Monday, April 23, 2007

The World is a Complicated Place

Quite a bit of interesting news in the last couple of days....

Boris Yeltsin died today, I see. He of course was the first post-Communist President of Russia.

Yeltsin's career

Boris Yeltsin was mayor of Moscow from 1985 to 1987, but was fired from that job because his desires for reforms clashed with the timid agenda of Premier Gorbachav. Comrade Yeltsin then ran for a seat in the trendy new democratic parliament that Gorby established in 1989, as part of his Glasnost reforms.

In 1990 the parliament appointed Yeltsin to be Chairman of the Communist council that ran the "Russian Soviet Republic," the most large and powerful of the Soviet states. When he got bored of that he ran in the first democratic elections in Russian history, and was chosen to be the first President of the Russian Federation, which is what they were now calling the ex-USSR.

After an eventful eight-year term, President Yeltsin resigned on New Year's Eve, 1999. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin became Acting President of the Federation, and the rest is history.

With Yeltsin's death, the number of living Russian presidents plummets from an all-time high of three to a pitiful two. Gorbachev is still alive at age 76. Yeltsin was 76 too, but was one month older.

Here are some fun trivia facts about Yeltsin
  • Near the end of his term his people toyed with a number of hare-brained schemes to let him subvert the constitution and stay in office forever. One idea was restoring the Russian monarchy under some young idiot prince, with Yeltsin serving as dictatorial "regent" until the kid came of age.

  • He appointed himself Prime Minister for a few hours in March of 1998 before his aides told him that such a thing was probably unconstitutional.

  • During the Second World War a number of his fingers were blown off by a grenade. You don't often see photos that highlight that fact, but here's a good one:

Elections in France

The much-watched French presidential election concluded predictably yesterday, with the first round of voting bringing good news for the two front-runners. Nicolas Sarkozy got 31% and Segolene Royal got 25%. Second round of voting to determine the final winner is set for May 6.

Suspension in Israel

The President of Israel, Moshe Katsav was suspended from office a while ago, remember that? At the time, the suspension was only supposed to be for three months, but today the President successfully lobbied the parliament to get it extended for another three. Since Mr. Katsav's term is already scheduled to end in late July, this extended suspension will ensure that he will never act as president again. "Why doesn't he just resign, then?" say his opponents. But resigning would be an admission of wrong-doing, and that would never do.

Mauritania becomes Democracy

Establishment favorite Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi evidently won the election as President of Mauritania a while ago. He was sworn in last Thursday, and appointed Zeine Ould Zeidane as his Prime Minister. Like their formal colonial power France, Mauritania does run-off voting. Mr. Abdallahi and Mr. Zeidane were both candidates in the first round, but only the former went on to round two. Zeidane threw his support behind Abdallahi, and clearly benefitted from doing so.

Regardless, Mr. Abdallahi's swearing-in was an important milestone, as it signaled that country's transition from military to democratic civilian rule. The outgoing President, Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, who has held office since staging a coup in 2005, stepped aside gracefully.

Other countries struggle with the concept

Nigeria had Presidential elections on the weekend, which were, by all accounts, an absolute mess. Pretty much everything that could go wrong, did. Violence, voter fraud, people not getting ballots, intimidation, international condemnation... the works. The incumbent party candidate evidently "won" but it seems very likely they'll have to do the entire election over again. There is just no way his victory will be accepted as legitimate in these circumstances.

East Timor also had elections a while ago... the results were officially declared today. Prime Minister Jose Ramos Horta came in first, followed by opposition candidate Lu Olo. But once again, no one got over 50%, so there will be a run-off vote on May 9. But now the other candidates are all uppity. They say there was widespread corruption and irregularities during the vote, and are contesting the results to the High Court. So we'll see how that goes.

