Last Sunday was a busy day: three elections, in three different continents, all of them offering at least the hope of better times.
First, Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff eked out a second-round victory with 51.6 percent of the votes versus 48.4 percent for the challenger, Aecio Neves. But Neves was quick to acknowledge her victory, and she was equally prompt in admitting that things had to change. “Sometimes in history, close outcomes trigger results more quickly than ample victories,” she said.
Most people took that as an admission that she will have to give more attention to growing the economy and a little less to redistributing the proceeds. This will not come easily to her, for the great project of the Workers’ Party (PT) under both Rousseff and her iconic predecessor Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva has been to raise the living standards of poor Brazilians. They have done very well at it, but there was a cost.
In only twelve years the PT governments have moved around 40 million Brazilians, one-fifth of the population, out of poverty. Brazil’s Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality) has improved from 0.56 at the start of PT rule to 0.49 now. Such rapid change in Gini is practically unheard of – Brazil is now closer to the United States (0.47) than to China (0.61) – and it has transformed a great many people’s lives.
The overall economy grew fast when “Lula” was in office, but it has slowed almost to a stall under Rousseff. That is not surprising, for it is hard to persuade business to invest when you are busy redistributing income. Now Dilma will have to change her priorities and encourage business – without surrendering the improvements in the lives of the poor.
She seems to understand that, and if she can succeed in entrenching those changes while reviving the economy then she really will have changed Brazil for good. The voters have given her another four years to work on it, and that may be enough.
Secondly, Ukraine. The killing in the south-east has tailed off – only 300 dead in sporadic clashes around Donetsk in almost two months since the ceasefire, compared to 3,400 in the previous four and a half months – and the new frontier with the pro-Russian breakaway areas has solidified. That, plus the Russian annexation of Crimea, excluded some three million people from the vote, but for 36 million other registered voters the election went off quite peacefully.
The result was a landslide. “More than three-quarters of voters who took part in the polls gave strong and irreversible backing to Ukraine’s path to Europe,” President Petro Poroshenko told a news conference in Kiev. With half the ballots counted, his own Solidarity Party and the People’s Front led by his ally, former prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk, each had 21.5 percent of the vote, with another pro-European party, Self Help, winning 11 percent.
With the support of several smaller pro-European, pro-reform parties, a coalition government may even enjoy a two-thirds “super-majority” in parliament and allow Poroshenko to pass his long-promised reform programme with little opposition. Pro-Russian parties that were allied with deposed president Viktor Yanukovich (who fled into exile with Russian help), running as the Opposition Bloc, got only 10 percent of the vote.
Ukraine is not out of the woods. Russia can turn up the fighting again, or just keep its gas exports turned off and condemn the country to a grim winter. The economy is still shrinking and jobs are disappearing fast. But at least Ukraine will now have a government that is both legitimate and more or less united.
Last but not least, Tunisia, the country where the Arab Spring began – and just about the only one where it did not fail. The surprise there was that the secular Nidaa Tounes Party (Tunisia’s Call), formed only last year, out-polled the Ennahda Party, a moderate Islamist party that led the first post-revolutionary coalition government.
Some kind of coalition will still be necessary, as neither party won half the seats in parliament, and it may be a broad coalition that includes them both. But there is a lesson here for Egypt, although it comes a bit late. As a member of Ennahda’s political bureau told the BBC, “This result is fine. I am not really surprised. Governments that are leading during a political transition are often punished at the polls.”
Egypt threw away its democracy last year, only one year after the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist party, won the first free election after the Egyptian revolution. President Mohamed Morsi was less tactful and more eager to impose his Islamic project on the country than Ennahda’s leaders, but he was not doing anything that would be irreversible after another election.
In Egypt, as in Tunisia, a second election would probably have seen the Islamist party evicted from power; all the disappointed secular leaders of the revolution had to do was wait. Instead, they made an alliance with the army to overthrow Morsi – and now the army rules the country again. Elections are messy, divisive affairs, but they are far better than any of the alternatives.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“In only…lives”; and “With…vote”)
To nobody’s great surprise, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales has won a third 5-year term by a landslide majority. It’s no surprise because Bolivia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has tripled since he took office in 2006. The number of people living in poverty has fallen by a quarter, even the poorest now have the right to a pension, and illiteracy has fallen to zero. Of course he won.
