Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, March 30, 2012

Another route to global influence

As China seeks to make itself more of a world leader, it looks for ways to counterbalance Western dominated institutions. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is one way. BRICS is another.

For Group of 5 Nations, Acronym Is Easy, but Common Ground Is Hard
As the shock waves of the global recession convulsed Europe and the United States three years ago, the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and China gathered for a meeting that seemed to signal a new era. They had global buzz as rising economic powers, a catchy acronym, BRIC, and an ambitious agenda to remake an international monetary system long dominated by the West…

When the group’s leaders meet in New Delhi… their biggest achievement will have been adding an S: they took on South Africa last year. The five BRICS nations still rank among the fastest-growing economies in the world, and, even if growth has slowed, individually, their global influence continues to rise. But they have struggled to find the common ground necessary to act as a unified geopolitical alliance…

The BRICS are still a new group, and some analysts argue that with time they could become a more cohesive alliance. But for now, they are troubled by internal rivalries and contradictions that have stymied the group’s ability to take any significant action toward a primary goal: reforming Western-dominated international financial institutions.

Since its inception, the group has discussed creating a development bank to rival the World Bank, and on Wednesday a Chinese official expressed hope that a breakthrough might come this week. Yet to date the proposal has been stalled, partly over worries that China would dominate the new institution…

Deep internal political and economic differences complicate the prospects for unity. India, Brazil and South Africa are democracies and have already used their own separate trilateral group, IBSA, as a primary platform for coordinating positions on several major diplomatic issues.

Russia, however, has drifted away from democracy toward strongman rule under Vladimir V. Putin. China is the world’s largest authoritarian state and has by far the largest and most powerful economy in BRICS, which creates a complicated dynamic. China is the heavyweight, and thus the natural leader of the group, except that it is the political outlier…

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

New political parties = democratization in Russia?

There are many bureaucratic steps between making it easier to form a legal political party and actually sponsoring candidates, but the new law appears to be a step forward.

And how will Russian politics change if there are dozens of parties competing with each other? (Hint: look back at the elections of the 1990s.)

Russia to Ease Law on Forming Political Parties
Responding to the outcry over disputed parliamentary elections in December and the huge street protests in Moscow that followed, Russian lawmakers on Friday unanimously approved legislation to make it easier to form and maintain new political parties.

But some critics said the legislation goes too far, making the registration of parties so easy that it will splinter the opposition like a shattered wine glass — and will only serve to tighten the Kremlin’s grip on power…

Supporters of the legislation said it represented a major liberalization at a time when President-elect Vladimir V. Putin and the governing United Russia Party have been criticized as holding a tight grip on the political system and tilting it to their advantage…

The new law would reduce to 500 from 40,000 the number of members needed by a party to register with the federal authorities and be recognized to participate in local and national elections…

Under Russian election law, a party must win at least 5 percent of the national vote in parliamentary elections to qualify for at least one seat in the Duma.

Only parties represented in the Duma are entitled to nominate a candidate for president without meeting additional requirements. ..

Even some of the government’s toughest critics said they had to recognize the legislation as a positive development…

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Rule of law; rule of Party

What this report from Edward Wong in The New York Times illustrates is how far the Chinese system has come in creating a rule of law and some of the political limits imposed on that rule of law by those who want to maintain a rule of Party.

Chinese Lawyers Chafe at New Oath to Communist Party
China’s Justice Ministry has issued a requirement that new lawyers and those reapplying for licenses swear an oath of loyalty to the Communist Party, another step in a campaign to rein in lawyers who continue to challenge the political and legal systems by which the party maintains power.

The Justice Ministry posted the oath on its Web site on Wednesday. The core of it says: “I swear to faithfully fulfill the sacred mission of legal workers in socialism with Chinese characteristics. I swear my loyalty to the motherland, to the people, to uphold the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system, and to protect the dignity of the Constitution and laws.”

Several lawyers said the oath was the first they knew of to force them to pledge fealty to the Communist Party. China has been tightening controls over liberal voices for several years, prompted by fears of unrest during the 2008 Olympics, concerns that the Arab revolutions might inspire domestic dissent, heightened tensions with ethnic minorities like the Tibetans and the Uighurs in the west, and the need for stability during this year’s once-a-decade leadership transition.

Rights lawyers say the controls have contributed to a severe rollback of legal reforms and are undermining efforts to strengthen the rule of law…

“The oath itself is full of contradictions,” said Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer who has represented Lu Qing, the wife of Ai Weiwei, the rebel artist who was detained without charge in two secret locations for 81 days last year. “Lawyers swear loyalty to the party and to the sanctity of the law? We all know that the party’s interference is often the reason why the law can’t be implemented.”…

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Grassroots opposition?

With the presidential election out of the way, Russian politics turns to local races. Is this where real opposition to Putin's United Russia will arise?

Mayor’s race in Russia an opportunity for the opposition
A municipal election in Yaroslavl, a producer of tires, beer and electric motors, wouldn’t normally attract much attention. But a crack has emerged in the Putin-led system, in the form of a crusading anti-graft candidate who rode the winter-long wave of national political protest to become the front-runner here.

“Return the city to the people” is Yevgeny Urlashov’s campaign slogan, and it is resonating not only throughout Yaroslavl, a city of 600,000, but to Moscow and beyond. He’s talking about potholes — but also about corruption and a culture of official arrogance.

The success of Russia’s political system is based on its ability to keep a strong opposition from emerging, barring candidates where necessary and blocking nascent parties. The mayoral race in Yaroslavl, on the Volga River 160 miles northeast of Moscow, will be an early — and potent — test of an effort by Russia’s opposition to turn its attention to local politics…

“A lot depends on what conclusions Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] drew from the events of the past few months,” said Alexander Sokolov, an analyst at a nonprofit here called the Center for Social Partnership — underscoring the reality that ultimately no politics in Russia is local. Putin will set the tone — accommodate or crack down — and everyone under him will hop to it.

“Russian democracy is still in the Ice Age,” Urlashov said, “and the mastodons are still around.”

The mayoral elections here and in several other cities are a first step. City council elections are upcoming, and most regions will probably be electing governors in the fall. Members of regional legislatures here and elsewhere will be chosen a year from now. Even as Putin settles in for his six-year presidential term, a long political season stretches ahead…

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Is extortion part of civil society?

If corruption has grown 180% in everyday life, what's happening in politics?

In Mexico, extortion is a booming offshoot of drug war
From mom-and-pop businesses to mid-size construction projects to some of Mexico's wealthiest citizens, almost every segment of the economy and society has been subjected to extortion schemes, authorities and records indicate. Even priests aren't safe.

