Friday, February 23, 2007

The "T" is silent and so is the prime minister

The Prime Minister of Tchad died today. A longtime victim of heart problems, he died in a Paris hospital while on leave for medical attention. He was 57. Or possibly 58 or 59. No one seems to know exactly when he was born.

But it doesn't matter, because he was not a terribly important politician. Pascal Yoadimnadji was appointed PM almost exactly two years ago, on February 3, 2005. A longtime member of Tchad's ruling "Patriotic Salvation Movement" party, he was the fifth prime minister in six years.

Tchad, also known as just "Chad," is a landlocked African country that was formerly a colony of France. It's located in a particularly bad neighborhood, with Libya on one side and the Sudan on the other. Both countries have a long history of meddling in Tchadian affairs.

The country is ruled by Colonel Idriss Deby, a military strongman who came to power in a 1990 coup which deposed the previous strongman. He's been somewhat more gentle than his predecessors, introducing some democratic reforms here and there. But he's also simultaneously strengthened his own rule. This is actually a fairly common tactic among African leaders, I notice. Amid much fanfare they create a democratic parliament and hold free elections, but then very quickly after they pass a constitutional amendment eliminating term limits for the president, or something like that. A real "two steps forward one step back" syndrome.

No party other than the Patriotic Salvation Movement has ever controlled a majority of seats in the Tchadian legislature, and as a result the prime ministers of Tchad are just faceless technocrats who the President rotates around as he pleases, with little consequence for day-to-day governance.

Though he is something of an autocrat, Colonel Deby's regime still enjoys a lot of western support. This is mainly because his strong government is seen as a regional counter-balance to Quaddaffi, and now the fanatical death squads of the Sudan, as well.

Here's another fun fact about Tchad. Their flag is exactly the same as Romania's. This has caused tension between the two countries.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Prodi Parts

Sorry for the lack of updates, but there just haven't been many interesting developments to note as of late. But today had some big news!

Romano Prodi, the Prime Minister of Italy, has resigned. The move came following a narrow vote of no-confidence in the Italian Senate, in which Mr. Prodi's coalition only holds a one vote majority.

With all the focus on Iraq, it's easy to forget that there is also a war going on in Afghanistan. In part due to this lack of attention, and the diversion of much American resources, NATO forces in Afghanistan are now stretched quite thin. The remaining western generals in the country- Canadians key among them- have been demanding the rest of NATO start pulling its weight, and either expand or consolidate its military commitments to fighting the Taliban.

Signor Prodi was sympathetic, and thus tried to pass a bill that would keep the over 1,000 Italian troops currently stationed in Afghanistan in that country for another year. But Prodi is also a leftist, and his socialist buddies in parliament are strongly anti-American and anti-military, and don't want Italians fighting any longer in what they perceive to be an American war. So a couple of them voted against him in the senate, rejecting his extension proposal. And under the Italian system, which seems designed to insure as little political stability as possible, any time the Prime Minister loses a vote in the parliament that constitutes a breech of parliamentary confidence and either forces him out of office or forces new elections.

The referee is the President of Italy, who gets to decide which of the two paths to pursue. The current President is named Giorgio Napolitano. He used to be a leading member of Italy's infamously pro-Soviet Communist Party, before it was dissolved following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He was appointed by parliament in 2006, by Prodi's people. One thus assumes that he will make whatever decision is in the best interests of the Italian left.

Pizza Parliament

Prime Minister Prodi has been in office for nine months; he was elected in May, beating longtime PM Silvio Berlusconi.

Italian politics have a reputation for being comically chaotic, and the Prime Minister's Office is often joked about having a revolving door. Berlusconi was the first Italian PM in almost 20 years to serve more than three years in office; he was the first PM in 38 years to serve over four. The last PM to achieve that milestone was Aldo Moro in 1968. (Prime Minister Moro was later taken hostage and assassinated by Communist terrorists. It's just an interesting story, you should look it up sometime.)

Because their time in office is so short, an Italian prime minister's political career rarely ends once he leaves office. It's actually quite common for ex-PMs to regain the prime ministership if they just hang around long enough. Prodi was previously PM from '96 to '98, and now it's looking possible that Giuliano Amato, a fomer two-time socialist PM, will replace him in '07.

A while back I made a complete chart of post-war Prime Ministers of Italy for reference. As you can see, there have been 39 PMs since 1945, which is roughly one every 1.5 years. The media will often throw the phrase "62 governments" around, which makes Italy look even less stable. But a government is different than a Prime Ministership. One Prime Minister can preside over several different "governments" during his term; a "government" in this sense simply refers to a parliamentary coalition and cabinet. Berlusconi was the first PM since Mussolini to only go through one government.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sham election concludes predictably

On Sunday there was a presidential election in Turkmenistan, supposedly to democratically elect a successor to the late dictator Turkmenbashi. However, as I mentioned last month, the candidate roster was not exactly a thrilling milieu of diversity. All six candidates were from the party of the late despot, which naturally is the only party legal in Turkmenistan.