What has happened in Bolivia seems as miraculous as what happened in Brazil, where another left-wing president, Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, took office in 2003. The economy started growing at 5 percent a year, unemployment fell steeply, and some 40 million Brazilians, almost a quarter of the population, were lifted out of poverty. Lula’s former chief of staff and successor as president, Dilma Rousseff, is also likely to win another term in office.
Is there some secret they share? Many other South American economies have been growing fast too, but without the dramatic change in the distribution of income that has happened in Brazil and Bolivia. Even the late Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution” in Venezuela, for all its anti-imperialist rhetoric and despite the country’s great oil wealth, has not delivered a comparable transformation in the lives of the poor.
Evo Morales has another claim to fame, too. He comes from the poorest of the poor: “Until I was 14, I had no idea there was such a thing as underwear. I slept in my clothes… (which) my mother only removed for two reasons: to look for lice or to patch an elbow or a knee,” he wrote in his recent autobiography. He spent only a short time in school, and he did not become fluent in Spanish until he was a young adult.
Morales grew up speaking Aymara, one of the languages spoken by Bolivia’s indigenous peoples. They are a two-thirds majority of the country’s population, but in almost 200 years of independence Morales is the first indigenous Bolivian to become president (all previous presidents were drawn from the 15 percent white minority). And his government passed a new constitution in 2009 that entrenches indigenous rights in politics and in law.
So should we hail the arrival of a new and better model for economic growth and social justice? Unfortunately, no. The only economic secret that Lula, Dilma and Evo all share is that if you want the economy to grow, you must not frighten the horses.
The international markets got ready for a meltdown when Lula, a self-taught former trade union leader with a penchant for radical rhetoric, became president of Brazil, but he turned out to be the very soul of fiscal responsibility. And although Morales nationalised a large part of the Bolivian economy – oil, gas, tin and zinc mining and key utilities – he negotiated deals that compensated foreign investors and kept the markets happy.
All the rest of it – things like Morales calling Barack Obama “an imperialist” at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York last month, and Rousseff cancelling a scheduled state visit to the United States last year after Edward Snowden revealed that the US National Security Agency had been spying on her emails – simply doesn’t worry serious investors so long as the numbers come out right and the financial and fiscal environment is predictable.
So Morales has not been punished by the markets for being a “socialist”, and neither has Rousseff. Both still have strong support at home, too. Unlike Morales, Rousseff didn’t get enough votes in the first round of the presidential election earlier this month to avoid a run-off on 26 October, but she will probably win again even though the Brazilian economy is now teetering on the brink of a recession.
Despite all the similarities, however, comparing Brazil and Bolivia is rather like comparing apples and oranges here. Brazil has a very large and diversified internal market (fourth largest car-maker in the world, for example), and has twenty times as many people as Bolivia. The latter has an economy that is almost totally dependent on the export of commodities, mainly oil, gas and minerals.
Bolivia’s soaring GDP of the past decade, and the modest prosperity it has brought to what was South America’s poorest country, is mostly fairy gold. What goes up usually comes down again eventually, and what drove Bolivia’s GDP up was almost entirely rising commodity prices. When they come down again, so will the GDP, the government’s income, and its ability to support even the sketchiest outline of a welfare state.
In the meantime, Morales has spent the extra money wisely, and it will be very hard for any successor to abandon this kind of “social spending”. He has also made it normal for Bolivia’s indigenous majority to have a big say in policy decisions at the national level, and that too will be almost impossible to roll back. He has even built up big financial reserves to cope with falling commodity prices. But he has not really transformed the economy.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Evo…law”)
21 August 2013
Another Defeat for the Environment (and for us)
By Gwynne Dyer
“The world has failed us,” said Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. “I have signed the executive decree for the liquidation of the Yasuni-ITT trust fund and with this, ended the initiative.” What might have been a model for a system that helps poor countries avoid the need to ruin their environment in order to make ends meet has failed, because the rich countries would not support it.
