17 February, 2009

Ireland: FAIL?

I have been meaning to write a bit about Ireland's current economic travails, for the benefit of my foreign readers, but I am finding the subject a bit too depressing. So instead, here are two cheering links:

Irish government faces growing fears of debt default (Guardian, yesterday)

Bank guarantee likely to deal a crippling blow to the economy (Irish Times, today)

12 February, 2009

Israel Election Latest!

Blah blah shift to the right, parliament as fragmented as country, parliament full of crazy parties, etc. Look it up in a news website, whatever.

The one thing I was a bit surprised to notice was that the Israelis seem to have stopped having direct elections for their prime minister. When did that happen? I took my eye off the ball on this one.

06 February, 2009

Russia's faux semi-presidentialism

Russia is often lazily lumped in with semi-presidential countries, largely because it has a president and a prime minister. The model does not really fit. Dmitry Medvedev's assumption of the presidency was so managed by the country's elite that you cannot really call the president directly elected, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is only responsible to the Russian parliament in the most notional of senses. Meanwhile, state maintains a stranglehold on the media and journalists who criticise the regime have an unfortunate tendency die sudden and violent deaths. Russia is effectively an authoritarian regime with a semi-presidential fa├žade.

Still, Russia has the trappings of a dual executive system, and there is always the possibility that the premiership and presidency could turn into rival centres of power. When Putin handed over the presidency to Medvedev and assumed the premiership, it was widely believed that he would remain the real master of Russia, with Medvedev acting as his puppet or the friendly face he could present to the world. Events seemed to support this interpretation, with Putin appearing to use the premiership as a way of ruling form the shadows.

More recently, though, there have appeared what might be the first signs of a Putin-Medvedev split. Russia's economy has been hit hard by the collapse in oil prices, and without petrodollars to throw around the regime finds it harder to buy compliance. Russian cities have seen demonstrations recently, with angry people hit by the economic crisis taking to the streets. Perhaps in an effort to shore up his own position, Medvedev has made some statements that could be interpreted as criticism of his prime minister's response. In the more presidential of semi-presidential countries, presidents often seek to attach the blame for all regime failures to their premiers; this would have been normal when Putin or his predecessor were Russia's presidents. The prospect of a Putin-Medvedev split is interesting, though one should not assume that its victor would be Medvedev. Putin's power seems largely to come from his being Putin and from his personal control of the state security apparatus; that could easily trump Medvedev's mandate in a comedic election, unless Russia's leading figures decide that Putin has become a liability.

The nascent Putin-Medvedev split could of course all be a charade, with the two pals merely playing good-cop bad-cop with the Russian people. The BBC, however, reports that there may be genuine differences emerging between the two. These differences are not primarily political, but musical. It appears that Russia's prime minister is a fan of Abba, recently flying in Abba tribute act Bjorn Again to play a private concert for himself, a mysterious and attractive young lady, and some of his cohorts (all at a trifling cost of £20,000). President Medvedev, however, is a keen fan of Deep Purple, last year enjoying them in concert at the 15th anniversary celebrations of Gazprom. Perhaps it was a fraught discussion on rockism that has brought forth tensions in the Putin-Medvedev partnership.

To follow all the latest Russian news, make sure to read Pravda.

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02 February, 2009

Livni-Barak Fail

The latest Israeli opinion polls suggest that Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud party are still on course to win the forthcoming elections in Israel. Ehud Barak (of Labour) and Tzipi Livni (of Kadima) seem to have reaped no obvious benefit from their Gaza war, despite the overwhelming support of the Israeli public for the strip's bombardment. This is not particularly surprising, as the results of the war have not been that great for the Israeli people. Not merely did the death and destruction meted out make Israel's elected leaders look like murderous psychopaths, but rockets are now still being fired from Gaza into Israel. Even in Israel's own terms, the Gaza war failed*.

There is a certain irony to Netanyahu coming into office like this (if he does indeed manage to win the election). In 1996, when he found himself elected to the Israeli premiership it was after another failed attempt by his incumbent opponents to bolster their popularity through extreme violence. In that case, it was Shimon Peres' "Grapes of Wrath" campaign of indiscriminate shelling against southern Lebanon that served as the prelude to Netanyahu's victory.

A Netanyahu premiership will prove interesting. He a right-winger and is likely to pursue an uncompromisingly hard line against all Palestinians (and, possibly, also against Syria and anyone else he takes exception to). That does not make him an unusual figure in Israeli politics. What makes him a bit more unusual is his forthright manner and his unwillingness to even verbally play ball with whatever waffle the Americans are currently pushing in the Middle East. Last time round, the Clinton administration was very glad to see the back of him. It will be fascinating to see how Netanyahu gets on with a new American president who seems interested in building bridges with the Arab World.

*not that Hamas can really claim much of a victory either – while they have managed to keep rockets firing out of the strip, it has happened at such a terrible human cost to their people that you would really have to wonder whether the time has come for them to change tactics

More: Israeli governing parties face poll battering amid Gaza scepticism (Guardian)