Tuesday, 30 April 2013

NETHERLANDS:'' Willem-Alexander IV'': Europe's youngest king

For years, the Dutch doubted whether Willem-Alexander -- the easy-going prince disparaged in the media as stupid, lazy and intemperate -- had what it takes to rule. Crowned king on Tuesday morning, the 46-year-old will now attempt something his mother never did: to be a thoroughly modern monarch.

Today, Queen Beatrix passed the scepter to her son Willem-Alexander. Now, the names on Dutch naval ships will have to be changed from "HM" ("Harer Majesteit," her majesty) to "ZM" ("Zijner Majesteit," his majesty) for the first time in 123 years. But that won't be the only sea change. Now that the 46-year-old has been crowned king, the royal palace will be infused with an openness and easy-going attitude unthinkable under the 33-year reign of his mother.

King Willem-Alexander will also be something of an aloof monarch, although in contrast to Beatrix, it won't be his subjects, but rather the elevated position, that he keeps at bay.

He is the kind of person who might take part in a toilet-throwing competition and greet official guests with a friendly pat on the back, a man keen to point out that the importance of the monarchy is changing. "I'm not a protocol fetishist," he said in an interview two weeks before his coronation. Willem-Alexander wants to be a king who stands for continuity and stability. That much he's promised his mother. But he also wants to be a modern king -- and that's his appeal to the people.

The atmosphere at court is also likely to change under the new regent. For example, Willem-Alexander doesn't insist on being addressed as "Your Majesty." He wants people to call him whatever they want and are comfortable with -- "Alex," for instance. That's what his wife calls him.

Of all of Europe's royal families, the Orange-Nassau dynasty is seen as particularly likeable. That's largely thanks to shirt-sleeved Willem-Alexander and his down-to-earth wife, Máxima. Both are cheerful souls, forever in a good mood, always looking as if they just returned from a bicycle ride. The "A-Team" -- daughters Amalia, 9, Alexia, 7, and Ariane, 6 -- all attend public schools.

Willem-Alexander's reign will therefore be very different than that of his mother, who always hid behind antiquated pomp and circumstance. Her abdication was probably her only nod to modernity. Explaining the decision to step down from the throne, she said, "I believe that the responsibility for our country belongs in the hands of a new generation."

She must have known that her son would usher in sweeping changes. He once said, "I didn't have a hard time with my parents. They had a hard time with me."

As a teenager, he had trouble coming to terms with his status as crown prince. Even as an 11-year-old, he told photographers to "go to Hell." When he was 16, his parents sent him to a boarding school in Wales. He was never an outstanding student, but he was a passionate athlete. After graduating from high school, he completed his national service in the navy. Later he trained in the air force. Flying became his passion.

Like his mother before him, he went to Leiden University, where he majored in history, human rights and international law. There he joined a Dutch student fraternity well-known for its hard partying as well as for its hazing rituals. Photos document his ability to hold his drink, and he had soon earned the nickname "Prince Pilsner". When he took longer than usual to complete his degree, the media was quick to label him as a lazy and somewhat simple-minded crown prince.

As a result, the Dutch people had serious doubts about their heir apparent. Perhaps that was a blessing for Willem-Alexander, since it meant he had no expectations to meet, no disappointment to dread. Today the people are pleasantly surprised. They admire his work at the United Nations, where he is responsible for water management, and they adore his family.

Willem-Alexander met his wife on a trip to Seville, Spain. Argentinean-born Máxima Zorreguieta was working at Deutsche Bank in New York at the time. Although she is a descendent of many noble families on the Iberian Peninsula, Máxima is just as laid-back as her husband.

The two quickly fell in love, and in 1999 Willem-Alexander officially presented her to his fellow countrymen. The crown prince may not have cared that her father had been a minister during Argentina's "Dirty War," but the people thought otherwise, and the announcement of the engagement brought a storm of protest. It didn't help matters when, in trying to defend his fiancée, Willem-Alexander unwittingly quoted the words of Argentine dictator Jorge Videla. The subsequent scandal robbed him of the little respectability he still had.

Luckily for him, Máxima reconciled the people with their crown prince. Yes, she admitted in fluent Dutch at a press conference, Alex had been "a little dumb." In an instant, her words shattered the royal detachment Queen Beatrix had worked so hard to uphold. So Willem-Alexander got his way, albeit under certain conditions: A clause in their marriage contract states that his father-in-law may not be present at any state occasions.

Willem-Alexander probably got his single-mindedness from his mother. Queen Beatrix always advised her son to remain true to himself and never swim with the tide. However he clearly inherited his easy-going manner from his grandmother. Queen Juliana could often be seen riding her bicycle or taking walks in her Wellington boots. Of Willem-Alexander and his family, there are also the obligatory cycling photos.
But as prepared as the Dutch are by their very nature to compromise, they still grumble now and again. Rumor has it that the new king has a penchant for expensive watches. He and Máxima are described as a "jet-set couple." In 2009 Willem-Alexander caused a furor when he tried to buy a luxury vacation home for himself and his family in the otherwise impoverished country of Mozambique. "Everyone makes mistakes," he later apologized. The people forgave him. After all, it showed he was human.

This morning Willem-Alexander IV became Europe's youngest king. At the same time, the Orange-Nassau dynasty is becoming less influential and more representative -- more Scandinavian. Not only because the government recently pared back the monarchy's powers: In contrast to his mother, Willem-Alexander has never seen himself as a politician.

His reign will be more modern and freer than that of his mother. It's not yet certain when exactly the new royal family will move into Huis ten Bosch in The Hague. For now, the palace has announced, the family will spend a little more time at its villa in neighboring Wassenaar.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
World Affairs Blogger

Photo-Credit AFP

FRANCE: When Sarkozy talks about Hollande

While French President François Hollande deals with dismal jobless figures and turmoil surrounding the recent legalization of gay marriage, his upbeat predecessor goes on the thinly veiled offensive in Montreal. "When I look at those who succeeded me," Nicolas Sarkozy says, "I feel very good."

Nicolas Sarkozy seems to be living proof that politics is an unhealthy profession. One year after he was voted out of office, the former French president was looking better than ever as he put in an appearance at the Montreal Convention Center last Thursday. Well tanned and full of energy, he stood grinning with his feet planted wide apart -- no comparison with the gray-faced and exhausted man who lost last year's French presidential election.

It had been a long time since he last spoke in public. After his defeat at the hands of Socialist Party challenger Hollande, Sarkozy dropped out of public view. He granted no interviews and gave no speeches. Even his appearance in Canada was closed to the general public. Security guards posted at the entrance chased away journalists and photographers. The roughly 800 individuals attending the event had paid the equivalent of between €170 and €600 ($220 and $780) to hear Sarkozy as part of a series of presentations organized by a Canadian telecommunications company.

The audience consisted of Canadian business leaders, and the occasional Sarkozy fan, who were sitting at elegantly laid-out tables in a large hall with dimmed lights. They were also served dinner: a salad, over-salted duck drumsticks and a dry piece of cake.

In North American fashion, Sarkozy was introduced as "the 23rd president of the French Republic." "I will try to avoid doing two things today," he said after he approached the lectern amid thunderous applause: "Interfering in Canadian politics -- and engaging in French politics." He made a long pause for dramatic effect and grinned: "Although it's not as if I have no desire to do so."

Just a few minutes before Sarkozy stepped up to the microphone, the wire services were abuzz with breaking news: The French jobless total hit an all-time high of 3.22 million people last month.
As former President Sarkozy was being received like a statesman in the French-speaking province of Quebec, everything seemed to be going downhill for President François Hollande in Paris, some 5,400 kilometers (3,350 miles) to the east. The economy is sliding into recession, while the left is accusing Hollande of not being left-wing enough.

To make matters worse, the right is unrelentingly demonstrating against his most important legislative project to date, the same-sex marriage law. A French version of the American Tea Party movement is currently emerging -- one that combines anti-gay sentiment with the feeling that the left has no legitimate claim to power.

It looks as if Hollande is losing his grip on the entire country. A research institute recently reported that, after only one year of leadership, he is the most unpopular French president of the Fifth Republic, with only a 21 percent approval rating. Another survey showed that Sarkozy would win if he ran against Hollande today.

No wonder Sarkozy seemed so pleased. "Yes, there's life after politics," he told the audience. "In all honesty, I feel good. And when I look at those who succeeded me, I even feel very good." Speaking abroad, Sarkozy styles himself as the defender of Europe and the euro. "If the euro implodes, the EU will explode," he says. "So we have no choice," he warns, "without the European Union, there would be war again in Europe."

Sarkozy's entire appearance was a commentary on his successor -- even if he never mentioned Hollande by name. It began when Sarkozy praised at length the fine example given by Barack Obama and George W. Bush when they met at the White House following the US presidential election. This was clearly a criticism of Hollande, who didn't even accompany him to his car during the transfer of power at Elysée Palace. The criticism continued with the question of how to best handle China, and the comment that government spending naturally has to be reduced.

