Thursday, May 31, 2007

Goodbye to the 90's

Corrupt Non-General to Run Nigeria For a Change

Umaru Musa Yar'Adua
was sworn in as President of Nigeria on Tuesday, despite the chronic irregularities that marked his election last month. Most of the western world called for a re-vote, but evidently the government did not agree.

I say "the government" because Mr. Yar'Adu was the establishment candidate, and his "victory" signaled the continuation of the ruling regime. He was the hand-picked successor of outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military dictator turned civilian politician. General Obasanjo ruled for two full terms after Nigeria's military regime ended in 1999. He then tried to get the constitution changed to allow him to run for a third term, but that scheme fell through. So then he talked his pal Yar'Adu into running. Yar'Adu was the Governor of Nigeria's biggest state at the time, and a loyal member of General Obasanjo's party, the "People's Democratic Party" or PDP. Despite no longer being President of Nigeria, Obasanjo is still President of the PDP, a fact which has led critics to characterize Yar'Adu as a mere puppet to be controlled by Obasanjo from behind the scenes.

The controversy over Yar'Adu and his dubious election has cast something of a shadow over what should be a happy event for Nigeria- their first civilian-to-civilian transfer of executive power since the 1960's!

Fun Nigeria Fact! The logo of the People's Democratic Party is an umbrella.

Traitorous Scot to Run Scotland

Alex Salmond was sworn in as First Minister of Scotland by Queen Elizabeth the Second on May 17. He is the leader of the separatist Scottish National Party, and as such his assumption to the top job comes as something of a disappointment to those who had been hoping that a coalition government could be cobbled-together to keep him out of power. But no luck, and now Her Majesty's Scottish government is being run by a nationalist whose ultimate political goal is the removal of Scotland from Her Majesty's realm.

Tyrants Re-elected

On Sunday President Bashar al-Assad of Syria was re-elected with 97% of the vote in an election in which he was the only candidate and "yes, I love the President! Now please don't shoot me!" was the only option.

Patrick Ahern was also re-elected as Taoiseach of Ireland. In power since 1997, Mr. Ahern is evidently one of the few European leaders who has ruled for a decade and not yet been forced out of power.

A lot of Euro-leaders came to power in the late 1990's, and only left power in the last little while. This means that we're seeing a rather marked "wave" of regime change across the continent at present. It would be interesting to chart, but for now, amuse yourself with these statistics:

France, Jacques Chirac (1995-2007)
Spain, José María Aznar (1996-2004)
Sweden, Göran Persson (1996-2006)
United Kingdom, Tony Blair (1997-2007)
Germany, Gerhard Schroder (1998-2005)

I see it as a sort of symbolic "end of the 90's" thing. In fact, with Mr. Chirac gone, I believe Mr. Ahern is now the longest-serving leader in all of Europedom, and the only one left who came to power in the '90's.

Monday, May 21, 2007

France and Taiwan

Not too much has happened recently, other than Nicolas Sarkozy being officially sworn in as President of France on May 16.

The inauguration of the French President used to be a lavish ritual, but according to the Associated Press, Sarkozy has an "impatient, less tradition-bound style" so he just rushed through it without much formality.

In the old days, the President-elect was adorned with various trinkets of office, then got his portrait taken standing beside a bookshelf, to imply how wise he was. Here we see President Georges Pompidou doing that in 1969:

What a great man. But evidently, in Sarkozy's France they just put the trinkets on silk pillows and allow the president's idiot children to stare at them, as seen here:

The only other thing worth noting is that Taiwan got a new Prime Minister on Monday. Or at least that's what the mainstream media says. I have a bit of a pet peeve with the way the media, and the encyclopedia people, and all the rest, try to awkwardly pretend that all countries of the world operate under basically analogous systems of government. The main way they do this is by throwing around the word "prime minister," in reference to all manner of foreign leaders.

