Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The New Face of Turkey

Abdullah Gül was elected President of Turkey this week, thus finally concluding the most drawn-out and controversial presidential election in modern Turkish history.
I wrote about the controversial Mr. Gül earlier this year during his first attempt to run for president. A former Islamist, many within Turkey's secular elite found him too religious to be ruler of a republic that prides itself on strongly separating church from state.

Just to recap, in April the parliament elected Mr. Gül president, but that vote was later deemed invalid due to lack of quorum. So things were delayed for a couple of months, and Mr. Gül said he wouldn't run again, to spare the nation any more turmoil.

But then in July the Turks had a parliamentary election, and the religious Justice and Development Party won a divisive majority. This emboldened them, as it meant they no longer had to worry about appeasing the other, smaller parties and their whiny calls to respect secularism. So they decided to renominate Mr. Gül and on August 28 they pushed through his election, which he won in a landslide vote of 339 to 83.

The Turkish president is sworn in on the same day of his election, so Mr. Gül formally became Turkey's 11th president later that evening.

In old Turkey the military probably would be staging a coup right about now, because Mr. Gül, despite being a born-again secularist and enemy of Islamism, is still considered to be too much of a socially conservative busy-body to be trusted with power. But new Turkey is trying to get into the EU, and in the battle between democracy and secularism democracy is a value much less easily compromised. Considering the parliament's- and by extension the voters- overwhelming endorsement of Gül, a coup at this point would do far more damage to Turkey's international image and prestige than any religious agenda the new president will be able to cook up.

The military knows this, but old habits die hard, and following Mr. Gül's election they still made some official noises of displeasure. The Chief of the Army staff declared that "centers of evil" were working to erode secularism, and all of the country's top generals boycotted their new Commander-in-Chief's inauguration ceremony.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sunrise, Sunset

Virgin Matures

Part of the reason why the British Empire was so successful was thanks to the naturally efficient tendencies of the British people. They organized their empire better than most people organize their socks, with elaborate categories and columns and hierarchies and bureaucracies.

There is no British Empire today of course, but the British still have a collection of things called "overseas territories" which they sort of colonially-run. The surviving relics of the Empire, as it were. There's about a dozen of them today, and they're all little islands with tiny populations. Government-wise, they have different systems depending on what stage of colonial "evolution" they're at.

The smaller colonies have strong governors, appointed by the British government, who hold almost all political power. As the colony matures and grows, it eventually gets an elected parliament, and the governor delegates some of his powers to the legislature. As it matures further, the parliament gets larger and more sophisticated, and chooses its own chief minister and cabinet to assist the governor in day-to-day operations. And then, in the final step before independence, the chief minister becomes a prime minister, and the governor becomes a mostly symbolic figure, who is barely involved in government at all.

I mention all this because one of Britain's more famous colonies recently upgraded its status. On August 20 the British Virgin Islands formally entered the final phase of colonial evolution, and new elections were held. Longtime politician Ralph O'Neal was in turn elected the nation's first Prime Minister.

The Virgin Islands joins Bermuda and the Turks and Caicos Islands as territories of Britain that are virtually independent. Certainly more independent than Canada was in the early 20th Century, if you want to use that analogy. It remains to be seen whether or not any of these nations will ever become fully independent countries, however. The Bermuda people routinely vote against independence, in part because they benefit from the various tax breaks and passport loopholes that come with being colonial citizens. The Puerto Ricans have been pulling the same scam for decades.

Rest in Peace

And now, a rather sad collection of deaths to report.

Gaston Thorn died yesterday, he was the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg and one of that country's great statesmen. He was PM for five years, from '74 to '79. After leaving office he became head of the European Commission, and was one of the founding fathers of the modern EU system.

Raymond Barre passed away on the 25th, he was the Prime Minister of France from 1976 to 1981, serving between Jacque Chirac's two terms. A conservative economist, he was one of the first western leaders to advocate the kind of harsh right-wing economic reforms that would become so fashionable in the 1980's.

Perhaps most notable of all was the August 24 death of Abdul Rahman Arif. Arif was President of Iraq from 1966 to 1968. His term ended when he was overthrown by the Baath Party, who proceded to establish a dictatorship under President Ahmad Hassan al Baker and Vice President Saddam Hussein.

Arif was the brother of the first President of Iraq, Abdul Salam Arif, who was part of the gang that overthrew the Iraqi monarchy in the late 1950's. When the elder Arif was killed in a helicopter crash, the younger assumed the presidency of the nation. And the Iraqi people cheered, because this kind of thing clearly illustrated how a dictatorship was superior to a monarchy.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dubious Man Elected Through Dubious Process

Some readers have noted I failed to make any comments regarding the new President of Latvia, who took office while I was away, on July 8. Well it's over a month now, but in the interests of completeness I will say a few words about him.

