Monthly Archives: January 2008

The Weirdest Country in Europe

Europe has a lot of weird countries with a lot of weird political systems. San Marino, for example, is governed by two “captains regent” who wear sashes and funny hats. Andorra’s nominal head of state is the President of France, except in that country he is considered their “co-prince,” along with an obscure Spanish priest (who also rarely visits). And then you have your charming little principalities like Monaco, Luxembourg, and Lichtenstein which are ruled by small, quirky royal families with odd titles.

Strange, yes, but  in many cases the weirdness is largely superficial. All these wacky people are largely figureheads, and don’t actually have much to with how the countries in question are actually governed in practice. Under all the folderol, they are just ordinary, albeit small, countries with run-of-the-mill parliamentary systems of government that none of us would have trouble recognizing.

The exception to this is the Confederation of Switzerland, which actually does have a political system that is one of the world’s most functionally unique. Indeed, it is really quite a difficult country for political scientists to categorize, because the way they govern themselves stands alone, in open defiance of all the various grand theories on how national governments are supposed to be organized.  

Switzerland  is basically a collection of German city councils that didn’t want to join the Holy Roman Empire, or any of the other German confederations that came after it. To ensure their sovereignty, in the 13thCentury the little city-states thus pooled their armies and joined up in a loose union which more or less survives to this day.

Because of this strong founding  focus on preserving what Americans would describe as the “states’ rights” of its members, early on in Swiss history it was decided that the best way to govern the Federation would be through some model of consensus decision making. The idea of having a strong central government was denounced, as was putting too much power in the hands of a single ruler—or later, political party.  

Since the dawn of the 20thCentury every parliamentary election in Switzerland has basically yielded identical results, with the four largest political parties, the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, the People’s Party, and the Radicals, collectively winning a two-thirds majority; seats divvied up with roughly equal parity. The four parties then form a coalition government together, and split up the cabinet positions equally. In Swiss political lingo they call this the “magic formula” and the Swiss are taught to think of this as being the most natural and ideal form of government. You can get into into a weird chicken and egg type discussion about whether Swiss voters consciously vote to preserve this magic formula or whether the magic formula is preserved to reflect the will of the voters.

In what is perhaps the Swiss system’s greatest compromise of all, the presidency of Switzerland rotates between the cabinet ministers every year, so every party gets a chance to have one of their own be leader for a short period. In practice, however, the presidency is largely useless. The cabinet holds all power collectively, and the Swiss constitution weirdly even declares that it is the cabinet, and not the president who is the federation’s “head of state.” When the cabinet makes a decision it is likewise portrayed as one which is made by consensus. Their votes are never made public and members never criticize each other publicly, lest their behaviors imply that they are not operating with a single mind.   

Of course, we all know that collective management never works in practice, be it in a hippie commune or a nation-state. Certain dynamic personalities always come to dominate the decision-making process, and amass more power for themselves at the expense of others.

In Switzerland, one such domineering personality is Mr. Christoph Blocher. Because of the Swiss dislike of hierarchy, he’s not formally anything, just a member of parliament. But he’s still come to dominate the country’s political life in a big way as of late.

Other countries often imagine Switzerland to be some sort of utopia, and their famous neutrality in foreign affairs often seems inspiring. But the dark side of the Swiss culture of isolationism is a profound dislike and distrust of outsiders, and it is these latent feelings upon which Mr. Blocher has hitched his political career. A member of the People’s Party (SVP)—the most conservative faction of the four-party elite—Blocher is an extremely wealthy businessman who has used his personal fortune to back a variety of isolationist and xenophobic causes to considerable success.

Throughout the last three decades he has headed a string of “no” campaigns in successive Swiss referendums, opposing proposals for Switzerland to join the UN, the EU, and sending troops to international peacekeeping missions, among others. His political party has likewise made significant gains since he started becoming politically active; in the last decade the SVP has more than doubled its share of the popular vote. Blocher himself first won a parliamentary seat in 1980, and was appointed to cabinet in 2004.

In last year’s parliamentary election was his grandest moment yet. He threw a lot of money behind a campaign to make the election all about immigration—specifically, why Switzerland needs less of it.

Switzerland is already a very difficult country to immigrate to, but due to its small population it is still quite reliant on foreign labor. 20% of its population is foreign-born, most of whom are not citizens and can be—and are—easily deported. Still, there are a great many Swiss who dislike having any foreign workers around at all, especially the Muslim ones. As is the case in most of Europe, there is a growing fear that Muslims are simply a dangerous and un-assimilateable people who threaten the white Christian majority’s safety, culture and way of life.