Friday, April 20, 2007

President of Romania President no more

In 2004 Romanians elected this dynamic right-wing reformer named Traian Basescu as their president. He was all pro-business and anti-corruption and tired to make a lot of sweeping changes to Romanian politics and society. Romania joined the European Union on New Year's Day of this year, a fact which Mr. Basescu has used to justify a lot of his reforms. "We must must transform our humble country from a nation of backwards goat-headers and vampires into a dynamic European super-state!" he says. Well not exactly in those words.
Fun fact: President Basescu is one of the few remaining world leaders who is unflinchingly supportive of the war in Iraq.
The President is popular with the people, but not with the rest of the political establishment. The parliament remains dominated by left-wing parties who are quite anti-Basescu. For largely partisan reasons I don't entirely understand, they recently decided to impeach the President, even though the Supreme Court said he had committed no impeachable offense.

Yesterday the Parliament voted 322 to 108 in favor of impeachment, narrowly missing the two-thirds majority needed. So instead they are going with plan B.

President Basescu was declared suspended from office for one month. He was replaced by the Speaker of the Senate, Mr. Nicolae Vacaroiu. Before the 30-day period is up, the parliament will call a referendum on removing Basescu from office permanently. But the good old Associated Press says that this is just a waste of time:

More than half of voting-age Romanians would have to approve a referendum for it to pass, which would be virtually impossible, given Basescu’s popularity and the usually low turnout in Romanian ballots.

And even if he was impeached, he says he'll just run again. That's an interesting impeachment loophole we rarely think about. Impeachment is only effective if it's shameful and humiliating. If they guy doesn't care, and the people still love him, it's not particularly effective.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

World mourns

When tragedies occur, the leaders of the world respond.

"Schools should be places of safety and sanctuary and learning. When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every American classroom and every American community. Today, our nation grieves with those who have lost loved ones at Virginia Tech. We hold the victims in our hearts, we lift them up in our prayers, and we ask a loving God to comfort those who are suffering today."
-President Bush

"I would like to express, on behalf of Britain and the British people, our profound sadness at what has happened and to send the American people, and most especially of course the families of the victims, our sympathy and our prayers."
-Tony Blair, Prime Minister of Britain

"[Let me say] how saddened and shocked I am by the terrible shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech University in the United States. It is the worst mass shooting incident in the history of the United States and it is a dreadful event for the university, for those who've lost loved ones, and I, on behalf of the Australian Government and the Australian people extend my sympathy to the people of the United States, and particularly, to the families of those who've died at the hands of a crazed gunman."
- John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia

"Our thoughts are particularly turned towards that family of Mrs. Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, a Québécois teacher at this university's Department of Languages who lost her life in this dramatic incident. On behalf of the people of Quebec, I wish to address my sincerest condolences to the families and those closest to the victims that are part of the community of Virginia Tech. This is a tragedy of unimagineable violence, and it is necessary at this time to condemn with fortitude all forms of violence.
- Jean Charest, Prime Minister of Quebec

"I feel very much sorry and troubled, and any such rampant killing of innocent citizens and children is totally not acceptable and I condemn it in strongest terms possible."
- UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon

"Chancellor Angela Merkel was shocked to hear of the mass shooting on a US university campus. She offered US President George W. Bush her condolences. "
- statement from the office of Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany

"We learned that a Canadian is among the victims in Virginia and Mr. Speaker, I can say that the prayers, thoughts and condolences of each and every one one us here in the House are with that family. It’s really almost impossible to comprehend why an individual would take his own life and that of so many others in this way but I think we can all say that our thoughts are with all of the victims, their family and the community."
- Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada

"The president of the Republic has known with horror and consternation the shootings of Virginia University. He sent to President Bush, to the families of the victims and to American people his most saddened condolence and his complete solidarity, in the name of himself and French people."
- statement from the office of Jacques Chirac, President of France

"I and our people cannot contain our feelings of huge shock and grief. I pray for the souls of those killed and offer words of comfort from my heart for those injured, the bereaved families and the U.S. people."
- Roh Moo-hyun , President of South Korea

I will keep adding as I find more.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

How does North Korea work?

This upbeat gentleman was appointed Prime Minister of North Korea yesterday. As is the case with all government decisions in NK, there was "no explanation" for why he was appointed or why the old prime minister was fired. ALL HAIL THE NEW PRIME MINISTER.

