the response of Yingluck Shinawatra´s government to the protests against her rule that began in November. Back then, Thais went out to the streets repudiating a draft proposal (which was ultimately rejected within the legislative process) that would allow the Prime Minister’s brother, Thaskin (former Prime Minister himself), return to the country acquitted of all corruption charges against him. Protestors argued that the Shinawatras were damaging the country and had to leave office and be punished. Putting pressure on the government, all opposition members of parliament resigned their positions. Attending this gap, the Prime Minister called for the election. But the opposing Democratic Party boycotted the contest, for which the resulting elected parliament has insufficient quorum to be convened, even less to form a government. Elections were supposed to calm down upheavals in Thailand, but clearly they did not. Even more, with this stalemate the democratic future of the country is taking a step towards uncertainty.

Since Thaskin Shinawatra first came to power in 2001 the country has experienced notable instability. He and his sister have received accusations of corruption, attacks against the media, and abuses against human rights, and there have been some episodes of violence related to the fight against organized crime and insurgencies. Furthermore, Thaskin was ousted out of power by a military coup, contributing even more to the undermining of political processes in Thailand. Now, Freedom House rates the country as being party free, with a score of four.

In spite of this political brouhaha, it is reasonable to say that the elections that brought Yingluck to power and those of last Sunday were carried out under “normal” conditions. No fraud or vote rigging was observed and no major episodes of violence took place, for instance. Yet in this occasion the opposition boycotted the exercise. From one point of view, it is not uncommon that opposition parties refuse participate in a game with a player, the government, which they do not trust. The Democratic Party argues that the exception state declared in December to try to facilitate the control of protests offers no adequate environment for people to go out to vote, that the government is buying off voters in rural areas with low-priced rice, that voting would just serve to perpetuate the Shinawatras in power, and that elections are just a sham to temporarily appease unconformities without performing any real policy or institutional change. To a very large extent the opposition succeeded in its goal. They did not register candidates, mobilized its supporters for not going to the polls, and had some clashes with government supporters resulting in the suspension of activities of some polling stations. As a consequence, a number of individual district elections were declared null, for which the parliament turned out to have an insufficient quorum and cannot be convened. The government will allow more days throughout the course of this month so voters that could not attend the polls do so.

This could be a seen as a successful strategy in de-legitimating a corrupt, yet not necessarily authoritarian, political system. However, what the opposition proposes does not seem to point towards more democracy, but to a wide uncertainty. They plan to challenge the election on the courts, demand that the Prime Minister is removed from her position, and an unelected council undertakes the necessary reforms to alleviate the economic and political problems of the country. Their leaders have failed to elaborate on how his council would act, who would be its members or how it would exercise its authority.

In the meantime, an unpopular Prime Minister will remain in office facing increasing opposition to her rule. Where this will lead is an open question. Expectedly, PM Yingluck will refuse to leave her position unless she is voted out, arguing a respect for democratic procedures. In parallel, the opposition will refuse to participate in any election, arguing the system does not work and that it must be renewed. It will be up to the political actors in Thailand to decide whether these elections lead to the strengthening of their democratic institutions or to the deepening of turmoil in their country.

Feb 4, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Elections in El Salvador. “May truce set us free”

Elections in El Salvador / Source: TelesurTV

Elections in El Salvador / Source: TelesurTV

Much has been written about the necessary and sufficient conditions for democracy to burgeon. Yet, is democracy able to flourish after a recent and very deadly civil war? Despite having signed the Chapultepec Peace Agreements in 1992, remnants of the Salvadoran bloody strife can be traced until today. In El Salvador, the core ideologies and groups that once fought to dead are today competing politically for the presidency. In addition, these two groups now co-exist with a third centrist political party as well as with bloody gangs that have made El Salvador the second deadliest country in the world, after Honduras. (There were 70 homicides per 100,000 habitants before the “truce.”) Perhaps and more important is to recognize the relevance of trust in developing democracies. Oftentimes, trust emerges when the democratic rules of the game are respected knowing that the loser will have a future opportunity. It also surfaces after having reconciled opposing views. The current truce between the gangs and the government, along with seemingly fair elections, are two conditions that could help to lay the tenets for greater democratization.

