28 September, 2009

Ireland decides, again

This whole post is basically an excuse to post the lovely picture above. Foreign readers may find it a bit confusing, so here is some context. Last year Ireland held a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, an agreement reached between European Union heads of government. The Treaty was rejected by Irish voters, causing a sensation throughout Europe.

Next Friday we are going to be voting on the Treaty again. There are a couple of justifications for having another referendum. First of all, many people last year claimed to be confused by the whole Lisbon Treaty business, so maybe with the passage of time they will have made some effort to inform themselves. Secondly, the EU heads of government have made some non-binding guarantees on some of the concerns of the Irish voters. Thirdly, the astonishing deterioration of the Irish economy since the last vote suggests that now might not be the time to piss off our powerful European friends.

The pro-Treaty side in the referendum are basically the entire Irish political establishment, in so far as they are from almost all the parties that people actually vote for in elections. The implicit main plank of their campaign is that the country will go down the plughole if Lisbon is rejected, though they have never been quite so crude as to explicitly state this on election posters.

The anti-Treaty side mine a broad vein of disaffection. There is a tendency in some quarters to divide the antis into right-wingers (typically worried that the EU will force everyone to have abortions) and left-wingers (typically worried that the EU will draft everyone into an EU army or make everyone slaves of large corporations). I think, though, that more unites the antis than this kind of analysis suggests. They all distrust mainstream Irish politicians. They all fear that Lisbon represents a terrible and irrevocable loss of sovereignty, a transfer of power to some sinister and shadowy EU elite; the only difference is in what they think the EU overlords will do with that power.

Cóir are one of the players on the No side. I have heard it said that they spring from the same stream that gave us Republican Sinn Féin (a fringe Republican movement who reject the Good Friday Agreement and almost everything else) and Youth Defence (a hardline anti-abortion movement). I'm not going to link to their website, but if you go there you will get a flavour of their campaign against Lisbon – slogans suggesting that Lisbon would reduce the minimum wage to around two Euro, that Lisbon would eliminate the freedoms for which our country's founding fathers died, or that Lisbon would lead to an inrush of foreigners to this sceptred isle. The above image is a parody of one of their posters*. It is rather like shooting fish in a barrel, as the petty concerns of Cóir are godsends to people who support Lisbon.

A spice burger is a fast food product that bears some mysterious relationship to meat. "Away with you, you wife swapping sodomites!" was the celebrated response of a Catholic conservative to the passing of the referendum that legalised divorce.

Parody posters seem to be quite a thing this time round. Another Cóir parody I have seen points out that 98% of Europeans are foreign. On the other side, a subtly ironic poster has Adolf Hitler urging a Yes vote.

Meanwhile, here is a home-made election poster, probably not a parody:

*I apologise to Irish readers for stating the obvious to an almost Wikipedia-esque extent.

12 September, 2009

Fiji latest

Fiji is a Pacific island nation whose dysfunctional politics keep it in the news. The other day it was a visit by a Commonwealth envoy, who was there to discuss a possible return to democracy with the country's military ruler. It was previously part of the British Empire, and in that period many people from India came to the island, eventually playing a major role in the economic life of the island. After independence, the institutions of the state were initially dominated by ethnic Fijians. Over time, a politics based almost entirely on ethnicity surfaced in the country, with parties for ethnic Fijians squaring up against ones for ethnic Indians. In the 1980s, a coup by the ethnic Fijian dominated army blocked a government of mainly ethnic Indian parties (but to be led by an ethnic Fijian) from taking office.

Mahendra Chaudhry succeeded in taking office as the country's first ethnic Indian prime minister in 1999, but in 2000 he was imprisoned in a bizarre coup attempt by failed local businessman George Speight. Speight's coup failed, but the fall-out from it lives on. One consequence was that many ethnic Indians have given up on Fiji. They had constituted c. 50% of the population, but the manifest unwillingness of many ethnic Fijians to accept a prime minister from their community led many ethnic Indians to take the hint and leave the country.

Another consequence of Speight's coup is that it exposed fissures within the ethnic Fijian community. The 1980s coup against the instatement of an ethnic Indian prime minister was staged by the army, with that body seeming to maintain a formidable degree of cohesion as it acted to advance the interests of ethnic Fijians. Speight's coup, however, was staged by a failed businessman and his cronies. The army performed badly in the coup – its leaders (ethnic Fijians, like the rank and file; ethnic Indians seem to have better things to do than join the armed forces) declared for the constitutional government, but many of the rank and file seem to have sympathised with Speight.

Speight's ability to break the army's cohesion seems to have rankled with Commodore Frank Bainimarama, the army's commander in chief. My impression is that much of Fiji's politics since Speight's coup attempt is explicable by Bainimarama's personal animus towards Speight. To Bainimarama, Speight is responsible for the army's humiliation during his coup. It was moves by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase to pardon Speight and his pals that saw Bainimarama stage a coup in 2006 that has brought democracy in Fiji to an end.

Bainimarama has promised elections at some stage in the future, but no one is holding their breath. His regime has reputedly become increasingly dictatorial, arresting and harassing its opponents. It nevertheless represents an interesting development – an authoritarian government of ethnic Fijians justifying itself by fears of how a democratic regime would lead to political oppression of ethnic Indians. Bainimarama might simply be paying lip-service to the lofty goals of inter-communal fairness as a way of seizing power for himself. Even so, the army's advancing of its own corporate interest cuts across the ethnic issues that torment Fiji.

Increasing cross-community opposition to Bainimarama is, paradoxically, another positive consequence of his coup. This might be a sign that Fijians are hoping for some kind of more normal politics, one based on constitutions and rules as opposed to poisonous inter-ethnic competition and coups every couple of years.

09 September, 2009

Trouble in Somaliland

Somaliland is the unrecognised country comprising the northern bit of Somalia. Compared to the rest of Somalia, it is an oasis of calm. Unfortunately, the country's tranquillity was on Monday shattered by its parliamentarians. When officials announced that a motion to impeach Dahir Riyale Kahin, the country's president, could be debated, a bar-room brawl erupted, with rival politicians exchanging punches. There are reports of one MP brandishing a fire-arm, though no shots were fired. Police had to enter the chamber to restore order.

Unlike the rest of Somalia, Somaliland has a functioning political system, with a president, an elected parliamentary chamber (where the brawl broke out), and an upper house comprising elders of the country's various clans. Tensions have apparently been rising recently over the timing of a presidential election and a disputed register of electors.

It would probably be premature to see all this as a sign that Somaliland is about to slip into the chaos of the rest of Somalia. Parliamentary fist-fights are always good for a laugh, but they do not necessarily presage democratic collapse. That this was just a fist-fight suggests that things in Somaliland are nothing like as bad as they could be.

The disputes over the presidential election are maybe more worrying. One danger facing Somaliland is a slide into Somalia-style anarchy. Another, though, is a transition to the kind of authoritarianism that bedevils many of its neighbours. If the disputes over the electoral register and the election's timing are symptoms of a power-grab by the president then people should be concerned. As Somaliland's independence is unrecognised, it may well be the case that the international observers who scrutinise elections elsewhere will not engage with the country's electoral process. This is unfortunate; in a potentially shaky situation, external oversight could deter either electoral chicanery by the government or vexatious claims of fraud by bad losers.