The right recipe for democracy

“There’s more to democracy than free and fair elections”.

This is a refrain we’ve heard more than once since the anti-government protests broke out in major Turkish cities two weeks ago.

On Wednesday, a Turkish lawyer and university lecturer, Zaynep Ayeata, made this point again on The World Tonight. Former Foreign Minister, and one of the founding fathers of the governing Justice and Development (or AK) Party, Yasar Yakis, responded by telling us Turkey is still developing its democracy and it is not perfect. Remember that until the past decade, the Turkish military played a dominant role in the country’s politics.

Then, look at today’s presidential poll in Iran – does the fact the Islamic Republic hold elections make it democratic? Many would say no, not really. They could point to the fact that the candidates are vetted ahead of the elections, and that this year the two considered to be reformists were barred from standing at all, limiting the choice voters have.  There are also the limited powers of the President in Iran. He – and it has always been a he – does not hold the most important political office in a complex system which is truly presided over by the Supreme- in both a political and religious sense-  leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But even in the “mature democracies”, we’ve had reminders in the past week that there is more to democracy than voting. An ex CIA whistle-blower,  Edward Snowden, has revealed through the press that the United States Government has been carrying out widespread secret surveillance both of American citizens’ telephone communications, and of internet communications of people all around the world, probably including British citizens.

The US authorities insist this surveillance is aimed at preventing terrorist attacks and few Americans are disputing this kind of activity may be necessary, but there is concern in Congress and civil society about the secrecy and what they see as lack of democratic oversight of government security agencies.

Do these three stories really have much in common?

It seems to me they do and that all of them illustrate there are two other fundamentals needed for effective democratic governance: the separation of powers and accountability.

In Turkey, the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has won three elections in a row and his AK Party got half of all votes cast in the last one two years ago. He promised then to be a Prime Minister for all Turkish citizens, not just those who voted for him. But, the protesters who’ve been defying the tear gas and water cannon of the police for two weeks think he’s broken his promise and is not listening to them.

Turkish lawyers, who have joined the protests, argue there is still not a clear separation of powers in the country and the judiciary is not sufficiently independent from the government, so it can run roughshod over opposition to its policies.

There has also been criticism of the media in Turkey – much of it controlled by big businesses which benefit from government contracts – for being reluctant to cover the protests when they first started. The government has also fined two smaller TV stations for carrying live coverage of clashes between police and protesters.

There’s another weakness to Turkish democracy and that is the lack of a strong opposition party in parliament to hold the AK government to account, which is another reason opponents of Mr Erdogan may have felt the need to take to the streets to voice their unhappiness at his policies – be it the redevelopment of one of the last remaining parks in Istanbul or restrictions on the sale of alcohol after 10pm, or one of the other grievances raised by protesters.

Neighbouring Iran’s political system – at least on paper – appears to have checks and balances built into it. But, in practice, the political and religious authority of the Supreme Leader means Ayatollah Khamenei, who cannot be removed by the voters, wields huge and largely unaccountable political power.

In the US, the issue thrown up by Mr Snowden’s revelations also revolves around accountability. In Hong Kong, where he’s taken refuge, the former CIA operative told interviewers he took action to defend the basic liberties of people all around the world. But, back in Washington, the debate has been less about the rights and wrongs of such surveillance, and more about the ability of Congress – the people’s elected representatives – to hold the government to account for what it is doing. If the surveillance is taking place in secret, the argument goes, how can legislators do their jobs properly?

Winston Churchill famously said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.  So has the past week once again shown that Churchill had a point?

Democracy is far from straightforward and requires much more than elections to deliver legitimate government. Other essential ingredients seem to be a separation of powers between different branches of government, including an independent judiciary that enables the rule of law; and an independent media, an effective elected opposition, and open government to ensure accountability.

The former Turkish Foreign Minister, Yasar Yakis, suggests Turkish democracy is a work in progress, but perhaps that’s the case everywhere – even in countries where it has been established for much longer.

 

Revealed! Inside the IF Campaign

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Now everyone’s talking about the IF campaign. Saturday’s rally in Hyde Park was on TV, radio, and in pretty much every Sunday paper. More importantly, the IF campaign message can be seen in churches, mosques, synagogues and charity shops across Britain, it is being discussed in school classrooms and student unions, and it’s gone viral online. (My son said to me that he was playing on the computer when he came across a picture of David Beckham, clicked it and saw a message about the IF campaign. Lesson 1: I have no idea what my son is up to online – I am a bad parent. Lesson 2: IF is connecting with a new generation of young people – we have great campaigners.)

Of course, some people say that no one is talking about IF. Indeed there are now hundreds and hundreds of blogs about how no one is talking about IF, all with lots and lots of comments agreeing that no one is talking about IF…

But what’s it like inside the campaign? I’ve read a few pieces about what really goes on, which remind me of John Lennon’s remark that he loved reading music reviews, because from the reviewers he found out what his songs really meant. So here’s a few reflections from what actually happens.