The first round of elections took place this Sunday February 2. In a preliminary account, the representative of OAS’s Electoral Observation Mission, Gustavo Fernandez, indicated that elections were being held under peaceful conditions and that there were no indications of fraud. FMLN’s candidate, former guerrilla commander Salvador Sanchez, obtained 49% of the votes. ARENA’s candidate, San Salvador’s major Norman Quijano, obtained a total of 39% of votes. With the law requiring at least 50% of total votes to declare a winner during the first round, presidential elections must undergo a second round of votes to take place on March 9. An astounding number of electoral observers attended the first round: a total of 4,418 observers were accredited, from which 1,830 were foreign observers, for a country with only 6.1 million people. Some other international delegations include the European Union, the Inter-American Union of Electoral Bodies, among others.

Current political competition reflects the struggles of the past. The FMLN was once a guerrilla that transformed into a political party after the 1992 peace accords. It is a left-winged party and today holds executive power under President Mauricio Funes. FMLN has typically been concerned with social policies such as ensuring that children stay in school. Under the guerrilla guise, it fought the once incumbent party ARENA as well as the dead squads the party had created to counter opposition. FMLN performed insurgency attacks on the military that ultimately caused numerous killings. ARENA, a right-wing party that prioritizes national security, did not go without stains either. Fearing the increased influence of the FMLN, ARENA engaged in mass disappearances, civilian killings and voters were coerced so as to influence elections. As mentioned before, when incumbent, ARENA created dead squads that had allegedly killed the influential Archbishop Oscar Romero, a Catholic priest and human rights advocate. In today’s political scenery, these two forces prevail. Yet, a third political force has risen. The Unity party (Unidad) was created by the former President Tony Saca but whose ostensible charges of corruption appear to have diminished his public support. A fourth and unclear force is that of the transnational gangs. As non-state actors, it is difficult to uncover their level of political influence at the local and national levels. Clearly, democracy promotion may be challenged by the interplay of all these forces particularly if negative social capital (violence) wins over positive social capital (democracy).

The current situation displays a stalemate. While levels of poverty are strikingly high (34.5% of the population is considered to be living under extreme poverty threshold), the truce between the government and gangs has reduced homicides by half – down from 70 to 35 homicides per 100,000 habitants. More importantly, remnants of negative behavior endure as some Salvadorans who once fought the military now find “boring” the fact that they are no longer pursued by the army. But how long may this promising truce last? The history of El Salvador is peppered with truces and gridlocks. Let’s just hope that, for once, this truce is the beginning of a more meaningful reconciliation.

Certainly, no democracy can be manifest unless its members ensue in peaceful dialogue and that the most representative members of society are politically included. El Salvador needs to further include the poor in public policies. Moreover and despite resistance from some in the international community, it needs to continue dialogue with gang members. Continued dialogue and delivering promises like today can create trust between the parties involved –the government and the gangs. Hence, creating positive social capital. Gangs are so powerful that the government seems unable to control by coercion. El Salvador now has a valuable opportunity to forgive, yet not forget, and give democracy another try.

Jan 31, 2014

Motherland Lost

Yesterday, Georgetown’s MA in Democracy and Governance alumn and Research Fellow at the Hudson Group’s Center for Religious Freedom, Samuel Tadros, discussed his recently published book Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity.

In his work, Tadros goes against the idea that Copts, native Egyptian Christians, being a minority have remained completely separate of political developments in Egypt. Instead, he argues that in one way or another they have always been present in the political processes of their country. Further, this presence has been largely related to the issue of what it means to be a Copt. During the modernizing attempts in the late 19th century, Copts, along with Muslims, were expected to give up their religion in favor of a secular state. However, Copts, whose identity is defined entirely by religion and land (Copts have no language or folklore of their own unlike, for instance, Jews), claimed it was them, not Muslims, the original inhabitants of Egypt and the true descendants of the Pharaohs. Hence, it would not be possible to rescind their religious identity in favor of the “Egyptian” one; for them, both were ancestrally inseparable. In order to prevent the emergence of conflicts, these identity issues were not dealt with.

A confrontational time begins in the 1920’s and 1930’s with the appearance of political Islam in response to the failures of democracy. Since then, the Muslim Brotherhood has claimed to fight for an Islamic state, leaving for Copts and other religious minorities in uncertain positions. With such a threat posed by politicized Muslims, the Coptic Church has sought to maintain a somewhat close relationship with the secular governments in Egypt and try to ensure some protection against their aggressors. This is one of the reasons for which the Coptic Pope has been seen in occasions next to authoritarian leaders of the country, most recently sitting right byo President Gral. Al-Sissi. In turn, this is what some Islamist leaders use as a pretext to attach Copts, associating them as supporters of the repressing actions against the Muslim Brotherhood after the fall of Mohamed Morsi.

