24 May, 2010

Blood Will Have Blood

The BBC has a rather grim report on a lynching that took place recently in the Lebanese village of Ketermaya. When three generations of one family were brutally murdered, the local police hauled in Muhammed Muslem, a foreigner living in the village; after a night of interrogation he confessed to the crime. Then somehow it was decided that he should be brought back to the scene of the crime and show the policemen how he did it. On seeing the apparent assailant, however, an outraged mob of villagers dragged him from the police (who seem not to have offered much resistance) and then stabbed him to death, before stringing up his body on a meathook. In an eerie echo of 20th century lynchings in the American Deep South, the murder of the alleged assailant (who seems only to have been incriminated by his foreignness and the confession extracted from him by the police) was photographed and filmed on mobile phones, with the footage now widely circulated around Lebanon.

The shocking incident is apparently indicative of the dysfunction in Lebanon’s police and justice system. In one respect it is a micro-level counterpart to the country’s complete inability to adequately investigate the mysterious explosions that have killed so many of its leading citizens over the last decades.

I was struck by one detail in the article. It mentioned that the original murder was, until then, the most brutal crime in Ketermaya in living memory. I have never been to that village, but I have visited the Chouf region in which it lies. When I was there, in 2002, it was a beautiful and peaceful countryside region, somewhere I would love to go back to. But the Chouf is also a place of horror. In the 1980s, it was home to murderous gangs who would stop cars and slit the throats of occupants from the wrong religious community, dumping their bodies in ditches. Previous bouts of bloody intercommunal feuding took place in 1860 and 1848. Do the dark deeds of the past leave a psychic miasma that affects people in the present?

23 May, 2010

“Illegal” Palestinian Homes Demolished

Here is a news report about some Palestinians who had their homes demolished on the pretext that they had been built illegally. This kind of thing happens all the time in Jerusalem, where new homes for Jewish Israelis are built all the time but Palestinians find themselves mysteriously unable to obtain planning permission. If they go ahead and build anyway then sooner or later the Israeli authorities show up with bulldozers.

The odd thing here is that these demolished homes are not in Jerusalem or in some other area under direct Israeli occupation, but rather in Rafah, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip. The homes were demolished by security forces working for the Hamas government that administers Gaza, on the basis that the land was government owned. That some of the people whose shacks were destroyed had previously been made homeless by Israel’s invasion in January 2009 seems not to have moved the Hamas cadres.

This is of course incredibly ironic, and not in a good way.

22 May, 2010

What is happening in Thailand?

I cannot claim to be following events in Thailand too closely, but this is my understanding of what is happening there.

Basically, there is this entrenched power elite in Thailand who feel that it is their prerogative to run the country. Some years ago, however, this guy Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister after his party won an election. Mr Thaksin came from outside the self-perpetuating power elite, but this does not make him some kind of progressive politician. As a rich businessman, his struggle with the Thai establishment is more like a conflict between different elite figures. His party is especially popular outside Bangkok, with his popularity representing something of a revolt by people who have felt themselves left behind by the country’s economic development.

Anyway, the Thai establishment did not like Thaksin and were able to get their pals in the army to stage a coup while he was out of the country. The new government were able to disbar him from public office on corruption charges. Unfortunately for them, every time since then that elections have been called in Thailand, Mr Thaksin’s allies have convincingly won them. This has caused consternation among the establishment. Rather than accept election results, they have periodically mobilised their supporters to take to the streets and force the resignation of pro-Thaksin governments. In an almost Orwellian turn, Thaksin’s opponents have given organised themselves as the People’s Alliance for Democracy, despite their commitment to overthrowing election results and plans to turn the Thai parliament into a largely unelected body stuffed with them and their cronies.

Recently, Thaksin’s supporters took to the streets of Bangkok to try and overthrow the current anti-Thaksin government. After a long stand-off, the authorities were finally able to get the army to clear them from the streets, with several dozen people being killed in the last week.

It is hard to say what the best way forward for Thailand might be. I reckon it would be a good first step if the currently dominant faction could be prevailed upon to accept that whoever wins elections has the right to form the government.

15 May, 2010

Confidence and Dissolution

The election campaign in the UK was very interesting. One thing I was struck by how was how disappointing the final result was for the three main UK parties. Labour received their worst drubbing since the early 1980s, while the Conservatives failed to win enough seats to be able to govern alone. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, failed to achieve the kind of breakthrough result that their early performance in the campaign promised. This is arguably a parliament of the defeated.

The new government is proposing to change the rules regarding when UK elections are called. At present, a prime minister can have an election called whenever he or she likes. A general election also typically follows if the government loses a confidence vote in the Houses of Commons. Under the new proposal, a dissolution would require a 55% vote of the House of Commons.

The proposed new rule for parliamentary dissolutions has attracted much comment, a lot of it ill-informed. Many commentators are seeing it as a plot by the Conservatives to keep themselves in power forever. This seems to arise from confusion between a vote of confidence in the government and a vote to dissolve parliament. Under the new rules, if Cameron loses his majority then he would have to resign as prime minister. It would then be up to someone else to have a crack at forming a government with majority support. If 55% of MPs felt that an election was desirable then they could force a dissolution, but otherwise it would be up to them to form a new government.

In Westminster, this kind of constitutional change is unusual, but it is common elsewhere. Many European parliaments sit for fixed terms, with it being very difficult to bring about an early dissolution. In the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales, it requires a two-thirds majority to trigger an election.

Given that fixed-term parliaments have been a core Liberal Democrat policy for decades, it is hard to see why people are so surprised by the new dissolution rules. There is a certain parochialism among those who assume that the pre-existing Westminster rules are the natural order of things, and a certain fuzzy thinking by those who confuse confidence votes and votes to call elections. But another factor seems to be that some people see the new UK government as fundamentally illegitimate, perhaps because it includes the Conservatives. They were perhaps hoping that the coalition would hang on for a couple of months before being ousted in a new election.

The new rules make it more likely that the government will last the full parliamentary term, because Cameron does not have the option of calling an election if he senses a momentary advantage. However, the Liberal Democrats are probably their real beneficiary. If irreconcilable differences emerge in the government, Cameron would be unable to call an election and hope that the electorate would punish his erstwhile partners. Instead, the Liberal Democrats would be able to open negotiations with Labour on the formation of a rainbow government, possibly including some of the minor and regional parties. An election could only be called if both Labour and the Conservatives wanted one. This is a fairly unlikely prospect, though it might happen if both thought they could wipe out the Liberals.