Blocher openly played on these fears, using slogans and ads that many have criticized as being quite blatantly racist. There’s this one infamous poster in particular that shows three angry white sheep kicking a black sheep out of their little posse… But anyway, the strategy paid off handsomely for his party. The People’s Party ended up winning 29% of the popular vote in the 2007 parliamentary election, giving them 62 seats in the 200-member Swiss national assembly. This may not sound like much, but it was actually the biggest one-party sweep in nearly 88 years.

This of course ruined the magic formula, which is based around keeping the parties equal. Since the SVP now controlled  a clear plurality of seats they boldy demanded to get another seat in the cabinet, which the other parties refused to concede. So on December 13, the People’s Party made the shockingly unprecedented decision to abandon the coalition government altogether, and sit in the parliamentary opposition. The next day the parliament likewise rejected Mr. Blocher’s bid for re-election to cabinet.

On January 1, 2008, the Swiss Federal Council assumed office for the first time without a member of the SVP. The Radical Party Minister Pascal Couchepin became president for the calendar year, a position he had previously held for the duration of 2003.

The country is now essentially governed what amounts to an anti-SVP, anti-Blocher alliance. This hyper-partisan breakdown has in turn provoked a great deal of nationalistic weeping that Switzerland’s much-beloved model of “consensus government” is starting to break down in favor of the dreaded “adversarial” system that the rest of the world uses.

Mr. Blocher welcomes this, because he thinks the consensus model was a bit of a scam anyway. Far from being a shining example of egalitarian collective-rule, he portrays the system as little more than a bunch of out-of-touch political elites making bad policy through groupthink.

In the next election it seems reasonable to assume that Mr. Blocher and the SVP will openly ask voters to elect his party to power, and make populist arguments about how nothing will change unless control of the government’s agenda can be wrestled from the entrenched magic formula gang.

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Top 10 Head of State Stories of 2007

I thought I’d launch Head of State Update‘s bold new online presence with a look at a selection of what I believe to be 10 of the most consequential, interesting, or troubling world leader-related developments of 2007.

10. The President of Israel finally resigns

Sometimes you just have one of those presidential terms. The sad decline and fall of Israeli President Moshe Katsav was certainly one of the more interesting stories of the year, if only because it resembled something of car crash in slow motion.

Just to recap, a bunch of the president’s former staffers came out of the woodwork in the summer of 2006, spreading all sorts of nasty allegations about the president’s busy hands. But it wasn’t all just Monica-esque chicanery, there were also serious allegations about sexual assault and even outright rape.

When this stuff came public, President Katsav reacted with a range of emotions varying from anger to paranoia. First he tried to ignore the charges, then dismiss them, then openly confront them. Either way, he refused to heed the growing chorus of voices demanding him to resign, largely just to keep himself in a state of political immunity for as long as possible.

Things got worse in January of 2007, after the Israeli parliament unsuccessfully tried to impeach him. In the aftermath, Katsav was put into this weird state of legal limbo, in which he was said to have been “suspended” from his job but still in office, a compromise which pleased no one.

Once his lawyers were able to wrangle together a decent plea bargain with his accusers, Katsav finally stepped down in June. House speaker Dalia Itzik took over, meaning Israel briefly got its first female president, before the respectable elder statesman Shimon Peres was finally elected as a permanent replacement in July. A dignified ending to an embarrassing farce that went on for far too long.

 

9. Nepalese monarchy abolished

The world will lose a royal family in 2008, the first time in over three decades that this has happened. And really, it couldn’t happen to a more deserving crew. The royal family of Nepal has been a decidedly declining brand for many years now, and their disapperance won’t be widely mourned.

History may ultimately load much of the blame for the fall of the Shah Dynasty upon the shoulders of the lunatic Prince Dipendra. After all, had he not had the insane urge to murder most of the royal family in 2001, his sadistic uncle Gyanendra would have never succeeded to the throne and proceeded to turn the country into a tyrannical absolute monarchy—greatly exacerbating the tensions of the nation’s already fiery civil war in the process.

Republicanism, once the fringe ideology of Nepal’s Marxist movement, has now earned mainstream support among all parties in the country, as the civil war draws to a close and the politicians seek to create a new constitution of national unity. King Gyanendra was stripped of his powers and title of “head of state” in January of 2007, and in December the Nepalese parliament formally voted to become a “federal democratic republican state”.

