Tag Archives: democracy

Greece – a referendum in the cradle of democracy

On Sunday Greece will vote in one of the most unusual referendums to be held in Europe in a long time. With only a week’s notice the country has been asked to vote on an extremely vague question, which in essence boils down to whether or not to accept an offer by the Eurogroup (Greece’s creditors) for a new series of bailouts and reforms. The only problem is that the Eurogroup has made clear that this offer is off the table, making the actual question essentially meaningless. Continue reading


Nigerian elections: Two big surprises

For the second week in a row, it looks like I’ve been wrong. Luckily for me, I’m in good company. The mistake goes back to when President Goodluck Jonathan Nigeria postponed the Nigerian elections for six weeks in February, giving the Boko Haram insurgency as an excuse. I – along with the actual experts – scoffed at the idea that six weeks would be enough time to deal with the conflict that had been so drastically neglected by his government. I also suggested that violence would be likely to follow once the elections actually took place. Yet here we are six weeks later, and Boko Haram is apparently badly damaged, and elections have gone ahead peacefully – leading to the victory of General Muhammadu Buhari. So what difference did six weeks make? What was Goodluck Jonathan’s best decision of his presidency? And how will his successor govern?

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What happens when elections don’t work?

Today the Nigerian electoral commission announced that the presidential election scheduled for next Saturday would be postponed for 6 weeks, due to the Boko Haram security crisis. President Goodluck Jonathan’s PDP party is pleased with the decision, but the opposition APC party is not. They believe the decision was taken to give the PDP more chance to win, and they have a point. The army apparently forced the commission into the decision by informing them that the military would not be able to provide security for the election at all, as they were busy fighting. However, six weeks is not going to solve a long running and hugely difficult conflict. To make matters worse, all signs point to the elections only bringing more violence.

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Hong Kong protests – China’s juggling act

This week the long running anti-government protests in Hong Kong flared up again, with student protesters trying to get into government headquarters and being repelled with tear gas and pepper spray. The students are angry at what they see as Beijing’s broken promises on democracy in Hong Kong. After being forced away by riot police, they are now gathering again in a park near the government building. So what exactly are they protesting? And what does it say about China today?

The trouble started recently when Beijing announced that the Hong Kong elections in 2017 for the Chief Executive (like a Prime Minister) would not be fully free as had been suggested. Instead, candidates who wanted to run would first have to be approved by a committee – in effect meaning that Hong Kong would only be able to choose one of Bejiing’s men.

This has caused great anger in a city that only returned to China 17 years ago. While there was no real democracy under the British, there was no oppression either, and Hong Kong was able to become one of the most wealthy and developed cities in Asia. Due to its unique nature, China has allowed the city to keep many of its policies. Hong Kong has a multi-party parliament, its own education system, economic policies and even control over immigration. This control extends to the border with China, where there is friction between Hong Kong residents and mainlanders trying to gain access to the prosperous city.

While these rights are guaranteed under Hong Kong law, many fear that Beijing is looking for a chance to reassert its authority, and the city is sensitive to any overstep by the government. The last time there was a large scale confrontation like this was in 2012 when the government tried to introduce educational reforms that were seen as ‘brainwashing‘. Beijing ended up backing down then, but they don’t look like giving up this time.

It seems to me that the unrest in Hong Kong is a sign of things to come in China itself. It’s hard to overstate how immense and diverse China is. With over a billion people, a wildly varying economic situation and constant low level unrest in the Muslim areas in the West, the Chinese government has to keep a whole lot of people either happy or cowed – their police force has to deal with over 100 000 incidents of protest a year. For the moment the government is still committed to the one party state that has made China an economic superpower.  But as cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Guangzhou become richer and richer, their people will start to question their lack of any political voice. If the Communist party wants to hold on to power throughout the 21st century, they will have some tricky work ahead of them.

Protests in Ukraine – A fight for the future

I lived in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk for 5 years, and the problems of the country are therefore not just something happening in a distant place. I hope that these protests will eventually be able to bring real change to Ukraine, and a government worthy of the great people who live there.

This week the long-running protests in Ukraine turned violent, with riots on the snowy streets of Kyiv, and the first deaths reported on Wednesday. Barricades have gone up around the centre of Kyiv, and for the first time the protests spread to other cities. So what exactly is happening? What do the protesters want? What has the government response been? And what does this say about the future of Ukraine?

The protests started in late November after President Yanukovich backed out of a trade deal in the EU in favour of a deal with Russia. The protests were at first mainly pro-EU and against Russian pressure, but have now become more focused on opposing a government system they see as corrupt and oppressive. Thousands of people have packed Kyiv’s central Maidan Square and set up camp, despite the freezing temperatures and snow. Events flared up again since the 16th of January after the government passed anti-protest laws (through a highly suspicious show-of-hands vote in parliament) that brought in harsh new punishments and restrictions, and were condemned as “anti-democratic”.

