A world without politics (would be bad)

Many people seem frustrated by “politics” and increasingly express a desire to “depoliticize” things large and small, as if everything would be better if politics were taken out of it.

Here’s the reality: Politics is the mechanism by which we shape and register our policy preferences and priorities, including what we as a whole self-governing society choose to invest in and emphasize from among competing options. Policy without politics is possible but never leads anywhere good in the long run. In the end, policy without politics would merely be one faction’s unchallenged implementation of their own priorities and beliefs without popular consent.

Top Catalan independence party fails to move the needle

You may recall my November 2014 post “Just 3 in 10 back Catalonia independence in ridiculous referendum” in which I broke down what the “80% for independence” recorded on a non-binding referendum sponsored and staffed by the Spanish region’s secessionist movement actually translated into real-world proportions. Ultimately I determined that only about 30% of registered voters — 1.6 million people — had actually showed up and voted for independence on behalf of 7.5 million residents.

We now have the results from this month’s regional parliamentary elections. While the turnout was much higher, a few facts jump out presenting a very similar picture all the same:
1. In September 2015 Catalonia parliamentary elections, 48% of those 77% who voted chose two parties supporting independence from Spain, handing them a “victory.”
2. In absolute numbers, this translated to just shy of 2 million votes for pro-independence parties. (The opposing 4 parties actually won slightly more votes than the two pro-independence parties.)
3. That’s less than 36% of all registered voters and barely more than a quarter of the region’s total population (7.5 million).

And the biggest observation of all?
4. The first-place party, really the same umbrella coalition behind the referendum, won 1.6 million votes and 29% of the registered voters.

Wow. That’s exactly the same as the November 2014 referendum outcome. 1.6 million and about 30% of registered voters. So all they’ve proven is that they are disciplined enough to get their same 1.6 million people out to the polls twice in 12 months. They didn’t grow their base at all over that span. They didn’t move the public needle on independence. And 65% of registered voters either voted for a party that doesn’t support Catalonia becoming independent or couldn’t be bothered to show up to vote at all because this doesn’t matter to them.

No wonder the Spanish central government doesn’t particularly feel compelled to negotiate with such a small and unpersuasive faction. In the final analysis, this “movement” so far remains less about Catalan identity and more about wealthy conservatives trying to keep poorer people in other parts of Spain from getting any of their money.

The feuding between [Prime Minister] Rajoy and Mr. Mas started in 2012 as a dispute over the financial contribution that Catalonia should make to a Spanish system that redistributes tax income from Catalonia and other wealthy regions to poorer parts of the country.

Mr. Mas then turned his frustrated demand for fiscal concessions into a full-fledged drive for independence.

 

Regional flag of Catalonia

Regional flag of Catalonia

Flash Summary: September Greek election outcome in 100 words

Greeks voted for parliament for the second time this tumultuous year. In 100 words, here are the key results:

Syriza lost just 4 seats relative to January but replaced 22 of the 26 defector MPs who quit the party this summer over the bailout capitulation. The junior coalition partner Independent Greeks lost 3 seats. That leaves the existing coalition down just 7 seats versus January but up 19 supporting MPs versus recent weeks.

Syriza’s main ideological competition (Potami) lost a fair number of seats, and older-school socialist and communist parties rose back up from the ashes. Neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn picked up 1 seat and almost a percentage point to finish 3rd at 7%, but their absolute supporter turnout figure dropped, along with the whole electorate’s turnout.

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Guatemala has a lot to celebrate this independence day

Today Guatemala celebrates its Independence Day and it is quite a different country than it was just 365 short days ago, or even six months ago, when I left Guatemala after finishing my two years of Peace Corps service in the rural, western highlands of the beautiful country.

Photo taken by Kelley in Cajolá, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala at a girls' leadership camp hosted by Kelley and local health center staff.

Photo taken by Kelley in Cajolá, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala at a girls’ leadership camp hosted by Kelley and local health center staff.

When people ask me if I am glad to be back, I sincerely respond that I am not sure if I’m glad to be back in the United States, but I am definitely glad that I am not in Guatemala anymore. You see, Guatemala is an extremely difficult place to live. Bus drivers are frequently shot by cartels when bribes are not paid; men present a real and constant danger in the street and at home because of an oppressively “machismo” mindset that persists in the country; and 50% of children are chronically malnourished, an unfathomable and heartbreaking statistic.