In 2007, oil drillers found a reservoir of an estimated 846 million barrels of heavy crude in Yasuni National Park, in Ecuador’s part of the Amazon. But the park is home to two indigenous tribes that have so far succeeded in living in voluntary isolation – and it is listed by UNESCO as a world biosphere reserve. A single hectare of Yasuni contains more species of trees than all of North America.
Ecuador, which cannot access finance on international markets, desperately needs money, and the oil meant money: an estimated $7.2 billion over the next decade. Nevertheless, Ecuadorians were horrified by the pollution, deforestation, and cultural destruction that the drilling would cause: a large majority of them opposed drilling in the park. And then Energy Minister Alberto Acosta had an idea.
What if Ecuador just left the oil in the ground? In return, Acosta hoped the rest of the world would come up with $3.6 billion (half of the forecast income from oil revenues) over the next decade, to be spent on non-polluting energy generation like hydroelectric and solar power schemes and on social programmes to help Ecuador’s many poor.
The pay-off for the foreign contributors to this fund would come mainly from the fact that the oil under Yasuni would never be burned, thereby preventing more than 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere. Only a drop in the bucket, perhaps, but if the model worked it could be applied widely elsewhere, offering the poor countries an alternative to selling everything they can dig up or cut down.
The idea won the support of the United Nations Development Programme, which agreed to administer the Yasuni-ITT trust fund. It was set up in 2009, and the money started to come in. But it didn’t flood in; it just trickled.
Chile, Colombia, Turkey and Georgia donated token amounts. Brazil and Indonesia (which would certainly benefit from the same sort of arrangement) promised donations eventually but didn’t actually put any money up. Among the developed countries, Spain, Belgium and France also promised donations, Italy wrote off $51 million of Ecuadorian debt, and Germany offered $50 million worth of technical assistance to the park.
And that was it. Not a penny from the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands or Scandinavia. Individuals put in what they could afford (including high-profile donors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore). But four years later, the pledges only amounted to $116 million. Actual cash deposits were only $13 million. So last week, Correa pulled the plug.
“It was not charity we sought from the international community,” Correa said, “but co-responsibility in the face of climate change.” Maybe Correa could have waited a bit longer, but the idea was always Acosta’s baby, and Acosta ran for president against Correa last February and lost.
It was also Acosta who led the successful drive to make Ecuador the first country to include the “rights of nature” in its new constitution. This is a radical break from traditional environmental regulatory systems, which regard nature as property. Ecuadorian law now recognizes the inalienable rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish. It gives people the right to petition on the behalf of ecosystems, and requires the government to take these rights seriously.
Like the trust fund, this is an idea that may ultimately bear much fruit. For the moment, however, it’s just too great an intellectual and political leap to demote the property rights of actual voters (and campaign contributors) to a status below the right to survive and thrive of mere ecosystems – even though we all depend on these ecosystems to survive ourselves.
So we continue on our merry way to a global meltdown – and this just in from London! Fracking is now more important than wind power!
When the Conservatives came into office three years ago they pledged to be the “greenest government ever”, but they have fallen in love with shale gas, CO2 emissions and all. The British government has announced a new tax regime for fracking described by the Chancellor, George Osborne, as “the most generous for shale (gas) in the world.”
Not only that, but there will be “no standard minimum separation distance” between a fracking rig and people’s houses. Planners considering drilling applications “should give great weight to the benefits of minerals extraction, including to the economy.” In practice, that means that they can drill wherever they want, including your front garden.
Whereas local people will now have a veto on the construction of any wind turbines in their neighbourhood. Prime Minister David Cameron’s office explained that “it is very important that local voters are taken into account when it comes to wind farms … if people don’t want wind farms in their local areas they will be able to stop them.”