Extortionists have shut entire school systems, crippled real estate developments, driven legions of entrepreneurs into hiding or out of the country…

Extortion has grown as the largest drug-trafficking cartels consolidate power, leaving many of the smaller groups searching for new sources of revenue.

And it is a crime that feeds on the climate of fear that the drug war has created across wide swaths of Mexico. Anyone can pretend to be a member of the notorious Zeta criminal gang, for example, and easily make money off the target's panic. There is no overhead and little risk for the extortionist…

Bribe-paying has always been a part of Mexican society. But it is only within the context of the drug war that outright extortion has exploded, in part because perpetrators could emulate ruthless traffickers. Security experts trace the sudden surge in extortion to 2008, when a crime until then largely limited to Mexico City spread across the nation…

Although complete figures are hard to come by because of the underreporting, the National Citizens' Observatory, a group that compiles crime statistics, estimates that extortion has soared by 180% in the last decade…

A study last year by the Bank of Mexico found that more than 60% of Mexican businesses said they had been hurt by the national climate of lawlessness, with extortion counting as one of the prime factors. Production losses totaled 1.2% of gross domestic product, the study found…

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rumors about what goes on behind closed doors

When the best political analysis comes from people seemingly best able to interpret muffled sounds from "the next room," rumors spread rapidly. And, in a closed system, no one will officially deny them.

This analysis is by Damian Grammaticas writing on the BBC web site.

Damaging coup rumours ricochet across China
Have you heard? There's been a coup in China! Tanks have been spotted on the streets of Beijing and other cities! Shots were fired near the Communist Party's leadership compound!

OK, before you get too agitated, there is no coup. To be more exact, as far as we know there has been no attempted coup.

To be completely correct we should say we do not know what's going on. The fact is there is no evidence of a coup. But it is a subject that has obsessed many in China this week…

Many people seemed to believe something was happening, though. The thing that is fascinating is how much traction the talk gained, how far it spread, and what it suggests about China today.

What is most important is that these are not normal times in China. The political atmosphere is tense, full of talk about infighting, purges and power-struggles at the top as China's Communist Party prepares for its once-in-a-decade leadership shuffle later this year.

The Communist Party likes to portray itself as unified, in control - a competent, managerial outfit guiding China towards renewed greatness. It had wanted to show it can handle a leadership change within its ranks smoothly, but now that looks to be far from the case.

The reality of the past few weeks has been that China has been gripped by some of the most extraordinary political events in years, and they indicate significant political tensions beneath the surface…

The rumours focus on two camps battling for positions. On the one side are President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and supporters who have risen mainly from the Communist Youth League.

On the other side are the Shanghai faction and the "princelings" including Xi Jinping, the man expected to be the next leader of the party, whose father was a hero of the Communist revolution.

The patron of the Shanghai faction is former President Jiang Zemin. The two factions are generally thought to rotate power between them, but that may be under strain…

The problem for China's Communist Party is that it has no effective way of refuting such talk. There are no official spokesmen who will go on the record, no sources briefing the media on the background. Did it happen? Nobody knows. So the rumours swirl.

It is hardly surprising that there are splits and power struggles. They happen in every organisation, not just political parties. Those who reach the very top of the Communist Party of China can control vast resources, patronage, power and access to wealth. The idea that the party can be different and avoid such cliques and factional fights seems unrealistic.

But the Communist Party still attempts to control and divide up power in the same, secretive way it has for years. Meanwhile Chinese society has been changing fast around it. The party's very success managing China's economic growth means the country today is no longer the poor, agrarian society of Chairman Mao's day…

The official media, often waiting for political guidance, can be slow and unresponsive. Many in China are now so cynical about the level of censorship that they will not believe what comes from the party's mouthpieces even if it is true. Instead they will give credence to half-truths or fabrications on the web. That is corrosive for the party's authority.

For China's Communist elite, obsessed by projecting an image of unity and stability, this is a serious problem.

The party wants to manage the coming transfer of power smoothly. But keeping things secret and keeping people's trust is not easy to achieve at the same time.

And China doesn't look quite so stable when power struggles are being fought in the dark and talk of a coup can spread so fast.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

From the crystal balls of observers

You'll have to pay attention for the next few years to discover how prescient these observers are now.

Change is coming to China – but will Beijing lead a social revolution?
This autumn, the 18th Communist party congress will formally select the next general secretary and other members of China's top political body. Since power flows from the party, the decision – in reality, made before the meeting – will determine who will lead the country and how they will govern its 1.4 billion inhabitants…

Wu Qiang, a political scientist at Tsinghua University, said: "This is the most intense moment in the past 15 years and could have a big impact on society. The upcoming political competition is healthy and worth anticipating, but could potentially result in instability."

This is the first transition that has not been shaped by the founders of the People's Republic…

Xi Jinping will almost certainly become general secretary, then president of China, with Li Keqiang as premier. The rest of the incumbents are expected to make way for newer faces – and perhaps the first woman ever to reach the body…

China is vastly wealthier and more powerful than when Hu Jintao took power a decade ago. Yet analysts say his legacy is one of maintenance: keeping GDP growth high and preserving party consensus…

Breakneck economic development has come at vast social and environmental cost. Corruption is rife; cynicism more so. While millions have emerged from poverty, many feel worse off – perhaps because inequality has soared. Protests and other disturbances are increasing. This year has seen fresh unrest in Tibetan and Uighur areas. Even the demographics look grim, with a rapidly ageing population…

Zhang Jian, of Peking University, noted: "There's a strong demand from civil society for more reforms … I don't see a serious or reliable force within the party that really wants them."

But Russell Leigh Moses, a political analyst in Beijing, suggested that on economic issues, at least, "there's a good deal of healthy rethinking in leadership circles"…

The leadership is often divided into "princelings" like Xi – the sons of powerful Communist leaders – and members of Hu's Communist Youth League faction. But such distinctions not only reflect the importance of connections and powerful patrons; to some extent they are used as a proxy for political differences…

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Competition for the drug cartels?

The growth of the Mexican middle class is a big deal for the political culture. The questions to ask revolve around the violence of the drug wars and growing poverty of the rural poor.

Mexico’s middle class is becoming its majority
A wary but tenacious middle class is fast becoming the majority in Mexico, breaking down the rich-poor divide in a profound demographic transformation that has far-reaching implications here and in the United States…

The stereotype is no longer an illegal immigrant hustling for day labor outside a Home Depot in Phoenix. The new Mexican is the overscheduled soccer dad shopping for a barbecue grill inside a Home Depot in booming Mexican cities like Queretaro.