The final details are still to be hammered out in a constitutional assembly in the spring of ’08, but it’s clear that the country will be better off without the crown.

 

8. Bangladesh’s acting PM crushes democracy in order to save it

Bangladesh enters 2008 with the odd paradox of a government that is an interim dictatorship. January will mark the second-year anniversary of the coming to power of acting Prime Minister Fakhruddin Ahmed, an outwardly unassuming bureaucrat who was supposed to only hold office for a  few weeks, then hand over office to a permanent, elected replacement.

Ahmed quickly came to the conclusion that his country was too crooked to have elections, however, perhaps a reasonable conclusion considering that Bangladesh consistently tops the charts as the world’s most corrupt nation. But his prescription for solving this cultural problem has been decidedly heavy-handed to say the least. Martial law has been imposed, all political parties have been banned, parliament has been suspended, and buckets of leading politicians- including two former prime ministers, have all been jailed.

Ahmed’s thesis is that if he simply does enough arresting and banning, he can sideline the forces of corruption and stabilize the country, and only then hold genuinely free and fair elections. It’s a complicated gamble and tough medicine, but Ahamed has the army’s backing and thus can stay in power as long as he wants. For now.

 

7. A new Turkmenbashi emerges

Turkmenbashi, the clownish, Orwellian dictator of Turkmenistan spent most of his political career as a punchline, rather than a figure of hatred. From his giant gold statutes to his random bans of whatever style of music happened to be annoying him that day, Turkmenbashi was truly God’s gifts to western journalists looking to fill up their “on the lighter side…” columns.

But despite his eccentricities, the man was a vicious tyrant, responsible for scores of arbitrary deaths, imprisonments, and torturings. His oil-rich fiefdom is also a highly relevant place in the great game of geo-politics, and with war continuing to wage in Afghanistan next door, Western powers have had to stay on his good side. His death in December of 2006 thus came as a bit of a shock, as it seemed hard to imagine Turkmenistan without the man who had basically crafted the entire state in his own image.

On St. Valentine’s Day, 2007 Kurbanguly Berdymukhammedov officially became the nation’s new president, a largely unknown man whose main accomplishment to date was serving as the dear leader’s personal dentist. He may or may not also be the dear leader’s bastard son; no one seems to have been able to independently verify that particularly juicy rumor.

Regardless, Berdymukhammedov’s installation marked an orderly transfer of power in a nation that could have spiraled into chaos when such a vital lynch-pin of society was removed. It remains to be seen whether or not the new boss will be any different than the old boss; he’s certainly shown little interest in democratic reforms and his dictatorship is only marginally less arbitrary and erratic than his predecessor’s. Turkmenistan remains a more important state than it gets credit for, however, and with Turkmenbashi’s veneer of goofiness finally removed from the equation, perhaps the country will finally be treated seriously.

 

6. Hugo Chavez rises and falls

If Hugo Chavez was a stock, 2007 would have been a roller-coaster year for investors. I would have advised to sell in early February, shortly after the Venezuelan parliament passed an enabling act allowing the President to rule by unilateral decree. Or possibly in May, after his government failed to renew the licence of Radio Caracas Television, one of the country’s most vocal opposition media outlets.

Investors hoping for even greater rises were bound to be disappointed, however. Chavez’ stock plummeted in early December when a dramatic overhaul of the constitution was narrowly rejected by voters in a referendum by a margin of 51 to 49%. The controversial package of amendments would have enshrined Venezuala’s new status as a socialist state, as well as handed Chavez the possibility of indefinite re-election to the presidency. With voters rejecting the proposals, however, Hugo must now step down by 2013.

For a man which such sky-high expectations and ambitions, the 2007 electoral defeat—his first ever—will prompt considerable soul-searching. Will El Presidente now resort to increasingly desperate gimmicks to consolidate his hold on power, or will he read the writing on the wall and agree to tone things down a bit? He’ll certainly be a man to watch in 2008.

 

5. Two unexpected political comebacks

Time can be quite a remarkable force in politics. 30 years ago, making the hysterically anti-Catholic Reverend Iain Paisley the prime minister of Northern Ireland would have seemed like a proposal on par with making Osama Bin Laden president of Pakistan. But a lot has changed since the 1970’s, and with “the troubles” having finally shown signs of permanently winding down, the Reverend Paisley has somehow managed to retool himself as a force of reconciliation and compromise.

