Sunday, May 27, 2012

Indian Premier League (IPL) Final Held on Pandith Nehru's Death Anniversary

India is a land of stark contrasts. The largest democracy of the world commemorates one of its founding fathers on his 48th death anniversary by having various events including the final of the Indian Premier League (IPL).

Pandith Jawaharlal Nehru was the most important figure in the struggle for independence after Mahatma Gandhi. He entered the struggle at quite a young age and was at the forefront of it until their goal was achieved. From 1947, he was the Prime Minister of the country through the turbulent formative years until his death on May 27, 1964.

In 1947, Nehru inherited a country of 389 million people with a rising population of around half a dozen million per year. Poverty was widespread and so were social inequalities. Nehru faced the challenge of converting a colonial society into a modern society while preserving the unity of the country after the partition and immediate war over Kashmir. He kept the Union together, saw it being transformed to a Republic, initiated the industrialization and raised the education levels of the people. The Indian Institutes of Technology was a concept of Nehru by which he aimed to improve the technical know-how of Indian people, a prerequisite for industrialization. It was he who laid the foundation for the current stage of development to which India has reached.

The Indian Premier League is one sign of such development. It involves big financial interests, big money, big cricket and big crowds. The matches are played under lights in big grounds with thousands of spectators attending. Millions more are watching on their televisions. The IPL is ending as people are taking to the streets in protest over the rising fuel prices. Many thousands more are taking up arms and following the hammer and sickle banner of the Maoists in the heartland of India. The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. The rich are holding extravaganzas like the IPL to make more money out of the poor and also help the poor people forget their troubles. All this is happening while the country is ruled by a government led by the Indian National Congress, the party Nehru led for many years.

It was Pandith Nehru who laid the foundation on which India is built today. However, the building was not done according to his plans. Nehru did not envisage a nation where the rich becomes richer and the poor, poorer. Yet, that is what is happening. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Indian cricket authorities have forgotten the death anniversary of Nehru.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Greece Uncertain as Political Deadlock Forces New Election

Greek politics had been dominated by two leading political parties for 38 years from the end of the military regime in 1974. They are the centre right New Democracy (ND) founded by Konstantinos Karamanlis and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) founded by Andreas Papandreou. But, their predominance has been shattered by a combination of the debt crisis, economic recession and opposition to austerity measures. This has brought new political forces to the forefront of Greek politics.

Greece was already in economic difficulties by 2009. Kostas Karmanlis, the nephew of the elder Karmanlis was the then Prime Minister. He was swept aside by George Papandreou, son of the PASOK founder. George Papandreou was forced out of the job by the economic crisis in November 2011 when PASOK and ND formed a government of national unity under Lucas Papademos, supported by the smaller Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS). This government promoted austerity measures backed by some leaders of the European Union, notably Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy and opposed by many Greeks. They responded on May 6, 2012, by dealing severe blows on the PASOK, the ND and the LAOS. The ND managed win 108 out of 300 seats thanks to the 50 bonus seats they won by leading the popular vote. Meanwhile, the PASOK was pushed to third place by a hitherto insignificant left wing party, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA). The LAOS meanwhile did not reach the 3% threshold required to win a seat in the Hellenic Parliament. Meanwhile, the ultra-right wing Golden Dawn won 21 seats in the parliament, taking nearly 7% of the votes. In 2009, they had won just around 0.3% of the popular vote.

Meanwhile, austerity was being dealt several more blows on the same day. For Nicolas Sarkozy, one main proponent, May 6, 2012, was the end of the road as Francois Hollande defeated him in the run-off to the French Presidency. The other proponent, the 'Iron Chancellor' Angela Merkel saw her party being defeated in the state election of Schleswig-Holstein. A week later, her party, the Christian Democratic Union, was defeated once again in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Therefore, anti austerity parties gained in elections throughout Europe in early May, 2012. In Greece, these parties won three fifth of the popular vote. However, transforming this in to a more lasting victory was a difficult task. Forming a new government was not as easy as defeating the former. With candidates from all shades of the political spectrum in the new parliament and no group with a clear majority, finding common ground was the insurmountable challenge.

The ND, with 108 seats was the obvious first choice to form a government. But the PASOK, their allies in the former national unity government, had won only 41 seats, just two seats less than what was needed for a new unity government. The problem was that no other party wanted to associate with the discredited alliance. All other political parties which won seats are either to the right of the ND or to the left of the PASOK in the political spectrum. No one took Golden Dawn as a possible partner in a coalition government. The right wing Independent Greeks had won only 33 seats and could not help the matters.

The leftist party SYRIZA was reluctant to associate with pro-austerity parties. Their argument was that it was wrong to say one thing at the election and do another. A more ideologically possible option open to them would have been to form a left wing government with the Communists and the Democratic Left. But, the three parties lacked enough seats to obtain a majority.