When President Felipe Calderon of the center-right National Action Party won in 2006, outpolling the leftist Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, it was the middle class that gave Calderon his wafer-thin victory.

And in the presidential election in July, Mexico’s growing economic center will again be decisive, say political analysts from all three major parties.

The Mexican middle class is heterogeneous, anxious and divided among the major political parties; its members are socially moderate but fiscally conservative, cynical about political promises and fearful that recent gains could be lost in a financial crisis or social upheaval — the kind that buffeted Mexico in the 1990s…

In the developing world, in countries such as India, China and Mexico, scholars argue, the middle class can be defined by what its members consume, and so a Mexican homeowning household with a new refrigerator, a car and a couple of cellphones is considered middle-class — even if the combined salaries of the members of the household would make them miserably poor in Washington.

Another measure is perception: You are middle-class if you think you are middle-class. A February survey of Mexicans by the independent pollster Jorge Buendia reports that 65 percent of respondents consider themselves in the middle (27 percent described themselves as lower class, and only 2 percent copped to upper-class status)…

Willy Azarcoya, founder of a small marketing research firm… acknowledged that Mexico still harbors a huge number of poor — between a fourth and half the population, depending on the measures (food security vs. ability to buy needed household goods). Poverty ticked upward slightly after the 2008 global recession, but Mexico’s middle-class march is back on track, and the broader trajectory shows a steady climb out of mass poverty…

Smaller families are a hallmark of the growing middle class. In 1960, Mexico’s fertility rate was 7.3 children per woman, according to World Bank figures. Today, it’s 2.3, slightly above the U.S. rate of 2.1…

Since 1980, the number of Mexicans receiving a university education has tripled, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)…

The number of credit cards in circulation nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2009, according to Mexico’s Central Bank, but debt leaves many Mexicans sensing that their foothold in the middle class is slippery…

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Let's pretend

Let's pretend you're an average Nigerian.

You're one of 170 million people. You're likely to be about 20 years old. There's a 50-50 chance that you live in a city, but since 70% of the jobs are for farmers, the average Nigerian probably lives in a rural area. Your income is probably below US$2.00 per day.

If you're male, you completed 10 years of school and are literate. If you're female, you completed 8 years of schooling and are literate. You have 4 siblings and live in a house without running water or sanitary facilities. You might have a village well for drinking water.

Now, as an average Nigerian, how would you respond to the following news story? How much of it would you understand? What message about government and politics would you take away from this report?

My assumption is that students in the USA (most of you) will find the news report confusing. Would the confusion be different from that of the average Nigerian?

Another assumption I'd make is that there are Nigerians (besides the reporters) for whom this news story is not confusing and to whom the people involved are not unfamiliar. So the reporting becomes a good example of one of the differences between the elite political culture and the grassroots political culture in Nigeria.

Go look at the whole article from This Day, not just the excerpt below. It can be a valuable exercise.

N44 Million Bribery Scandal Rocks House Committee
The probe of the role of regulatory agencies in the crash of the Nigerian capital market assumed a dramatic twist Thursday as the Director General, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Ms Aruma Oteh, accused the House of Representatives Committee on Capital Market of demanding N44 million from the regulatory agency…

The drama in the House began just as the probe panel was settling down to the third day of its business.

Chairman of the House Committee on Capital Market, Hon. Herman Hembe, motioned to the SEC boss to take her place at the "dock" and immediately, she raised a point of order, alleging bias and accusing the panel of not giving her fair hearing on the issues in contention since the investigation began on Tuesday.

Oteh alleged that the committee demanded the money as the agency's contribution towards funding the public hearing…

She claimed that her refusal to part with the money appeared to have angered members of the panel and resulted in their seeming bias against her in the conduct of the investigations…

She said: "This has been a kangaroo court. Not even in Idi Amin's Uganda did we have this type of public hearing. None of the documents before the committee came formally from SEC and this is of great concern to me. I do not think that it is appropriate for you to have gathered information from the SEC without even asking us to verify that information, to respond to those issues that you already made the judgement that you made yesterday…

"When I took this job, I was warned that when you fight corruption, it will fight back but I did not know that the fight would come from the House Committee on Capital Market."

However, these allegations did not deter the panel from continuing with the investigation as the lawmakers also raised counter allegations bordering on poor corporate governance as well as breach of government policy on monetisation of public procurement under her watch…

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Oh, jargon

So I ran into the phrase "bang the table" in a BBC news report this morning. I had never heard it. Wikipedia has no clues. There's a company called Bang the Table, but its web site has no clue about the meaning of the phrase. Well, the BBC assumes we know.

Does anyone know what "bang the table means?"

Cabinet members 'bang table' over Lords NHS win

Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers have "banged" the table at a cabinet meeting to mark the impending passing of the coalition's NHS reforms into law, Downing Street has said.

The Health and Social Care Bill, for England, has had a difficult passage through Parliament but was finally passed by the House of Lords on Monday.

The government hopes it will now enter law by Easter.

A Downing Street spokesman said "cross-party" celebrations had taken place…

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Putin's oligarchs

In a 3-minute video, Al Jazeera reporter Charles Stratford reports on a few of Putin's rich friends. This group sounds more and more like Yeltsin's oligarch friends from a couple decades ago.

Vladimir Putin’s inner circle


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Monday, March 19, 2012

Top down reform in China?

The remarks by China's premier were front page news in the West. But at China's Xinhua news agency, they were buried deep in the web site.

Wen says China needs political reform, warns of another Cultural Revolution if without [sic]
Premier Wen Jiabao said Wednesday that China needs not only economic reform but also political structural reform, especially the reform of the leadership system of the Party and the government.

Wen warned… that historical tragedies like the Cultural Revolution may happen in China again should the country fail to push forward political reform to uproot problems occurring in the society…

He noted although after the crackdown on the Gang of Four, the Party adopted resolutions on many historical matters, and decided to conduct reforms and opening-up, the mistake of the Cultural Revolution and feudalism have yet to be fully eliminated.

"The reform can only go forward and must not stand still, less go backwards because that offers no way out."…

As the economy continues to develop, Wen said, such problems as income disparity, lack of credibility and corruption, have occurred.

"I'm fully aware that to resolve these problems, we must press ahead with both economic structural reforms and political structural reforms , in particular reforms on the leadership system of the Party and the country," he said…

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Question time in Tehran

Before the losses suffered by his supporters in last week's elections, Iran's president Ahmadinejad was summoned to answer questions by the national legislature. Question time came.

