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Brazil’s Corruption Crisis

You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Next Sunday, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil faces an impeachment vote in the lower house of Congress. The charge? That she manipulated government accounts to make the deficit look smaller than it really was before the last election.

But that’s ridiculous. Governments always try to downplay the deficit before an election. I’ve covered dozens of elections, and at least one-third of the time it later came out that the government had been hiding how bad the financial situation was. It’s naughty, but it’s not a hanging offence.

Never mind. The knives are out for Dilma Roussef in Brazil, and if she loses the Congressional vote this weekend she is heading straight for impeachment. That would mean that she would be suspended for 180 days even if she ultimately survived the process. So who would take over while Rousseff is on trial?

Vice-President Michel Temer, of course, and he would be more than happy to do that. In fact, a recently leaked audio tape reveals him rehearsing the speech he would make after Rousseff was suspended. “Many people sought me out so that I would give at least preliminary remarks to the Brazilian nation, which I am doing with modesty, caution and moderation…” he modestly begins.

Rousseff was furious, accusing Temer of betrayal (he only led his party out of her coalition government last week), and she now talks about him as the chief conspirator in a coup plot against her democratically elected government. But she shouldn’t worry too much about Temer, because he is also facing impeachment, on the very same charge of cooking the government books to hide the scale of the deficit.

Who would take over if Temer was also impeached? The speaker of the lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, is next in line – but he is facing money-laundering and other grave charges connected with an immense scandal in the state-owned oil company, Petrobras. (His secret Swiss bank accounts hold over $5 million.)

So the job of running Brazil would go to the speaker of the Senate, Renan Calheiros – except that he is also being investigated on the same charges. Indeed, more than 150 members of Congress and government officials are currently facing charges of bribery, corruption and money laundering as part of the “Operation Lava Jato” (Car Wash) investigation into the affairs of Petrobras.

This is not some banana republic. This is Brazil, a country of 200 million people with the sixth biggest economy in the world. Yet the entire political class is under suspicion of criminal behaviour, apparently with good reason, and day after day the streets are full of angry demonstrators.

Brazil has been fully democratic for the past three decades, yet Rousseff now worries openly about a coup. Some of the anti-government demonstrators are openly calling for a military takeover. This is a country in meltdown – but why now? Because the economy has gone belly-up.

The global economy was booming when Rousseff’s Workers Party first came to power in 2003 under the leadership of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, and Brazil’s economy was booming with it. There was money then for huge social spending – enough to lift 40 million Brazilians out of poverty – and Lula was beloved by all.

But the Crash of 2008 had already taken the bloom off the rose before Dilma Rousseff succeeded Lula in 2011, and Brazil’s export-dependent economy has taken a terrible beating since then. It was growing at 3.5 percent annually under Lula. It was already down to 2.2 percent in Rousseff’s first term, but it shrank at the rate of 4 percent annually in 2014 and 2015.

It’s mostly not Rousseff’s fault, although she could have done better. China, Russia and South Africa have seen similar declines as commodity prices plunged and exports dwindled.

Indeed, among the BRICS, the big, fast-growing economies of the former Third World, only India has escaped. And this collapse in growth is why opinion polls show that 68 percent of Brazilians now want to see Rousseff removed from power.

There is unquestionably a major political crisis in Brazil, but it may not be quite as bad as it looks. The latest head-count suggests that the vote in the lower house of Congress may not produce the two-thirds majority of votes that is needed to impeach Rousseff.

Even if it does, Rousseff can appeal to the Supreme Court. If that fails, the Senate must vote on impeachment – and if it also votes yes, Rousseff can appeal to the Supreme Court again. And so far the military show no signs of wanting to seize power again.

