28 May, 2007

Evin Prison

Iran is one of the more democratic states in its region. Criticisms of its regime are often made cynically by those looking for excuses to invade it. As a result, it is easy to forget what complete cockfarmers the rulers of Iran are. It is sometimes said that liberal democratic states have a self-perpetuating power elite that exercises real control despite the facade of elections. In Iran, the self-perpetuating power elite's role is written into the constitution.

With the real organs of state power largely outside the remit of the elected bits of Iran's government, it is no surprise that they behave in the most thuggish and nakedly authoritarian manner. At the moment Ms Haleh Esfandiari, a visiting academic, languishes in the terrifying Evin Prison, accused of being part of an international revolutionary syndicate led by George Soros; Iran is one of few countries where Soros' civil society organisation could be considered some kind of subversive organisation. Last year Mr Akbar Mohammadi died mysteriously in the same prison; he was serving a fifteen year jail term for organising student protests, and while in Evin he had suffered a spinal injury before allegedly dying of a heart attack. In 2005 Ms Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian photojournalist, was raped and tortured to death in Evin. These are obviously just the most famous victims of these seemingly unaccountable gangsters.

Somewhat ironically, perhaps, Evin Prison was famously used as a jail and torture centre by the Shah; the likelihood has to be that some of the regime's current stalwarts enjoyed its hospitality before the revolution. It is apparently situated next to an attractive park and tea house, both of which attract visitors to the area. If you find yourself there, be careful with any camera you have, lest you suffer the fate of Ms Kazemi (although Ms Fariba Amina seems to have got away with it; photos from her article on Payvand News of Iran)

Poland & Russia v. the homosexuals

The Polish government is currently in the hands of two eccentric twin brothers who delight in ignoring the real issues and instead prefer to engage in puerile cultural politics. Consequently it should be no surprise to learn that a senior official has ordered an investigation into whether popular TV programme The Teletubbies promotes a gay lifestyle. "I noticed he was carrying a handbag", reports the confused official, "At first I didn't realise he was a boy". The official is actually a woman, Ms Ewa Sowinska, but it is more fun to imagine the line being said by a Polish Alan Partridge.

In Russia, they take a more direct approach to these matters. In Moscow yesterday, 100% heterosexual ultra-nationalists laid into a gay pride demonstration, punching British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell's face in and dishing out similar treatment to Richard Fairbrass of Right Said Fred. The cops initially stood by, but then intervened to arrest Tatchell, Fairbrass, several members of the European Parliament, and numerous gay rights activists. Curiously, the various ultra-nationalist thugs seem to have been left alone by the forces of law and order.
The incident reminds me that it's been too long since I listened to my RSF record. The one positive aspect of this whole story is learning that they still have a career in music.

Gay Activists Beaten And Arrested In Russia
Arrests at Russian gay protests
Moscow anti-gay attack condemned

24 May, 2007

Democracy in action - the final crop

A vote for Lucan

Make the local woman your TD

Think change

Building an Ireland of equals

For a strong caring voice

Left-Wing government? NO thanks!

Ireland is an island - NOT a continent

Your vote for children

Taking action - getting results

Getting places faster

A real performer!

Ireland is a country - not a continent.

21 May, 2007

The Final Programme

I have submitted my last essay to Spy School.

Now I just have to write a thesis and then I will be a qualified Spy.

09 May, 2007

Democracy in action, part 2

It's time

Fighting for you

Ready for government

Everybody matters

Enough is enough

Putting Dublin North in safe hands

Invest in progress

Make a difference

Make the change

07 May, 2007

Democratising the Middle East

I had my last ever lecture in Spy School on Friday. It was about US attempts to democratise the Arab world. By an astonishing coincidence, the BBC ran an article on this kind of thing last week: Has the US ditched Mid-East reform?

I have already mentioned the prevalence of authoritarian rule in the Middle East. Part of the picture here is the historic fondness of the USA for friendly Arab dictators or kings. This assisted various shady Arab world leaders in the repression of their people. After 9-11, though, elements within the US administration began to wonder if this strategy had essentially failed – something designed to advance US security is hardly achieved if maniacs take to flying aircraft into New York skyscrapers. So the US regime started talking about how it was vitally important that the Arab world move towards democracy. The use of democratisation as part of the justification for invading Iraq was part of this, but the piling of pressure on US clients was another. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak had long been one of the USA's most reliable allies in the region, but suddenly he found himself being put under real pressure to introduce democratic reforms to his country.

