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Archive for February, 2018

Italian Election

Just one month before Italy’s national elections on 4 March, Luca Miniero’s satirical movie ‘Sono Tornato’ (‘I’m Back’) hit the screens all over the country. It imagined the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini returning to the Italy of 2018, and its timing was perfect.

“”The Italians, unlike the Germans, never dealt with their dictator, they have never removed him,” said Miniero. “Watching what is happening today in our country, I am convinced that if Mussolini came back he would win the election.” But of course, Mussolini isn’t coming back. It’s only Silvio Berlusconi again.

The Italian counterpart of Donald Trump has already been prime minister four times, and he has been banned from political office for six years because of a conviction for tax fraud. He is also 81 years old. But they forgot to put a stake through his heart, and Berlusconi is back in business as the man behind the right-wing coalition that may form the next government in Italy.

It certainly won’t be the populist Five-Star Movement, which refuses to enter coalitions with other parties. According to the last opinion poll, it will emerge as the largest single party, with around 28 percent of the vote, but that’s not nearly enough.

The governing centre-left coalition, whose parties are running separately because of their many disagreements, will end up in about the same place. Its biggest member, the Democratic Party, will get around 23 percent, but with various smaller allies it might make it up to 30 percent. Again, not enough.

Whereas Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (‘Let’s Go, Italy’), running in tandem with the hard-right, anti-immigrant Northern League, could get as much as 40 percent of the vote. If they then make deals with a few small parties that verge on fascism, they could form a majority government. Berlusconi’s great wealth, derived from his huge media holdings, would give him a dominant role behind the scenes in such a coalition, but he is legally barred from even running for parliament, let alone becoming prime minister. So who would it be?

The dark-horse candidate is Giorgia Meloni, the Trump-lite leader of one of the smaller parties, Brothers of Italy, but it would probably the Northern League’s leader, Matteo Salvini. You might call Salvini Trump-heavy: he hailed The Donald’s election as “the revenge of the people, of courage, of pride…and one in the eye for the bankers, the speculators and the journalists.”

Italians are quite justifiably fed up with the way their country has been run in recent years. Unemployment is 11 percent, but among the under-25s it is close to 40 percent, and over 100,000 young people left the country last year in search of work elsewhere. Average family incomes, which fell dramatically after the 2008 financial crisis, have still not recovered to the 2007 level.

But the biggest issue is immigration: in the past four years Italy has received 600,000 illegal migrants, mostly from African countries, and all the major parties are promising to do something about it. Berlusconi talks bluntly about mass deportations, and his prospective coalition partners in the Northern League actually put a number on it: 100,000 forced ‘repatriations’ a year, presumably until they are all gone.

The outgoing coalition government has actually managed to cut the numbers arriving by making a deal with Libya, the point of departure for most of the migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean to Italy. In return for subsidies for the Libyan Coast Guard and various other considerations, the Libyans have been persuaded to try to stop the migrants from setting sail in the first place.

As a result, migrant arrivals dropped by a third in 2017. That ought to have won the centre-left coalition some credit with the electorate, but since the number of migrants who made it ashore last year was still 119,000, gratitude for the government’s efforts was notably sparse. The centre-left coalition is the only major political grouping in Italy that has not fallen into the hands of populists – but that is why it is trailing both the others in the polls.

The Berlusconi-Salvini coalition’s highly implausible commitment to send all the migrants home resonates strongly with an electorate that has had enough of politics-as-usual. The Italian constitution makes it very hard to form a majority government without an even broader coalition, so the result next Sunday may well be a hung parliament and another election soon, but anger and despair could still give the two men victory.

Since Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, three Western European countries – the Netherlands, France and Germany – have had elections in which nationalist, anti-immigrant parties that are hostile to the European Union, or at least to the euro common currency, have done better than ever before, but have not won power. In Italy, they may actually win.
To shorten to 650 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The outgoing…polls”)

Xi Forever

On Monday the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee approved a proposal that the country’s president no longer be limited to two five-year terms of office. On Thursday the National People’s Congress will rubber-stamp the change. And that will be the end of three decades of consensus-seeking collective leadership in the CCP. The god-king model is back.