This has left the president of Greece with no option but to appoint a caretaker government and go for a new election. Set for June 17, this might be able to break the deadlock. As things stand, there will be a close contest between the ND and the SYRIZA to lead the polls and thereby win the 50 bonus seats. However, it is doubtful if the political deadlock will be broken as the Greeks still remain divided.

Image: George Voudouris, The Greek Parliament Building, May 17, 2012. (Wikimedia Commons)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Algerian Islamic Parties Hope to Ride the Waves of 'Arab Spring'.

Voters in Algeria will have 44 political parties to choose from in the legislative election of May 10, 2012 to elect 389 members of the People's National Assembly. The main contest will be between the ruling coalition and the alliance of Islamic parties. However, with so many political parties to choose from, an inconclusive result is also on the cards.

Over the past year and a half, Arab Spring has transformed the political landscapes in Arabian countries in West Asia and especially in North Africa. Boosted by the fallout of the momentous events, the once prosecuted Islamic parties have emerged triumphant across North Africa recently in the elections of Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. They are also an important constituency in the post-Gaddafi Libya.

In this backdrop, it is understandable for the Algerian Islamic groups to hope for a change of fortunes in the upcoming elections. Over two decades ago, in 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front, an Islamic party, won almost half the votes in the first round of the legislative election. Faced with the prospect of an Islamic government, the military stepped in and took power, triggering a brutal civil war which claimed more than 100,000 lives. Twenty one years later, three Islamic parties have forged an alliance to challenge the two governing parties, National Liberation Front (FLN) and National Rally for Democracy (RND). These parties won 136 and 61 seats respectively in the last election in 2007.

The Islamic alliance will consist of Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), Islamic Renaissance Movement (also known as al-Nahda) and Movement for National Reform (also known as al-Islah). The former, which won 52 seats in 2007, is by far the largest party. Al-Nahda and Al-Islah won 5 and 3 seats respectively in the election five years ago.

Another major challenger to the governing parties will be the 'Red Lady' of Algeria, Louisa Hanoune and the Trotskyist Workers' Party (PT) led by her. A veteran revolutionary aged 58, Hanoune is popular in Algeria and came second in the largely one-sided presidential election in 2009, winning 4.22% of votes. She has once again promised to improve job opportunities, eual rights for women and eliminating Algerian Family Code, making Berber an official language and other reforms eliminating discrimination based on sex, religion, language etc. With increasing economic worries and the advances gained by the European leftists across the Mediterranean, the PT hopes to significantly improve their tally of 26 seats in 2007. With the possibility of no party or alliance gaining a simple majority, PT might find itself in a "kingmaker" position. However, it is doubtful if any other major party will want to work with it.

The main challenge for the political parties will be to instill credibility to the electoral process. In 2007, just 35% of eligible voters casted their ballots. However, with new possibilities on the cards, it is expected that more people will vote this time. The participation of new voters will not be advantageous for the governing coalition.

Image: Algeria (orthographic projection), L'Americaine, Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Election Sunday in Europe

Its election time in Europe. Just three days after the local elections in the United Kingdom, eight elections were held in five European countries on Sunday May 6, 2012. France saw the second round of its presidential election. Greece held a legislative election just after three years after the last election. Meanwhile, Serbia held the first round of its presidential election, the parliamentary election and the local elections. Also, the province of Vojvodina in Northern Serbia held its own parliamentary election. The Northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein held its own state election on May 6 and Armenia held its general election. Capping the multitude of elections was the local elections in Italy on Monday, May 7.

The elections saw a general swing towards the left, contrary to the trend of the recent far right swing in Europe. But underneath the general successes of the left were significant gains by the far right at some instances.

The French presidential election ended with no surprise as Francois Hollande defeated the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, albeit with a smaller margin than expected beforehand. The far right candidate Marine Le Pen had an unprecedented success just two weeks ago in the first round and her voters may have had a direct influence on Sarkozy's percentage in the second round when they had to choose the best of two 'evils'. The Serbian general election also saw an improvement of the nationalist fortunes. Serbian Progressive Party, led by Tomislav Nikolic, a former ally of Slobodan Milosevich won 73 out of 250 seats. However, it is far shorter than the required majority and just six seats ahead of the Democratic Party of the incumbent president Boris Tadic. The presidential election will be decided in a second round between Tadic and Nikolic in two weeks. With recent gains, Nikolic will not want to be defeated a third time by Tadic. But with Tadic's party forming a new government it will be an uphill task to the nationalists.

The Greek general election has seen by far the most dramatic results. The 'coalition of austerity' of the New Democracy (ND) and Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) has suffered heavily. Although the 50 bonus seats has helped the ND to win 108 seats, it gained less than 20% of the popular vote. Meanwhile, the anti austerity party, Coalition of the Radical Left, also known as SYRIZA shocked PASOK, the leading left party by beating it to second place. With 52 seats in the 300 member legislature, it will be a key in an eventual coalition government. With the Communists winning 26 seats and the recently formed Democratic Left winning 19, the left parties except PASOK have nearly one third of the seats. However, a more alarming result is the rise of the extremist Golden Dawn party which took nearly 7% of the votes and 21 seats, becoming a force to reckon with after being in the fringe up to now.