After winning the 2007 parliamentary election, Paisely thus agreed to enter into a government of national unity with his long time political foes, and now heads a coalition government containing members of the IRA-allied Seinn Feinn party, which he has spent his entire adult life declaring to be the literal spawn of Satan. Since then, he’s worked slowly and steadily to negotiate outstanding matters of dispute between his country’s Protestant and Catholic factions, and may yet emerge, in the words of a Belfast Telegraph editoral, “as vital to Northern Ireland as Nelson Mandela has been to South Africa.”

Stranger still may be the return of Daniel Ortega as President of Nicaragua. A one-time Marxist guerrilla leader who the Ronald Reagan administration committed near-impeachable crimes to try and covertly overthrow, Ortega was quietly re-elected back to power in November of 2006 and officially assumed office in January of ’07.

Ironically Ortega—who is now a born-again Christian with social views to the right of the Republican Party—probably tops Washington’s list of least concerning Latin American leftists. Though the Sandinista leader still shows some glimmers of his former self, cozying up to Iran and Cuba, at best the small, irrelevant nature of Nicaragua makes Ortega little more than the boring second fiddle in a socialist symphony now led by much more domineering figures like Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. The President has never been a terribly popular figure in his own country anyway. Elected with only 38% of the vote, Ortega needs to focus on consolidating his own power at home before he can begin dreaming about revolutions abroad.

 

4. Belgium breaks down

It was not so long ago that Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper, now Prime Minister of Canada, fawningly described Belgium as a model of multi-ethnic stability that other Western nations could learn a thing or two from.

Flash forward to 2007, and the Economist is now running editorials describing the grand Belgian experiment as a failure, opining openly that maybe the country should just split up for the benefit of all involved.

The Kingdom spent half of 2007 without a functioning government, as the parliament remained in a permanent state of deadlock following a traditionally indecisive parliamentary election in June. No one was able to cobble together a working majority from any combination of the 11 political parties represented in the Belgian House of Representatives, despite months of round-the-clock negotiations that even saw Belgium’s normally apolitical king get involved.

In a nutshell, the problem is that “Belgium” in so much as it exists as a single country, exists mostly as a contract of convenience between two roughly equal-sized ethnic groups, one French, one Dutch, who don’t tend to agree on much. French-Dutch coalition governments have always been the norm, but now it seems that the two groups want to renegotiate the very foundations of the country itself, which has opened an enormous can of worms. How strong should the federal government be? What powers should remain with the provinces? What kind of bilingualism policies should be adopted? How about immigration?

Until these fundamental questions about what kind of country Belgium is supposed to be can be resolved, the politicians seem incapable of moving forward, as round after round of failed negotiations continue. Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who lost the 2007 election and should have left office by now, has now had his lame-duck term extended indefinitely as “interim” leader, and must now be starting to feel a bit like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

Will 2008 see Harper’s favorite marriage finally divorce?

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3. Turkey finds religion

The visionary but savage General Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey on one simple preconition—the outwardly religious should never, ever be allowed positions of political power. And for many years the Turkish armed forces and judicial system honored this commandment, banning, imprisoning, or overthrowing any politician who dared praise Allah a little too loudly or publicly.

Then in 2003 Turkey got an openly pro-Islamic prime minister, and in 2007 he cajoled parliament into electing a pro-Islamic president as well. The two highest offices of the Turkish state are now controlled by deeply religious men, who although nowhere near Ahmadinejad levels of passion, still favor a greater role for Islam in public life, including the legal system.

Turkey enters 2008 as a country torn by many competing interests. One can even make an analogy to the so-called culture wars of the United States. The liberal, secular political parties of the big cities are getting increasingly sidelined by religious, conservative ones whose base lies in the more rural areas. The President and the Prime Minister, for their part, have waged successful campaigns portraying themselves as democratic populists who are finally giving the people the kind of government that they actually want, rather than the kind that the elites think is best for them.

The West, however, has tended to overreact to the news of the Islamic victories, especially in Europe which has always disliked and distrusted Turkey. I would not be surprised if Turkey’s far-fetched EU bid is abandoned sometime in the near future, as increasingly religious Turkey and increasingly anti-Muslim Europe realize that their cultural differences are simply too big to overcome.

 

2. The West’s old warhorses are put out to pasture

Since the mid 1990’s, the western world has been dominated by a handful of larger-than-life leaders, chief amongst them Britain’s Tony Blair, France’s Jacques Chirac, and Australia’s John Winston Howard.