The problem is, very few countries actually have a "prime minister" other than England and the former British colonies. In these nations, the PM is a sitting legislator who serves as leader of the largest parliamentary caucus. It is through this role that he serves as the nation's most powerful politician, as he alone presides over the lawmaking process. Many other countries have a parliamentary system as well, but these are often vastly different from the British model we tend to assume is standard.

In other countries, the parliament may be entirely independent from the executive branch of government, meaning there is no one official who controls the legislature in the way a British-style prime minister does. In such systems, there is often a strong president who holds independent executive powers. But sometimes there is a weak president, or a weak monarch, who holds very little power. In such circumstances the government's executive power is controlled by a sort of "middle" figure, who is neither a creature of the legislature nor the full head of state. In Holland, for example, their government is run by a "Minister President" who is an official appointed by parliament, but is not a member of parliament while he governs, nor is his cabinet. I understand a lot of western Europe actually operates on this system.

Now in Taiwan their system is even more complex. There are in essence six branches of government:

The judicial branch, which consists of the courts
The executive branch, which consists of the cabinet
The legislative branch, which consists of the parliament
The "control" branch, which consists of various government watchdog and scrutiny institutions
The "examination" branch, which consists of the senior bureaucracy

Then there's the President of the Republic, whose office is treated as a distinct super-branch that supersedes all the others. But wait! There are other presidents in Taiwan too! Each branch of government is administered by a different president, who is appointed by the President of the Republic and ratified by the parliament. So there is a president of the judicial branch, and a president of the legislative branch, and so on.

The President of the executive branch presides over the cabinet, so people in the English-speaking media have affixed the label of "prime minister" to him. Using that term ignores the complexities of the Taiwanese system of government, however, and implies that he, and say, Tony Blair, occupy offices that are basically the same. I'd like it a lot better if the media would just call people by their own titles.

But anyway, the old "prime minister" was named Su Tseng-chang. He wanted to run for President of the Republic, but earlier this month he was unsucessful in his bid to win his party's nomination. So he resigned, and the PotR appointed a new guy, Mr. Chang Chun-hsiung. He will be the fifth premier in seven years, which should be some indication as to how important that position is in the Taiwanese government. On the right we see the official "passing of the golden thing" ceremony.

Oh yeah, and that President of Romania survived an impeachment referendum, to the surprise of no one. Only 26% voted in favor of removing him.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Scots, Samoans, Timorese, and so on in that order

Blair Quits

The big news this week is that Tony Blair, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has finally announced a date for his resignation. He will leave office on June 27, 2007. Mr. Blair's been in office since May 7, 1997, so after he resigns he'll have been in office for almost exactly 10 years in all. It's a long reign by British standards, but not unusually so. Mrs. Thatcher was in power for 11.5.

Mr. Blair will resign as leader of his Labor Party first, however, allowing the party to elect a new leader to replace him. Everyone predicts the winner of that election will be Gordon Brown, the uncharismatic Scot who presently runs the British ministry of finance. Brown is considered to be the architect of the economic growth and prosperity Britain experienced in the late 90's and early 2000's, which, as I noted on my other site, is one of the few aspects of the Blair legacy still regarded favorably by the British people. Shortly after Mr. Brown is made head of the Labor Party Blair will formally step down as Prime Minister, and Queen Elizabeth II will in turn appoint Brown as the new PM, in accordance with British parliamentary practice. Watch The Queen to see how that works.

Oh, those Scots!

Another landmark piece of Blair's legacy was the 1999 creation of a semi-autonomous Scottish parliament. This was designed to be an institution that would help placate nationalist sentiment in Scotland by allowing the Scottish people a greater level of political control over their own regional affairs, and thus lessening the degree in which Scotland was directly administered by London.

For the last eight years the Scottish parliament- and thus the Scottish government- has been controlled by the Labor Party of Blair and Brown. This came to an end on May 3, however, when Scottish voters narrowly gave the new plurality of seats to the Scottish Nationalist Party. The SNP, as the name may suggest, is an outwardly nationalist party with separatist ambitions. They seek to make Scotland into an independent state within the European Union and Commonwealth. This is, of course, a pretty radical position to take, making the defeat of Labor particularly embarrassing for the London government, especially when one considers why the Scottish parliament was cooked up in the first place. And on the year of the 300th anniversary of the union of England and Scotland, no less!

