Thursday, December 2, 2010

How would China respond to a double dip recession?

The Irish bailout and nervousness over other parts of Europe's economies again raises the question of whether we might see some sort of double dip recession, or even another global financial and economic crisis. Although this still remains hypothetical, it is worth thinking about how the Chinese authorities might respond were the global economy to collapse again.

As time goes on, this question becomes more relevant, not so much due to the aggregate size of the Chinese economy, but because it remains one of the fastest growing parts of the global economy. Back in 2008, the Chinese authorities' stimulus package did not just prevent a possible crisis in the PRC. China's GDP increase of 8.7% was a bright spot in global growth that helped save the world economy from an even worse fate.

Memories are strange things, and Chinese policymakers probably think of their actions then as a sign of responsible assistance to the global economy. It seemed that way in the west too, at the time, though any gratitude has since given way to condemnation of China's stability-focused approach to its exchange rate, and nervousness that China has gained just slightly too much economic clout over recent years.

All of this would be very relevant were we to witness another global downturn. From a Chinese perspective, I suggest there would be two main angles.

The first is the impact of any subsequent downturn on the Chinese economy itself. The 2007/8 shock was all the greater to China for the fact that it came after a major global boom during which Chinese GDP ballooned, but which also saw the country's exposure to global trade rise substantially (total trade reaching 67% of GDP in 2007).

C
hina would clearly suffer again, though the next time could be rather different. The authorities have already tweaked policy to reduce the impact of an export shock, focused more on indigenous innovation and domestically-driven growth, and witnessed the organic drift inland of GDP growth to provinces less exposed to the global economy, particularly noticeable since 2007. The domestic incentives for Beijing to put together a second major stimulus to deal with any future global slowdown could therefore be lower.

Such a stimulus would also look unattractive because China is currently grappling with the consequences of the first stimulus package, particularly rising inflation, but also delays to its achievement of energy efficiency targets. The leadership will not want to enact measures which will exacerbate these fractures further.

Secondly, this needs to be put alongside the tense international environment over China's currency management - though in Asia views that it is continued US profligacy which is to blame probably have more traction. These tensions would make entreaties to China to boost the global economy out of another crisis politically more difficult; to turn this around, perhaps it would mean that any such boost might have to be more on China's terms than those of the west.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Africa is coming of age

Dr Titi Banjoko

Africa is coming of age. 2010 sees 17 African countries celebrate 50 years of independence. Many questions are being asked by Africans and Non-Africans alike on whether the aspirations of independence have been achieved and the progress to date.

If reflection is based on post independent socio-economic progression only, are we asking the right question? After all the starting point at independence was freedom from colonial rule not economics. The goal was continued dependence or independence; in that respect the goal of independence has been achieved.

With independence comes responsibility and then accountability for socio-economic development. This is not achieved as a one off but as evolving process fraught with so many challenges that will eventually lead to maturity and ultimately success.

Recent years have seen African countries grow in understanding and awareness of who we are and how we fit into the wider global context. The increasing awareness has led to a greater insight into the issues, potentials and opportunities within Africa and the effect of external stakeholders. This journey of self discovery has led to numerous changes across Africa i.e. move from military to civilian rule, increasing calls from within to speed the developmental process, a growing and maturing media, civil society and a vibrant private sector.

Post independence African countries maintained and continued a strong relationship with colonial countries i.e. Anglo; Franco and Lusophone links. These historical ties are beginning to count for nothing as new relationships are courted and forged based on mutual respect and benefits.

The language and postural statements from both the West and Africa points to a shift in relationship from passive to active engagement; recipients of to partnership with from win –lose to a win –win and specifics over generalisation i.e. named African country rather than Africa.
The maturity of Africa and its coming of age is reflected in various sectors i.e. growth and expansion of African owned companies inside and outside Africa. The increasing self belief that Africans can and must solve the problems in Africa; is evidence of maturity.

The next fifty years will see the emergence of African countries on the global platform as a key economic player.

Africa has much to celebrate- there have been massive strides to reduce poverty improve literacy, infant mortality rates, life expectancy. Still, much needs to be done, with human rights abuses remaining an issue in many African countries, while poverty and disease continue to stalk parts of the continent, some of them which have known no peace and are ravaged by years of armed conflict.

Technology such as the internet and mobile phone has become a part of everyday life in Africa. More importantly it’s a tool that is used to increase the availability of information creating a more transparent and credible process for bringing leaders to account.