Iranian Parliament Questions Ahmadinejad
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran appeared before the country’s Parliament… to be quizzed by lawmakers on issues including economic mismanagement and his tense relationship with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader… the first interrogation of its kind since the 1979 Islamic revolution…

His appearance seemed to directly challenge his prestige as president. But, as the hearing drew to a close, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s attitude to his questioners remained dismissive even as one lawmaker called for his impeachment…

An official catalog of 10 questions to be answered by the president, published before Wednesday’s hearing, listed issues ranging from personnel decisions reflecting power struggles within the elite, to price increases on fuel and other basic goods. Mr. Ahmadinejad was also taken to task over his policies to reduce state subsidies, the country’s failure to meet to an 8 percent economic growth target and questions relating to public transportation in Tehran…

Mr. Ahmadinejad reportedly remained dismissive of his interrogators.

One legislator, Mostafa Reza Hosseini, was quoted as saying: “The president’s language was insulting during his entire speech. He escaped answering the questions. As predicted, we didn’t receive any logical answer from the president.”

Another lawmaker, Ghodrotollah Ali Khani, reportedly declared: “Hopefully, the next step is Ahmadinejad’s impeachment.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad has been under attack by some of the same hardliners who once provided his power base…

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

The most powerful person in Nigeria?

How much change can the Finance Minister bring about?

The iron lady
Sitting in her half-moon-shaped office overlooking Nigeria’s dusty capital, Abuja, [Finance Minister] Ms Okonjo-Iweala faces an unenviable task. President Goodluck Jonathan has given her just three years to overhaul sub-Saharan Africa’s second-biggest economy, one riven with corruption and inefficiencies, carved up by political bosses and vulnerable to bursts of communal violence…

During drawn-out negotiations with the president after last year’s election, the 57-year-old insisted on control of all economic ministries, not just finance.

At public events she asks to be introduced as the “co-ordinating minister for the economy and the minister of finance”, much to the chagrin of some of her cabinet colleagues.

But none of them could manage the mammoth task of plugging the leaks in an economy built on patronage and rent-seeking. Government overspending and corruption is draining the country’s vast oil revenues, which amount to about $40 billion a year. Ms Okonjo-Iweala hopes a revamped economy will improve employment, infrastructure and health care… As much as 74% of official revenues is spent on maintaining the government. Millions go on parliamentary catering and gardening at the presidential villa. Ms Okonjo-Iweala hopes to reduce the government’s bill by a modest 4% by 2015…

Ms Okonjo-Iweala is no stranger to Nigerian politics, having been finance minister between 2003 and 2006. She brokered a landmark deal to cancel $12 billion of foreign debt, which made her a star. Yet the reform course she is now pursuing has erased memories of that…

Every new reform proposal, no matter how sensible, earns her more ridicule. The removal of petrol subsidies earlier this year caused a rise in fuel prices and triggered a six-day general strike. President Jonathan eventually stepped in, reinstating half the subsidy and promising to use the money he saved to help the poor. The next battle is already looming. Soon the government will unveil a plan to revamp Nigeria’s electricity. Consumer prices must go up to make it workable. No prizes for guessing who will be blamed.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dangers of reforming the House of Lords

What could go wrong by making the legislature more democratic in the UK?

A house divided
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister, assured a parliamentary committee on February 27th that the government was committed to exposing the unelected chamber—a Western anomaly—to democracy. There would be a reduced body of 300 Lords, down from over 800 now. At least 240 would be elected for one-off, 15-year terms under proportional representation, starting in 2015. The remainder would resemble the current chamber: independent-minded experts in various fields, with a smattering of Anglican bishops. The bill could make it into the Queen’s Speech (the government’s next programme of legislation) in the spring.

All three major parties pledged before the last general election to democratise the House of Lords. David Cameron, the prime minister, and his fellow Tory ministers are going along with Mr Clegg’s plan. But the forces massing against the idea are fearsome. Many MPs, especially Tories, worry that a second chamber with an electoral mandate would challenge the primacy of the Commons and substitute Britain’s tradition of strong government for American-style legislative gridlock. Labour officially supports a wholly-elected Lords, but a good number of its MPs disagree…

Then there is public opinion, which is largely indifferent to constitutional tinkering. Lords reform might strike voters as an unforgivably esoteric pursuit at a time of economic misery…

Some Conservatives point out that the coalition agreement between the two parties only commits the government to establishing “a committee to bring forward proposals” for an elected Lords, not to enacting them. Some Lib Dems hint their party will not support the ongoing review of Commons constituency boundaries, which should give the Conservatives a greater share of seats, if they do not get their way…

Despite the obstacles, Mr Clegg still has a reasonable chance of prevailing. Younger Tory MPs are less opposed to Lords reform than their more grizzled colleagues. The public may not give much priority to the issue, but polls suggest their views are in line with Mr Clegg’s. And the Lords’ usual defence against reform—that they are merely a revising, scrutinising chamber—jars with reality. For much of this year, the unelected body persistently blocked a welfare-reform bill that is probably the government’s most popular policy…

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Voting without democracy

Democratization might seem like a growing trend, but is it more than a facade (Potemkin democracy)?

How to steal an election
[C]rude ballot-rigging is far from extinct… Of the 70-odd states holding national elections in 2012, Freedom House, a lobby, counts only 40 as full “electoral democracies”.

For the most part, however, technology and the presence of outside observers is complicating the election-rigging business, requiring dodgy politicians to work harder and more cleverly. Most manipulators make only sparing use of blatant election-day frauds, says Sarah Birch of the University of Essex. She compared observer reports of 136 elections held between 1995 and 2006 and found that a more frequent tactic is to alter election laws, often as a means of deterring opposition candidates or gerrymandering unlosable constituencies…

Also more common are attempts to influence the genuine choices of voters—frequently through vote-buying, using state resources in campaigning, and exploiting partisan media…

Some fraud masquerades as incompetence. Judith Kelley at Duke University crunched American government reports on more than 1,000 elections held between 1980 and 2004. The most blatant forms of cheating were recorded, on average, in about 40% of polls, but the biggest rise in complaints concerned electoral administration. Too few voting slips, patchy voter lists, and long queues at polling stations distort elections as surely as burnt ballot boxes and bribes. Yet election observers are likely to withhold their worst scoldings if the line between cock-up and corruption is unclear…

Another dodge is to invite more than one mission. Observers disagree about a third of the time…

With so many possibilities for subtle rigging, it may seem odd that the crude stuff remains so popular. Perhaps election-rigging is a hallmark of ill-run political systems, where corrupt local officials instinctively revert to the malpractice that comes naturally. Or perhaps, since the clever stuff can go wrong, ballot-stuffing is a safety valve. Politicians in shoddy democracies are learning what leaders in real ones have long known—you can fool only some of the people, and only some of the time.