But all is not necessarily lost. The SNP only has a one-seat plurality, meaning Labor and the other, smaller parties still outnumber it. It is very possible that those minority parties may in turn gang up, forming a coalition government to keep the SNP out of power. Stay tuned!

And Northern Ireland

Rev. Paisley- you remember him- was sworn in as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland today. Well "First Minister," actually, if you want to get technical about it. A member of Sein Fein became Deputy Prime Minister, but Gerry Adams got nothing.

Outside of the UK...

East Timor

Prime Minister José Ramos-Horta (seen here) won the run-off election in East Timor, and will become that country's second president on May 20.

East Timor was a colony of Portugal well into the 1970's, a reflection of the stubborn manner in which the Portuguese dictatorship tried to hold onto all of its colonial possessions for as long as humanly possible. The Portuguese regime was deposed by leftist forces in 1974, and the new government moved to quickly abandon all of its colonies.

The quick pullout of Portugal plunged East Timor into a civil war, as Marxists fought with rightists to establish control over the new country.

Then in 1975 the neighboring Indonesians invaded, to ensure the victory of the anti-Marxist side. As people who read Noam Chomsky books know, the invasion was a very bloody affair with a very high cost in human lives, yet was also largely ignored by much of the world. The great powers were busy with Israel and Vietnam and stuff.

The plight of East Timor under Indonesian military occupation became something as a cause celeb as the years went on, however. Exiled activists like Mr. Ramos-Horta did much to bring world attention back to the tragedy. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996.

In 1999 the Indonesians finally left, and the Indonesian Governor of East Timor was replaced by a UN-appointed Administrator from Brazil named Sérgio Vieira de Mello. Mello was a great man who was later killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq. It is really quite tragic how often his name comes up when you study the history of post-war nations.

The East Timorians drafted a constitution and held their first elections in 2001, with Xanana Gusmao becoming first president and Mari Alkatiri becoming first Prime Minister. The country formally stopped being under UN administration in 2002.

Mr. Ramos-Horta succeeded to the office of Prime Minister in 2006 after Mr. Alkatiri resigned amid increasing domestic chaos. And now he's going to be the new President, replacing Xanana Gusmao.

Mr. Gusamo was the only world leader whose name started with the letter "X." Mr. Ramos-Horta will now become one of the world's only two leaders who holds a Nobel Peace Prize. The other is Oscar Arias, the moderate president of Costa Rica who got the award in 1987 for helping mediate the end of the Central American civil wars of the 1980's.


Talking of former colonies....
The Micronesians got a new president yesterday. His name is Manny Mori. He's the former vice president and a longtime Congressman.

"Micronesia" consists of a bunch of tiny Pacific islands that used to belong to the United States. In the 1970's the Micronesians began to demand independence. There was a famous exchange with Henry Kissinger on the matter.

Q: Mr. Kissinger, what about the possibility of Micronesia becoming independent?
A: There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?
And so they became independent in 1979. Well sort of. The terms of their independence was carefully negotiated with the United States, and as a result their post-independent constitution has given the US a lot of influence over the now-sovereign country. America retains the right to build military bases in Micronesia and manage the country's defenses. Micronesians are also encouraged to "consult" with the US government before making foreign policy decisions. This is why Micronesia is one of the only countries in the world that ever supports the United States in UN General Assembly votes on controversial matters.

Of course it's not all one-sided... the US heavily subsidizes the Micronesian economy as well. Hundreds of millions of American tax dollars go to Micronesia every year to keep their welfare state afloat.

The Micronesian system of government is vaguely based on the US model, but more streamlined. There is only one house of Congress, which consists of one Senator for each of the four Micronesian states, plus 10 Representatives chosen based on rep-by-pop. The Congress is also the Electoral College, and elects the President and Vice President once every four years. The President has to be an incumbent Senator. Mr. Manny Mori is the seventh president since independence.