The tension between Copts and Muslims is accentuated by the fact that Copts pass substantial portions of their lives within the walls of their churches, without having many interactions with other religious or social groups. Inside Egypt there is little knowledge about what Copts are, believe, and how they see the world. Yet the Copt diaspora maintains such a trend: the Church remains the center of the life of Copts residing outside Egypt.

Tadros’ book makes the case for a situation that many could have thought was surpassed in the 21st century, but it has not. Identity and minority conflicts prevail in many countries. Not only this, but they pose substantial obstacles for political development. This can be due to, as Professor Daniel Brumberg noticed in the discussion in yesterday’s event, the fact that a minority group could suffer under a liberalized political environment (as the prosecutions suffered by Copts at the hands of the Brotherhood for associating them with dictators). From another point of view, the situation of Copts in Egypt makes us wonder the extent to which democracy can thrive in a country with substantial fractioning among its social groups. Several authors have proposed some solutions to this problem. Notably, Arend Lijphart suggested a consensual government in which elites of the different groups make decisions, rather separate from grassroots conflicts. Another exit could be secession (which would not work in the Egyptian case because Copts are not geographically concentrated). However, as noted by Professor Brumberg retrieving an idea of Clifford Geertz, many of these situations are very primitive in the sense that the force driving the political actions of social groups is bare fear. The Egyptian attempts to build a new regime offer a real-time answer to the question of how democracy can deal with fear.

Jan 30, 2014
Erika Hernandez

The Dreamed Olive Branch

Demolition of Wadi al-Jouz neighborhood, Hama / HRW report on Syria

Demolition of Wadi al-Jouz neighborhood, Hama / HRW report on Syria

Negotiations to achieve peace in Syria are resuming now in Geneva’s UN headquarters, after a brief start in Montreux, Switzerland. United Nations special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, indicated that the ice between the government and the opposition is slowly breaking. Negotiations started with venting feelings and pro and anti-regime journalists pointing fingers towards each other. In order to find a solution to any conflict, oftentimes feelings need to be aired out. However, it is not clear whether both sides will listen to each other in Syria’s case. Particularly when other interested parties that have the power to solve the conflict are not present. Such is Syria’s current state of affairs. Peace negotiations seemingly not including key parties are taking place amidst new revelations that the regime has purposely demolished thousands of homes of families supporting the opposition. Another key indicator complicating the peace talks is the unfortunate delay by the Syrian government in surrendering its chemical weapons materials.

First, according to UN Security Council Resolution 2118, al-Assad’s government has not complied with the first deadline to surrender the “priority one” target of chemical weapons of December 31, 2013. Additionally, Reuters indicated that sources close to the regime report that the regime has no intention of meeting the “priority two” deadline for the February 5 delivery. Accordingly, the main reason for this delay are security concerns and the need for ‘additional’ equipment such as containers. At the negotiations table in Geneva, the Syrian regime has been accused by the opposition journalist Ahmed Zakaria in using, allegedly, food aid delivery as a bargaining tool. If this is so, then such a bargaining tool would contradict the UN SC resolution where the international community demanded that humanitarian aid be provided with no qualms. However, the frankness on the weapons delay appears to be questionable when looking at the Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) recent report on Syria.

In its report, HRW reveals seven large-scale demolitions that took place between July 2012 and July 2013. It also provides satellite images where the demolitions took place. The report also mentions that such destructions took place in neighborhoods that had supported the opposition. A total of, at least, 145 hectares were destroyed which are comparable to “200 football pitches.” With this, credibility of the al-Assad regime by global civil society and several members of the international community, albeit secretly, is under suspicion. Yet, is it the al-Assad regime the only one to blame? Quite honestly, we must look deeper down the rabbit hole so as to perceive a clearer picture.

Syria’s conflict is not only run by the government and the opposition. The government’s weakening has created a power vacuum that non-state actors have taken advantage of. In an article, the New York Times mentions that President al-Assad’s government does no longer hold control of its oil and gas resources. Rather, two splinter groups from Al Qaeda are the ones holding power over these resources and even selling them to the al-Assad government. These groups are the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front. The opposition has been accusing the government for working with these radical groups and protecting them. Some experts also indicate that the Syrian government has been relying on regional oil imports from Iran and Iraq. Perhaps, it is in the government’s best interest to keep this armed and rebel groups on their side, in case they need their help to fight the opposition. Moreover, perhaps one of the reasons against intervening in Syria is that, if Bashar al-Assad’s government were to lose power, then Al Qaeda related cells could take over the state.