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Monday, March 12, 2012

Cultural hero revived (again)… Yawn, yawn

Last week I noted how Party propagandists tried to stand Lei Feng up again as a cultural role model, but the response has been less than lively.

Chinese Heroism Effort Is Met With Cynicism
Some national heroes are born in the crucible of war. Others have far less dramatic origins.

So it was in the summer of 1962, when a soldier at this army base in northeast China reversed his truck into a telephone pole, sending it crashing onto the head of a 22-year-old comrade. The young man died, but his short life provided Communist Party propagandists with a perfect icon: Lei Feng, industrious, generous and irresistibly impish, China’s most endearing soldier, the sort of fellow who would darn his comrades’ socks and skip a meal so others might eat…

But the party’s efforts to resuscitate the spirit of Lei Feng on the 50th anniversary of his death have exposed the limits of old school propaganda in the age of the Internet. The campaign, which culminated Monday with the annual “Learn From Lei Feng Day,” has provoked a fresh round of public cynicism about a ruling party that is struggling to cultivate a sense of legitimacy.

The familiar lessons about Lei Feng’s feats and thoughtfulness that have inundated newspapers and television have been met by snickers, expressed through essays, cartoons and blog postings that highlight the government’s failure to practice the idealized morality it seeks to propagate.

One posting on Sina Weibo, the country’s popular microblog service, seemed to sum up the sentiment that it is party officials, not ordinary citizens, who should be studying Lei Feng’s selflessness. “Your children have migrated overseas but you ask me to learn from Lei Feng in China,” said the posting by the sharp-tongued blogger who goes by the name Notebook and has two million followers. “I have cancer because of the poisonous milk I drank but you ask me to learn from Lei Feng.” The post was deleted by censors on Friday…

Western scholars have long questioned the Lei Feng biography, and now the Internet has given rise to deniers who have been merrily poking holes in his story. They have questioned how a poor orphan living on a tiny army stipend could donate so much money to the needy…

[I]n Fushun, where Mao’s favorite soldier is buried beneath a hulking granite plinth… [is] the Lei Feng Memorial, a propagandistic tour de force packed with the minutiae — real or otherwise — of its subject’s abbreviated life.

Highlights include a console that plays his tinny, animated voice and… excerpts from the 330 diary entries, 12 articles, 18 speeches, 30 poems, 3 novels and 9 works of prose attributed to him, all dating to his two-plus years in the army…

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Friday, March 09, 2012

The state of the Chinese state

China's premier offers an assessment of the economy and the future.

In China’s Annual Assessment, Wen Is Optimistic
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao opened the annual meeting of China’s handpicked legislature... with a markedly upbeat assessment of the state of the nation, saying that threats posed by bad local government debt and soaring real estate prices were under control, the economy was robust and that “the people’s well-being is improving.”…

The government will focus in its final year on raising ordinary people’s incomes and rebalancing the national economy to be driven less by investment and exports and more by consumer demand, he indicated.

Mr. Wen’s annual report is the most substantive event of every opening session of the National People’s Congress... a meeting whose agenda has long been predetermined by the leadership. In it, he said that the slowdown in China’s growth is coupled with the beginning of a structural transformation toward a consumer-based economy, a change long advocated by economic experts…

It [remains] to be seen whether the government would be able to deliver on its pledge to shift economic growth to consumer demand. Promises to rebalance the economy have been a staple of Mr. Wen’s earlier addresses but many of the structural changes crucial to that goal have been hamstrung by internal political resistance…

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Thursday, March 08, 2012

Glass floors

Mexican law requires parties to nominate women candidates to 40% of the seats in the national legislature. No such quota for local offices.

Two things to remember that the article doesn't mention are that mayors are often a camarilla's link to the grassroots, and that a mayor's office is often the first rung on the political ladder.

City Hall Still a Reach for Women in Mexico
Even as many Mexicans celebrate a milestone in Josefina Vázquez Mota, the first woman to be selected as the presidential candidate of a major Mexican political party, the number of women in office at the most basic level of government — in the small cities and villages that are a backbone of democracy — still falls notably short.

Only in 6 percent of the country’s cities and towns do women serve as municipal president, as mayors are called in Mexico. By contrast, women hold one in four seats in Congress, for which 40 percent of a party’s candidates must be women.

Political analysts who work with aspiring female politicians in Mexico say that the democratic process at the municipal level remains mired by a conservative and patriarchal culture, vague and unenforced gender quotas, and a lack of transparency and accountability.

Mayors are the most visible of local politicians — a double-edged sword. Their power makes them prime targets for criminals… but they are also highly influential allies for state leaders…

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An emerging civil society, maybe

In the PRC, the Party tried, pretty successfully, to control any civil society group from the Catholic church to neighborhood kite flying clubs. That may be changing. And the roles women play in society may be changing.

Chinese Women’s Progress Stalls on Many Fronts
China, home to one in five of the world’s women, is among the few countries where women are experiencing a rights rollback, according to feminists, researchers and data from the All-China Women’s Federation, which is appointed and run by the government to represent women’s interests.

In the 1950s, women here enjoyed top-down gains bestowed by the Communist Party and Mao Zedong’s maxim that “whatever male comrades can do, female comrades can do, too.”

The blinding shimmer of the last 35 years of economic gains obscures the fact that while Chinese women have benefited from the rising tide lifting all boats, they are in fact losing ground.

Women’s incomes are falling relative to men’s; traditional attitudes are relegating women to the home; and women’s net wealth may be shrinking. While female parliamentary representation elsewhere is rising, the percentage of women in China’s national legislature, the National People’s Congress, has flat-lined for decades at just over 20 percent…

Despite a powerful official narrative that women’s rights are well protected, there is no movement per se to protect women… or expand the female factor in general.

Feng Yuan, a feminist academic and head of the Anti-Domestic Violence Network in Beijing, said, “China doesn’t have any independent social movements.”…

There is no woman in the inner circle of power, the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party, which has nine members; there is one among the 25 members of the Politburo…

In the government’s most recent measure of how women are faring… nearly 62 percent of men and nearly 55 percent of women said “men belong in public life and women belong at home,” increases of 7.7 and 4.4 percentage points from 2000.