Dr. Valdis Zatlers is his name. He achieved a narrow first-round victory in a parliamentary vote held on May 31, beating former supreme court justice Aivars Endzins.

The election was one of the most contentious in Latvia's democratic history, reflecting the fact that the once-symbolic presidency has become a more powerful and important office in recent years. Both candidates were controversial for different reasons. Endzins was a former Communist who was on record defending the Soviet occupation of his country, which needless to say rubbed some people the wrong way. But at least he had political experience, which was more than could be said of Dr. Zatlers, who although an accomplished physician, never held any sort of elected or appointed office of government.

Zalter's election was also controversial because many Latvians have grown to dislike the rather old-fashioned and unaccountable way in which their presidents are elected. Dr. Zatlers was, by all accounts, the less popular candidate with the general public, but that fact didn't matter since the general public doesn't get to elect their president directly. Zatler was parliament's choice, but that's not necessarily a good thing, as many Latvians hold their parliament in rather low regard.

But now he's in office. It remains to be seen whether he will be a dynamic and strong president like his predecessor, the popular Vaira Vike-Freiberga, or merely a puppet of the country's oligarchical elites, as many of his opponents fear.

Here's a fine Latvian-written editorial on the new fellow and the controversies surrounding him:

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Three Stories of July

So, I've been gone for a while eh? Let's recap what has transpired in the last month.

STORY NUMBER ONE

India has a new president! And a woman at that.

India is one of many countries where the president is a useless figurehead. But the election process is probably one of the most complicated political procedures in the world, a fact due to the sheer size of India. The winning candidate must secure a majority of votes by the Indian parliament and all 28 of India's state legislatures. That's over 4,000 politicians to win over. Luckily the country has a very rigid party hierarchy, so legislators generally vote the way their leaders tell them.

Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the majority Indian Congress Party and the most powerful politician in the country, decided that her country needed a woman president. Perhaps she was just bitter because she didn't get to be Prime Minister back in 2004, even though she won the friggin election. So anyway, as leader of the country's most dominant political party, Ms. Gandhi nominated her pal Pratibha Patil to be the new president of India. Ms. Patil was the Governor of Rajasthan, India's largest state, and a loyal party hack. On July 21 she won the vote handily, with 2,931 votes, or around 65%.

Governor Patil was sworn in four days later, on the 25th. Even though the Indian presidency is not powerful, the Indian people take the symbolism of the office seriously, so it was something of a big deal to finally have a woman president. In the past they have had Muslim and Sikh presidents, as well as a president from the much-hated "untouchables" caste.

Here's a picture of the new president performing one of her typical roles:



STORY NUMBER TWO

Another historic first occurred for women in the Commonwealth of Antigua and Barbuda. In early July the Prime Minister appointed Louise Lake-Tack as the country's first female Governor-General.

Ms. Lake-Tack was a longtime lawyer and low-level judge who worked in both A&B and England. But she was never a particularly famous or important figure in either country. She was however, a loyal supporter and fundraiser of the political party of the current Antiguan Prime Minister, Baldwin Spencer. So Spencer appointed her Governor-General, much to the outrage of the opposition parties, who accused Spenny of using the nation's highest post as a shallow patronage appointment. All the opposition politicians refused to attend the inauguration ceremony in protest.

Counting Ms. Lake-Tack, Antigua and Barbuda has had three governor-generals in all, since the country became independent from the UK in 1981. The last colonial governor, Sir Wilfred E. Jacobs, served in the new position for 12 years. Then from 1993 to 2007 the post was held by Sir James Carlisle, a famous dentist. In small countries it is sometimes hard to scrounge up famous people.

STORY NUMBER THREE

Bhutan is a fundamentalist Bhuddist monarchy located between India and China. They tend to be a very self-aggrandizing lot, and often make the Dinseyesque claim of being "the happiest country on Earth." But the happiest place on Earth has a rather authoritarian system of government, under all-powerful king and no voting.

But things are slowly starting to change. Last year the longtime king resigned, and his 27-year-old son took the throne, supposedly to usher in a new era of more enlightened leadership. The new king proceeded to call for the country's first elections, which are scheduled to occur in March of '09.

In preparation for this historic event, Khandu Wangchuk, the royal Prime Minister resigned on July 31. He was replaced by Kinzang Dorji, who will serve as acting PM until a new one can be elected in March. Mr. Wangchuck hopes to run in the race, but thinks it would be a conflict if he stays in office during the election. So we shall see how things go.

***

So yeah. Those were the three most relevant things that happened while I was gone, head of state wise. Stay tuned for the resumption of regular updates!