Other opposition groups are seemingly not present in the table. Pablo Estrada’s previous post mentions the Syrian National Council, the National Coordination Committee and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. It is highly likely that the parties sitting on the negotiations table are the softliners in the government and in the opposition. In this regard, we should first question what is the role of these former Al Qaeda cells and how are they preventing the conflict from being solved. Are they influencing the government from abstaining from offering the olive branch? If so, to what extent is their influence? This could be key. In every negotiation, softliners are the ones sitting on the table. However, what happens when we realize that we may be missing key decision makers (in this case, non-state actors)? Then, we are clearly avoiding to advance democracy and preventing any possible progress in any political transition. Indeed, some may say that it is unethical to deal with non-state actors such as Al Qaeda because it would imply their recognition and giving them unnecessary attention. Yet, in order to reach peace, some degree of empathy must be shown by listening to our greatest enemy.

Jan 29, 2014

Security by the Commons

Federal and state authorities, along the leaders of vigilante groups, after the signature of the agreement formalizing the operations of self-defense groups in the Mexican state of Michoacán (from La Jornada).

Federal and state authorities, along the leaders of vigilante groups, after the signature of the agreement formalizing the operations of self-defense groups in the Mexican state of Michoacán (from La Jornada).

On Tuesday the battle against organized crime in Mexico opened a new chapter. Due to the increasing insecurity in the region, some local citizens of the South Western state of Michoacán decided to take arms themselves and defend their people and properties against the existing threats. However, the actions of these vigilante groups, referred to as self-defenses, and their clashes with the organized crime, were growing out of control. Hence, the government decided to intervene by increasing the presence of soldiers and federal police forces in the state and, notably, signing an agreement with the heads of the self-defense groups to “institutionalize” them.

Self-defense groups are not novel in Michoacán or in other regions of the country. Many times, state and municipal authorities are surpassed by the task of fighting organized crime (they are threatened, extorted, bribed, co-opted, or murdered). Yet, local habitants refuse to yield to criminals and organize their own defense. This has created several problems to the government. For starters, the Constitution grants to the state the monopoly of security tasks. In this sense, the legality of the mere existence of self-defense groups was heavily questioned. In addition, detentions, prosecutions, or other activities of these collectives did not necessarily take place within the rule of law, increasing the risk of arbitrariness and abuses. For this, at some point the line between self-defense groups and criminals could be blurred.

In the state of Michoacán self-defenses emerged years ago when illegal wood cutters were devastating the forests in the region, on whose resources depend the inhabitants of those communities. Later on, Michoacán became one of the centers of the fight against organized crime; local people had to defend against wood cutters and drug gangs. This problem was deepened with the chronic incapacity of state authorities to face those threats.

Now, the federal and local governments have subscribed an agreement with self-defense groups in an attempt to acknowledge their contribution to security tasks in the region. Within the framework of the agreement, the vigilante groups will have to “respond” to military and police authorities in Michoacán (there is no mention on formal coordination mechanisms) and their members are required to receive government clearance. However, it is worth noting that days before, the Secretary of Governance seemed to have another goal for self-defenses: to disarm them and deploy soldiers and policemen to take over their activities. This change in attitude from confrontational to conciliatory has generated some debate and, until now, has remained unexplained. Pragmatism (because it would be counterproductive to try to fight self-defenses and because the government could use more resources in reestablishing security) could be at the core of the explanation.

Whatever the reason in deciding to sign it, the agreement is relevant because it formally incorporates a new actor in the fight against organized crime. On the one hand, this could receive a positive assessment because it opens a window for citizen participation in security policies. For sure, community police corps exist in other countries and in other regions of Mexico. But because for this particular case the environment is the fight against drug trafficking organizations a new dynamic could take place. The threat is economically, politically, and militarily very powerful. Yet, as previous actions have demonstrated, policies designed and implemented with a strong involvement of local actors have an added value that do not enjoy actions coming only from the federal level.

The details of this new dynamic are still to be seen. Will the feeble state of Michoacán be strengthened by the formal incorporation of citizens into security tasks? Will drug dealers try to buy off citizens, as they have done with public officials? Will the Army and Police be able to keep a check on self-defenses to prevent them from abusing of fellow citizens? Will self-defenses restrict their activities to security, without establishing centers of power under their own rule? How will they receive their resources? Answers to these questions will be outlined in future months.

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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