President Xi Jinping has spent his first five-year term eliminating all his powerful rivals (generally on corruption charges), and now his victory is being enshrined by a change in the constitution.

The change does not mean “that the Chinese president will have a lifelong tenure,” said an editorial in the state-owned Global Times. But the paper also quoted Su Wei, a prominent Communist Party intellectual, who said that China needed a “stable, strong and consistent leadership” from 2020-2035. No need to wonder who that might be, although Xi Jinping would be 82 by 2035.

Shades of Mugabe, I hear you thinking, although Xi commands a country around a thousand times richer than Zimbabwe. He is now effectively president-for-life, or at least until things get so bad that the people around him decide they have to overthrow him, as Mugabe’s cronies eventually did. And although Xi obviously thinks being president-for-life is a good idea, it is not.

Being president-for-life certainly wasn’t a good idea for former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who was also effectively in power for life. In his case that was eighteen years. It became known as the ‘era of stagnation’, and only seven years after Brezhnev died in 1982 the whole Communist empire in eastern Europe collapsed.

Alerted to the danger of leaving somebody in power too long by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party has kept its leaders on a short leash since the early 1990s. They got two five-year terms, no more, and they had to keep the support of other members of the Central Committee or it might even be just one term.

It has worked pretty well, as dictatorships go. There have been no more maniacs in power like Mao Zedong with his crazy Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, which killed millions and cost the country two decades of economic growth. During the past quarter-century of cautious, consensus-based politics, China’s economy has grown about tenfold.

That pace of growth cannot continue no matter who is in power, but it is very important for the Party’s survival that the economy does continue to grow. There is certainly no evidence that one-man rule will provide that growth better than the existing system, so why (presuming that he is a loyal Communist) has Xi decided to overthrow it?

Mere personal ambition is one obvious possibility, but there is probably more to it than that. Xi’s father was Communist royalty – one of the founders of the Party, and at one time its General Secretary – and he himself was a ‘princeling’ who spent his early years in very comfortable circumstances. Then in 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution.

Xi’s father was expelled from the Party and publicly humiliated. He himself was sent to the countryside at the age of 15 to “learn from the peasants”, and ended up in a work camp digging ditches. For some years he actually lived in a cave (although it had a door). But he survived, and he was eventually to allowed to join the Party, move back to the city, and go to university.

It all left a lasting impression on the young Xi. He knew that working hard, keeping your nose clean, and even rising to high rank cannot protect you in an essentially lawless one-party state if Party politics takes the wrong turn. So he really only had two choices: work to change the Party into a law-abiding entity (which is probably impossible), or take control of the Party and keep it forever.

He has chosen the latter course, and in terms of protecting himself it is probably the right choice. “I think he will become emperor for life and the Mao Zedong of the 21st century,” said Willy Lam, former Hong Kong democratic politician and now politics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. And that is precisely the problem.

Xi no doubt justifies his actions to himself by believing that he is the indispensable man for China’s modernisation, but the cemeteries are full of indispensable men. The longer you are in power, the more poor or at least sub-optimal decisions you make – and when the passage of time makes the mistakes obvious, you are obliged to defend them although a successor could just drop them and move on.

Xi is not likely to “do a Mao” and unleash chaos in China. He is intelligent and he works hard. But the mistakes will accumulate nevertheless, and stagnation awaits.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 4. (“Shades…not”).

Russia’s Future

Why wait another month to report on the Russian election (18 March) when we can wrap it up right now? Vladimir Putin is going to win another six years in power by a landslide – probably between 60 percent and 70 percent of the popular vote. The real question is what happens after that, because he will be 72 by the end of his next term and will not legally be allowed to run for president again.