As the mass populace becomes more informed so will the level of accountability of the leaders, forcing the required change and development across the continent.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Friends no more? The consequences of Israel’s disastrous act of high-seas piracy for Turkish-Israeli relations

Israel’s brazen and deadly assault onto the Gaza flotilla in international waters has created a crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations in comparison to which the accumulated history of recent bilateral tensions in the last 5 years completely pales. The current impasse is likely to result in a deep and long-lasting fissure, at least under an AKP-governed Turkey. 8 Turkish nationals as well as a US citizen of Turkish origin are known to have been killed by Israeli Special Forces during the raid on the Mavi Marmara, a converted cruise ship flying Turkish flags that had been chartered by a Turkish human rights organisation to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. Of the approximately 600 people it was carrying, there were 400 Turkish citizens. These activists are being swiftly transferred back to their countries without prosecution which reflects Israel’s frantic desire to dampen the fall-out of this episode as quickly as possible and attempt to defuse the crisis with its closest friend in the Muslim world.

However, as the vociferous outrage being voiced by the Turkish government in the domestic and international arena amply shows, this is unlikely to happen. Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu described the incident as ‘murder conducted by a state’ while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called it a ‘bloody massacre’. The country has been at the forefront of condemning the act in the United Nations and has recalled its ambassador to Israel. Joint military exercises have been scrapped and there is a possibility of Israeli diplomats being expelled from Turkey. Israeli tourism to Turkey, already in decline because of fractious bilateral relations in recent years, will drop considerably and economic trade between both countries will also suffer a dramatic knock-back. It is unlikely that contact between both countries will be completely severed and in time, depending to what extent Israel can show concrete progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, they might recover to a degree that can be called amicable. However, the televised statements by Abdullah Gül, Turkey’s president, that Israeli-Turkish relations will ‘never be the same’ are a terse and fitting epitaph to the formerly strategic link between both countries which had been disappearing gradually in recent years and which was climactically torn apart last Monday by Israel’s disastrous act of high seas piracy.

The international and regional context amidst which this strategic relationship was formed in the mid-1990s no longer pertains. At that time, Turkey was eager to use Israel’s military might in a combined fashion to intimidate Syria, formerly a foe. It also wanted access to Israeli military technology as well as the considerable lobbying power that it possessed in American politics to counter the influence of Greek and Armenian Diasporas. The changes in Turkey’s domestic politics and external relations have neutralised many of these factors. The glacial re-orientation in Turkey’s foreign policy towards the Middle Eastern region under the rule of the Justice and Development party since 2002 has seen a dramatic normalisation of relations towards many neighbouring countries. This process has not just involved Middle Eastern states like Iran, Iraq and Syria but also Greece which Erdoğan recently visited suggesting substantial cuts in both countries military expenditure for the shared Aegean sea. This re-orientation became quite visible to Israel when Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of Hamas, travelled to Turkey on an official visit in 2006.

In the last decade, Turkey has become increasingly comfortable and confident with its evolving position as an upwardly mobile regional and international actor. Repeatedly frustrated by the floundering state of its EU accession prospects as well as the fading power of its erstwhile vital relations with the US, it has focused more energy, using its economic soft power and diplomatic assets, on expanding its relations with its Caucasian, Central Asian and Middle Eastern neighbourhood. In the last years, Erdoğan’s stature in the Middle Eastern context has mushroomed to that of a regional leader, although there is also plenty of quiet resentment and scepticism amongst the Arab governments at the intrusion of this outsider. The well-televised spat between Shimon Peres and Turkey’s temperamental Prime Minister at the 2009 Davos conference reinforced his allure amongst the Arab public as a statesman prepared to loudly and boldly voice his anger at the treatment of Palestinians in the international forum. This was undoubtedly a welcome change from the petty, behind-the-scenes squabbling which characterised the Arab League's belated reaction to Israel’s siege of Gaza. Turkey, with Erdoğan at its helm, is in the process of becoming the predominant regional spokesperson for the plight of the Palestinians in the Middle East which gives it considerable political capital. Egypt’s decision to briefly open its crossing to Gaza for humanitarian aid illustrates its discomfort at being steadily displaced by Turkey in the Arab world.

Naturally, there is also a strong domestic political dimension to the Turkish government’s prominent stance towards the Palestinians. In the face of high unemployment, the uncertainty of future economic growth and a rejuvenated political opposition ahead of next year’s national elections, highlighting Turkey’s active role in this issue is a sure vote-winner for the AKP. The plight of the Palestinians is one of the few international issues which has persistently concerned and animated Turkish public opinion. Certainly this concern is motivated by feelings of religious solidarity but it has little to do with the so-called conspiratorial Islamization theses which are so popular in American neo-conservative circles. Already, in 2002, under the preceding coalition government which was led by mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties, Prime Minister Bülent Eçevit, a staunchly secular social democrat, accused Israel of carrying out a ‘genocide’ against the Palestinian people after the start of the second intifada.