What doesn’t happen:

We don’t plan how to help David Cameron get re-elected.  Last night Ed Miliband came to an IF event to say what a great campaign it has been and how he’ll do everything he can to support it. Of all the people who’d want to help re-elect the PM I reckon the Leader of the Opposition isn’t one. The campaign is genuinely non-partisan, it’s about the agenda of tackling the causes of hunger.

We don’t plan how to promote the expansion of the “New Alliance for Food Security”, established at Camp David, as the answer. Hence the IF campaign statement “The expansion of the New Alliance is not the answer.”

We don’t talk about the G8 as the solution. We talk about the G8 as the group of governments who are meeting this month in the UK  where we are based, who have a major role in the global economy and who need to stop being part of the problem – on land grabs, on tax dodging, on the lack of transparency. We are all involved, also, in supporting campaigning by Southern civil society movements to hold Southern governments to account. Continue reading

Monday’s* Map: A String of Chinese Pearls

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From The Economist:

“China’s port strategy is mainly motivated by commercial impulses. It is natural that a country of its clout has a global shipping and ports industry. But it could become a flashpoint for diplomatic tensions. That is the pessimistic view. The optimistic one is that the more it invests, the more incentive China has to rub along better with its trading partners.”

*I am a day late…

New Global Peace Index

Headlines (from their news release):

Dramatic rise in the number of homicides drives reduction in world peace over the last year

Measures of state-sponsored terror and the likelihood of violent demonstrations are the most improved indicators

5% deterioration in the Global Peace Index recorded over the last six years

Syria’s peace score records the largest fall in GPI history; Libya’s peace bounces back after the civil war but still low

Iceland maintains status as the most peaceful country whilst war-ravaged Afghanistan returns to the bottom of the index

Europe remains the most peaceful region comprising thirteen of the top twenty peaceful countries; South Asia is the least peaceful region

Eastern and Western Europe homicides are dropping, contrary to global trend

In the past year the Drug War in Mexico has claimed twice as many lives than  the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan

Here’s the whole thing. And an interactive map. Interesting to see how the perceptions data varies across countries: e.g. the UK’s score for “perceived criminality in society” is higher than for the US or Greece, and the same as for Egypt, fretful nation that we are.

Reflections from the #BigIF

The Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign held a rally in Hyde Park this weekend. Three things stood out as major highlights for me:

1)      Wow. Getting 45,000 people to take any form of coordinated political action is an extraordinary achievement, particularly in the face of austerity, deep public scepticism about politics and an increasingly fractured media market that makes it ever harder to have a genuinely national conversation about anything. This was not a mass mobilisation on the scale of Stop the War or the Countryside Alliance but hats off – the domestic charity sector would kill for a show of strength like this.

2)      At one point during the day the MCs asked people to shout if they had been in Edinburgh for Make Poverty History and again if this was the first thing like this they’d ever done.  About half the crowd fell into the second camp, implying that IF has done a sterling job bringing in new blood to the global justice movement. If we’re able to keep a hold of them and integrate their diffuse networks into the NGO and churches infrastructure which has long been the backbone of development campaigning we will have built something truly formidable.  I spent the event in front of a lovely group in their late fifties who tutted loudly and in unison whenever one of the terrible statistics about hunger was mentioned by a speaker.  That relentless quiet crossness  is what gives me hope that we finally have a real shot of exercising political influence even without a government which has internationalism in its DNA: the tutters for justice are not going forget what they saw yesterday the next time a canvasser knocks on their door.

3)      I’ll admit to being sceptical about whether a minute’s silence at an event with a Glastonbury vibe was going to work. I was completely and utterly wrong – it was one of the most powerful political moments I’ve ever been part of. Led by the former Archbishop of Canterbury and held in memory of the millions of people who have died of hunger in a world of plenty, the silence worked precisely because the crowd could not otherwise have been further from a stiff picture of solemnity. Likewise, with one powerful exception, the footage on display was relentlessly focused on the opportunity before us, rather than the scale of the problem itself.

So three cheers for some truly heroic efforts over many months by more than 200 of Britain’s best-loved charities. The next ten days won’t be plain sailing though, so three things to watch as the next stage of the campaign unfolds:

1)      It still isn’t clear what the underlying political analysis of this campaign is. Are we trying to maximise pressure on the Prime Minister because we suspect he isn’t really that committed? Or is his personal passion to be treated in good faith but he needs our help with winning over his party and right-wing critics? Or are we not really interested in the UK at all and trying to show the other leaders that they better turn up ready to do some serious business? Or perhaps the priority is less about policy change and more about attitudinal change, using the hook of the G8 to recommence a conversation with the public about the good their aid is doing. There is an argument for each of the four (and they are not all mutually exclusive) but it isn’t clear that even the most involved member agencies would prioritise the four in the same way.

2)      Nutrition specialists were rightly pleased with Saturday’s announcement of new commitments emerging from the hunger summit while tax specialists aren’t holding their breath for a breakthrough of anything like the level of ambition that we need. Which side is going to ‘own’ the overall G8 verdict for the whole coalition? The campaign has shown remarkable message discipline so far, but the risk of fracture is always highest when the decision comes about how to price a partial victory.