Unsurprisingly, the election was outrageously crooked. Most western commentators agree that the whole episode served little purpose other than to put some gloss of legitimacy on the rule of the acting president, Gubanguly Berdymukhammedov. Mr. B was soundly ratified with 90% of the vote, in a turnout that was apparently 99%. I'm sure the only reason why he didn't get a larger percent was because he's planning to stick the other candidates into his cabinet, and thus make himself look like he's establishing a "government of national unity." I like the understated headline in the International Herald Tribune: "Vote in Turkmenistan is labeled implausible."

Today Berdymukhammedov was sworn in. As is the tradition in most Eastern European countries, during his inauguration he was decorated with the presidential chain of office, and given the sceptre of power to hold. He kissed the flag passionately, symbolizing his duty to the nation as commander-in-chief.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Country of heart problems and labor unrest

The Republic of Guinea is a small country in western Africa that separated from France in 1958. Since independence, it has only been ruled by two men.

For the first 26 years the republic was governed by Ahmed Sékou Toure, a union leader who had been one of the most prominent anti-French activists during the colonial period. A Marxist, he tried to bring the country under a socialist economic system- which only further impoverished what has already been one of France's poorer colonies.

In 1984 President Toure was having heart problems, so he traveled to the United States to seek medical attention. He ended up dying on the operating table.

Taking advantage of the vacuum of power, back in Guinea General Lansana Conte staged a coup, and declared himself the new president. He has been in power ever since.

General Conte (seen here sitting under a picture of himself) has tried to ruled with an iron fist just like his predecessor. But as a non-Marxist he could not rely on the support of Guinea's powerful labor unions, which had been a traditional supporter of the old president's regime. He's also had to face unrest in the military and increasing pressures from the public at large to democratize the nation's political system.

The President has been seen in public less and less since 2003. Like Toure before him, Conte suffers from heart problems and has to seek medical attention in western countries. The fact that the fearless leader is so close to death has emboldened the General's various political opponents. For the last two weeks the unions have been leading a crippling general strike, bringing Guinea's faltering economy to standstill. They had been demanding Conte's resignation, but then later softened their rhetoric, and simply demanded the president appoint a prime minister.

In the history of Guinea presidents sometimes share power with a prime minister, then abolish the PM 's office when they get tired of doing that. President Conte most recently abolished the prime minister's job in April of last year.

But yesterday he caved to the unions and appointed Eugene Camara as PM. Camara is a longtime member of the presidential cabinet, a fact which has not made him incredibly popular with the opposition.

The unions seemed to be under the impression that they would have veto power over the president's choice of prime minister. That was the whole idea behind the blackmail. So they're quite pissed that Conte has simply installed some hack loyal to himself, and are now vigorously opposing the appointment.

Will the unrest continue? Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Villain in the Panama Hat

This was a big story last week I never had a chance to cover. Apparently a Florida parole board has ruled that General Manuel Noriega, the former drug-dealing despot of Panama, will be released from his American prison cell in September of '07.

From 1983 to 1989 General Noriega ruled Panama with an iron fist, but contrary to a misconception spread by lazy journalists, he was never actually president of the country. He was merely commander of the Panamanian Armed Forces, a position that was nominally subservient to the country's elected president. Panama actually went through seven different presidents during Noriega's career as head of the military. Most were obedient puppets of the General, and Noriega's people rigged the elections to keep it that way.

In 1989 Panama's parliament, also largely controlled by the General, declared Noriega "maximum leader of national liberation." The act was in response to a contested presidential election that had happened earlier, in which the ant-Noriega candidate won. Noriega of course ruled the election invalid, and dispatched his goon squad to beat the poor man's face in with a lead pipe.

The United States viewed Noriega's despotism with increasing concern, especially once the General began to turn his aggression towards American soldiers stationed in the US-controlled Panama Canal Zone. Noriega's high profile role in international narco-trafficking was similarly troubling, considering the ruling Republican Party had made much of its commitment to the "war on drugs" and cracking down on dealers both at home and abroad. In December of '89 President George H. W. Bush ordered the invasion of Panama. Noriega was deposed, and then captured by US forces. For the last 17 years he has been held as a prisoner of war in a Florida prison.

When he is freed he says he wants to go back to Panama, but it's likely that will just result in more prison time. Panama has a number of outstanding warrants for his arrest, and he has already been found guilty in absentia for a number of crimes committed during his tenure as army chief. It is also possible the United States may chose to extradite him to France, where he is also wanted on a number of outstanding charges.

Noriega became Commander of the Panama Armed Forces in 1983, shortly after the former commander, General Omar Torrijos died in a mysterious plane crash. The conspiracy theorist set argue the plane crash was orchestrated by the CIA because the Americans wanted to bring Noriega to power. When he was a lower-ranking soldier Noriega was an active CIA informant and sold classified information from his government to the United States.

The current president of Panama, Martín Torrijos, is the son of the late General.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

There hasn't been much interesting head of state news recently. The main thrust of this blog is keeping track of who's coming to power and winning elections around the world, but there hasn't been any developments of that sort over the last few days. A couple of interesting elections are just around the corner, however, so things should start to pick up.