But many things were left unsaid: For instance, that Sarkozy is under investigation for alleged illegal election campaign financing. And Sarkozy completely avoided the question that is on everyone's mind: Will he run again for president in 2017? The divided conservatives currently have no alternative candidate.
That afternoon, Sarkozy flew to New York to meet with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The Frenchman is currently on many guest lists, and the longer he remains silent, the more popular he becomes back home in France.

"It's not the politics that I love," he admits. "I have often been bored during those endless meetings where nothing is decided. What I love is taking action." It would appear that time is on his side.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
World Affairs Blogger
Investigative Journalist

ITALY: Under a new government

Italy finally has a new government, more than two months after the general election. It represents a balance of power between the center-left and center-right, includes a record seven women including a black minister, and is significantly younger than previous Italian cabinets.

It took nearly 60 days for Italy's politicians to agree on a prime minister. The new cabinet was sworn in on Sunday. Led by Letta of the center-left Democratic Party, the government includes ministers from Silvio Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom (PDL) party. Italy, like Greece, now has a coalition made up of opposing parties whose political platforms could not be more different from each other.

New Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta of the center-left Democratic Party (PD) faces severe political and economic pressures and will have to score quick successes in the coming months. He needs to satisfy voters who are sick of economic stagnation and cutbacks while meeting the demands of investors for painful structural reforms -- and keeping the rival parties in his coalition happy.

The fact that Italy finally has a government again is good news in itself. The fact that it doesn't consist of 'technocrats,' and that politicians are the ones taking political responsibility again, is equally positive. The wrangling during the second half of Mario Monti's term showed that people without party affiliation can't perform miracles either.

Letta could bridge the gap between the opposing camps of the center-right and center-left -- that hasn't been possible for the last 20 years. If Letta's government can contribute to a reconciliation of the political camps, and to a more balanced tone of political discourse, the benefit would be enormous.

But doubts remain whether the new and younger cabinet will really be able to bring about the turnaround Italy needs. It's just a detail, but it fans such doubts, that Letta wasn't able to push through his plan to drastically cut the size of the cabinet. It has 21 instead of 12 portfolios because the Democratic Party and Berlusconi's PdL refused to abandon their 'combinazioni.'

The reform of electoral law, one of the most important points in the task list formulated by (Italian President Girogio) Napolitano, will remain a stumbling block because it is so closely intertwined with the distribution of power. The failed attempts to elect a new president showed how riven the PD is by power disputes. Berlusconi's people are subject to the mood swings of the capricious party patriarch who also finances them -- and are likely to engage in power struggles and position-jockeying over who will take over from the ageing 'Il Cavaliere.'"

Letta wants to restore credibility to politics. He intends to reform the electoral law and put an end to the European austerity measures -- although he is just as committed to the European project as his predecessor, Mario Monti. Yet Letta's hands are tied because the positions of his coalition partners are so diverse. His government offers barely more than a brief reprieve -- perhaps for a year, perhaps only until this fall. Indeed, the last few days have revealed two things: The left has failed, at least for the time being, and Berlusconi, the great survivor, is still pulling the political strings.

Given the unpredictability of Italian politics, it's impossible to forecast how long Letta's government will last. It could be anything from a few months to a few years. It won't be an easy time, the PdL is likely to make blackmail attempts and complicate policymaking especially in areas affecting Silvio berlusconi's interests -- in particular regarding the introduction of a wealth tax or a new anti-corruption law. Besides, Letta isn't safe from traitors in his own party. His political life will depend on how quickly and constructively this experimental cabinet can deliver results.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP: New Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta

Monday, 29 April 2013

SYRIA: Obama's red line & helping the devil

Ever since August 2012, Obama has held that Syrian use of chemical weapons constituted a "red line" for the United States, and that crossing it would be a "grave mistake" for Assad. But he also said in numerous occasions that the U.S. ''will never support al-Qaida in Syria''.

Barack Obama has a real problem. It's self-inflicted, really -- and it's a cautionary tale against articulating public positions that may seem correct and convenient at the time, but that can pose serious challenges down the road.

Obama has been confronted with evidence from a variety of credible sources -- including from his own intelligence community, with some caveats -- that Assad used sarin gas against the rebels/his people but also the confirmation that Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), one of the main armed groups battling to take down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is indeed an ''Al Qaeda's branch. These two facts certainly complicate matters for Obama.

Will Obama be pushed into action, based on these facts?

So far, Obama's calculations have been risk-averse, matching the uncertainties of the situation. The rebels are divided and dysfunctional, far too many in the opposition are Islamist extremists, the humanitarian crisis is unmanageable -- and even if President Bashar al-Assad departs, it is uncertain who or what will assume responsibility for the mess that is left behind.

It's a headache for a president whose main mission was to get America out of bad wars, not into new ones. But there's likely no way around it -- sooner or later, Obama will have to make good on enforcing his red line. Failure to do so will undermine his credibility, encourage the Assad regime to deploy additional chemical weapons, and send a powerful signal to America's friends and adversaries that United States don't mean what United States say.

The U.S also breached its own ''red line'' policy''. Supporting Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria is indeed a departure from the U.S. policy. It is a dangerous game that could backfire with dire consequences. One of the imminent consequence is that : Obama's credibility is undermined.

With help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months, expanding a secret airlift of arms and equipment for the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, according to air traffic data, interviews with officials in several countries and the accounts of rebel commanders.

While the West attempts to claim these weapons are being sent to “moderates,” the US State Department itself admits that Al Qaeda is operating in every major city in Syria, carrying out hundreds of terrorist attacks, and is by far the most highly organized, most prominent militant front in the conflict.

Indeed, Nusra has, over time, proved to be one of the more effective organizations in the rebel alliance. Because of its longstanding relationship with Sunni resistance groups in Iraq -- notably the main Sunni insurgent group in Iraq, the al-Qaida affiliate known as the Islamic State of Iraq -- Nusra has benefited from a steady flow of weapons, cash and recruits flowing back across the Syria-Iraq border from Gulf's states with the blessing of Washington.

The Obama's administration new policy is benefiting to Al Qaeda affiliate, despite president Obama's rhetoric that U.S ''will never support Al Qaeda''. There are ''security concerns'' over the opacity of U.S. aid to different rebels groups. AFP reports that humanitarian aid is being used as a political weapon to carve out territory for the West’s heavily armed proxies and extort cooperation from the subjugated people who find themselves inside Al Qaeda-occupied territory.

A red line has indeed been crossed -- not only in terms of Syria's use of chemical weapons, but also in the slippery slide toward American military involvement. What Obama needs to decide is whether such military action is designed to deter the use of chemical weapons or topple the Assad regime by giving the rebels the advantages they've long sought -- weapons, a no-fly zone, or direct U.S. military strikes against regime targets.

Whatever Obama does on Syria, he should make sure that he doesn't say anything that he's not prepared to act on. "As president of the United States, I don't bluff," he famously said with regard to U.S. policy toward Tehran. It's just as good advice when it comes to America's approach to Damascus. And whatever he does, he should ensure he has international support and legal grounds on which to act.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Friday, 26 April 2013

DRC: '' Analysis'': When peacekeepers take over

The U.N. Security Council approved the creation of an "intervention brigade" to help root out extremist militias in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo. For years, the U.N.'s large Congo peacekeeping force has struggled to respond to violence in the region, and it has been severely criticized for failing to protect civilians in the region. The UN's resolution formally cleared the way for offensive operations.

The intervention brigade will carry out targeted offensive operations, with or without the Congolese national army, against armed groups that threaten peace in the eastern part of DRC – a region that is prone to cycles of violence and consequent humanitarian suffering. The objectives of the new force – which will be based in North Kivu province in eastern DRC and total 3,069 peacekeepers – are to neutralize armed groups, reduce the threat they posed to State authority and civilian security and make space for stabilization activities.

The force will reportedly include troops from Tanzania, South Africa, and Malawi and may begin operations as early as this summer. The largest rebel group, the M23, has criticized the decision. A rebel spokesperson said the U.N. had "chosen to wage war against one of the partners for peace."

The current Congo mission (which has gone by several names) is in fact the second major U.N. operation there. The first operated from 1960 to 1964 and struggled to keep the newly decolonized state intact even as it navigated intense Cold War politics. At first, the mission stuck to the core peacekeeping principles of impartiality and neutrality. But those principles were tested by the near disintegration of the nascent state. Was the U.N. supposed to be impartial between state and non-state actors?

By 1961, the Security Council had given peacekeepers permission to go on the offensive against separatists in the province of Katanga, who were operating in league with foreign mercenaries. Significantly less verbose in those days, the Council authorized "the use of force, as a last resort" to suppress civil war and disturbances in the country. Several months later, the council urged the peacekeepers to "take vigorous action, including the use of the requisite measure of force.

