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.