So Rousseff may still be lumbered with the miserable and deeply unpopular task of running a large and boisterous country that is going through a severe cyclical economic downturn for another two and a half years. She’ll probably be glad when her term is up.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“The global…2015”)

Migrants, Euro, Brexit: The EU at Risk

A recent headline on the leading Franch newspaper Le Monde said it all: “Migrants, the Euro, Brexit: The European Union is mortal.” And it’s true, the EU could actually collapse, given one or two more years of really bad decisions by the 28 national governments that make up the membership.

The most immediate threat is Brexit (British+exit), the possible result of the Yes/No referendum on British membership in the EU that is scheduled for 23 June. Prime Minister David Cameron promised this referendum three years ago to placate an anti-EU faction in his own Conservative Party (Cameron himself wants to stay in the EU), but it is coming at a particularly bad time.

Cameron doubtless calculated that the referendum would produce a large majority for staying in, and force the nationalist “Little Englanders” in his own party to shut up for a while. But the vote is actually being held at a time when many English people are upset by the large flow of immigrants into the United Kingdom and blame it on the policy of free movement for EU citizens.

That is only half-true: only half the foreign-born people settling in Britain are EU citizens who come by right. The rest are legal immigrants from other parts of the world, also attracted by the relatively prosperous British economy, and if the locals don’t like it they are free to change Britain’s own laws. But the half-truth that it’s all the EU’s fault has been vigorously promoted by the right-wing papers that dominate the British media scene.

The million-plus wave of refugees and economic migrants that has surged into the EU in the past year feeds the British panic even more, although Britain still controls its own borders and none of those migrants can enter the UK without London’s permission. The result is that the polls now show the “Leave” and “Remain” votes almost neck-and-neck.

The refugees and illegal economic migrants really are a problem for most other EU countries. The vast majority of them enter the EU through Greece and Italy, but they almost all want to travel on to the richer EU countries – which, with the admirable exceptions of Germany and Sweden, want nothing to do with them.

This is rapidly leading to a breakdown of the “Schengen” agreement, by which all the EU members except the United Kingdom and Ireland abolished their border controls with other Schengen countries. New border fences are now springing up everywhere as EU members try to keep the migrants out.

Dissent with EU policies is growing as some Eastern European countries refuse to accept any refugees at all, and ultra-nationalist parties are growing in strength almost everywhere. In Hungary, and now in Poland, they have even come to power.

Then there is the euro, the common currency shared by 19 EU countries including all the big ones except the United Kingdom. It was a bad idea from the start, because a single currency without a single government behind it cannot deal effectively with big issues like debt and inflation. It was bound to end up in crisis as the economies of the member states diverged – and they have.

The EU was transfixed all last year by the threat that Greece would crash out of the euro. The Greek crisis has been put on hold for the moment, but it is clear by now that Italy, Spain and Portugal, at least, would also benefit from leaving the euro zone. This is a currency that has no future, although its demise is not necessarily imminent.

So: three separate problems, none of them likely to be fatal to the EU on its own. The EU survived with separate national currencies for four decades before it adopted the euro; it could do so again, although the transition back would be painful and probably chaotic. The Schengen treaty was a nice idea, but not essential to the Union’s smooth functioning. And Britain’s departure could be nothing more than a spectacular act of self-mutilation.

It’s the fact that all these crises are hitting together that endangers the EU’s very existence. The only immediate and certain consequence of Brexit would be Scotland’s secession from the United Kingdom (so that it could stay in the EU), and nobody would have much sympathy for England’s post-Brexit difficulties. But the walk-out of the country with the EU’s second-biggest economy would trigger a political earthquake.

The various populations of the EU are seething with dissatisfaction about immigration and refugees, about the euro, about all the compromises and bureaucracy that must be tolerated to keep a 28-country “community” going. Mini-Trumps are cropping up everywhere, offering radical solutions that usually include an explicit or implicit commitment to leave the Union.