The U.N.'s offensive in Congo included several distinct phases, including "Operation Rumpunch" and "Operation Morthor." The campaign, which featured Indian and Irish troops, was ultimately successful in defeating Katangan secessionists, but it proved highly controversial.

There's even more recent precedent in Congo for U.N. offensive operations, although on a much smaller scale. In 2006, a group of Guatemalan special forces soldiers assigned to the peacekeeping mission attempted to hunt down units of the Lord's Resistance Army operating in Congo's Garamba National Park. The operation turned into a disaster. Several U.N. soldiers were killed (likely by friendly fire), and the LRA forces escaped. In early 2009, U.N. forces began actively supporting the offensive operations of the Congolese armed forces. But that collaboration was dialed back as criticism of Congolese army tactics mounted.

Part of the problem with offensive U.N. operations is that the traning and resources of the forces doing the fighting often doesn't match the mandate. It's one thing for the Security Council to authorize offensive operations from New York; it's quite another thing for peacekeeping commanders to manage them successfully on the ground.

During the U.N.'s Bosnia operation in the 1990s, that gap between the Council's proclamations and the actual work of peacekeepers grew to tragic proportions.

If peacekeepers get bogged down while on the offense -- or, worse, commit abuses of their own -- political will for the operation will likely melt away. The countries contributing the troops for the enforcement brigade may think twice. It's doubtful that either the United States or cash-strapped European states will send their own forces to bolster peacekeepers in need of assistance.

The difficult history of offensive U.N. operations doesn't mean that the new enforcement brigade is doomed to fail. The rampant insecurity in eastern Congo is crying out for a solution. U.N. peacekeeping has carried out important reforms in recent years. But the past does highlight some of the pitfalls that can await blue helmets with a green light to use force.

As actions against the LRA demonstrated, what happens after the withdrawal of the intervention brigade may be just as critical as the period of the operations. This short term “surge” may create more agile and proactive operations, but the longer-term requirement to build the capacity of an indigenous security force remains.

Should the intervention brigade or the regular forces be successful in securing ground or clearing rebel-held territory, Congolese forces will be left to consolidate any gains and guard against reprisals. The formulation and implementation of this strategy should be addressed now to avoid a vacuum after the intervention or a loss of momentum following the “surge.”

Now that the intervention brigade has been authorized, operational planning should focus on robust control measures to protect civilians in the area of operations, and international efforts should shift to long-term capacity building to ensure sustainable security for the people of the DRC.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/African Affairs Expert
Investigative Journalist

BRUSSELS: Catherine Ashton' shortcomings

Catherine Ashton, Europe's top diplomat, has failed to provide the clout her office requires, a report by the European Parliament has concluded. Her successors are already jockeying for a position in the race to snag the EU's most important foreign policy post.

The European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, which oversees the newly created EEAS, has similar criticism for the way the agency is run. On Tuesday, committee chair Elmar Brok presented a paper that describes a structure that is "too top-heavy and marked by too many decision-making layers." The paper adds that Ashton often reacts too late and allows EU member states to dictate her staffing policy. The report suggests a general review of the agency, with Ashton receiving one or more deputy representatives to assist her.

There is considerable dissatisfaction with the EEAS within the European Parliament. According to the Lisbon Treaty, the EU's new diplomatic service should work to formulate a common EU foreign policy, yet not even the high representative believes this is actually possible. "The EEAS is not a European foreign ministry designed to replace Member States' foreign ministries," Ashton wrote in an internal position paper, but rather "something new and unique."

It's certainly under uniquely poor management, or so the parliamentary report suggests, with its long list of the agency's shortcomings. Wherever crises have cropped up over the past two years, the EU has reacted too late. When the Arab Spring broke out, Ashton had to be asked several times before she finally flew to Cairo. Even with an ongoing crisis brewing in Mali, it was France that ultimately intervened to keep the country from falling completely to Islamic fundamentalists.
"Operational decision-making and implementation in the area of the Common Foreign and Security Policy / Common Security and Defense Policy (CFSP/CSDP) are too slow because of structural and procedural reasons," criticizes the parliamentary report. It goes on to state, "It has become apparent that the EU is unable to ensure, in the short term, a reallocation of resources, including staff, to match new political priorities."

The European Parliament also finds fault with the fact that key areas of foreign policy -- such as climate change, trade and energy policy -- are out of Ashton's hands, limitations that the high representative accepts without complaint. Since she's simultaneously vice president of the European Commission, Ashton could certainly take a stance on any and all issues, yet she has not made any memorable statements even on the all-consuming matter of the euro-zone debt crisis. When her staff reminds her that China and Japan are highly interested to know how stable Europe's currency is, the high representative replies that the subject is not her area. The one point on which all parties can agree is the high representative's talent as a negotiator -- Serbia and Kosovo have Ashton to thank for an agreement reached last Friday to normalize relations between the two countries.

The EU member states don't make things easy for the British baroness. The larger countries in particular prefer to reach their decisions unilaterally. The individual member states also intervene in EEAS staffing decisions whenever they can, preferring to send their own representatives when it comes to posting EU ambassadors to other countries. Forty percent of these positions went to candidates from the member states, much to the displeasure of long-serving Brussels-based diplomats, some of whom describe it as a "hostile takeover."

Ashton has raised no objections on the matter, and to make things worse, some of the new EU representatives quickly turned out to be a poor fit for their posts. In Libya, a second ambassador resigned after just a few months, unable to cope with the job. Yet Ashton herself had declared, in announcing that ambassador's appointment, "The opportunity to represent the EU in the world clearly continues to attract the very best diplomats."

Inge Grässle, a member of the European Parliament's budgetary control committee, also criticizes the fact that no other EU institution has so many high-level officials overseeing so little staff, pointing out that there are directorates with just 22 employees and director-generals who oversee as few as 44 staff members.

No less questionable is the increasing number of so-called special representatives. When she first took office, Ashton intended to disband these posts, which come with generous travel budgets. Instead she has appointed more special representatives than ever before. At the same time, the exact responsibilities that fall to these positions are unclear. Grässle believes their primary purpose is "aimless foreign policy action."

Ashton comes across as clearly weary of her position, and recently announced she will step down in 2014. She knows she has no chance of a second term. Ashton arrived in Brussels in 2009 on behalf of Great Britain's Labour Party, but current Prime Minister David Cameron heads the Conservative Party and is hardly going to support a candidate from his opposition.

In other words, the race to see who will succeed Ashton has begun. A great deal here depends on the results of the European Parliament elections in May 2014 and on who gets Brussels' two other top jobs -- the European Commission president, who runs the EU's executive, and the European Council president, the head of the powerful body that represents the leaders of the member states. Still, two candidates -- Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and his Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt, both of whom have many years of foreign policy experience -- are already warming up for the race. The two politicians are known to have no shortage of self-confidence and, unlike Ashton, are unlikely to be content with simply compiling the opinions of the member states' foreign ministers.

Even Ashton has come to concede her weaknesses. At a recent conference of the German Marshall Fun in Brussels, the top diplomat said she had laid the foundations for the EEAS, but it was time for someone else to take over. "There are people who can do things with this that probably I couldn't do, so it'll be good to hand it over," she explained.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Wikipédia: Ms Catherine Ashton

Thursday, 25 April 2013

ITALY: Napolitano & Enrico Letta's nomination

Giorgio Napolitano, Italy's 87-year-old savior who was elected president on Saturday, laid the foundation for a new government through talks with representatives of the main parties. It is something the party leaders themselves couldn't manage to do in eight weeks.

As a result, the center-left Social Democrats (PD), together with Silvio Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom (PDL) party, and the group around centrist incumbent Prime Minister Mario Monti, will form a broad coalition government under the leadership of the former Christian Democrat and current PD deputy leader Enrico Letta. For a while, the aging President Napolitano flirted with an almost "revolutionary" solution: the nomination of the 38-year-old mayor of Florence, the young star of Italian politics, Matteo Renzi. He regularly takes aim not only at his political opponents -- especially Silvio Berlusconi -- but also at his own supporters.

Indeed, Giorgio Napolitano has rescued Italian politics from perpetual quagmire. With the nomination of Enrico Letta, he might even succeed in reforming the Italian Left. His nomination highlights three innovations in Italian politics:

First, Napolitano prevented populist movements from taking power. He did not directly oppose Beppe Grillo’s “Five Star Movement”, but gave them enough of a platform just to show that the stubborn movement was unfit for power (despite Grillo’s demand for early elections). Napolitano maneuvered between possible alliances, spoke out against Grillo’s rejection of moderation (“the essence of democracy”, in Napolitano’s words) and let Italians make the choice. That strategy has paid off: At a regional relection in the northern region of Friuli last weekend, Grillo’s party dropped from a local result of 27 percent to a grim 13 percent. Once the political arena is cleared of the former comedian, serious attempts to do politics can finally flourish.