This is the domestic, regional and international background amidst which Israel chose to carry out its bloody raid in international waters to stop a convoy of humanitarian aid resulting in the deaths of 9 people, of which 8 are Turkish nationals. The immediate fury amongst Turkey’s political elites as well as its public, reinforced by almost unanimous international condemnation, is quiet understandable and will be extremely difficult to assuage in an age of 24-hour audio-visual news media where events outpace the public relations machinery of governments. However, even if this where to somehow miraculously occur, the long-term transformations at the domestic, regional and international level that have influenced Turkey’s foreign policy calculations in the last decade will act against a rejuvenation of a strong and strategic Turkish-Israeli relationship. Thus it seems that Israel has scuttled its chances of recuperating its sole ally in the Muslim world at high sea.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sarkozy saves the day at the European summit

There may be many captains currently manning the EU ship – Herman Van Rompuy as head of the European Council, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as holder of the rotating EU Presidency, Jose Manuel Barroso as Commission President, and Jean-Claude Junker as eurogroup Chairman – but it is French President Nicolas Sarkozy who’s managed to pull the eurozone back from the brink at this week’s European Council.

On Thursday morning, Germany’s Angela Merkel had still not agreed to meet her fellow eurozone heads of government to strike a deal on how to avert Greece’s potential default – without a humiliating intervention by the IMF –, but in a bilateral meeting just before the start of the European Council, Sarkozy concluded his energetic, week-long lobbying of Chancellor Merkel with a tightly-worded agreement on a support mechanism. In a coffee break later on, eurozone leaders were gathered together to approve the plan.

So what’s the deal?

The loan mechanism, which will only come into play should Greece make a formal request for support, would consist of a majority of bilateral loans by eurozone governments – calculated according to their capital weighting in the European Central Bank (ECB), making Germany the biggest contributor – and “substantial” IMF financing. There would be a unanimous vote of eurozone Members to disburse the loans - thus giving each a veto – and the mechanism would subject the receiving country to “strong conditionality” – relating to budgetary discipline - and assessment by the European Commission and ECB.

For Merkel, IMF involvement was a pre-condition for the deal and something of a political face-saver, given her staunch resistance to a eurozone support mechanism in the past weeks. ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet has called it a “workable solution”, but will privately not be happy with IMF involvement. Nor will Greece, which fears IMF demands for the dismissal of public sector workers or further pay cuts. In addition, another key part of the bargain for Merkel is commitment to stricter economic and budgetary surveillance as well as stronger enforcement mechanisms against profligate Member States. A new crisis resolution framework will also be put in place. To work out all the details of this tougher stance on fiscal discipline and crisis management, a taskforce will now be set up by Van Rompuy and the Commission, composed of Member State representatives, the rotating Presidency, and the European Central Bank, which will report by the end of this year.

The new bailout deal is also accompanied by a pledge to strengthen economic governance – vociferously championed by France - with proposals due to be submitted by the Commission to the next European Council in June. All in all, Sarkozy’s had a good couple of days and can return home as a European hero, following his disastrous regional election results.

The European Council also made a first general agreement on the EU’s new growth and jobs strategy, Europe 2020 – including a headline target to raise employment to 75% - while pushing back to June decisions on the more controversial targets on education and poverty reduction proposed by the European Commission. One key element – relating to the synchronization of coordination mechanisms of Europe 2020 with the Stability and Growth Pact so that moves towards greater fiscal sustainability are made compatible with growth initiatives – was rejected, largely because of Chancellor Merkel’s objections.

In addition, Europe’s leaders reiterated their climate targets and climate financing commitments, showing that, despite their humiliating marginalization in the corridors of the Copenhagen summit, they have not renounced their claim to leadership in negotiations for a post-2012 global climate framework.

Overall, the European Council managed to take the most urgent decisions to maintain the credibility of the EU and the euro, but essential questions remain unanswered on core European policies for securing economic recovery and generating new sustainable growth in the coming years.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

European leaders bicker over Europe’s economic future

Just what is going in the EU at the moment? The elation felt at the end of last year with the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, after almost a decade of difficult negotiations and three failed treaty referenda, has quickly given way to discord amongst European leaders on the biggest political issues it’s facing.

Bickering has characterized the weeks leading up to today and tomorrow’s European summit of leaders. One of the big disputed issues is how to deal with the Greek economic crisis – and more generally eurozone governance. With the euro at an all-time low against the dollar – betraying a loss of market confidence in Europe’s ability to manage its own economic problems – many EU leaders including France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, believe there needs to be a mechanism for supporting distressed eurozone economies like Greece, for the long-term viability and strength of the single currency.

Others, led by the redoubtable Angela Merkel of Germany, simply don’t want to bear the financial implications of a bailout mechanism, despite the chaotic impact on the euro. Staunch fiscal disciplinarians in Germany believe such a mechanism would encourage wayward spending behaviour and simply want to expel countries from the eurozone for not meeting the deficit limits of the Stability and Growth Pact.