It could snowball. Where Britain (or rather, England) breaks trail, others might follow. We could end up with a severely shrunken EU, back down to the original six members plus a few others, while the countries of Eastern Europe try to get used to being once more the buffer between Russia and the West.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and . (That is…scene”; and “Dissent…power”)

Donald Trump and Groucho Marx

“These are my principles, and if you don’t like them…Well, I have others.”
Groucho Marx

The odds have lengthened against a Donald Trump presidency after his Wisconsin defeat, and they were probably already ten-to-one against. If he wins the Republican nomination, which is still very likely, he will almost certainly face Hillary Clinton in the November election, and lose badly.

Or at least that is the orthodox calculation, for Trump is far behind Clinton with key voter groups like women, Latinos, African-Americans, and young people who bother to vote. But she is an uninspiring campaigner, she is the ultimate Washington insider in a season where insiders are out, and there are a few skeletons that might come rattling out of her closet during the campaign. A big terrorist attack could also change the odds.

So President Donald Trump is still a small but real possibility. You wouldn’t be a fool to put a dollar down if somebody offered you twelve-to-one odds. That frightens a lot of people quite badly, especially when it comes to foreign policy, for he is the loosest of loose cannons – or so it seems.

There he goes, starting a trade war with China, pushing Japan and South Korea to get their own nuclear weapons, trashing NATO, building a wall to keep Mexicans out, and closing the US border to all Muslims. He’s even in favour of torturing suspected terrorists. But would he really be as rash and ignorant in the White House as he is while in campaign mode?

All of his present positions are calculated to appeal to the group whose support he must win to get the Republican nomination: “angry white men” who feel that they have been cheated of their right to a good job and a central role in American politics by unseen economic and demographic forces and clever, wicked foreigners. The internal politics of the Republican Party is now largely dominated by their concerns.

Trump is so focussed on getting their support that he even opposes the traditional Republican policies that have contributed to their marginalisation and impoverishment: free trade, low taxes for the rich, deep cuts in welfare programmes. And he gets away with it, although no other Republican candidate would.

Once Trump wins the nomination, however, he must appeal to a broader audience to win the election, and he is a past master at changing his tune. Five years ago his publicly declared principles would have qualified him to run for the Democratic presidential nomination – but, like Groucho Marx, he can come up with other principles in a flash when it serves his interests.

Take abortion rights: five years ago he defended women’s right to choose, last week he wanted to jail women if they chose abortion – and in the face of a public outcry, he rapidly retreated and said he just wanted to punish the doctors who did the abortions. Whatever the audience wants, it gets.

Once the Republican nomination is in the bag and the audience Trunp must address a broader audience to win the election, he will have to shift his ground, and he will do it. (The angry white men will just have to tag along, because they have nowhere else to go.) Then, if he should win the election, he might change his policies again. Who is the real Donald Trump?

The answer is that there is no real Donald Trump, in terms of policies and principles. He will do anything and say anything to get what he wants – but beyond being elected president, it isn’t clear that he wants anything in particular. If ideologues frighten you, then you needn’t worry about the Donald.

What does legitimately frighten people about Donald Trump is his ignorance (which is not just a show to appeal to his current audience) and his impulsiveness. On the other hand, he is actually quite intelligent, and as president he would have to rely on military officers and civil servants who really do not want to uproot and overturn everything. Moreover, they can generally block or sabotage truly stupid decisions, if that becomes necessary.

The result might be a presidency with a foreign policy like Richard Nixon’s: paranoid, unscrupulous, but not ideological at all and not given to needless provocations on the international scene. The trickiest bit would be Trump’s first few months in office, because he has definitely frightened the horses internationally and they are getting ready to bolt.

It is hard to overstate just how frightened other governments are about Trump in the White House. The word “fascist” gets used a lot in private even by national leaders, and of course it used publicly every day by the mass media in most other countries. Perhaps the biggest danger is that America’s allies and enemies would react preemptively to his rhetoric without waiting to see what he actually does in office.

So, on mature reflection, it really would be a very bad idea for Trump to become the president of the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“Trump…would”; and “Take…gets”)

What Would a Syrian Peace Deal Look Like?