Second, Napolitano finally accepted the “big taboo” that had hampered Italian politics since 1994: the problem is not Silvio Berlusconi; the problem is the Left. The problem is that the Left has egregiously failed to express a modern ideology, adequate to the times. Flirting too much with the rhetoric of traditional socialism, bundled to the economic interests of cooperatives and unions, the Italian left has never gone through the transformation that characterized European social democracy from Tony Blair to Gerhard Schröder. Some might argue that this is not bad per se. The issues of economic polarization in the UK and Germany, not to mention the disaster of Zapatero’s former social democratic government in Spain, are undeniable. Yet the problem is that other countries reformed, and Italy did not. Italian ideological recalcitrance is now costing the country economically.

So, the weakness of the Italian Left isn’t because of Berlusconi – what an easy excuse! – but because Italian voters did not believe in the Left. Reformers have been annihilated: The mayor of Florence, 38-year old Matteo Renzi, competed for the leadership of the Left with a program based on “Blairism”, and lost to the incumbent Pierluigi Bersani. How did party members criticize Renzi? “He is like Berlusconi”. Nevertheless, survey after survey has demonstrated without a shadow of doubt that Renzi would win the election by a large margin. That would be enough to provide my poor country with a functioning government. The crash of the Left has also been demonstrated by the fact that its proposed presidential candidate, the great Romano Prodi, failed. Dozens of left MPs refused to vote for him.

Napolitano has now forced the Left to confront the reality of the 21st century: A time when the rise of new economic powers is shifting the geopolitical landscape and when the “necessary luxury” of the welfare state must be defended by reforming it. Hopefully, Napolitano will also succeed in prompting a reform of the Left. It’s an odd historical quirk that Napolitano himself began his career as a deputy of the Italian Communist Part.

The third innovation is Napolitano himself. For two years, he has acted as the official puppet master of Italian politics. He urged Berlusconi to step down when he had become untenable, he nominated Mario Monti as prime minister (and granted him a lifelong tenure as senator), and he staged the great comedy of “candidate busting” just to demonstrate that he had to stay in the presidential palace himself. Now he has asked Enrico Letta to form a new government. And whatever government next emerges in Italy, it will represent Napolitano’s power and will – and it might also embrace his ideas about “informal democracy” that relies less on ideology and populism and more on reforms.

Once again, in Italy reality is not as it seems. The simple reading that Italians voted for Berlusconi, which prevented a stable coalition government, which will now lead to shady agreements, is a typically Anglo-Saxon reading. It’s internally logical, but it fails to describe Italian political realities. In Italy, back-of-the-envelope deals are commonplace. The country will never be more transparent than other countries in Europe. So this is it. Countries can be reformed through revolutions or through agreements, and Napolitano has successfully avoided political booby traps. Politics is once again working how it has always worked in Italy: Through mediation, mediation, and more mediation.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/World Affairs Blogger
Investigative Journalist/Writer
Researcher at De MontFort University

Photo-Credit: Wikipédia: Enrico Letta

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

EUROPE: The debate on Austerity

Austerity has exacerbated the effects of years of economic crisis. The recovery is still fragile. In some countries it has not even begun, and many fear the cuts could provoke further trouble. There is now a debate on austerity versus stimulus, cuts or spending, and the opinions are deeply and bitterly divided. In Brussels, worries are becoming more widespread.

On Monday, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said the strict austerity measures thus far imposed on the EU's beleaguered economies may have reached their political limits. ''Although this policy is "fundamentally right," it has nevertheless "reached its limits," he told a conference in Brussels. "A policy, to be successful, not only has to be properly designed, it has to have the minimum of political and social support," he added.

Barroso's comments came just ahead of the release of the EU's latest budget deficit numbers by the body's statistics agency Eurostat on Monday. They showed that for 2012, though Europe's combined deficit level dropped, the overall debt for the 17 members of the EU currency union jumped from €8.2 trillion ($10.7 trillion) to €8.6 trillion. The drastic belt-tightening policies imposed on a number of ailing member states have apparently had little effect. On the contrary, many theorize that the spending cuts intensify budgetary problems because they stifle growth, which has prompted fierce protest in the Southern European countries in recession.

On Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle maintained Germany's position, warning against a move away from austerity. "We are convinced that if we give up on the policies of budgetary consolidation, if we fall back into the old policies of racking up debts, then we will cement mass unemployment for many years in Europe," he said in Brussels. Growth cannot be purchased with new debts, he added, saying that "growth and consolidation policies are two sides of the same coin."

Barroso suggested that these countries in crisis be given more time to bring their deficits down to the required 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Spain and Greece, for example, are far from reaching that goal, with both of their budgetary deficits at 10 and 10.6 percent respectively, according to Eurostat. France, too, is running a deficit above its target of 4.5 percent, reaching 4.8 percent of GDP for 2012. While these countries are still expected to bring their deficits down, Barroso said that there should be a discussion about how quickly that needs to happen.

Barroso has always supported growth-friendly budget consolidation, but some have interpreted his latest comments as a possible shift in Europe's approach to austerity, which would be welcomed by EU leaders hungry to see more growth. The European Commission is set to decide on May 29 whether to recommend that EU finance ministers give France and Spain an extra year to bring their deficits down to 3 percent of GDP, moving the deadline to 2015.

And while it remains unclear what they will do, a move to ease austerity would be met with intense resistance from Germany -- which Eurostat showed was the only EU country to have a budget surplus last year. Chancellor Angela Merkel has pushed tirelessly for the EU to maintain strict austerity despite pleas from Paris and Madrid, where lawmakers want permission to amass more debt in the short term to jumpstart their economies.


The European policy-makers need to understand that citizen/Europeans dissatisfaction is ultimately much more dangerous than the impatience of markets. Citizens simply cannot bear never-ending sacrifices if they don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. If plans and resources for growth are not proposed, social stability is at risk.

Par Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Wikipédia: European Commission President José Manuel Barroso
 

FRANCE: Gays/Lesbians and Homophobia

France legalized gay marriage on Tuesday after a wrenching national debate that exposed deep conservatism in the nation's heartland and triggered huge demonstrations that tapped into intense discontent with the Socialist government. Within hours, fiery clashes broke out between protesters and riot police.

The measure passed easily in the Socialist-majority Assembly, 331-225, just after the president of the legislative body expelled a disruptive protester in pink, the color adopted by French opponents of gay marriage. With the vote, France becomes the fourteenth country worldwide, the ninth European to legalize same-sex unions. But opponents haven't given up, warning they will challenge the legislation in France's Constitutional Council and continue to protest next month.

Indeed, given France’s rather liberal, live-and-let-live social reputation abroad, it struck some foreign observers as ironic the French took so long — and battled so bitterly — to legalize same-sex marriage that purportedly stodgier “Anglo-Saxon” countries like the U.S. and U.K. now appear to be moving toward rapidly. Be that as it may, backers of Marriage for All cheered its final passage — and expect, once the law clears constitutional review in late May, the first legal same-sex marriages to be performed in June.

But the vote divides the country, with an increase in aggressive homophobic sentiment. On Monday, the leader of parliament received a threatening letter filled with gunpowder.

Fear has become widespread among gays and lesbians in France following an attack in mid-April on Vice Versa, a popular gay bar in Lille. Four people showed up at the bar, located in the city's historic center, at 10 p.m. They destroyed furniture, broke the front window and slightly injured the bar's owner and a handful of employees.

The Paris activist group Act Up described the developments as "an explosion of hatred and violence," and the organization SOS Homophobie complained about a week of violence. "There's a climate of homophobia that is leading to aggressive actions," said Elisabeth Ronzier, the group's president. She said the debate over same-sex marriage simmering for months in the country was the cause of the "tensions" and "radicalization."

France legalized same-sex relations in 1982 and then introduced gay and lesbian civil unions in 1999, bestowing a number of the rights of marriage. But the recent protests, which have attracted hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, have brought prejudices back to the surface that many had thought were long forgotten.

The legal reform, voted and passed yesterday, has divided society and sparked intense political debate. The right-leaning opposition and conservative values factions have been using the issue to drive public sentiment against President François Hollande, who has been unpopular since his election last spring.

And in the margins of the protests, people with animosity towards gays and lesbians have been celebrating their own coming outs of sorts. The latest example came on Monday, when Claude Bartolone, the chairman of the National Assembly, received a threatening letter filled with gunpowder. "Our methods are more radical and swift than the protests," the letter reportedly stated. "You wanted war, you've got it." The letter was signed by a group calling itself the "Interaction des forces de l'ordre."