So what of European solidarity, one of the key cornerstones of the EU project? The European Commission President Barroso has now taken the extraordinary step of reminding European leaders that the treaty does not allow the expulsion of any Member state from the eurozone. But despite vague proclamations on EU commitment to Greece, there appears to be no resolution to this deep-seated divergence. It’s doubtful today’s summit will make any progress, as evidenced by Angela Merkel’s refusal to agree to a special meeting of eurozone heads of government today, proposed by Presidents Zapatero and Sarkozy.

European leaders – in addition to political parties, trade unions and business lobbies - also appear to be in disagreement over the fundamentals of another big item on today’s agenda, a new ten-year strategy for growth and jobs, the so-called Europe 2020 strategy. The European Commission has proposed five headline targets for employment, R&D spending, climate change, for early school leavers and those participating in tertiary education, and for poverty reduction. Policy warnings would be issued to countries failing to meet the targets. The other major element of the proposal is to synchronise the coordination mechanisms of Europe 2020 with the Stability and Growth Pact so as to make deficit-busting compatible with pro-growth investments.

But Chancellor Merkel has again put a spanner in the works by complaining that setting targets for education could infringe on Germany’s federal competences (despite the fact that Europe already boasts more than one education target). Merkel also claims that synchronizing the coordination mechanisms would “politicize” the Stability Pact. At the same time, finance ministers also issued a joint statement last week criticizing both the 3% GDP R & D target and the target for taking 20 million people out of poverty, stating that a wider indicator should be chosen for research and innovation, while the “principle and the correct design” of the social inclusion target should be further considered.

Criticisms of Europe 2020 from outside Member governments further create the impression that there’s a long way to go to create the necessary momentum for a successful ten-year economic strategy. Europe’s federation of labour parties - the Party of European socialists – believes there is little in the current proposal to incentivise investment and job creation initiatives needed to turn around Europe’s economic fortunes. The European Trade Union Confederation is similarly scathing, claiming that Europe 2020 should really be addressing crisis-related initiatives for 2010, without which it will be impossible to pull out of recession and create jobs once more. While Europe’s main business lobby, Business Europe, has criticised the lack of urgency and focus in the strategy, arguing for a “Go for Growth” target of 2% by 2014.

For a proposal that was meant to generate a new drive amongst Member States and stakeholders to boost Europe's growth and competitiveness, the European Commission’s proposal has left many underwhelmed.

And with so much disagreement on the fundamental next steps for the European project, there appears little prospect for success – beyond the usual political platitudes - at today and tomorrow’s European Council.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Voting against Change?

It is six in the morning and I am sitting in the dark in my apartment in Sulimaniyah, huddled round the blue light of my computer. I have been up for an hour, and just before six the electricity always goes. The man who is employed to fire up our generator doesn’t start work until nine, when we are blessed with heat and light once again.

What am I doing writing when I should be taking the excuse to stay in bed? I’m not sure. I have been finding it difficult to sleep recently. The gunfire might have something to do with it.

There has been rather a lot of night-time gunfire in recent days in Suli. When it started, around 9pm on election day, I did transfer myself and my computer onto the floor, out of the way of the windows, and send a slightly worried text to a colleague. But as she reassured me, it’s not really anything to worry about. At that time, both the main parties in Sulimaniyah had begun to claim victory; and the Kurds like nothing better than to shoot a few rounds skywards in celebration.

That first night was the noisiest – I am sure some of my immediate neighbours were joining in with some serious rifles – and one child was rumoured to have been injured by a stray bullet. Nothing brings home how many armed guards there are in this city quite like hearing all of them get a bit excited with their rifles, all at once. I am told that, as in parts of America, most families here also own a gun, so there is no shortage.

Much of the firing that night took place at the Hill, the headquarters of the opposition Goran ('Change') party. This is just across the road from us, which explains the noise level. During a lull, a colleague decided to leave the building with her husband, and drive to a friend’s home for a visit. On the way back they stopped to see what was happening on the Hill. This turned out to be a mistake, as they were forced to hide behind a car to dodge bullets.

The shots have been less frequent in the days since then. Although my insomnia last night was caused by what sounded like someone shooting bears at our neighbour’s house (it turned out to be fireworks), this represented a break in a basically peaceful evening.

I wonder if this is indicative of the way the results are turning locally. Of course, it will be until we get the official results, but rumour has it that the opposition Goran party, which won Sulimaniyah governorate in the 2009 provincial election, will not win the city this time around. Following on from big public shows of support during campaigning, this might be coming as a shock to the Goran loyalists who were so enthusiastic on election night.

If this turns out to be true, it would probably be justifiable to say that a fair bit of fraud was involved. Sulimaniyah tends not to be on the scale of other parts of Iraq - for instance, an international election monitor has recently told one of the editors I work with that the election in Kirkuk was so crooked it should be re-run completely. But there have been many accusations and rumours, and some of my friends personally know people co-opted by the city’s dominant political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, to make sure no one in the largely PUK-controlled public services votes for Goran.