And Lastly....

Some sad news. Malietoa Tanumafili II, the Chief of Samoa has died. He was 94 years old- the world's oldest head of state.

Samoa is another tiny little country in the Pacific Ocean. It was part of New Zealand until 1962, at which point it became independent. They decided to become a constitutional monarchy, but they couldn't quite decide who to make their first paramount chief. So they gave two people the job, Malietoa Tanumafili II and Tupua Tamasese Mea'ole. Things got easier the next year when Mea'ole died, making the other guy sole Chief-for-Life.

Now that he's dead, however, the country will cease being a monarchy and become a republic, in accordance with constitutional amendments passed during his reign. The head of state will henceforth be elected by the Samoan parliament for a five-year term of office.

There are two places in the world called Samoa; this Samoa and American Samoa, which is a US territory. "Plain" Samoa used to be called "Western Samoa" until 1997, at which point they changed their name to just "Samoa." The American Samoans thought this was quite an arrogant thing to do.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Election results wrap-up

Head of State Update is ready to announce that Nicolas Sarkozy has been elected President of France, winning today's run-off election against Socialist Segolene Royal. His election ensures that the 12-year conservative hold on the French presidency is now going to continue for at least another five years. I'll write more about him once he gets sworn in on the 16th of May.

Turkish Trouble

Talking of Presidential elections, there has been much brouhaha in Turkey lately over the election of their president.

Turkey is a parliamentary republic in which most power is held by the Prime Minister. The President is a weak figure whose main relevance comes from his power to appoint the prime minister from the parliament.

Much of modern Turkish political history has revolved around presidents trying to avoid appointing an Islamist prime minister. The Turkish elites have this extreme obsession with keeping openly religious people out of positions of power because they fear that a "non secular" leader would turn the country into a Middle-Eastern style rathole overnight. The funny thing is that the Turkish people keep voting for religious parties, however, so the political, military, and judicial elites have to resort of a number of decidedly undemocratic gimmicks to keep the Islamists out of office by any means necessary.

An Islamist Party won a plurality of seats in the parliament in 1995 but the President specifically avoided appointing the party's leader PM, as would normally happen. Instead he tried to force the other, smaller parties into unworkable anti-Islamic coalition governments, but they all failed. So he ulitmately had no choice but to appoint the Islamic guy. The political system having "failed" the nation, the Turkish military then staged a coup and forced the new Prime Minister out of office. The new military-backed government banned the Islamic party from ever running again.

But the Islamists founded a new political party, and in 1998 it too won the most seats in the parliament. Once again the President tried to weasel out of appointing the Islamist premier. And once again, after a few unsuccessful coalition governments, the President reluctantly had to appoint the Islamist guy in the end.

But even that's an interesting story, because the leader of the Islamic party at that time was named Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan had previously been jailed for reading an Islamic poem in public, a conviction which made him constitutionally ineligible for the prime ministership. So the President instead appointed Mr. Erdogan's friend Abdullah Gül. Mr. Gül served as Prime Minister for three months, during which he changed the constitution to allow people convicted of "crimes against secularism" to become PM.

Erdogan was appointed Prime Minister, a job which he holds to this day.

Flash forward to the present. The President's term is up, and a new one needs to be chosen. Under the Turkish constitution that's the job of the parliament. Prime Minister Erdogan suggested they make Mr. Gül the new president, and on April 27 they voted to approve him.

This was considered monstrously offensive to the pro-secular set. To many in this camp, the President of Turkey is not just some guy who picks the Prime Minister, but also the symbolic "head of the nation," and the man who must personify and embody all the values of the Republic. The first president of Turkey was a fanatical secularist named Mustafa Ataturk. He ruled as a dictator and pretty much single-handedly destroyed the vibrant Islamic culture that had arisen in Turkey during the days of the Ottoman Empire. Then he established a grotesque personality cult around himself, to remind future generations that he was the greatest Turk who ever lived and anyone who governed in a way different than himself was a horrible traitor to the nation.