Not only is Guatemala a hard place to live, it is a really hard place to get things done, Decades of impunity, staggering inequality, and corrupt governments make Guatemala a perfect storm of inefficiency and the people of Guatemala, particularly the large indigenous population, are the ones who suffer. According to the World Bank, of every country in the world, Guatemala spends the least on health, education, and infrastructure, proportionate to its economy. The Executive Director of the Foundation for the Development of Guatemala (Fundesa), Juan Carlos Zapata, reports “We believe that 30 percent of the budget is lost to corruption.”

However, today as I think about Guatemala, I am able to reflect more softly on my experience and I have brighter hopes for what’s ahead in Guatemala. Maybe that’s just because my months at home have allowed me to physically and emotionally begin to recuperate from an exhausting two years.

But I think it has more to do with the political revolution that is well under way in Guatemala. Guatemalans in the capitol, Guatemala City, and around the country, have begun to say “enough is enough”. Maybe, like many other countries, this is because of the smart phone revolution, allowing people to spread pictures and ideas more easily. Maybe Guatemala is finally shedding the yoke of a 36-year-long civil war, which ended in 1996 but still stains every part of society. Whatever the reason, the actions taken by ordinary Guatemalan citizens in the past few months make me proud of the time I worked in the endlessly fascinating country of Guatemala.

Protests began in April after the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, CICIG), an international body backed by the United Nations and responsible for prosecuting serious crimes in Guatemala, charged the Vice President and others in the administration with taking bribes for reducing import and customs taxes.

The first big victory for Guatemalans seeking a less corrupt government was the resignation of Vice President Roxana Baldetti on May 8, 2015, who prosecutors claim took $3.7 million in bribes as part of the customs scandal. At the time, President Otto Pérez Molina claimed no wrongdoing, but CICIG and the Guatemalan people were suspect.

So, protests continued with the simple phrase “Renuncia Ya” (Resign Already) at the heart of it all. For nineteen weeks, concerned citizens protested, employing only nonviolent protest tactics, even going to far as to offer flowers to police. Then the unthinkable happened, on August 31st, the 132 members of Congress who were present for voting (out of 158 members total), voted unanimously to rescind the presidential immunity, which had formerly protected Perez from prosecution. In a country where lawlessness abounds because people are not held accountable for their actions, 132 members of Congress and tens of thousands of protesters decided that Guatemala needed to change.

Then, on September 2nd, the embattled president, Otto Pérez Molina, finally resigned.

Now, with the former Vice President and President in jail, the world’s eyes are watching what Guatemala does next. In Guatemala’s first round of voting for a new president, which occurred on September 6, Jimmy Morales, a comedian with no political experience won the first round. (This election had already been scheduled before Molina’s resignation.) A run-off election will occur on October 25, between Morales and former first lady Sandra Torres. Morales is running on a simple platform of “Not corrupt, not a thief” and is touting his position as an outsider, while Torres is reminding the country of the social work she did as First Lady. There are lingering questions about each of their abilities to continue to rid the government of corruption.

The battle against corruption is far from won, but today, Guatemala’s Independence Day, is a day to celebrate the hard work done by men and women over the past 365 days to ensure a better future for the citizens of Guatemala. Guatemala has been referred to as one of the worst places in the world to be a child, but the progress made in the past few months makes me hopeful that the impoverished, indigenous children I worked with in Guatemala might grow up to live in a country whose government strives to serve them and their families.

TG: “Turkey and EU’s Self-Righteousness”

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

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Soli Özel on European Union countries mishandling and misrepresenting their relations with Turkey:

A current question often raised in the European debate is this: What will happen if Turkey becomes more authoritarian? The background of the question is usually to push Turkey further onto the European sidelines. It also belittles the vitality of the political debate inside Turkey and the vitality and creativity of its civil society.

To make my point, let me ask what will happen to Hungary, an existing EU and NATO member, if it goes more authoritarian than it already has?
[…]
When France decided in 2005 — and much more aggressively after 2007, when Nicolas Sarkozy became President – to ditch Turkey and stop it on its route to EU membership, it came on the heels of the referendum on the European Constitution. Meanwhile, in Germany, Angela Merkel came to power and that country’s position changed as well.

Mind you, those years were not a time when Turkish democracy was being questioned. Between 2002 and 2007/08, if anything, Turkish democracy was improving by leaps and bounds. The idea often presented in the European debate — that Turkey was ditched because it was not sufficiently democratic or democratizing — is not true.