The income gap is widening, the survey found…

On the other hand, from the Chinese news agency, Xinhua:

Progress of Chinese women in full swing
At the ongoing parliamentary session, Premier Wen Jiabao mentioned the word "women" four times in his government work report, highlighting the role of women's progress in China's development agenda.

Wen pledged to "improve the well-being of women and children and better guarantee their rights and interests" in the report to the National People's Congress, and also promised to take care of the children, women and elderly people left behind by rural migrant workers who work in cities.

In fact, progress for the women of China is in full swing, granting women more dignity and independence everywhere from the economic and political arenas to their households…

The relatively small number of female politicians in China is a topic criticized by Western media. However, the ratio of female national lawmakers stands at 22 percent, compared with only 17 percent in the United States…

In addition to entering the political arena, Chinese women are also amassing fortunes. China now has more self-made female billionaires than any other country in the world, and many of these female entrepreneurs have rags-to-riches stories that have inspired others to follow suit.

Chinese women, therefore, no longer stand behind men. They have more choices in their lives, creating distance from the traditional image of women as obedient housewives…

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Part of Putin's "family"

One goal of Putin's early years as president was to take down the Yeltsin oligarchs who had profited and amassed power during the initial privatizations of the 1990s. Since then he seems to have enriched and empowered his own family of oligarchs.

The first comment attached to the article says, "how is it different from any place in the world??????" Good question. It would be interesting to see analyses of corruption like this for Nigeria or Mexico or China or the UK or Iran. Would your students expect different results in those places? Why?

Midas Touch in St. Petersburg: Friends of Putin Glow Brightly
Arkady R. Rotenberg, a former judo coach, is now a billionaire industrialist, having made a fortune selling pipe to the state-owned gas monopoly, Gazprom.

Yuri V. Kovalchuk owned a minority stake in a small bank in St. Petersburg that in recent years won control of a number of Gazprom subsidiaries. He is now worth $1.5 billion.

Gennady N. Timchenko, once the little-known sales manager of a local oil refinery, is now one of the world’s richest men…

What these men share, besides staggering wealth and roots in St. Petersburg, is a connection to Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin… The three billionaires are members of a close circle of friends, relatives, associates, colleagues from the security services and longtime advisers who have grown fabulously wealthy during Mr. Putin’s 12 years as Russia’s paramount leader.

Critics say these relationships are evidence of deeply entrenched corruption, which they view as essentially government-sanctioned theft invariably connected to Russia’s abundant natural resources: gas, oil, minerals…

Mr. Putin has repeatedly denied any involvement in the enrichment of these and other acquaintances, and he has forcefully dismissed assertions made by his political opponents that he himself is a secret beneficiary of these enterprises and has amassed tens of billions of dollars in bank accounts outside Russia…

The dealings of Mr. Putin and his acquaintances are likely to come under even more scrutiny… To balance its budget, the government intends to transfer $50 billion in assets to the private sector over the next five years. If those assets end up in the same wealthy, well-connected hands, Mr. Putin could find himself struggling to maintain the legitimacy needed to serve out his term.

At the same time, Mr. Putin will be under pressure to repay the loyalty of his associates, who might reasonably want assurances that they will not face prosecution or exile, as has happened in the past to a half-dozen or so members of the first generation of so-called oligarchs in post-Soviet Russia…

The lines between legitimate and illegitimate businesses are often fuzzy in Russia. In some cases, critics say that Mr. Putin’s associates completed deals without the required competitive bidding, and in others obtained properties at hugely discounted prices. But it was not clear that any laws were violated…

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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Putin and oil prices

Beverley Clinch pointed out this article by Fareed Zakaria, in which he tries to explain how rising oil prices have kept Putin in power. It's a good perspective to keep in mind. Thanks, Beverley.

How Oil Is Propping Up Putin
Few rulers intentionally commit hara-kiri. In an essay in the recent National Interest, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy point out that Putin has often compared himself to Pyotr Stolypin, the reformist Prime Minister under the last Czar, Nicholas II. It’s an intriguing choice. Stolypin, who was viciously attacked during the Soviet era as reactionary and repressive, advocated incremental, evolutionary reforms in the last years of czarist Russia. It’s worth noting that Stolypin was sacked and then assassinated, and the regime he tried to keep in power was swept aside by the tides of history. But history may not repeat itself in Russia until oil prices stop levitating…

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Battling Nigerian corruption in London

Outsourcing takes on a new task: prosecuting corrupt officials.

Nigeria ex-Delta state governor James Ibori guilty plea
James Ibori, a former governor of one of Nigeria's oil-producing states, has pleaded guilty in a UK court to 10 counts of money-laundering and conspiracy to defraud.

British police accuse him of stealing $250m (£160m) over eight years…

As his trial at London's Southwark Crown Court was about to begin, Mr Ibori changed his plea to guilty and admitted stealing money from Delta state and laundering it in London through a number of offshore companies…

Mr Ibori's wife, Theresa, his sister, Christine, his mistress, Udoamaaka Okoronkwo, and his London solicitor, Bhadresh Gohil, have all been convicted of money-laundering.

Their convictions could only be reported on Monday after reporting restrictions were lifted.

Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had asked the UK's Metropolitan police to look into the ex-governor's financial affairs…

Under Nigeria's federal system, state governors enjoy huge powers and control budgets larger than those of many West African countries…

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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Run off elections in Iran

The results are unlikely to benefit Ahamdinejad.

Iran to hold runoff parliamentary vote for 65 seats
Iran will hold run-off elections for 65 parliamentary seats, state media said on Monday, after loyalists to the country’s paramount clerical leader won a dominating majority at the expense of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The widespread defeat of Ahmadinejad’s allies in the 290-seat assembly is expected to reduce the president to a lame duck for the rest of his second and final term, and increase Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s influence in the country’s 2013 presidential election…

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In the words of terrorists

Adam Nossiter, writing in the New York Times, reports on interviewing two members of Nigeria's Boko Haram.

In Nigeria, a Deadly Group’s Rage Has Local Roots
In an imam’s quiet office, two young men in long hooded robes, their faces hidden by checked scarves, calmly described their deadly war against the Nigerian state.

The office door was open. Children from the Koranic school adjoining the mosque streamed past, laughing and jostling. Worshipers from the evening prayer service, which the young men had just left, poured into the parking lot. If the police had been alerted in any way, the two young men would have been instantly arrested, or worse. But neither appeared nervous about possible betrayal.