The national campaign against same-sex marriage and the mass protests even caught President Hollande, who listed the new law as "Proposal No. 31" in his election platforms, completely by surprise -- especially given that 58 percent of French support adoption of "Marriage for All." The only area where a majority reject equalizing same-sex and heterosexual marriage is on the issue of adoption, where 53 percent reject it. Hollande has warned in the face of the attacks that any anti-gay violence and "any form of homophobia" will be punished.

The vast majority of anti-gay marriage protesters have remained peaceful. But even as they have claimed to only rebuke the marriage reforms, the ideological leaders of the "Demonstrations for All" movement have certainly done their share to foment hatred of gays and lesbians in recent weeks. ''They're opening a Pandora's box," says Alain Escada, the head of the fundamentalist Christian group Civitas. "The next thing they will want three-way or four-way marriages," blasted the archbishop of Lyon, Philippe Barbarin. "And then the ban on incest will be dropped."

So is the homophobia currently being expressed in France proof of a shift in public opinion in the longer term or just an ugly temporary phenomenon? For Louis-Georges Tin, such animosity towards gays and lesbians hasn't come as a surprise. "In this respect, the debate over 'Marriage for All' has simply been a reinforced indicator," the author of the "Dictionary of Homophobia" told the French daily Libération.

Tin argues that the conservative opposition is trying to use its at times strong rejection of the reform to burnish its own damaged images. On the one side, he argues the conservative Catholic Church has been marred by pedophilia scandals. And the political opposition parties have been weakened by in-fighting. Their vehement rejection of "Marriage for All," he argues, gives them the opportunity to revamp their images as moralists.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo Credit : AFP

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

U.S.: ''Tsarnaev brothers'': New breed of terrorists

When Americans are forced to live in fear, as they again had to do in these days of terror in Boston, they often comfort themselves with the notion that cave dwelling is for terrorists. But as the Americans learned more about the Tsarnaev brothers, this line of argumentation started falling apart, because Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, together with his brother Tamerlan, the men believed to be responsible for the marathon attack, weren't cave dwellers of any kind. He didn't wear a Taliban beard, he doesn't appear to have dreamed of virgins in paradise and reports even suggest he had a girlfriend in the United States.

Tsarnaev even lived in a penthouse that could be the embodiment of the American Dream in the university city of Cambridge. The Chechen-born man attended one of the country's best schools there, one whose graduates include film stars like Matt Damon or Ben Affleck. Many who attended the school went on to Harvard or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology right around the corner.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev even received a scholarship, and, on an Internet page, indicated that "career" and "money" were his life's goals. He spoke almost accent-free English. He smoked pot, he drank alcohol, he liked rap music and he posed proudly in his robe, with a red flower affixed to it, at his graduation.

As America searched for the bombers, he calmly attended a party at his college. Tsarnaev was an "All-American Boy," friends say, one who was well on his way to becoming an American success story, regardless of his older brothers' problems. And, yet, in the end, this promising student became a murderer who placed a backpack with a bomb in the middle of a crowd of people.

That kind of transformation is almost more disturbing than the hatred of a man like Osama bin Laden. The Americans have long believed that they have been more successful at integrating Muslims than the Europeans. In principle, it's also true. What the Americans generally feared was that "sleepers" might be smuggled into the country. They were less afraid that Muslims living within the population would suddenly start turning against the country. They remained faithful that the appeal of the American dream would be enough -- why, they seemed to ask, would a person in the land of opportunity want to plan the American nightmare?

But Dzhokhar's brother, who was 26, felt so alienated despite having a wife, a child and success as a boxer that he wrote: "I don't have a single American friend. I don't understand them."

In retrospect, the Americans probably should have registered sooner that their faith in their ability to successfully integrate Muslims/immigrants wasn't as foolproof as they often believed. Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani man who attempted to set off a bomb on Times Square in 2010, had successfully applied for US citizenship shortly before the incident. Nidal Malik Hasan, who shot and killed 13 people at the Fort Hood military base in Texas one year earlier, had even worked as an Army psychiatrist. In his novel, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," author Mohsin Hamid describes a successful Wall Street banker with Pakistani roots who slowly becomes radicalized after 9/11. Hamid's conclusion is that even those who have success can still feel they are excluded from society, and that terrorism is not the exclusive realm of those without prospects.

YouTube videos and tweets alone cannot explain how pronounced such thinking was on the part of the Boston bombers. But in the Internet age, extremist ideas can also influence American Muslims who on the surface appear to be perfectly integrated. "Muslims in the US are more resistant, but not immune from the radical message," the Wall Street Journal quoted a New York Police Department paper from 2007 as stating.

My dearest friend, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, for her part, sees a new breed of terrorists who have more in common with the disillusioned European Muslims who killed in Madrid or London despite having grown up there.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

MYANMAR:''Analysis'': Buddhists & Muslims

Rioting and arson attacks spread on Friday to villages outside a city in central Myanmar where clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have left at least 20 people dead, according to residents, a member of Parliament and local journalists. A picture of chaos and anarchy emerged from the city of Meiktila, where mobs of Buddhists, some of them led by monks, have ransacked and burned Muslim neighborhoods since Wednesday.

Calm has been restored in Meikhtila and other volatile central areas after authorities imposed martial law and dispatched troops. However, evidences show it was well organised, abetted at times by police turning a blind eye.

On 28 March 2013, President Thein Sein publicly declared that he would begin using force to stop religious conflict and rioting in Myanmar. This was the president’s first public comment on the issue since 40 Muslims were killed during rioting in central Myanmar the week before. About 12,000 were forced out of their homes and into refugee shelters as a direct result of that rioting, which included burning of Muslim houses and mosques. This was the worst instance of violence against Muslims in the past year. I am not sure that he has done something so far...

Last month simmering animosity burst into the open once again. A brawl between Buddhists and Muslims in a gold shop in the central Burmese town of Meiktila triggered two days of violence, during which more than 800 homes in the town, mostly Muslim, were razed. The Buddhist mobs who perpetrated the violence were well-organized, and that the police stood by and watched as killings were carried out in broad daylight. Such reports have led to accusations of official complicity in the violence. Suspicion is prompted by belief that elements within the government or military view communal unrest as a cue for the reinvigoration of a military whose overarching power in Burma is threatened by reforms.

A Human Rights Watch report directly implicates "political and religious leaders in Arakan State" in the planning, organization, and incitement of attacks against the Rohingya and other Muslims last October. The report is the most comprehensive evidence yet that the Burmese government colluded in a wave of ethnic attacks and was released just hours before the EU was due to drop sanctions on the Burmese regime as a reward for reformist pledges at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority of one million people that has lived in Rakhine state for centuries. But they face systematic religious and ethnic discrimination because under Myanmar’s constitution, they are not classified as one of 135 legally recognized ethnic minority groups with Myanmar citizenship. Ethnic Burmese consider the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. But Bangladesh does not recognize the Rohingya as its citizens.

Violence against Muslims is not just targeted against the Rohingya; Muslims living in other states have also been targets of ethnic, racial, and religiously motivated violence. The Burmese government has committed atrocities against Muslims, including mass killings and rapes, burning of Muslim villages, arrests, forced labor, and torture.

If the military-led government may have helped to ignite the Arakan and Meiktila conflicts, the fuel, in the form of anti-Muslim sentiment among Burmese, has been stored up over decades, born of propaganda campaigns in the 1960s that triggered pogroms against Indian Muslims, and later the Rohingya in Arakan state, and the historic conflation of Buddhism with Burmese nationalism.

That movement has seen a resurgence since the Arakan rioting last year whipped up anti-Muslim fervor across Burma. The situation in Meiktila appears to lend weight to claims by some observers that an ethnic cleansing campaign is underway in parts of the country. There, the town's once sizeable Muslim population has been driven into camps which journalists are barred from entering; a similar campaign of cleansing has occurred in Sittwe in Arakan state.

Most narratives of the violence have painted the 969 movement as a cohesive anti-Muslim front that seeks to purge Burma of what it considers a pernicious Islamic presence. Anti-violence protests have used 969 as a symbol to rally against. Yet the diverging opinions of those who distribute and carry the symbol shows that this is not so clear-cut. At one end of the spectrum are those who see it more as an identifier of Buddhist solidarity, as Christians display crucifixes. Many say the adoption of 969 as the movement's symbol was done to counter 786, a numerologically important symbol to Muslims that is also seen on some shop fronts.

Extremists are trying legitimize an objectionable philosophy by drawing on the spiritual "goodness" of what 969 represents: the nine attributes of Buddha, the six attributes of his teachings, and the nine attributes of the Sangha, the religious council that administers Buddhist institutions in Burma. This inevitably gives the movement an immediate appeal among Buddhists, and its leaders can then exploit underlying anti-Muslim sentiment to garner supporters, witting or unwitting.