After the police tried to disperse the protest under the new laws, riots have begun on Hrushevskogo Street, also in the centre of Kyiv. These protesters are more radical, and less inclined to negotiate with the government. This video shows how violent the riots are, and how heavily the police are cracking down. Also this week the protests spread outside of Kyiv, to cities mainly in the west of the country. In numerous places protesters took control of regional government offices, even forcing the governor to resign in Lyiv.

While this started as a movement in favour of the treaty with the EU, this is now something far greater. Ukraine is a country with a truly dysfunctional political system, which has only gotten worse under the current President Yanukovich. The government works in a heavily authoritarian, top-down manner, without a strong free press to counter it. It is supported by a symbiotic relationship with oligarchs, whose business efforts prosper from close government contacts.  Unfortunately the opposition is divided and ineffective. Even when they got into power after the 2004 Orange Revolution, they quickly succumbed to infighting and the corruption of the system. This last issue is another reason for protests, the incredible corruption in Ukraine. It affects everyone in the country, and spoils everyone in government.

This government’s response to the protests has been simultaneously heavy-handed and ineffective. In the night of the 30th of November police violently cleared the Maidan square, which only caused the protest movement to really get going. After the protest laws were passed this week the police caused rioting by attempting to disperse the protests. Three people have died, including one man who was apparently taken to a forest where he was tortured and left to die, and there are numerous videos online showing police brutality (Warning: link contains graphic content). Part of the problem is the specific forces being used against the protesters. They are the Berkut, special well-paid riot police, who have a reputation for brutality, and are strongly loyal to the government. Unlike the badly paid regular police, the chance of them turning against the government is small.

However, the major problem the protesters have is the East/West divide in Ukraine. As can easily been seen on this map from the BBC, the protests are a very Western phenomenon.

ukraine map

Support for the protests in the East of the country is much more limited. In the city of Donetsk, where I lived, Russian is the only language used, and support for Yanukovich is extremely high, despite the corruption. The area is heavily industrial, and has very close trade ties to Russia. Western Ukraine on the other hand has historically looked towards Europe, and has always been eager to escape the Russian grasp. These events could pull the country further apart, though there is also possibility that the scenes of police violence in Kyiv could widen support for the protesters.

So what happens now? The president has offered opposition leaders concessions, and even the job of Prime Minister. However the leaders have refused, demanding new elections and the signing of the trade deal with the EU that started this all. It is also unclear how much control these leaders have over the protesters, especially the more radical ones. Joining government could alienate these radicals, and mean the opposition leaders become sucked into a system which is seen as corrupt. At the moment it remains a battle of wills, with President Yanukovich clinging on to power, and the opposite holding out to achieve all its goals. Hopefully the result of this fight will be a freer and more democratic Ukraine.

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Thailand protests – Elites on the street

If you’ve been to Thailand, even for a short visit like mine, you’ll notice it’s a country of huge contrasts. The Bangkok area has 20% of the population and is a huge urban mix of cramped streets and shopping malls that outdo anything in the West. It’s the centre of the country, and home to the King, the military and the elites. It is also where the opposition Democrat Party (also known as the yellowshirts) gets its support from (as well as parts of the South). It’s the party of the elites; conservative and pro-market.

The rest of the country is a lot different. The next biggest city after Bangkok has only 262 000 people, showing how rural the country is. Many of the population here are farmers, relying on rice crops for their income. The rural areas of the country are loyal to the ‘redshirt’ party. This party was first led by Thaksin Shinawatra, then by his sister Yingluck after the military removed Thaksin in 2006. The redshirts came to power in 2001, and gained huge support through guaranteeing rice prices and promoting development in the rural North and East.

This basic divide is what’s causing the protests in Bangkok. The yellowshirt Democrat Party knows that it can never win an election about the redshirts, they are too popular in the rural areas. In their opinion the redshirts are undemocratic because they buy votes with popular policies. So they decided to change the rules.

First the army removed the redshirts from government in 2006, then crushed redshirt protests in 2010, killing 90 people. However the newest version of a redshirt party still won the election in 2011. So now they are protesting the redshirt government, saying they are undemocratic and corrupt. However the protestors don’t want elections, because they know they will lose. Instead they’re calling for a “People’s Council” appointed by them, who will govern for a few years before holding elections. They are also actively trying to disrupt plans for new elections on February 2nd.

So these protesters aren’t really the ‘pro-democracy’ fighters they appear to be. In actuality it’s a battle between Bangkok elites and the rural masses for control of the country, where the elites are the ones taking to the streets and the masses are in power. The stage could even be set for a rerun of the 2006 coup, where the military eventually took the side of the yellow shirts, and forced Thaksin Shinawatra from office. January will certainly be a tense month for Prime Minister Yingluck.