Goran’s victory in Sulimaniyah last year was not sweeping. But since then, various serving elected officials have defected from the PUK or its allies to Goran, unofficially swinging the governorate further towards Goran and thus provoking PUK ire. The 2010 national election has nothing to do with the 2009 provincial election in theory – Iraqi Kurdistan runs on a complicated two-government system – but the PUK may fear that Goran can formalise its de facto power by winning seats in Sulimaniyah.

This might be the reason behind any PUK fraud; and it shows how intensely local politics are around here. The fact that Goran has reportedly lost out in Suli but gained elsewhere in the Kurdish region in this election, suggests that PUK power playing is tightly concentrated on this third of the Kurdish region and this city in particular. The region’s other main power base, the capital city of Erbil, is controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and the PUK clearly do not see a Goran victory there as a threat worthy of their effort. Sulimaniyah politics does not care about what is happening in Erbil, let alone in Baghdad.

The Independent High Electoral Commission is scheduled to announce the election results on Friday – a remarkably quick turnaround in my opinion, given the various tactics and machinations that have to happen under Iraq’s complicated system of redistributing excess votes. When the announcement comes, then the knives will come out.

For now, I don’t think anyone will be staging a firing party at 6.30 in the morning, so perhaps it would be a good idea to open my curtains. Ah! Daylight...

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Up on the Hill is where you'll find us

We are now in the final stages of the pre-election effort in Iraq – and the day before the vote, fingernails are being sharpened.

Last night another large rally honked its way past my apartment, this time PUK. I would guess that over a thousand people went past over two or three hours, including a fairly impressive motorcade of about 50 identical white jeeps covered in party flags. It seemed larger than the somewhat more ragtag and unofficial opposition Gorran (‘Change’) brigade that went past last week. However, the PUK’s front is deceptive – it may not be as dominant as it seems. At a static rally on the Hill last Wednesday, it was reported that around 10,000 gathered. I have also heard unconfirmed reports that the PUK has paid people up to $200 to participate in rallies in the past week. It could be that Change is in the air, not just up on the Hill.

The PUK’s tactics are also hardening at polling stations. The police and other security forces across Iraq voted on Friday, to free them up for duty on Sunday when everyone else votes. Already some are crying fraud. Allegations are emerging that some officers in Sulimaniyah governorate were declared illiterate and assigned another officer to accompany them into the voting booth to ‘assist’ them – something that is known to have happened in various places during the last election. Several high up security officials have announced in the media that they voted for Gorran, in a pre-emptive attempt to avoid being sacked on trumped up charges, as happened in the last election to some who were suspected of opposition sympathies. This time, officials are giving the media all the facts they need to put two and two together. If they are sacked, the Gorran-controlled media will have a strong story and will make a serious fuss.

In Sulimaniyah, the PUK largely controls the security forces – indeed, a colleague who visited the headquarters of the city security forces, Asaysh, two weeks ago saw police cars decorated with PUK flags in preparation for a rally. Thus the party is particularly sensitive to security officials whose loyalty is questionable. The PUK, still dominant but very much the old establishment, is clearly feeling threatened.

In the interests of neutrality, I should point out that Gorran supporters have been accused of attacks and violence just as frequently as those of the ruling PUK-KDP ‘Kurdistani’ coalition in recent weeks. They are by no means angelic. But they do seem to be pulling large support and might, just possibly, be a more serious threat to the Kurdistani coalition than in the 2009 elections.

Much of Gorran’s support surely stems from the simple fact that it is the new, dynamic, fresh option in Kurdistan – an interesting Youtube video compares Gorran’s leader Nawshirwan Mustafa with Che Guevara. But the party also seems to be making some moves towards national reconciliation which might be pulling voters. In Kirkuk, it is “appealing to voters across ethnic lines, pushing ... services and anti-corruption,” according to a report by the media development NGO IWPR.

Gorran is also requiring all candidates to speak good Arabic. Although the Kurdistani alliance apparently also expects this from its parliamentarians, not all do speak Iraq’s main language, and this seriously restricts their ability to speak in the national parliament. In Iraq’s Council of Representatives or parliament, only Arabic is used and there is no translation. My journalist colleagues have been told by some sources that current Kurdish seat holders, all of whom come from the Kurdistani coalition, do not speak in parliament because they do not understand the proceedings.

This could, however, have its own disadvantages. I have heard of at least one candidate who was approached by Gorran and asked to stand because of his excellent Arabic, despite his having no political or legislative experience whatsoever. The requirement may also have cut young candidates out of the running – it is now almost 20 years since the Kurdistan region became largely independent from Baghdad, and increasingly few young Kurds speak Arabic.