The geographical reach of the campaign goes beyond just areas with a high Muslim presence. In the Shan state town of Namkham last month, anti-Muslim posters began appearing on lampposts, even though only several hundred Muslims live among the population of 100,000. Locals there, who have resisted a lucrative China-backed oil and gas pipeline that passes close by, have questioned whether the sudden threat of religious unrest in a town where the two religions had coexisted peacefully could be used as a pretext by authorities to crack down on anti-pipeline activities.

This then appears to be a campaign that benefits two powerful forces in Burma: ultra-nationalist civilian groups and hard-line elements in the government and military. If both are strengthened as a result, this will have far-reaching repercussions for the development of democracy in Burma.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP

Monday, 22 April 2013

JAPAN: ''Abenomics' : Expectations & Critics

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic plan has rallied the Nikkei index and offered hope to those weighed down by the country's economic problems. But critics fear it could lead to national bankruptcy. "Abenomics" is a Japanese term coined from the family name of Shinzo Abe, the recently-elected Japanese prime minister, and the English word "economics."
 
Shinzo Abe succeeded in making a comeback last December that virtually no one believed he and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) could achieve. After a series of failures and health problems, he stepped down as prime minister in Sept. 2007. He has reinvented himself, and is presenting himself as Japan's savior who will lead the country out of its ongoing economic misery.

For a long time, Abe primarily made waves by intending to amend Japan's pacifist constitution. Now, however, he has recognized that his country first has to arm itself economically to catch up with rivals like China and South Korea.

Abe received a fitting strategy to achieve this from Koichi Hamada, a professor emeritus of economics at Yale University in the US, who now is serving as a government adviser. Hamada believes that one entity is primarily to blame for Japan's malaise: the Bank of Japan (BOJ). For years, the central bank was unable to halt the country's chronic deflation. Since prices were dropping, companies were earning less or even going bankrupt. This in turn caused wages to decline. The Japanese hardly had any money left to buy goods and services.

As a result, companies' profits fell even further. In order to break out of this deflationary spiral, Abe forced the nominally independent BOJ to capitulate. He appointed a new central bank governor, Haruhiko Kuroda. The 68-year-old began his career in the Finance Ministry and occasionally likes to relax by reading Western philosophers such as Aristotle. Among central bankers, he stands out as being unusually talkative -- and just as unusually willing to experiment.

Indeed, the new head of the BOJ has targeted an inflation target of two percent. In expectation of rising prices, at least according to the theory, companies will boost their investments and consumers will spend more money again.

Kuroda hopes to achieve his objective within two years -- and he promises "to do everything possible" to make it a reality. In other words, the central bank intends to print yen practically without restraint and to double the amount of money in circulation. On top of that, the bank plans to purchase Japanese sovereign bonds at the astonishing rate of over 7 trillion yen (over €50 billion/$65 billion) per month -- roughly twice as much as before. In the future, the BOJ wants to purchase over 70 percent of all newly issued sovereign bonds -- pushing down yields in the process.

It's a risky strategy. Japan has amassed a Fujiyama of debt, more than twice the country's entire annual gross domestic product (GDP). In contrast to Greece, Japan has borrowed most of its money from its own people -- over 90 percent of the bonds are held by the country's citizens. But now Japan's monetary watchdogs are joining the gamblers. For instance, the new head of the central bank is considering purchasing an increasing number of risky securities such as real estate funds.

This abundance of Japanese liquidity is threatening to spill over to Europe. Indeed, to avoid the prospect of falling yields, Japanese investors could rush to place their capital in foreign bonds. In anticipation of the new trend, lending rates in European countries like Spain have already begun to fall.

Until now, the Abenomics strategy has been mostly just words, but they have had quite an impact. They have seemingly erased the financial gloom that has pulled down Japan, once Asia's top economy, since the inflated real estate and stock prices of the late 1980s and early 1990s burst, marking the end of the so-called Japanese asset price bubble.

Even during the election campaign, Abe underscored the enormous degree to which the economy is influenced by psychology. With his threat to take away the central bank's independence, he kindled hopes of an enormous flood of money, causing large numbers of investors to dump their yen and buy dollars.

The yen, which has long made Japanese cars and televisions expensive abroad, has fallen by over 25 percent against the dollar since last autumn. Not surprisingly, the cheaper yen has boosted entire sectors of the real economy. It's suddenly worthwhile for export companies like Toyota to manufacture in Japan again. The automotive giant is considering ramping up its domestic production from April to September by 200,000, to a total of 2.5 million vehicles.

The prospect of higher company profits has created a bullish mood on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Since the beginning of the year, the benchmark Nikkei index has risen by over 25 percent to its highest level in four-and-a-half years. And it's primarily foreign funds that have rediscovered Japan as an investment objective.

But Abe can't cure Japan's economic woes with the low yen alone. In fact, he's running the risk of being drawn into a devaluation race with countries like South Korea, which are afraid that their exports may now no longer be competitively priced. But not all aspects of falling exchange rates are a bonanza for the Japanese. The lower the yen falls, the more expensive their imports become -- particularly fossil fuels to generate electricity. After all, 52 out of the country's 54 nuclear reactors have been shut down since the disaster at Fukushima.

Now, Japan is nearly totally dependent on foreign oil and gas. In order to put more money into consumers' pockets despite this development, Abe recently intervened in the annual wage negotiations between companies and workers. He called on companies to pay higher wages to the "hard-working people." A number of sectors, primarily large supermarket chains, obediently decided to reward their workforces with increases in pay for the first time in years, although it often amounted to only one-time bonuses.

Such good deeds win supporters for Abenomics -- and Abe needs all the support he can get if he is to win a majority in the upper house of parliament, the House of Councillors, as he hopes in the upcoming election in July.

Other countries are anxiously watching his economic experiment. Will the third largest industrial power on earth once again become the global engine of growth? The US economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman praises Abe's government for "finally doing what Japan should have done a long time ago." Nevertheless, billionaire investor George Soros warned of an "avalanche" if Japanese investors transferred their savings abroad out of fear of a weak yen.

There are also prominent dissenters in Tokyo who fear that all the fuss surrounding Abenomics is merely wallpapering over Japan's structural crisis. "It's a bubble," says Yasunari Ueno. Ueno, the chief market economist at Mizuho Securities in Tokyo, has been urging structural reforms for years.
In his office in the Tokyo banking quarter, Ueno mulls over the latest statistics -- and they look grim. Japan's population is rapidly aging. By the year 2040, nearly one-third of all Japanese will be over the age of 65, and the number of inhabitants is expected to decline by 20 million.
"Who will ensure the necessary economic growth?" he asks. Ueno contends that supporters of Abenomics deny that the demographic decline is the main reason for deflation -- and he says that they offer no recipe for reversing the trend.

In June, the government is planning to complement Abenomics with a long-term financing concept and growth strategy. But many Japanese companies lack new ideas and innovative products -- and that's not something that Abe can simply ordain.

The once proud electronics giant Panasonic is suffering bitter losses from its production of televisions. Its competitor Sharp is simply fighting to survive. It's been forced to share sections of its production plants with Apple and the Taiwanese cut-rate manufacturer Foxconn. And Sharp was so strapped for cash that it recently had to sell an equity stake in the company to Samsung, its feared rival from South Korea. Sharp plans to halve its workforce to 700 at its headquarters in Osaka.

The cheaper yen can hardly stop this decline. Abenomics came ten years too late, at least according to Takeshi Fujimaki, who has predicted in his new book that the Japanese state will soon be bankrupt. The title of his book is "Hitotamari mo nai Nihon," or "Helpless Japan."

The author receives his guest at his modern villa in Tokyo which, including the garden, offers enough space for half a dozen normal Japanese single-family dwellings. Fujimaki knows how to make money. He worked for years as the star trader at the US financial firm J.P. Morgan, and he now runs his own investment company.

Abenomics, says Fujimaki, is accelerating Japan's downfall. He calmly calculates that Tokyo will have to sell new sovereign bonds worth 44 trillion yen every year to finance its budget. But he argues that if the central bank fuels inflation, the interest rates for the sovereign bonds will also rise -- along with Japan's mountain of debt.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

GERMANY: ''Angela Merkel & euro'': Mrs '' No Alternative''

A new survey of small and medium-sized companies in Germany finds that they are losing interest in the euro zone. Instead, they are placing their bets on countries even further afield, especially fast-growing emerging economies.

The issue of euro-zone bailouts has frequently divided the German business world. "There is no serious alternative to the common euro" claimed an advertising campaign that ran in 2011 and featured the heads of several companies listed on Germany's DAX blue-chip stock exchange index. But the campaign triggered open criticism from representatives of Germany's Mittelstand, the small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) that make up the backbone of the German economy. The Munich-based Foundation for Family Businesses in Germany and Europe reacted by demanding that "exit and expulsion from the currency union must be possible."

Two years later, a survey of German SMEs conducted by Commerzbank, Germany's second-largest bank, shows that they continue to view the euro zone with great skepticism. The survey, which will be published on Wednesday, polled 4,000 Mittelstand companies with annual sales of at least €2.5 million ($3.3 million).