Canada continues slow march to independence

When I was in Texas this summer, people would ask me why my country (Canada) still had the Queen's face on our money. I explained to my American friends that it was because we Canadians had an evolution not a revolution, which is some trite phrase I picked up somewhere. The idea is that while the United States made a "clean break" with its colonial power Canada did not, and instead had to slowly evolve from a colony into a sovereign country through a series of piecemental constitutional reforms.

And that gradual process continues to this day. Like a cluttered attic, the Canadian state still contains many colonial-era relics which need to be thrown out at some point in the future, as we continue to build an indepedent national identity. Most of these relics relate to the British monarchy, and British monarch, a woman who will remember still serves as Canada's legal head of state.

As head of state, Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, is also the supreme commander of the Canadian armed forces. The Canadian military remains very much tied to a culture of monarchism and royal servitude, a fact which is well reflected in many of the names, symbols, and traditions of the armed forces. Like most militaries, the Canadian forces are divided into many different regiments, and traditionally one of the Queen's uninteresting children or cousins have always served as symbolic "Colonel-in-Chief" of each one. They don't do much, maybe just visit "their" troops once every decade or so. But they do serve as an important symbolic link of subservience between British royalty and the Canadian soldiers.

But not anymore! The Minister of Defense has now appointed the first-ever Canadian colonel-in-chief to head Canada's second-oldest military regiment, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. To ease the royal transition, the new colonel will be Adrienne Clarskon, a woman who served as governor-general of Canada from 1999 to 2005. As the Queen's personal envoy in Canada (though appointed by the Canadian prime minister) the governor-general of Canada serves as the nation's symbolic commander-in-chief, the highest military rank behind the Queen herself. When she was in power, Ms. Clarkson took her C-in-C duties more seriously than most of her predecessors, traveling overseas to visit army camps in Afghanistan and elsewhere. For this, she apparently "endeared" herself to the armed forces, or so the Minister says.

Clarkson will be replacing Lady Patricia Brabourne, a British aristocrat who is the eldest daughter of the late Lord Louis Mountbatten. Her father was most famous for being the last Viceroy of India, before being killed by the IRA.

Clarkson herself was born a British subject in the colony of Hong Kong. She was the first governor-general born outside of Canada or Britain.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Sigh, another new country

Yesterday the United Nations released its much anticipated report on the future of the disputed territory of Kosovo. They recommend that Kosovo should become an independent country under constant international "supervision."

This has the Serbs mad, of course. Historically Kosovo has been the capital of Serbian Christendom and civilization. Their "Jerusalem," as they are fond of saying. But the territory has not been either Serbian or Christan for quite a long time. Right now it's a mostly Muslim area, inhabited by ethnic Albanians. Good old Slobodoan Milosoevic tried to fix that when he was president of Yugoslavia, using the Serbian army to "ethnically cleanse" as many Albanian-Muslims out of Kosovo as possible. But that didn't really endear the Kosovars to Serbia, and only furthered their desires for independence.

After the 1999 NATO bombing campaign to drive out the Serbs, Kosovo was placed under UN occupation, and became non-sovereign territory. I once went to school with an exchange student from Kosovo and he had to travel around with UN documents instead of a passport because he was no longer legally a citizen of anywhere.

The effective ruler of Kosovo is a UN-appointed individual known as the "special representative of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission." The first man to hold the job was Sérgio Vieira de Mello, a highly respected Brazilian diplomat who had been active in all manner of humanitarian causes and conflict-resolution initiatives. He was later killed in Iraq when a car bomb blew up his hotel.

There have been eight administrators since him, two from the US, two from Denmark, two from Germany, and one each from France and Finland. The current guy is from Germany, his name is Joachim Rücker. According to his low-budget website, he was previously mayor of the German city of Sindelfingen.

Since 2002 Kosovo has had a non-UN government as well, but it is highly subsidiary to the UN authority. It's also very much dominated by the Muslim-Albanians. 99% of Serbs refused to vote in the last parliamentary election because they don't consider it legitimate for Kosovo to have an independent government.
There have been five prime ministers in the last four years. It's mostly because the second prime minister, elected in 2004, was indicted for crimes against humanity and sent to the Hauge. It's been a bit of a scramble to find a stable replacement ever since. The current PM is Agim Çeku, who is a strong supporter of the independence plan.

That plan now must be approved by the Security Council, and it probably will. There are some fears that Russia might veto it, because the Russians don't want to give precedence to the practice of allowing uppity Eastern European Muslim provinces to separate from their master states, *cough cough Chechnya cough.*

Oh yeah, and what about Serbia. A while ago I reported the election results over there, which saw the self-styled Radical Party win the most seats. It now seems unlikely that the fascist nut who runs that party will become prime minister, but it still remains to be seen exactly what form the government of that country will eventually take, because of the "pizza parliament" syndrome they are currently experiencing. It will either be an alliance government of all the non-Radical parties (who have little in common except opposing the Radicals) or a joint government of the Radicals and the second-largest party, the moderates.

It's boring, but I will keep you informed.