After the Syrian army recaptured the city of Palmyra from Islamic State a week ago, US State Department spokesman John Kirby admitted that the liberation of the ancient city was a “good thing”. But he could not resist adding: “We’re also mindful, of course, that the best hope for Syria and the Syrian people is not an expansion of [President] Bashar al-Assad’s ability to tyrannise the Syrian people.”

This was entirely in line with the long-standing US policy of seeking to destroy both Islamic State and the Syrian government (i.e. the Assad regime) at the same time. But that was never more than wishful thinking, especially as the United States was quite sensibly determined not to commit its own ground troops to the conflict.

If the Syrian army actually had collapsed (as was looking quite likely before the Russians intervened to save it last September), nothing could have prevented Islamic State and the rival Islamist forces of the Nusra Front from taking the whole country. They might then have fought each other for control, but all of Syria would have ended up under extreme Islamist rule.

But the opposite is not true. The revival of the Syrian army, and even its reconquest of Palmyra, does not mean that the Assad regime can destroy Islamic State, let alone regain control of the whole country. Nor does Russia have any intention of helping President Assad to pursue such an ambitious goal, as Moscow made clear by withdrawing most of the Russian combat aircraft from Syria two weeks ago.

Russia’s strategy has been more modest and realistic from the start. It was to restore the military stalemate that had persisted until the spring of 2015, and to convince the remaining non-Islamist rebel groups that they had no chance of somehow riding to power on the coat-tails of an Islamist victory over the Assad regime.

This hope was as delusional as the American policy in Syria. By mid-2015 between 80 percent and 90 percent of the Syrian rebels actively fighting the Assad regime belonged to Islamic State or to al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front, and its Islamist allies in Ahrar al-Sham. Moreover, the remainder of the rebels, the non-fanatics or so-called “moderates”, were mostly allied to the Nusra Front.

This curious alliance came to pass mostly because the Nusra Front wanted to avoid the American and “coalition” bombs that were falling on Islamic State. So it created a broader alliance called the “Army of Islam” that wrapped these small “moderate” groups around the Islamist core, and the United States fell for it. Or at least American propaganda fell for it.

The Russians cheerfully bombed all these forces indiscriminately, making no distinction between Islamists and the allies of Islamists. The United States ritually condemned the attacks on the latter groups (always described as “moderates”), and the Russians cheerfully ignored that too.

And after five months, when most of the “moderates” had been persuaded that they were never going to gain power through an alliance with the Islamists, Moscow proposed a ceasefire that would include the “moderates” but exclude the Islamists. That ceasefire has now been in effect for almost a month.

The negotiators for these moderate groups are still demanding the departure of Assad from power as the price of a permanent ceasefire. They haven’t a prayer of getting such a sweet deal, but the Russians are putting pressure on Assad to come up with a formula of words, however vague, that will persuade them to accept amnesty and come in from the cold without losing too much face.

The Islamists, although largely surrounded and blockaded, will not be defeated any time soon by military force, but they are growing weaker and may fall to fighting among themselves.

And the Syrian Kurds, the only American allies on the ground in Syria, will probably manage to hold on to the long strip of territory they control along the border with Turkey. However, they may have to settle for being an “autonomous province” within Syria if they wish to avoid a Turkish invasion.

President Vladimir Putin’s goal was to isolate the Islamists and reconcile the rest of the rebels with the Assad regime, and it is well on the way to accomplishment. It will not be a happy ending for any of the groups involved in the Syrian civil war, but it is the least bad outcome that can now be realistically imagined.

It will not put an end to all the fighting on Syrian territory. Not all the refugees will want to come home to such a country, and the terrorism abroad will continue. (But then, it would continue even if Islamic State disappeared – you don’t need a state to plan terrorist attacks.)

When no decisive victory is possible for any side, it makes sense to stop as much of the shooting as possible.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 14. (“And the Syrian…invasion”; and “It will…attacks”)