Thousands and thousands of anti-religious activists went to the streets to protest Mr. Gül becoming president. They waved Turkish flags and portraits of Ataturk. One particular point of controversy was the fact that Missus Gül choses to wear the headscarf, something President Ataturk had tried to abolish because it was too Islamicy. "A woman who covers her head cannot sit in Ataturk's palace," one protester yelled.

But this week was good news for the secularists. The Turkish Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Gül's election was invalid, because parliament did not have quorum. The parliament has now delayed the election for several months, which will hopefully allow for tensions to cool. And Mr. Gül' says he is not going to run again.

It's an odd place, Turkey. So many people hate Islam, yet still identify as being Muslims. I wonder how high the rate of church attendance is.

New Leader in the Tropics

An interesting thing to chart would be the delay between elections and inaugurations around the world. In the United States, for example, the President is elected in early November, but not sworn in until some two months later, in late January. In France, the waiting period is about two weeks.

The Commonwealth of the Bahamas had an election on Wednesday and their new Prime Minister was sworn in on Friday. My guess is they are one of the quickest countries in this regard.

The new chap's name is Hubert Ingraham. He is a conservative who leads the Free National Movement party. Mr. Ingraham has been Prime Minister once before, for the ten year period spanning 1992 to 2002. Politicians in the Caribbean tend to have long shelf lives. There have only been three Prime Ministers of the Bahamas in all.

In its colonial days the Bahamas used to be a tropical paradise for tax-evading businessmen from Britain and the United States. Then in 1972 it became an independent country, and the charismatic socialist Sir Lynden Pindling became Prime Minister. The businessmen left and the narco-traffickers moved in. Ingraham beat Pindling in 1992, then Inragam himself was beat by Perry Christie in 2002; Perry Christie being the man who was chosen to lead the socialist party following Sir Lynden's 2000 death.

Here we see the new Prime Minister being sworn in by the Governor General of the Commonwealth, who is the small man on the right. Bahamas recognizes Elizabeth the Second as Queen, a fact which the present Governor General finds stupid. He'd much rather be president of a republic.

Some interesting people have run the Bahamas over the years. According to from 1706 to 1718 the islands were governed by Blackbeard the Pirate. From 1940 to 1945 the Governor General was Edward the Eighth, the disgraced former King of England. It's quite a fascinating country to study, really.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

King Sworn In

The 13th King of Malaysia was inaugurated last week. He has this long convoluted foreign name, and I'm not quite sure which parts I can omit. Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin ibni al-Marhum Sultan Mahmud is his full name, but I would assume Malaysian people call him something shorter in casual conversation.

Malaysia has an interesting head of state system, one of the most unique in the world. Basically it works as such:

The Federation of Malaysia is a parliamentary, federal democracy. There is a federal government and 13 state governments. Nine of the states are monarchies, with a sultan as head of state, while the other four are republics, with a governor. These people don't do a lot- they're mostly figureheads. Each state has a prime minister, too; they're the ones who actually run the governments.

When they're not cutting ribbons, the nine sultans are part of something called the "Conference of Rulers." Every five years a different member of the Conference gets to be King of Malaysia for a five-year term. Then someone else gets a turn. It rotates in a steady pattern, but since there are 13 states it can take a long time before you get a chance. For example, Malaysia has been an independent country for almost fifty years, and only now are we in the "second cycle."

King Long-Name is the second-ever king from the state of Terengganu. The last sultan from that state ruled as king from 1965-1970. A whole other sultan lived and died inbetween the two of them.

So anyway, yes, last Thursday the new guy was formally inaugurated in a lavish ceremony. His term of office started in late December, but this was his official coronation signaling his formal beginning as King.

The Star, which is a prominent Malaysian newspaper, has a lot of interesting coverage on the inauguration and all the ceremonial folderol associated with it. this is special feature they ran about the old King, when he was inaugurated back in 2001. It has more pretty pictures.

Speaking of pretty pictures, here's a fine portrait of the new King and Queen standing alongside their Prime Minister. It just screams "orientalism:"