In fact, as if to add insult to injury, when things started to go wrong in Turkey between 2009 and 2011, the EU Commission wrote the lamest – repeat: lamest! – annual reports on the country’s progress.

Read the full essay.

Lebanon gov’t hastily builds concrete wall, then tears it down

As previously explained, Beirut, Lebanon is in the midst of a series of protests against the dysfunctional national government for failing to arrange for trash collection in the capital. The government began panicking and backtracking after riot police violently assaulted protesters. But that didn’t mean they were actually planning to fix anything. They just didn’t want to have another crackdown.

This might be the weirdest possible solution:

The protests turned violent over the weekend, prompting the government to erect a concrete wall outside its main building to prevent protesters from reaching it.

Within hours, the wall was filled with anti-government graffiti.

“State of Shabiha,” one young man scrawled, an Arabic term for thugs. Another drawing showed a man’s body wrapped in a black cloth below a caption that read: “The shroud of the state.”

On Tuesday, authorities began removing the wall, just 24 hours after it was installed.

“They won’t fool us by removing the wall,” said Sarhan, the You Stink supporter. “Remove it or not, we don’t care. We want… an end to sectarianism. We want to build a state,” he said.

 
Popping a concrete wall into place — I assume they used pre-fab barriers rather than pouring it on-site — definitely sends a pretty specific message: “We are ‘fraidy-cats.” That’s in line with the rather pathetic, frantic pinwheeling of the Prime Minister after the crackdown.

“I was never in this for a position in government, I am one of you. I am with the people. Do not pit this conflict [as] one camp against the other. Target all the politicians.”

 
Delusional, tone-deaf speechifying to try to placate protesters is usually a pretty good sign of the impending fall of a government.

Also a nice touch, in building the wall, to give everyone at the protests a media-friendly canvas on which to paint their frustrations. Have Lebanon’s leaders never heard of all the political graffiti on the West Bank security barrier or the West Berlin wall?

Beirut’s Garbage Uprising

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Lebanon is a country close to my heart, but (probably for the better) it hasn’t been dominating global news for a few years. Headlines began popping up this weekend, however, along the lines of
“Many injured in Beirut ‘you stink’ protest over rubbish” or
“Thousands protest against Lebanese govt over uncollected rubbish” and simply
“Thousands protest against government in Beirut” — that one from the local paper for their photo gallery.

For comparison, Beirut, Lebanon is about half as populous as Boston, Massachusetts in the United States. This story for those not following it, much like the heaps of garbage in Beirut, has been building up for some time now in the capital city.

Basically, what happened is that the not-very-elected national “unity” government of Lebanon is so dysfunctional at anything other than literally not re-entering a civil war that they failed to act in time to secure a location for a major new landfill capable of taking the capital’s trash, even though they had plenty of advanced warning that the existing site was past capacity and was going to have to close.

So, the trash has just been piling up in the streets, valleys, rivers, and the ocean for the past month, even during the huge heat wave that affected much of the Middle East (and has sparked similar reform protests in Iraq). Some Beirut residents have just burned their trash in the street, but that creates toxic air pollution that lingers in the city. In a small and delicately balanced country like Lebanon, finding a place to put all this trash really is a national-level issue requiring dedicated internal negotiations. Very little of which has happened.

Demonstrations have been escalating. The latest protest — documented at the headlines above — reached at least 4,000 participants, who clashed with riot police outside government buildings. The slogan in Beirut, as in the Arab Spring Revolutions of late 2010 and early 2011, is simply “The people want to topple the regime!” — even for a garbage crisis.

There’s something to be said for the human spirit and temperament that even with everything else falling apart and the security situation in chaos, as is the case in Baghdad and Beirut, the daily dysfunctions and quotidian aggravations still motivate people to mobilize and demand better of their governments instead of just putting up with it. Even in the United States, during the American Civil War, you can read examples of people in both the North and South rioting against their governments and their own forces over unfair policies, food shortages, and so on.

We’ve also, in recent weeks, begun seeing protests in government-held areas of Syria by loyalists demanding better treatment and services from the government they’ve poured their blood, sweat, and tears into propping up since 2011.

All politics — and war — is ultimately local. We often think of the purpose of government in big-picture terms like “national defense” and “providing security” but people still have expectations of their governments even when those points have gone out the window. The longer the big disorder drags on without resolution, the more irritating the little disorders become.

At the end of the day, when the trash stinks, somebody’s got to take it out. The crisis in Beirut might just be the most potent metaphor ever for bad governance and corrupt state failure the world over.