Fortunately for Mubarak, the USA lost interest in Arab democratisation, and the Egyptian regime found itself free to throw civil rights activists and bloggers into jail without any problematic statements from the Americans. The reason for this is simple enough – democracy is a mysterious business, and you can never be sure that the guys you like will win. The Palestinian Authority elections in 2006 were a worrying reminder of what can happen when people are allowed to vote – despite the high education of Palestinians, their extensive links to a worldwide diaspora, and all the money the USA has pumped into the country, the Palestinian ingrates chose to vote for Hamas, the evil Islamist party. After that the US administration decided that actually the friendly dictators and monarchs were not so bad after all, and they have been subjected to only the most token pressures towards democracy.

You could say, therefore, that the clock has turned full circle and the USA is back to letting security concerns dictate its agenda with respect to Middle Eastern regimes. Unfortunately, the pro-democracy interlude has the effect of greatly strengthening the dictators, as they (and their opposition) can now reasonably predict that if the Americans pile on the pressure for democracy then this will simply be a short-lived fad to which they are not really committed. There is also the damage to US credibility – if you start saying that Egypt needs to democratise and then a couple of years later revert to a failed policy of boosting Mubarak then you look like a bit of an idiot, and a hypocritical one at that.

05 May, 2007

Democracy in action

The best is yet to come

Don't throw it all away

On your side

Others promise. We deliver

Working for you. Working with you

I have a dream

Help me to help you

Now, the next steps

Your voice, your issues

Delivering results consistently

Working locally… delivering locally

Your Ireland. Your future

New generation. New candidate. New Dáil.

We'll work for you.

Teamwork gets results.

Honest politics. Real results.

Scotland Votes

As does Wales and some of England. Aside from the whole "SNP - raving lunatics or the new friendly face of Scotland" debate, I was struck by how the UK was considering embracing a ridiculous voting system on the basis of their spurious modernity, a move that mirrors Ireland's failed embrace of electronic voting a couple of years ago. In particular there seem to have been plans to adopt internet and mobile telephone voting in elections, as part of an attempt to turn the choosing of people to run the country into a parody of Big Brother. This seems to have been cancelled at the last minute because of security issues with the software: Government cancelled e-vote schemes amid security fears

The whole business is very strange and says a lot about our times - the state initially thought it was a good idea to replace a perfectly functional technology with something that did not work reliably simply because it looked more shiny and modern. Even aside from the software security issues, people need to realise that internet and phone voting is fundamentally flawed and should be rejected by all democratic societies. A key feature of democracy is that a person's vote is inalienable - they must not be able to pass it on to someone else for money or other consideration. With remote electronic voting it is practically impossible to guarantee that people will not allow others to vote for them.

The Biter Bit

I have been reading about electoral systems in the Middle East. These are typically used by regimes to mimimise the amount of seats won by the opposition in elections (usually in conjunction with other measures, like throwing opposition activists or candidates in jail, banning some of the opposition parties, or straightforwardly rigging the election results). My current favourite regime manoeuvre is one used in Egypt at one point. They had a list system of proportional representation, but with a high threshold of 8% - any party getting less than that proportion of the vote got no seats in the parliament (this at a time when the opposition was rather fragmented). The stroke of genius was a ruling that any votes for parties getting less than the threshold were to be counted as votes for the goverrning party.

Turkey either is or is not in the Middle East, depending on who you talk to. They are having some interesting political stuff at the moment. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to make Abdullah Gul, one of his party colleagues the country's president. As the president is chosen by the parliament, and as Erdogan's Justice & Development party has a handsome parliamentary majority, there should be no problem here... except that Justice & Development is an Islamist party, and Turkey's army does not like the idea of an Islamist president and prime minister.

Some have apparently taken to complaining that although the governing party has a massive majority in parliament, they achieved this on on something puny like only 30% of the popular vote. Amusingly, they managed this because the country has a comedic electoral system specifically designed to weaken the Islamists.