If Gorran does manage to field – and get elected – good, competent Arabic-speaking candidates, it will be making a serious effort towards national reconciliation. While some fiercely argue that Kurds should be allowed to speak Kurdish, since the language is recognised in the Iraqi constitution, others point out that this will do nothing to heal divides between the two groups in parliament. It is certainly the case that Kurds who can build alliances across Iraq’s many divides, rather than stick out as voices of confrontational patriotism, will be more successful in meeting their aims on the national stage. Perhaps Gorran, the new challenger to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and its allies, has realised this.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Change comes to Sulimaniyah

On the hillside above Sulimaniyah, there is a large luminous number. Picked out in white lights, ‘372’ sits on the hill at night like a strange pun on the white horses more familiar to the British. A red tick occasionally flashes on and off, just to the left.

When I first saw this from my top-floor apartment, I was utterly mystified. My colleague explained: it’s the number of the candidate list for the ruling Kurdistani Alliance in Iraq’s upcoming election. It is an open list election, where voters can vote for one of the numbered lists (effectively voting for just a party) or they can vote for a single candidate from within a list. Taking an innovative approach to campaigning, the alliance is literally drawing on the landscape the tick that it wants Iraqis to place this coming Sunday.

The scale of this advert speaks volumes about the power of the PUK in this Iraqi Kurdish city, where there is a fierce and sometimes dangerous battle going on between the Kurdistan region’s ruling coalition, of which PUK is a large part, and the new opposition Change party, or Gorran in Kurdish. No less so, the fact that Mr or Ms 372 has placed a light show on the exact opposite side of the city to the Change headquarters, known as Gorran Hill or simply the Hill. In this behemoth Change runs its media empire – the party was founded by a media boss who is now using his TV, radio and print outlets to maximum effect. Facing up to the Hill across the bowl where Sulimaniyah nestles, the PUK list number expresses political rivalry in the very hills that the Kurds of this area so identify with.

There is also some smaller scale imagery to be had around town. Because of the high number of candidates on the lists, campaign posters are fairly uniform to give maximum space to the candidate’s identifying number and a photo of him or her looking varyingly dignified, supercilious, scornful or terrified. Another colleague’s favourite is a pale man who, he says, look like his mum made him stand. But there is little space for party symbols, so the politicians of Sulimaniyah instead use party flags, which adorn every street.

The flags of the ruling coalition feature symbols of power, force and conservatism: a white horse with mane streaming, a hand holding up a red flower. Such symbols are quite beautiful yet have a traditional look: no one has paid much attention to rebranding for some time. Change, on the other hand, has the advantage of both its infancy and, presumably, a ready set of graphic designers at its newspaper offices. The flags have a more rounded, friendly and up to date look, and feature a yellow candle on a dark blue background. The message is clear: hope.

More than one cartoon in the Kurdish press has linked Change’s language and rhetoric with the Obama campaign since the party emerged in 2008. And the Change movement’s messages seem to be rallying a large and fervent support base, especially among youth. Change is able to position itself, as Obama did, as the outside candidate, refreshingly different from the established parties which have fought over and tightly controlled the Kurdish region for two decades. This is especially the case in Sulimaniyah, where the security forces are widely thought to be controlled by the PUK and have frequently been accused of attacks on Change activists in the run-up to the election.

As we saw in the US in 2008, imagery matters, whether it is visual or embodied in words - and the themes of change and hope make a powerful combination. On a wall next to my local supermarket is a mural proclaiming in English ‘we are going towards light’, and it does seem that Change’s candle has captured imaginations.

Will it bring them victory? I’m not sure. I witnessed the fraught Pakistani election in 2008, and was struck by the simplicity and accessibility of the symbol of former President Musharraf’s party, an elegant line drawing of a bicycle heading off into the distance. It represented everyday, easy social mobility – almost everyone can afford a bicycle, it said, and with our bicycle you can speed towards great things. But of course, this great imagery did little for the party of the disgraced military dictator, which plummeted in the poll.

Gorran seems to have a wave of support just as big as in last year’s elections, its first, when it won a good chunk of the vote. If it makes further gains this time, and especially if it wins a majority, the party will have to show its fans that it can back up its images – that it can really deliver change as well as hope.

Time for Turkish political renewal

(Published in the March edition of BN Magazine)

As the UK prepares for what promises to be the most genuinely competitive election campaign for 18 years, Turkey is again mired in political squabbling over the role of the army and the media in Turkish public life, posing serious questions about its political future.

It has been 13 years since the so-called ‘post-modern coup’ where a military memorandum pushed the Welfare Party, of which both Prime Minster Erdoğan and President Gül were members, out of power before it was banned by the constitutional court on the grounds of promoting Islamic fundamentalism. As we know, Turkish political history has been pockmarked by coups and military interventions into political life, so the current tensions have caused some twitchiness, even though, thankfully, the balance of probability seems to remain against such a drastic turn of events.