Among other things, all three were brilliant electoral strategists who were able to string out their political careers for far longer than the experts ever predicted possible. Chirac and Howard kept conservatism alive in countries deemed to be irreparably leftist, while Blair did the opposite, and transforming his left-wing Labour Party from conservative Britain’s perennial runner-up to the dominant political machine of the early 21st Century. Blair and Chirac likewise shared the skill for what the political classes now commonly refer to as “triangulation,” or superseding the traditional left-right dichotomy. Though nominally liberal, Blair’s Britain was able to cut government spending and promote an aggressive War on Terrorism, while the conservative Chirac led a remarkably leftist foreign policy, keeping George Bush’s America at arms’ length but America’s enemies on a first-name basis. 

In 2007 all three men left office, Chirac and Blair voluntarily through term limits and resignations, and Howard unwillingly, via electoral defeat. In 2008 it will be interesting to watch the careers of the leaders who replaced them, as all three successors represent a return to more traditional politics after a decade of highly experimental rule.

Britain’s Gordon Brown has already expressed an eagerness to wind down Iraq and cool relations with the United States, instead focusing more on domestic issues and the EU—traditional Labourite concerns. New French President Nicholas Sarkozy, though from the same political party as Chirac, has already done much to distance himself from his predecessor’s foreign policy, embracing a pro-American stance that has even earned the praise of Ann Coulter, among others. And lastly Kevin Rudd, the new Labourite Prime Minister of Australia who beat Howard in the November federal election, has already veered Australia sharply to the left, signing the Kyoto Accord on his first day in office, and promising to withdraw all Australian combat troops from Iraq ASAP.

Some pundits have been quick to view these developments as signs that the Blair, Chirac, and Howard experiments were ultimately unsuccessful, despite the men’s many re-elections (Chirac two, Blair three, and Howard four). It may be too soon to draw such conclusions, however. All three leaders greatly shook up their nations’ notions of “politics as usual,” and through their unique relationships with the United States and the Bush Administration each gave their countries new relevance on the international stage as players in the post-September 11 world order. Their long shadows will linger for years to come.

 

1. Putin to rule forever

Russian President Vladimir Putin was made Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for good reason. Russia has re-emerged as an unapologetic and self-confident global power under his reign, while a return to authoritarianism at home seems to have finally answered the great post-Cold War mystery as to whether or not Russia would ever become a truly democratic country.

With Russia and Putin becoming increasingly synonymous, all eyes were on the great man in 2007 to see how he would manage to weasel out of the annoying little technicality that is the Russian constitution, and somehow serve a third term in office. We got our answer in September, when Putin plucked some random bureaucrat named Victor Zubkov out of nowhere and basically informed the Russian people, “here, this man will be your new president.” President What’s-His-Name then declared that he would in turn appoint Mr. Putin as his new prime minister upon assuming office.

It’s a significant development because it in essence marks Russia’s return to the old Soviet-style system of government, in which titles and offices don’t matter much, but leadership does. As was the case in the time of Stalin, Kruschev, and Brezhnev, the state is now structured around the dynamism of a single individual, with all other organs of the state being reduced to mere rubber stamps charged with carrying out the leader’s “vision.”

The good news in all this is that Putin is a predictable, stable man who more or less has a clear set of agendas and interests that make it easy to understand why he governs the way that he does. The bad news is that his style of governance leaves a lot to be desired, and seems to be earning Mr. Putin far more critics than friends in the west. I personally see Putin as a man who is equally suited for the role of partner or enemy, and will embrace either role with equal relish. Putin will never be the lovable pal George Bush imagined him to be, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be the next Hitler, either.

 

And those we lost…

As a closer, I will just note in passing that 2007 was also a year of several substantial deaths.

Along with the deaths of the incumbent prime ministers of Tchad, Armenia, and St. Luca, we also witnessed the passing of several retired elder statesmen, including former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Austrian President (and UN boss) Kurt Waldheim, Luxembourg Prime Minister Gaston Thorn, French Prime Ministers Raymond Barre and Pierre Messmer, and Rhodesian leader Iain Smith. Then, of course, there was also the extremely tragic assassination of Bezanir Bhutto, a remarkable woman who may have otherwise been one of the top world leaders to watch in the coming year.

We enter 2008 with the world of the 1990’s farther away than ever before, symbolically, as well as numerically. Though I’m not cocky enough to make any big predictions, all I can say is that the world leaders of 2008 will continue this trend, and work actively to shape a new world order that challenges our assumptions of the past like never before.