The local elections in Italy has also seen a revival of the left parties and other Eurosceptic parties. While the left has done well in number of municipalities, the Five Stars Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo has showed record popularity among the voters. Former Prime Minister Silvio Belrusconi's party has suffered heavily, being outdone by even the Five Star Movement in some municipalities. Meanwhile, the right wing has suffered a significant setback in Schleswig-Holstein in Northern Germeny. The Christian Democratic Union of the Iron Chancellor Angela Merkel has fallen to a historic low with just over 30% of the popular vote in the state. They have a wafer thin lead over their rivals, the Social Democratic Party. Both have won 22 seats each in the 69 member Landtag. Meanwhile, the Free Democrats who are currently the allies of the CDU have fared badly. However, the Piracy Party has emerged as an important group amid debates over copyright issues over the past few months.

Outside the Eurozone, Armenia's Republican Party led by the country's president Sergzh Sargsyan has won a majority winning 69 of 131 seats. This has been a rare case of a success in an incumbent president in Europe. However, although Armenia is considered European, it is in the extreme South East of the continent and out of the Eurozone.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Rising Popularity of the European Far-Right

The first round of the recently held French presidential election has once more proven to be a reminder of the rising popularity of the far right in European politics. Marine Le Pen, who added a youthful image to her father's party, National Front (Front National) won over 6.4 million votes, nearly 18% of the total. It was far better than her father's best and shocking performance a decade ago. In 2002, the Jean-Marie Le Pen took 16.86% of the vote and came second in the first round of the election. In the second round, he took more than 5.5 million votes (17.79%). Ten years later, Ms. Le Pen may have costed Nicolas Sarkozy the victory of the first round. His attempts to attract her voters seems to have been totally unsuccessful. Although Ms. Le Pen was expected to emerge in the third place, this performance is much better than expected.

The increasing popularity of the far right has been a growing phenomena of the European politics during the past few years. The extreme manifestations of this has been the growth of various militant groups and individuals resorting to violence. Although Anders Behring Breivik, the mass murderer of Norway is an extreme case, it is by no means the only one. A further alarming fact is that although Breivik horrified many with his killings, it had not stopped the European electorates increasingly tilting to the right. The far right Progress Party suffered a setback in the local elections held in Norway just two months after the Breivik massacres. But, it seems to be an isolated setback in the European context.

Usually, the parties of the extreme right were considered taboo by other political parties and were not even asked to join in forming coalition governments. But, from the 1990s, their increasing popularity has made it hard to ignore them. The legal far right has been very strong in Austria, Italy and Norway among other countries for more than a decade. Recently, far right political parties have made significant inroads in the Netherlands, Finland and several other countries. Furthermore, it should be noted that in both Austria and Norway, the far right political parties are now getting more votes than the main traditional right wing parties.

Another important tactic used by the far right is furthering their ideas with the help of the traditional right wing. This can be effectively done at a time of a crisis such as this when Europe is in an economic recession. Furthermore, there has been an increasing level of anti immigration sentiment associated with economic woes and islamophobia after 9/11. These have been the main vehicles through which the far right has exploded to the political arena.

Good examples for this have been the Minaret ban in Switzerland and the face-veil ban in several countries. In the former, while the main parties opposed the idea, the far right propagated it. In the subsequent referendum, the Swiss electorate defied the main political parties and approved the ban. However, in the face-veil banning crisis, it was the mainstream parties which put the proposal forward. For the far right, it was an god-sent opportunity.

The recent French election saw a battle between the moderate right and the far right for the right wing votes with Ms. Le Pen accusing Sarkozy of stealing her ideas a number of times. This has ultimately cost Sarkozy. He had to tread a very dangerous path and had to appease both moderate and far right voters. Too much far right sentiment may have alienated the moderates. Ms. Le Pen was spared of Sarkozy's troubles as she would be appealing to the far right only. Her aim was to convince the moderates that the nation is at a crisis where draconian measures are required. While many would not approve of the 'draconian measure' taken by Breivik, there are enough supporters for the far right to create new political realities. Both the more moderate and the left wing politicians have something to be alarmed of at this juncture. If the economic crisis does not resolve soon, the far right is bound to make further inroads at least in some regions.

It should be remembered that the rise to power of the far right in the inter war period was associated with the economic depression of 1929. without it, Hitler would not have come to power. Also, it should be remembered that Nazis of Germany and some other groups had an anti-Jewish platform then. Today, the far right has a more broader 'anti-immigration' platform. Furthermore, the far right parties came to power with the assistance of the moderate right wing in the 1920s and 1930s. The moderate right of today should be very careful not to make the same mistake.

Image: Marie-Lan Nguyen, "Marine Le Pen at the 1st of May National Front's rally in honour of Joan of Arc, Paris.", From Wikimedia Commons.