It’s okay to ruin the planet, but God forbid that you should ruin the view.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“It was…ourselves”)
8 October 2010
By Gwynne Dyer
“This is now the great mystery of Brazilian politics: what will Marina do?” “Marina” is Marina Silva, leader of Brazil’s Green Party, and the speaker, Altino Machado, is a journalist and one of her oldest friends. But Marina has already done something remarkable: she persuaded one-fifth of Brazil’s voters to support the Green Party.
Twenty percent is the second-highest share of the vote ever won by any Green Party anywhere. (The record-holder is Antanas Mockus, the Green candidate in the recent election in Colombia, who got 27 percent of the vote.) But Brazil, with more than 200 million people, is the country that really counts in South America, and what has happened there is, in the words of the Rio de Janeiro paper O Dia, a “green tsunami.”
Among other things, this remarkable result makes Marina Silva the king-maker in the second round of the Brazilian election. It was the votes that went to her that deprived Workers’ Party candidate Dilma Roussef of victory in the first round of voting on 4 October. To win in the first round, a candidate must get 50 percent of the vote; “Dilma” ended up with 46.9 percent.
So now Marina (they are both known by their first names) must decide whether to tell her supporters to vote for Dilma in the second round of the election on 31 October, or to give their votes to the relatively conservative runner-up in the first round, Jose Serra. Greens are generally assumed to be on the left, but it is not a foregone conclusion that Marina will back the Workers’ Party candidate.
Marina Silva has the classic biography of a Brazilian left-wing hero – born in the Amazonian state of Acre, the daughter of rubber-pickers, illiterate until she was sixteen – but she is also an evangelical Christian. As such, she is fiercely opposed to abortion, and a substantial portion of her vote came from Christians who were horrified by Dilma’s advocacy of reform in Brazil’s stern anti-abortion laws.
As a social conservative, Marina might even try to throw her votes to Serra. She is wringing every drop of drama out of the situation, and won’t announce her choice until a special party convention late next week.
However, her decision matters less than it seems: Dilma only needs a few million extra votes to cross the 50-percent barrier, and Marina cannot really compel all the Greens to vote for Serra. The headline story is still the rapid economic growth Brazil has enjoyed under outgoing president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva – and, just as importantly, the way the new wealth has been shared out.
Fifty million Brazilians have been rescued from poverty (an income of less than $82 per month) by Lula’s “family plan” of subsidies for the very poor, and 25 million other low-income Brazilians have actually ascended into the middle class. So Lula leaves office after eight years with a stratospheric approval rating of 80 percent.
He is so popular that he could choose a complete nobody as his successor and get him or her elected. Dilma Roussef is much more than that – a former guerilla during the military dictatorship of 1964-85, a skilled administrator, and Lula’s former chief of staff – but nobody has ever accused her of having too much charisma.
No matter. She’ll win the second round anyway. What’s really interesting here is the emergence, two decades after the restoration of democracy, of what you might call Brazil’s political personality.
All three big political parties, the Workers’ Party, Serra’s Social Democrats, and the Greens, are on the left in terms of economic policy, though Marxist ranters are scarce in all of them. Social conservatives are still well represented in the latter two parties, but they all promise to continue Lula’s wonder-working brand of pragmatic socialism. Together, they got 98 percent of the vote in the elections on 4 October.
The rapid rise of the Greens is linked to Brazilians’ growing awareness that they are the custodians of the world’s largest tropical forest, the Amazon, and that it is in serious danger from global warming. That may explain why 85 percent of Brazilians think that climate change is a major problem, while only 37 percent of Americans do.
It’s a striking picture. Brazil is the only one of the BRICs, the big countries with high economic growth rates, to have both a powerful industrial sector (like India and China) and self-sufficiency in energy (like Russia). By the time it hosts the Olympic Games in 2016, it will probably have the fifth-largest economy in the world.
It is still one of the world’s most unequal countries, with a gulf between rich and poor that makes even the United States look egalitarian. (20,000 families control 46 percent of Brazil’s wealth, and one percent of land-owners own 44 percent of all the land.) But it is moving in a different direction now, without any of the doctrinaire excesses that usually mar such efforts.
In fact, Brazil is becoming not just an important place, but a very interesting place.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Marina…week”)
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.