However, as I write, the pro-AKP press are leading with the on-going revelations of military malfeasance in the ‘Sledgehammer’ case, where former top brass are alleged to have plotted attacks on an airliner and on mosques to create the grounds for an intervention. This is the second major blow to the military’s image after the Ergenekon investigation into its clandestine activities in the 1990s. At the same time, the republican media establishment is busily highlighting the latest in a series of press freedom worries that are in part due to the mix of Erdoğan’s populist style and his falling poll ratings.

For too long the only significant challenge to the AKP government has come from groups outside the democratic process: the courts (who almost dissolved the party in 2008), the media and the military. At last years local elections, while the AKP lost ground, there was no overwhelming recipient of the anti-government vote. Instead, it was disbursed amongst a number of different parties. The main opposition CHP, the party of Ataturk, has been encumbered by a leader in Deniz Biykal who has performed poorly in almost every public election he has stood in, while winning every internal factional battle to remain in charge.

We are in a time when new political movements, that can flower far faster in Turkey than would be the case in Britain, can help shake up the political process in a way not seen since the years of political flux in the 1990s. The Turkey’s Movement for Change (TDH) Mustafa Sarigül, a speaker at an FPC event in March, may be a movement that can transform the Turkish political environment by ploughing a modernising path between the CHP and AKP, or it could sparkle and then quickly fade as others have in the past.

It is critical for Turkey’s future that there is strong electoral completion and a real choice for voters at next year’s elections, so that power can be retained or change hands peaceably and without recourse to anti-democratic methods. In Britain, we may be about to see the end of one-party political dominance at a national level and the start of a period of smaller majorities, or even minority governments or coalitions. Turkey may be heading for the same political future.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A rainy election trail in Iraqi Kurdistan

Ella Rolfe

Kurdish party politics is a strange business. Driving through the city of Sulimaniyah in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region last Saturday evening, in torrential rain, I passed a political rally in full swing. Outside the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or PUK, the area’s dominant party, about a hundred people were gathered, waving flags, making noise, blocking the road, jumping up and down. A few jabbed umbrellas up and down as they chanted – most just looked drenched. My travelling companion commented that since this is spring rain, people are not afraid they will fall ill, despite the freezing cold.

The Kurds are known for their endurance of the harsh climate of their mountainous region, and also for their fierceness in war. Both endurance and fierceness seem to be central to Kurdish election preparations. Campaigning for Iraq’s upcoming election officially opened at midnight of 11-12 February; by half past the hour, the area around my apartment block were filled with activists. By morning, each street was criss-crossed with strings of flags of at least three different parties.

And the campaign busses started. Almost every evening since then – over two weeks – cars and busses crammed with supporters of one party or another have screamed past my home, horns blaring and with huge flags poking out of every available space. Occasionally an entire rally consisting of twenty or more motorbikes and a few pickup trucks has cascaded by. One night this street entertainment is dominated by the ruling coalition of the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party or KDP, with green flags or the tricolour of Iraqi Kurdistan’s flag; another night it will be the blue banners of the opposition, Change, that colour the scene. Always, the busses are full of young men. It’s like football, but louder.

After a week of this, the city authorities apparently tried to ban such campaigning after 9pm. It made no difference, and no one is sure if the ban is still in effect. For the last couple of days, rain has reduced the frequency, but the occasional pickup motorcade still swings by.
Such vociferous campaigning stems partly from history. Kurdistan’s two main parties, the PUK and the KDP, spent much of the 1990s engaged in a bloody civil war against each other, with the KDP occasionally backed by Saddam Hussein’s regime against their fellow Kurds and Iran weighing on both sides at various points. Although the two parties signed a peace agreement in 1998 and are now working together, each still controls much of local government, security forces, and media in one half of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

In this context, political parties have been the main forum for loyalties and group identity within the region for decades. Kurds are not too concerned about ethnic or religious differences among themselves, and so political party alliances replace these to run deep and strong in the region’s culture. The seismic political shift in last year’s provincial elections, with the KDP and PUK allying and the emergence of the new opposition Change party (Gorran in Kurdish), has simply upped the ante.

I am not sure that these tactics succeed in winning votes from the undecided. Indeed, they can be intimidating. There have been several violent clashes in the last two weeks between supporters of rival parties, and between campaigners and police. On February 16, PUK supporters attacked a Change rally, wounding three and kidnapping 13 according to the Change statement; and there have been similar scuffles since. Gun shots are heard almost every night in Sulimaniyah – I am told many are fired in the air, but I do wonder about those that are not.
Kurdistan is often seen as a safe haven in Iraq, and consequently the election here is getting less media attention. After all, in Sulimaniyah people are injured – in Baghdad, they are more likely to be blown up. But politics is just as contentious in Sulimaniyah as in other areas where sect or ethnicity dominate.