Putin doesn’t take chances, so he has barred opposition leader Alexei Navalny from standing in the election by having the obedient courts convict him of fraud on a trumped-up charge. Not that Navalny ever threatened to beat Putin, who is genuinely popular in Russia, but none of the other presidential candidates in this election are even serious contenders. Their only function is to make the election look legitimate.

First up is Ksenia Sobchak, a former TV ‘reality’ show host whose wealth and establishment links (her father Anatoly was the mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin’s political mentor) have earned her the mocking title of ‘Russia’s Paris Hilton’. She’s liberal, pro-gay, all the things that Putin isn’t, but she is nevertheless seen as his preferred opponent, and not to be taken seriously.

Certainly the youthful Communist candidate, Pavel Grudinin, the boss of a former collective farm enterprise called Lenin State Farm, is not to be taken seriously. Neither is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a raving ultra-nationalist caricature of a man. Putin will win in a walk – and yet Russia is a modern, well-educated country with a democratic constitution. It must one day take charge of its own affairs, but when and how?

Russia is in an unending political holding pattern, forever circling the destination of democracy but unable to land. It’s easy to explain how it got into this dead-end, much harder to see how it gets out of it.

The collapse of more than 70 years of Communist dictatorship in 1987-91 left most Russians in a state of shock. The young felt liberated, the older generation was apprehensive, but nobody quite knew what to do next. The first and last truly competitive elections were held in that period, but by the mid-1990s the oligarchs (mostly ex-Communists) were back in the saddle.

The oligarchs had ‘privatised’ the formerly state-owned economy into their own pockets (with a little help from the local mafia), and they had co-opted President Boris Yeltsin as their front-man. Freely elected and once popular for his dramatic defence of democracy in the attempted Communist come-back coup of 1991, Yeltsin was a drunken and corrupt wreck of a man by the time of the 1996 election.

He ‘won’ that election thanks to massive Western and particularly US intervention in support of their favoured candidate (the traffic goes both ways), but his mismanagement of the economy wiped out the savings of most Russians and brought democracy itself into disrepute. Down to this day many Russians associate the word ‘democracy’ with the lawless and violent chaos of the ‘90s.

Putin, Yeltsin’s chosen successor, has maintained his popularity through 18 years in power because he has provided Russians with what they wanted above all: a fair degree of stability and predictability in their lives. Living standards for most Russians are probably still below what they were in late Soviet times, but they were slowly but steadily rising from their 1990s nadir until the collapse of oil prices three years ago.

Putin’s foreign adventures (Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine) are essentially defensive from a Russian point of view. Countries that were once part of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union are known as the ‘Near Abroad’, where different rules of conduct supposedly apply, but Western fears of a Russian military ambitions against NATO countries are largely self-serving myths peddled by Western military-industrial-political complexes.

In fact, Russia is far too weak economically and too fragile politically to embark on a military confrontation with any of the major powers. Putin is a deeply cautious man whose conservatism have given Russia a desperately needed respite from continuous and ruinous political upheavals.

He is for all practical purposes a dictator, of course, although by Russian historical standards a fairly non-violent one. And he has always meticulously observed the constitutional rules, even leaving the presidency and serving as prime minister in 2008-12 in order to comply with the ban on more than two consecutive presidential terms.

It sometimes feels like Putin, for all his faults, sees himself as a caretaker leader until Russia is strong and stable enough to try democracy again. He has certainly been careful to leave the entire legal structure of democracy in place, although he manipulates it ruthlessly for his own short-term purposes.

And the great unanswered question is: how would a post-Putin Russia revive the democratic experiment it embarked on in 1989-91, in the face of certain opposition from the oligarchs who benefit so greatly from current arrangements?