The obvious question to ask is- wait, North Korea has a Prime Minister? I was shocked myself.
Their system of government is confusing to say the least, but theoretically it works something like this:

Kim Il-Sung was the first leader of North Korea. The Soviets installed him as General Secretary of the Communist Party after their military left the peninsula in 1948. A few days later the new Communist legislature appointed him Prime Minister, or "Premier" as we usually say in reference to Commie regimes. In 1972 the North Korean constitution was changed, and Kim Il-Sung upgraded himself to President, giving himself new and greater powers in the process. Someone else became Premier, but the job downgraded and became irrelevant and pointless. This is the job the guy above has inherited. He doesn't have to do much except preside over the North Korean "Supreme People's Assembly," which according to this article is "a rubber-stamp body" that "convenes irregularly once or twice a year." So I'm sure he can handle it.

Kim Il-Sung died in 1994, and according to official government press releases "many animals wept." All sorts of wacky things were done in that emotional time, including another change to the constitution which said that Mr. Kim would be president forever, even in death. So no one else was allowed to assume that job.

No one really led North Korea from 1994 to 1998. Things were very constitutionally ambiguous. Little Kim Jong-Il, the son of K.I.S., was groomed for succession to his father, but was initially quite reluctant. In 1993 Kim Jong had been appointed Chairman of the Defense Committee, which in essence made him head of the armed forces, but it was not a hugely important post and after his father's death he was still outranked by many other officials within the party and state bureaucracy.

Little Kim became more self-confident as the years went on, and party infighting led to him emerging as the favored candidate to lead the nation. In 1998 the constitution was changed to make Chairman of the Defense Committee the "highest office of the state" and Kim was installed as the new secretary of the Communist Party, a post which had gone vacant until then. These are the jobs which he still holds to this day. And this is why it's easier to just call him the "dear leader."

The new Prime Minister's name is Kim Yong-Il, by the way. I thought that was amusing.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Qatar Politics

On the 3rd of April the Emir of Qatar, Hamid Al-Thani, accepted the resignation of his prime minister and appointed a new one. It's not a very interesting story.

What is interesting, however, is to observe just what a ragingly nepotistic government they have in that country. See if you can spot a trend:


1949-1960...... Ali Al-Thani
1960-1972...... Ahmad Al-Thani
1972-1995...... Khalifah Al-Thani
1995- present...... Hamad Al-Thani


1970-1995...... Khalifah Al-Thani
1995-1996...... Hamad Al-Thani
1996-2007...... Abdullah Al-Thani
2007- present...... Hamad J. Al-Thani


Deputy Prime Minister...... Hamid J. Al-Thani
Minister of Communications...... Ahman Al-Thani
Minister of Defense...... Hamid K. Al-Thani
Minister of Foreign Affairs...... Hamad J. Al-Thani
Minister of the Interior...... Abdullah Al-Thani
Minister of Agriculture...... Abdul Al-Thani

Monday, April 2, 2007

Welcome to the Serene Republic of San Marino

April 1st is April Fool's Day, but it's also the day the tiny European republic of San Marino gets a new head of state. Or two. San Marino is one of the only countries in the world where two people serve as joint head of state.

The new guys are both named Alessandro. There is Alessandro Mancini and Alessandro Rossi. They hold the title of "Captains Regent" of the republic.

The San Mario constitution works like this: there is a 60-member parliament, and twice a year it elects two Captains; two for April to October, and two for October to April. To ensure political equity the Captains have to be from two different political parties.

Mr. Mancini is from the United Left party while Mr. Rossi is from the Party of Socialists and Democrats. San Marino is a very left-wing country. Until the 1960's the Communists were the largest party in parliament, and their influence lives on to this day. Mr. Mancini's party was actually founded by hardline Communist dissidents who jumped ship after the official Communist Party reformed itself into the more moderate "Progressive Democratic Party" in 1990.

The Captains are just symbolic figureheads, though. The real leader of government is the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, the leader of the 10-member cabinet. Currently, that's Fiorenzo Stolfi.

I would say San Marino is a bit over-governed considering it has only about 24,000 people, which is less than most college football stadiums are designed to accommodate. Next time you are at some sporting event imagine if the audience was divided into nine city councils, 11 political parties, a 60-person parliament, and countless bureaucratic offices. And imagine they're all living in a country the size of an airport. That's pretty much San Marino.