3)      In the last few months the global justice sector has secured two massive victories (a global arms trade treaty and an end to secret deals through new European rules) against some of the most powerful vested interests in the world but change was delivered by coalitions more focussed on uniting the organisations they genuinely needed to win than on recruiting and retaining the widest possible group of NGOs. IF is the first time the UK development sector has come together in such numbers since Make Poverty History and the transaction costs remain as high as they ever were. It is unexpected pincer movements that make the biggest difference so we need to remember all time spent managing internal sector politics is time not spent doing creative outreach with high-impact unlikely suspects, like the vloggers Save the Children have been working hard to cultivate.

There will be plenty of time for post-mortems of the whole campaign later, but this weekend was overall a good reminder of the thing that brought most of us into campaigning in the first place: politicians have the power to change things and we have the power to make them. If you want to know more, there’s a good tick-tock of the day here.

Is Hollande discovering it IS easier to get in than out?

France’s beleaguered President Francois Hollande has had some good news.

He may have fallen out of the public’s affection faster than any previous French leader, but last Wednesday the United Nations gave Mr Hollande UNICEF’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny Prize for his contribution to peace and stability.

The award is recognition for France’s intervention in Mali earlier this year which staved off the advance of Islamist rebels, some with alleged links to al Qaeda, who threatened a take-over of the country.

Meanwhile in Mali – as the cliché goes – at the same time as the President was being honoured by UNICEF in Paris, news came that the Malian army had clashed with rebels in the north of country for the first time since the French entered the conflict back in January.

Mali may no longer feature much in the papers or on the news, but that doesn’t mean the conflict is over and the situation there is sorted out.  It also goes to illustrate what western countries must have learned about military intervention since the violent collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s – it is much easier to get in than it is to get out – to this day there are thousands of European troops in Kosovo and Bosnia.

To his credit, Mr Hollande seemed to recognise this could be a problem again in Mali quite quickly. When first announcing he was sending troops, he emphasised the emergency nature of the intervention with the Malian army in rapid retreat and a rebel victory looking imminent. He said France would stay until African troops and the UN could get organised to support Mali’s government, but within days French officials were saying the troops would stay “as long as necessary”.

In the event, the arrival of the French – and troops from neighbouring Chad – changed the course of the conflict. The rebels were pushed back quickly and the main towns in the sparsely populated north of the country were retaken, as, by and large, the rebels chose not to stand and fight and returned to insurgent tactics of ambush and bombings.

But in order to bring as quick an end to the intervention as possible, the French also attempted to split the rebels – which were made up of an alliance of various fractious groups. Some were Islamist, such as Ansar Dine, and some secular nationalists, such as the Natonal Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA,  fighting for more autonomy or independence for the Arab Tuareg people of northern Mali from the black African majority of the south.

Paris had some success in this strategy. As French troops advanced towards a key northern town called Kidal at the end of January, MNLA forces there turned on their Islamist allies and drove them out of the town. In exchange, it seems, the French promised the MNLA could run the town and the Malian army would not return.

At the time, the move helped accelerate the French advance, but it may have complicated the longer term aim of stabilising Mali and ensuring the withdrawal of all French troops.

Although the UN has agreed to send a new stabilisation mission to Mali, called MINUSMA, backed by a military force from neighbouring countries such as Nigeria and Chad, France still has about 2,000 troops there – half the number they had at the height of the fighting, but still a considerable deployment .

The recent clashes between the Malian army and the MNLA were near Kidal, which is still held by the rebel group. The stabilisation plan for Mali involves holding elections next month and the MNLA says it will not return the town to Malian government control before those elections. The army seems to be intent of taking it back before then.

So what will the French do?

The original intervention was justified on political and humanitarian grounds – to save Mali from collapse and the people from human rights abuses by the Islamist fighters. But six months on, the Malian army still seems incapable of defeating the rebels on its own, and human rights groups accuse government troops themselves of abusing civilians in the areas where it has managed to re-establish control.

So far Paris has not said much about the new outbreak of fighting, but if it escalates, it is likely the French will have to delay the withdrawal of the troops still in Mali.

So despite his awareness of the risks of getting sucked into a long term involvement, President Hollande, could still struggle to find the way out of his first foreign intervention.

Let the Poor Starve (updated)

Congressman Stephen Fincher, a Republican from Tennessee, is part of an effort to cut $20 billion from food stamps, a program that helps feed nearly 50 million Americans, at a monthly cost of around $275 per person.

Fincher has collected $3.5 million in farm subsidies since 1999 (mostly for cotton), but according to Mark Bittman in the New York Times, the Congressman has a simple explanation for why he thinks spending money to feed poor families is wrong.

He quotes Paul’s second epistle to the Thessalonians.

For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.

Read the whole thing and weep.

Update: Alex Evans gets it touch to point out something quite unexpected. Fincher, it seems, is in fact a communist. Lenin was a tireless advocate of the notion of no-work-no-food and made sure it was given a prominent place in the 1936 Soviet Union constitution:

In the USSR work is a duty and a matter of honor for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”

The congressman professes that “the Constitution and the Bible are our guiding documents.” Surely it is time for him to propose an amendment finally to bring the American version in line with its sadly-defunct Soviet counterpart?

(See the comments for further theological thoughts from Alex.)

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