We may find out in the 2024 election, when Putin again comes up against the two-term limit.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Putin’s…upheavals”)

Amateur Hour in the Middle East

On Sunday it was revealed that the Syrian army has made a deal to help the Syrian Kurds (who are technically rebels) fight off the Turkish invasion of Afrin, a chunk of Syrian territory on the north-western border with Turkey that has been held by the Kurds since 2012,

And the Russians are allegedly brokering this new anti-Turkish alliance, even though they recently gave the Turks a green light for that invasion (or at least that was what the Turks thought they were getting).

And do you recall that the United States, which armed and supported those same Syrian Kurds because it needed them to fight Islamic State, announced three weeks ago that it would be training a 30,000-strong Kurdish-led force to patrol the borders of the large part of north-eastern Syria that has been liberated from IS?

When Turkey objected, Washington hastily dropped that notion, and is indeed standing idly by while the Turkish army tries to take Afrin from America’s Kurdish allies. It does warn, however, that American forces might take a different line if the Turks invade other Kurdish-held territories in Syria.

Meanwhile, at the other end of Syria, there were massive Israeli air strikes last week in retaliation for a small reconnaissance drone allegedly launched by Iranian forces in Syria that had entered Israeli airspace.

This huge over-reaction was orchestrated by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is trying to draw attention away from the criminal charges he is facing for corruption in office. A shabby tactic, certainly, but at least he knows who his real friends are (Trump and Saudi Arabia), and they all see Iran as the real enemy.

There is a kind of paranoid logic in that, but most of the players in Syria don’t have a serious strategy at all. Indeed the Americans, and increasingly the Russians as well, don’t have a clue about what they want as a final outcome. Neither do the Turks. It’s amateur hour in the Middle East.

The United States doesn’t want President Bashar al-Assad to win, but beyond that the Americans don’t know what they want. They originally made their alliance with the Syrian Kurds to destroy Islamic State, but now that that’s done they are essentially purposeless. Yet they won’t leave the field as long as the Russians and the Iranians are in Syria.

The Russians intervened to save Assad from defeat by Islamist rebels, which has also been accomplished. They would now like to declare a victory and leave, but they dare not leave so long as American troops are in Syria. And Assad (who does know what he wants – the ultimate reunification of Syria under his rule) works hard to keep the Russians trapped in the conflict.

The Turks are split right down the middle at home, with half the population swallowing President Erdogan’s line that all Kurds are terrorists. The other half disbelieves that and hates him, but Erdogan is pushing ahead with an invasion of Syria whose only rational goal would be the permanent Turkish occupation of Syria’s Kurdish-majority territories and the subjugation of the Kurds.

Yet the closer he gets to that goal, the more likely he is to provoke a counter-attack by the Syrian army, by the Russians, and even by the Americans. And by the way, after three weeks of fighting in Afrin the Turkish-led forces have actually made little progress against the Syrian Kurds. Like every player in the game, Erdogan habitually over-estimates his own strength.

The situation in Syria is coming to resemble the devastated and depopulated German lands in the final decade of the Thirty Years’ War, when almost all the local forces had lost their ideological motivations and were still fighting only because that was what they did for a living.

Then as now, foreign great powers would make splashy military interventions from time to time (Sweden, France and Spain then, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the United States now), but those interventions effectively cancelled one another out and the war dragged on senselessly year after year.

The Syrian war is in its seventh year now, but the commitment of Turkish and American troops to the conflict raises the odds that it might make it to a decade. And down on the ground there is an orgy of betrayals as the local players lose old foreign patrons and find new ones.

Weirdly, it reminds me of the J. Geils Band’s greatest song (they didn’t have many): ‘Love Stinks’.
You love her
But she loves him
And he loves somebody else
You just can’t win…

I’ve had the blues
The reds and the pinks
One thing for sure
Love stinks.

There’s not much love happening in Syria right now, but the tangle of alliances and allegiances, mistaken identities, misunderstandings and betrayals, come straight out of a very bad romantic novel. However, real people are being killed in large numbers at every step in this pathetic, ridiculous story, and it stinks.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 15 and 16. (“Weirdly…stinks”)