“It is not the people of Nigeria, it is only the army and the police who are against us,” said one of the men, explaining their membership in Boko Haram, the militant group that has claimed responsibility for killing hundreds in its battle against the Nigerian government. “Millions of people in Kano State are supporting us.”…

But while Western and local officials cite the militants’ growing links to terrorist organizations in the region — presenting the ties as a reason behind the group’s increasingly deadly tactics and a cause for global concern — Boko Haram is not the imported, “foreign” menace Nigerian authorities depict it to be…

“People are supporting them because the government is cheating them,” said Mohammed Ghali, the imam at the mosque where the two Boko Haram members pray. Imam Ghali is known as an intermediary between the militants and the authorities, and while open backing for the group can put almost anyone in the cross hairs of the Nigerian security services, there appears to be no shortage of Boko Haram supporters here…

For now, Boko Haram’s targets remain largely local, despite its bombing of a United Nations headquarters in Abuja, the capital, last summer. The Nigerian state is typically the enemy, and many analysts see the nation’s enduring poverty as one reason…

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Monday, March 05, 2012

Follow-up to the Russian election

Dr. Joshua Tucker, professor at New York University, follows up on his pre-election predictions. There are interesting observations here about the results, fraud, the opposition to Putin in Moscow, and the use of webcams at nearly all polling places.

Russia 2012 Presidential Election Post-Election Report
Displaying a predictive ability at a level of which my Americanist colleague can only dream, I think it is safe to say that most of the claims I made in my pre-election report on the 2012 Russian Presidential election have been substantiated…

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Laughter as political action

In the Soviet Union, satire was a powerful tool used by people to keep their political sanity. Joshua Yaffa, writing in the New York Times, seems to think satire is making a comeback.

The Kremlin’s Not Laughing Now
VLADIMIR V. PUTIN, the Russian prime minister, can barely open his mouth these days without being made fun of. After he compared the white ribbons of protesters to condoms during a televised call-in show, doctored photos of Mr. Putin with a condom pinned to his lapel went viral online within minutes. During the same show, Mr. Putin compared those opposed to his rule to the outcast Bandar-log monkeys of Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book,” so the country’s most popular satirical television show depicted him as a goofy-looking boa constrictor.

The large demonstrations against Mr. Putin’s rule signal many important shifts in Russia’s political and civic life — including the return of political satire. Today’s political humor, much of it online, is designed to make Mr. Putin and his allies appear out of touch, uncool and, in a way, not especially dangerous — an empowering idea in a country where people had grown accustomed to the unquestioned power of whoever sat in the Kremlin…

Poking fun at the peculiarities of Russia and its people has roots in 19th-century literature, especially writers like Nikolai Gogol and Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoy (Leo’s second cousin)…

Satire became something of a national sport in the gray, sterile days of the Soviet Union, when humor served as a portal to an alternative reality…

In keeping with the amorphous, essentially leaderless nature of Russia’s current protest movement, the sharpest anti-Putin humor these days is not produced by traditional media institutions but simply shows up on the Internet or on handmade signs at demonstrations…

Humor and a sense of irony will not keep Mr. Putin from returning to the presidency, but they have contributed to a sense of civic engagement and vitality that will most certainly outlive [the] election…

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Sunday, March 04, 2012

Early returns from Iran

Ahmadinejad rivals cement lead in Iran parliament
Conservative rivals of Iran's president claimed control of parliament Sunday with more than two-thirds of the seats decided from elections handing the ruling Islamic establishment near seamless control in the escalating nuclear standoff with the West.

The outcome also puts an emphatic stamp on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's political tumble after he dared to challenge Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over his power to direct key government affairs such as foreign policy and intelligence…

In Iran, hard-liners were claiming victory in the parliamentary elections, though vote-counting continues.

Out of 216 winners that emerged by Sunday, at least 112 were conservatives who turned against Ahmadinejad after he openly challenged Khamenei's authority last year. Also elected were six independent candidates opposed to Ahmadinejad.

The remaining seats were split between Ahmadinejad supporters and centrists, some of whom could side with the anti-Ahmadinejad bloc. At least 23 races will have to be decided in runoffs. Reformists were virtually absent from the ballots, highlighting the intense crackdowns since the mass protests after Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009…

The final results are not expected until Tuesday, but the partial count was enough for Ahmadinejad's opponents to boast of a landslide victory…

Reformists were virtually absent from the ballot, showing the crushing force of crackdowns on the opposition. Instead, Friday's elections became a referendum on Ahmadinejad's political stature after he tried to challenge the near-total authority of Khamenei to decide critical government policies such as intelligence and foreign affairs.

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Big turnout, short lines at polling stations

It will be interesting to see the results.

Iran’s Government Declares Huge Turnout in First National Vote Since ’09 Protests
Iran’s government declared an enormous turnout for the parliamentary elections held Friday, calling it another “epic” sign of support for Iranian theocracy and a thumb in the eye of the West.

In the first national vote since a disputed presidential election in 2009, scenes of crowded polling places and voters with ink-stained fingers dominated state television and online news sites, alongside none-too-subtle editorials declaring that the vote defied Western perceptions of domestic discontent in Iran. Iran’s opposition movement — whose leaders have been jailed or placed under house arrest — had called for a boycott of the vote.

Iran’s supreme leader and other top officials had called in recent days for high voter turnout as a way to show defiance toward the West at time of extraordinary tension. Iran’s economy is staggering under the latest round of sanctions, and there is rising speculation that Israel will bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities…

The reported turnout seemed at odds with the short lines and relatively empty voting booths described by a number of Iranians in the capital and a few other major cities over the course of the day…

But others cautioned that the official numbers could very well be accurate, especially in light of a recent campaign by Iranian high officials and clerics that declared voting a national and religious duty at a time of stress and danger. The appeals to patriotism and piety are especially effective in Iran’s hinterland, away from the more worldly precincts of northern Tehran…

Lying below the surface of this year’s election is a fierce struggle between partisans and rivals of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose second and final term ends next year. He hopes to maintain influence by electing lawmakers who are loyal to him. That has irked Ayatollah Khamenei, who has empowered lawmaker allies to cut the president down to size. Iran’s Parliament is weak, and if the election yields an even more compliant body, it could become easier for the supreme leader to abolish the office of the president in a further consolidation of his power, something he hinted at last year.

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Political support based on economic insecurity

Michael Schwirtz explains for the New York Times why many people support Putin's candidacy.

Fear of Return to ’90s Hardship Fuels Support for Putin
It takes little more than a half-hour train ride from Moscow and a few hours walking the muddy streets of this raw, working-class suburb to get a sense of why Vladimir V. Putin will almost certainly win Russia’s presidential election on Sunday…

[F]or many here in Lyubertsy and other hardscrabble towns across Russia, any desire to live better is outweighed by a persistent fear of living worse. And there is no guarantee that things will remain on track without Mr. Putin at the helm…

Since announcing in September that he [Putin], not Russia’s current president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, would be running in Sunday’s election, he has repeatedly sought to remind Russians of the hardships they suffered in the years before he took power.