As I write, shouts and car horns float up to my fourth floor window. The rain has stopped and the bus boys are back, this time with a megaphone. I didn’t think they would be deterred for long.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Addressing the Baathist Legacy in Iraq

Ella Rolfe

On Friday 29 January, the UK enquiry into the 2003 Iraq war heated up as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was questioned. For several weeks the British media had been speculating on what might be revealed in the session. In Iraq, in contrast, there has been no media coverage of the enquiry. No one seemed to care with the outcome of the process will have no impact in the occupied nation itself.

However, there is a story here. Iraq’s preparations for the March 7 election have already been marred by political controversy - and part of this can be traced back to the attitudes underpinning the western intervention. The roots of the current anti-Baathist fever among Iraq’s politicians can be seen in the way Blair framed his evidence.
During over five hours of questioning, there was very little mention of any aspect Iraqi figure other than former dictator Saddam Hussein himself.

The coalition seems to have focused almost entirely on getting rid of the figurehead, with little attention paid to other leaders in Saddam’s Baathist party. As Blair told the enquiry, “the only commitment I gave [then-US president George Bush] was to deal with Saddam.” This narrow focus, neglected Iraq’s need to deal effectively with the wider Baathist leadership. This is reflected in the failure of today’s politics to move on.

Saddam was, of course, executed along with three key associates in 2006. But only a handful of the other 50,000 Baathists that the Bush administration estimated would not be suitable for integration into the post-Saddam regime have been tried – most simply dismissed from their posts and are still free. No one has been called to account for most of the crimes committed under Saddam.

Because there has not been formal justice process for former Baathist leaders, there has been no process of coming to terms with the abuses of the era. The whole issue is, seven years on, still raw and open to exploitation.

And with the election coming, this is just what is happening. This was illustrated recently by a ban on 511 candidates who were allegedly former Baath party members, by Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Commission. The commission presented no evidence of any crimes committed by these candidates. Most Baath party members (95% according to a US estimate in 2003) were obliged by their government jobs to join; yet no distinction is begin made in the widespread anti-Baath rhetoric now prevalent among all Iraq’s major political parties.
Anti-Baathism is being used as a tool to win votes, especially by Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki who has publicly embraced the bans. This is a polarizing trend, with Sunnis feeling targeted since they are often associated with the Baath party. The Baathist past has become so politicized that the need for accountability, truth and reconciliation has been forgotten.

The impact of this on Iraq ripped to the surface most recently on January 25, when the first of several bomb attacks hit Baghdad on the same day as the execution of ‘Chemical Ali’, or Ali Hassan Al-Majid, a close associate of Saddam’s who had been convicted of involvement in the mass killings of the 1980s Anfal campaign. Most commentators have assumed that the attacks were carried out by supporters of Majid – Baathist leaders persist, even in death, to cause destruction in Iraq.

A truth and reconciliation commission could help to soothe the anger that is being so dangerously manifested. The US administration drew up plans for such a commission in 2003, but the plan was quietly abandoned. Again in 2006, Prime Minister Maliki announced a national reconciliation program, including an amnesty for insurgents who had not targeted civilians and a reversal of a law prohibiting Baathists from low level public positions. But public distrust and a lack of political will prevented the plan from becoming reality.

The post election period might be the time to resurrect the idea. Unlike the trial of Saddam, an Iraqi truth and reconciliation commission would need to be based on testament by both perpetrators and victims – on witnessing and accountability. A 2007 survey found that 95% of Sunnis and 38% of Shias in Iraq thought Saddam’s execution would not help reconciliation in the country – the quick justice of the executioner is not enough to make up for decades of fear.
A commission would also need to be widely trusted as impartial. The Accountability and Justice Commission, a closed body with no public participation, has been accused of being politically influenced, and may have contributed to recrimination and polarization rather than mitigating them.

Finally, a commission should take into account both pre- and post-2003 abuses - for instance the 2006 bombing of the Al Ashariya mosque in Samarra, an important Shia site - to avoid becoming yet another forum for anti-Baath cheap talk.

The plan need not fail again. President Jalal Talabani, although one of many Kurds who suffered at the hands of the Baathists, has opposed wholesale de-Baathification and may well favour a more conciliatory approach. And Iraqi culture places high value on narrative and testimony – according to Miranda Sissons of the US-based International Center for Transitional Justice, “the idea of standing up and witnessing is incredibly appealing” to Iraqis.

In his evidence to the Iraq War Enquiry, Tony Blair presented the 2003 invasion as an opportunity to remove an old foe which was grasped with both hands. After the upcoming election, the Iraqi government should take the opportunity to draw a line under that approach and begin a real process of healing. An Iraqi truth and reconciliation commission would be of great help in letting Iraq finally move on.