The survey also shows that Germans are skeptical about euro-zone's growth. Eighty-eight percent of them agreed with the statement that the Germany needs to think about ''Alternative to euro'' to adapt to the limits on growth. There is growing skepticim about euro that might reflect on German elections this year.

However German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose's nicknamed ''TINA'' expects to react to these findings with the same slogan she has been using since : '' There Is No Alternative''. ‘If the euro fails, Europe will fail’ is her most cited quote on the issue. But even if the eurozone has to be kept together ‘at all costs’, Germany wants to keep these costs as low as possible.

Mrs Merkel and the German government, including large parts of the opposition in parliament, want to make sure that:
a. The eurozone does not break up.
b. A fully-fledged ‘fiscal transfer union’ with Eurobonds or other forms of uncontrollable mutualisation of debt can be prevented.
c. A fully-fledged ‘inflation union’ with unlimited monetisation and ‘inflating away’ of sovereign debt does not occur.

So far, the first goal could be achieved without fully giving up the other two. The emerging politics within the EU and the European Central Bank make it quite likely that Mrs Merkel’s magic triangle of goals and principles may not stand the test of time. Mrs Merkel made a very strong commitment on her stance on Eurobonds when she said ‘not as long as I live’. Politically, the most attractive option seems to be the third - inflating away the debt.

Although inflation-angst is still very high among German citizens some inflation can be very handy for politicians in Germany too. It decreases the real value of sovereign debt and, it increases tax revenues by ways of ‘cold progression’. This means that in a system of progressive taxation, taxes rise faster than real-term incomes when tax-rates are not adjusted for inflation. The ‘monetary’ way out of the problems is very damaging economically in the long run, but it has enticing political, short-term, advantages. It reduces real debt and increases tax revenue - without affording any parliamentary decision.

As the Cyprus bail-out has shown, the willingness of German political parties and voters to give further fiscal support to debt-ridden foreign states is nearly exhausted. With the monetary ‘solution’, the blame can be shifted to the ECB.

The founding partnership of the EU - the French-German ‘axis’ - no longer holds the EU or even the eurozone together. The differences between a German and a French philosophy have again become apparent with the election of President Francois Hollande. The German government - and informed public - believes that Mr Hollande pursues a socialist ideology in many areas which is damaging the French economy - and the stability of the eurozone. The French government’s decision to lower the retirement age from 62 to 60 years demonstrates a clear lack of will to balance its budget. This did not go down well in Berlin at a time when the German retirement age was being raised from 65 to 67.

Germany’s insistence on austerity and market-led competitiveness are perceived in France as an abuse of newly-gained German domination in Europe. And what might annoy the political class in France even more is a rather new development - a German-British rapprochement. British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Angela Merkel near Berlin with his family on April 12, 2013. He was on a difficult mission, to convince EU leaders, and especially Mrs Merkel, that substantial reform of the EU is both desirable and possible.

German elections take place on September 22. It is far too early to predict the outcome. But one thing seems quite likely - that Germany’s chancellor will still be in place. Even if her coalition partner is unable to repeat its strong result from four years ago, another coalition is not as preposterous as it seemed a year ago.

These are the comfortable alternatives for Angela Merkel: to pragmatically and strategically form different coalitions both nationally and on the European stage. The uncomfortable choice for ‘there is no alternative’ TINA Merkel however, remains on how to solve the eurozone’s problems.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP

Friday, 19 April 2013

GREECE: ''Golden Dawn Party'': Neo-Nazism reborn

Nowhere else in Europe are neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists profiting as greatly from the financial crisis as in Athens. As they terrorize the country with violence, the police stand back and prosecutors are powerless.

The Municipal Theater in Piraeus, Greece, was bathed in an eerie light, with yellow floodlights and red torches combining to illuminate the theater's neoclassical façade, which now served as the backdrop for a macabre spectacle: At least 1,000 neo-Nazis and their supporters had turned out for a march, and red flags bearing a large, black swastika-like symbol flew from the building's front steps.

The right-wing extremist party Chrysi Avgi, or Golden Dawn, convened this demonstration on a Thursday in February to protest an arson attack on its local party office -- and to make another display of its strength.

Ringed by a group of brawny toughs, party leader Nikos Michaloliakos, 55, bellowed: "No one can stop us -- not the bombs, not all your filth. We will triumph!" His listeners, many of them hidden beneath black hoods, replied with a thunderous "Zito! Zito!" The phrase literally means something like "Long live!" but the affect is more like "Heil!" -- and deliberately so. Many also raised their right arms, while the police remained in the background. The right-wing extremists then took their burning torches and marched through the downtown of this port city. Foreigners and any young people dressed in alternative-looking clothing made sure to clear out of the streets before they arrived. The scent of danger hung in the air.

Right-wing thugs have been spreading fear and terror in Greece for months. The worse the financial crisis gets and the harsher the budget cuts imposed by European creditors are, the worse the terror gets on the streets. Foreigners have been attacked, homosexuals chased and leftists assaulted. Some were beaten to death. There are parts of Athens in which refugees and minorities no longer dare to go out alone at night, and streets that are echoingly empty. Foreign merchants have had to close their doors, while journalists and politicians who criticize these developments receive threats or beatings.

Ta Nea, a leading Greek daily, has described conditions here as similar to those of Weimar Germany. Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor in Athens, likewise calls it "an atmosphere like in the 1930s in Germany against the Jews and their businesses."

As recently as Greece's October 2009 parliamentary election, Golden Dawn garnered just 0.29 percent of votes. But in the early election held last May, as well as in the subsequent new election in June, the right-wing extremist party suddenly received almost 7 percent of votes, securing 18 seats in the country's parliament.

Polls now show the party holding 10 to 12 percent of voter support. Together with two other right-wing nationalist groups, that puts the extremist block at about 20 percent. Nowhere else in Europe are neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists profiting as greatly from the financial crisis as in Athens.
And now these extremists are practicing what they once only preached.

In 2005, the French monthly newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique wrote that party leader Michaloliakos had warned, "When we are strong, we will show no mercy. It won't be democratic anymore."

At the time, Michaloliakos' statements were derided, but now the party and its followers are proving on the streets of Athens just how seriously they meant their threats. In some downtown city neighborhoods where many asylum seekers and refugees live, small bands of extremists calling themselves "stormtroopers" -- in allusion to the Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) paramilitary organization better known as the "brownshirts" -- have taken to roaming the streets on foot or on motorcycles, attacking foreigners and leftists and beating them to the point that they require hospitalization. They use clubs, baseball bats, knives and in some cases even guns.

Human rights organizations have recorded hundreds of such attacks, with the list growing daily. These attacks are "systematic and organized" in their execution and unquestionably "racially motivated," was the conclusion reached late last summer by 19 aid organizations working in tandem with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Since then, the situation has only gotten worse.

Many victims of this violence no longer even go to the police, who are rumored to sympathize with the extremists. At polling places specifically designated for police, Golden Dawn received as much as 23.7 percent of the vote.

Attack victims relate stories of officers who were more interested in checking their residency permits than in tracking down the perpetrators -- or simply sent them away. Eyewitnesses also report incidences of open collaboration. One example occurred in October in front of the Hytirio Theater in Athens, after three members of parliament representing Golden Dawn led a gang of thugs in disrupting a play being performed there. When Christos Pappas, one of the parliamentarians, stepped in to release one of the arrested men from a police bus, officers stood by without intervening.

"The police are no longer an independent organization," says Dimitris Kyriazidis, a member of parliament for New Democracy (ND), the country's conservative ruling party. Kyriazidis was himself a police officer and co-founder of a police officers' union. He criticizes the government's failure to initiate criminal proceedings for these cases as a "breach of democracy."

Officially, Golden Dawn denies any participation in or responsibility for these incidents. But, in most cases, its members can be found in the thick of things. In the port town of Rafina, for example, Golden Dawn parliamentarians headed groups that swept local markets, beating up foreign merchants and destroying their stands.

Neo-Nazi parliamentarian Georgis Germenis described it afterward as a "taking a stroll," adding, "Then we did what Golden Dawn must do." Fellow party member Kostas Barbarousis boasted, "We restored order."

Then there's party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, Golden Dawn's leading ideologue, who slapped a Communist member of parliament in front of the cameras on a television talk show and threw a glass of water in a left-wing politician's face.

Last summer, when Greek police confronted a black-garbed Golden Dawn motorcycle gang that had just beaten several foreigners so badly they ended up in the hospital, the daughter of party leader Michaloliakos was among those arrested. And following the recent stabbing death of a Pakistani man in Athens, the police's search of a suspect's house turned up massive amounts of Golden Dawn propaganda. Kyriazidis, the former police union chief and ND parliamentarian, has called Golden Dawn a "gang of murderers."