“Under the flag of democracy, in the 1990s we received not a modern government, but an opaque fight among clans and numerous semifeudal fiefdoms,” he wrote in an opinion article last month. “We received not a new quality of life, but huge social costs; not a just and free society, but the highhandedness of a self-appointed elite, who openly neglected the interests of simple people.”…

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Anti-Putin politics

Putin Claims Victory in Russian Election
Russian voters overwhelmingly granted Vladimir V. Putin a six-year term as president on Sunday, a long-predicted outcome that set the stage for a far more suspenseful post-election confrontation between Mr. Putin and opposition groups.

“We have won,” Mr. Putin declared to a huge throng of supporters right outside the Kremlin walls, a tear running down his cheek. “We have gained a clean victory!” He added, “We won! Glory to Russia.”…

Early returns showed Mr. Putin winning about 60 percent of the vote, comfortably above the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Not long after the polls closed in Moscow, tens of thousands of Kremlin supporters gathered in Manezhnaya Square for a victory celebration and concert…

Mr. Putin did little traditional campaigning and refused to debate his opponents, but still engaged in some of the most aggressive election-year politicking of his career. He postponed for six months the annual increase in household utility charges, the largest expense for most Russian families; increased pensions and military salaries; and promising an avalanche of new government spending…

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Anti-Putin politics

John Unruh-Friesen points to a great 6-minute news report from the New York Times about the anti-Putin movement among young Russians.

"These are like the honeycombs in a growing civil society"
As Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin runs for his third term as president, young Russians question what it will take for the promise of democracy born in 1991 to truly take hold.

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Saturday, March 03, 2012

Important politics in China, too

China won't be upstaged by elections in Iran and Russia.


Top political advisor vows to help promote economy, stability
China's top political advisor Jia Qinglin Saturday vowed to make more efforts to stimulate the "steady and robust" development of the country's economy and promote social stability.

Jia made the pledge in a report delivered at the opening meeting of the Fifth Session of the 11th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China's top political advisory body.

Jia, chairman of the CPPCC National Committee, said the tasks of the CPPCC will be heavy in 2012, as it is an important year for carrying forward the implementation of the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015).

The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which Jia said has "immense and far-reaching significance," will also be held this year…

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Friday, March 02, 2012

Presidential race in Mexico

Elections seem to be taking place or coming soon in many places.

Poll: Mexico presidential race has tightened
A new poll suggests Mexico's presidential race is tightening.

The polling firm GEA/ISA says the lead of candidate Enrique Pena Nieto has dropped to 7 percentage points. He had a 20-point lead in a January poll by the same company.

The survey says 36 percent of voters favor Pena Nieto, while 29 percent back Josefina Vazquez Mota of the conservative National Action Party that now governs Mexico. Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000.

The poll published Thursday by the newspaper Milenio says 17 percent of voters back leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The February 17-19 poll of 1,000 potential voters has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

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Maybe they should call them internships

In the face of persistently huge numbers of unemployed young people, the coalition government in the UK came up with a scheme to give unemployed people some work experience. Critics claim the program is more beneficial to companies that get the benefits of unpaid workers.

Firms quit government work experience scheme
Another company has left the government's work experience scheme.

Maplin has joined Sainsbury's and Waterstones in withdrawing its support.

It's after critics claimed the scheme could exploit young unemployed people…

The government's new work experience scheme was launched last January to allow people to get experience while keeping their benefits.

Jobseekers are invited to take on unpaid placements of between two and eight weeks.

Latest figures show that up until the end of November 39,000 people had taken part and half of them were off jobseeker's allowance four weeks later.

But if someone quits after the first week of a placement they could lose some of their benefits.

Campaigners claim big companies are using the scheme to get cheap labour…

With more than a million young people currently out of work, employment minister Chris Grayling says firms trying to help should be encouraged rather than criticized…

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Thursday, March 01, 2012

Cultural hero revived (again)

Back in ancient times when I began teaching about China, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was in full swing. Millions of people carried around "little red books" of quotations from Chairman Mao and pretended to study those words of wisdom in political study groups (xiaozu) led by Party cadres.

One of the quotations people studied was Mao's exhortation to "Learn from Lei Feng." Lei Feng was a social, cultural, and political role model.

He spent all his time selflessly doing whatever he could for the good of the Chinese people (according to his diary found after he died). Unlike national role models in the west (George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon, Lenin, Winston Churchill, for examples), Lei Feng was a lowly private in the PLA. He gave his tiny salary to the poor. He refused extra uniforms when he could patch the one he had. On his day off, he volunteered for work projects or tutored students. He was the perfect Chinese citizen for the time.

American students enjoyed reading the translation of the comic book biography and speculating about how political and cultural values are taught. I even had a clip from a biopic produced by Chinese propaganda officials that told how Lei Feng tragically died while helping comrades park trucks.

This all comes to mind because Xinhua reports that Lei Feng is being trotted out again as a national role model. It will be interesting to see how the spirit of Lei Feng is used in today's "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

People's Daily to publish Lei Feng editorial on Friday

Have deep love for Mao Zedong Thought just like comrade Lei Feng, 1977

China's leading newspaper People's Daily is to publish an editorial Friday, in memory of Lei Feng, an army soldier and model citizen, calling for deepening the Learning from Lei Feng Campaign.

"I want to contribute my limited life into the unlimited service for the people," the editorial, entitled "Write the Spiritual Epic of Our Times," incudes this popular quotation from Lei Feng's diary. It extols the soldier as a model for socialist and communist spirit and ethics.

The "Lei Feng Spirit" has been an important part of the spirit of the Chinese Nationality, the paper stresses. China, in the current critical period for the development, "further needs the dedicatory spirit of hard working," it adds.

The "Lei Feng Spirit" remains to be "of great value and of great significance to the times," the editorial says. It urges all members of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and leading officials at different levels to be advocates and practicers of the "Lei Feng Spirit."

Lei Feng (1940-1962) became the most popular ethic model in the country, ever since March 5, 1963, when late Chinese leader Mao Zedong learned his stories and wrote an inscription of "Learning from Comrade Lei Feng."

Lei Feng's stories, mostly about how he had helped others or done his job without any selfish motives, were discovered from his diary by his colleagues shortly after his death on August 15, 1962.

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