The extremists are both brutal and ruthless. They have recently started attacking hospitals to drive out "illegal" nurses and foreign patients. Young members of the group are also starting to band together at schools and terrorize teachers.

Of the party's 18 members of parliament, 17 are currently the subject of proceedings to revoke their parliamentary immunity. The petitions have already been granted in at least five of these cases. Evangelos Venizelos, leader of the country's socialist PASOK party and a former deputy prime minister, would prefer to ban the neo-Nazi party entirely.

But Golden Dawn's leaders aren't particularly worried. They feel emboldened by their strong showing in polls and validated by the effect their intimidation tactics have had. At the sole press conference the party has given so far, on the evening of the parliamentary election, journalists and camera operators were ordered, "Stand up! Show your respect! Anyone who doesn't stand leaves!" And the media representatives complied.

This made it all the more astonishing when party leader Michaloliakos appeared on February 1 and posed for photographs in parliament with two supposed journalists -- Germans, no less. In reality, the men turned out to be known neo-Nazis who had come to Greece as leaders of a delegation of around 30 German right-wing extremists.

These ties to Germany make perfect sense since Golden Dawn's ideologues see themselves as following in the tradition of historical role models. In the few interviews he has given, Michaloliakos hasn't held back the unvarnished truth about his views.
On Adolf Hitler, he says: "A historic figure, who is not judged objectively."
On the Holocaust: "An exaggeration."
On Auschwitz and its gas chambers: "There were no gas chambers; that's a lie."

And yet Greek investigators are having trouble pinning anything on the extremists. Nikos Ornerakis has been investigating his country's spate of right-wing terror since December 1, but he is the only public prosecutor working on the issue and hasn't even been assigned a secretary to help him. Left-wing extremists, on the other hand, have been under observation by various special commissions for years.

"It's a big problem," Ornerakis says. He's investigated about 30 cases so far, but none of them came from the police. Instead, they were "all drawn from the newspapers." The Greek government does plan to establish 68 police stations across the country dedicated to fighting racism and hate crimes -- eventually.

"So far, though," the investigator explains, "there isn't even a legal precedent for investigating and prosecuting racist crimes," because they aren't classified as an offense under Greek criminal law. "That's something that urgently needs to be changed," Ornerakis says.
That and so many things in this country, which lays claim to having invented democracy.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Thursday, 18 April 2013

ITALY: Electing new President: A litmus test

Today the Italian Parliament and a number of representatives from the regional governments elect a president. Right now, all the most obvious candidates are pretending they don’t want the job. The early frontrunner, experience teaches, is almost always bruciato, or burned, when the voting starts.

Of course, they may not be pretending. Whoever is elected will inherit the task of resolving one of the most tangled political crises that even Italians can remember. Fifty days have gone by since Italians voted on February 24, but the formation of a government seems as far away as ever. The new president, whoever he or she is, will have to find a candidate to lead the government or else call new elections.

The length of the government crisis can be blamed upon the Five Stars Movement’s (M5S) sectarian purity. The M5S’s parliamentarians are ordinary citizens, mostly young and in thrall to the movement’s guru, the comedian Beppe Grillo. Before the election, the movement’s candidates pledged not to cooperate with any of the traditional parties. But this was a promise made when they thought they would be a minority voice in parliament. It was one that ought never to have been kept once they held the balance of power. The M5S’s leadership has rebuffed all overtures from the leader of the Democrat (PD) party, Pierluigi Bersani, to govern together on the basis of an eight-point program of reforms. By doing so, they have “thrown to the nettles,” to translate an Italian idiom, the best chance to achieve genuine reform in Italy since the early 1990s.Only a handful of M5S parliamentarians have broken ranks and hinted that they would support a Bersani-led government.

The choice is now between the devil and the deep blue sea. The devil is a government of “broad agreement” (larghe intese) between the PD and the opposition coalition (the “People of Liberty”) led by the controversial Silvio Berlusconi. Outgoing president Giorgio Napolitano pushed hard in the last days of his mandate for this solution. First, he commissioned a group of “wise men” (they were all men, which gave rise to much negative comment) to draw up a program of reforms that such a government might implement. Second, he openly evoked the “historic compromise” made in 1976 between the Christian Democrats (DC) and the Communist Party (PCI) as a model for the solution of the present crisis.

By doing so, Napolitano merely showed that advanced age and long experience can lead one to make badly mistaken historical analogies. The two cases are not remotely similar. Between 1976 and 1979, at a tense moment in the Cold War, the PCI, which was led by a man of outstanding personal integrity, Enrico Berlinguer, gave unstinting parliamentary support to a DC government and helped the country overcome the profound social crisis (terrorism, industrial upheaval) that afflicted it. Showing great discipline, the PCI backed measures hurt its own supporters’ interests and advocated greater moral and economic austerity.

The notion that Berlusconi and the motley crew that surrounds him would act with similar responsibility is ridiculous. Berlusconi has already made clear that the People of Liberty will only cooperate with a government that is prepared to slash taxes, especially on first homes, and rein in Italy’s prosecutors, too many of whom insist upon the quaint idea that politicians should obey the law. Furthermore, while the PCI had many defects, it was not populist. The People of Liberty are ultra-populist. Berlusconi’s record shows that he makes big promises that he does not keep. He would be a most untrustworthy partner in government. Nevertheless, many senior figures in the PDwant to make a deal. The lure of ministerial offices and limousines is a powerful one.

If the PD makes an agreement with Berlusconi, it will commit electoral suicide. Such a deal would permanently damage its credibility with the party’s supporters. It is hard to believe, in fact, that it is being contemplated. Since the failure of Bersani’s attempts to woo the M5S, the PD has collapsed into internal strife as the party barons propose various solutions to the impasse and insult their rivals while so doing. The only thing that unites the PD’s leading figures is fear of the ascent of the thirty-eight year old Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence and the nearest thing to Tony Blair that Italian politics has so far produced (this is not necessarily a compliment). Renzi, who challenged Bersani for the leadership of the center-left coalition before the February elections, is a modernizer, with no links to the PCI, who is able to communicate with the young and the disaffected. Like Blair, he is also a tad too glib for his own good. Renzi openly disparages the party leadership and is pushing for fresh elections.

The deep blue sea is fresh elections, which can only be called after a new president has been elected. There are two major problems with holding elections in, say, June. First, there is a strong chance that Berlusconi would win them. He is ahead in the polls. The bond markets would surely melt down if the People of Liberty and their allies took power again. Outside of Italy, nobody believes that Berlusconi is capable of being a statesman. Second, if Italy votes with the same electoral law, the current stalemate in the Senate would probably not be broken. How would the bond markets react to such an outcome? But if a temporary government of national unity is formed by the new president, it is quite possible that parliament will pass several months in excruciating negotiations over devising a new electoral law.

The election of the new president is a litmus test of the way in which the crisis will be resolved. If the PD and the People of Liberty converge on a candidate like Massimo D’Alema, a former premier and foreign minister acceptable to Berlusconi, or Giuliano Amato, a twice former premier also in Berlusconi’s good graces, then the likelihood is that a government of “broad agreement” will be attempted. If, however, in the secret of the ballot box, deputies vote for Romano Prodi, the former President of the European Commission and twice premier, it will be a sign that party conflict is about to be renewed. The election of Prodi would almost certainly mean a return to the polls.

Just to complicate matters, the M5S have proposed a muckraking journalist, Milena Gabanelli, or an eminent radical jurist, Stefano Rodotà, as their preferred candidates for the presidency. On April 16, Grillo even hinted that he would rethink his veto against collaborating with the PD if Bersani backed these names. There are plenty of PD parliamentarians who would be tempted to support Rodotà.

There is one candidate, Emma Bonino, a former European Commissioner and internationally respected women’s rights campaigner, who is acceptable to some on the center right, to many in the M5S, and to some in the PD. Italian bishops would be horrified by Bonino’s election, but the Church of Pope Francis is less “Italian” than it has ever been. Bonino herself jokes, however, that there is more likely to be a female cardinal in Italy before there is a female president.

In the meantime, while the political games go noisily on, the country is sinking fast. The economy is stagnant, consumption is falling, house purchases are plunging, youth unemployment is reaching Greek levels, tax rates (for those who pay their tax bill; many do not) are at punitive levels, and public services are being cut back. Italy used to export its illiterate rural masses. Now its engineers, doctors, and PhDs are emigrating en masse.

Italy’s politicians are paying the price of two decades in which they did too little to prepare for the rigors of the Euro and of a globalized economy. For the next few days, Italy’s newspapers will be full of insider gossip about the presidential election. Il paese legale (literally, the legal country, i.e. the people who make the laws) will be busy politicking. Il paese reale (the real country) will continue its accelerating downward slide. Italy’s politicians need to get real fast.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit : AFP: Italian President Giorgio Napolitano