Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Archive for March, 2015

Scotland and the UK election: sticks and stones …

When I was small and came back from school smarting from some insult, my father used to say to me “sticks and stones may break your  bones, but names can never hurt  you” and I used to think “well not always, words can have a real effect”.

I’ve been reminded of this by the coverage in the London-based media of the rise of the Scottish Natonal Party in the polls ahead of the UK general election in May.

This week for instance, former Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, Alex Salmond, caused quite a stir telling the New Statesman magazine he would prevent a Conservative minority government taking power if his party held the balance of MPs after the election and support a Labour minority administration instead.

The SNP has already been attracting more attention than usual in the run up to a UK general election because, if opinion polls are correct, the party is on course to be the third largest party at Westminster with as many as 40 to 50 seats.

Add to this that despite losing last September’s referendum on Scottish independence when 55 % voted to stay in the Union, the SNP has also attracted thousands of new members topping 100,000 in an a country with a population of 5 million and outstripping the Liberal Democrats to become the third largest party in the whole of the UK.

Mr Salmond’s comments were partly intended to tweak Labour’s tail and counter the argument it has been making in Scotland where it has been trying to stave off a nationalist landslide by telling voters it is the largest party which gets to form the government after an election – which may be what usually happens but is not constitutionally pre-ordained, as Labour itself demonstrated after the 2010 election when it initially sought to hang on to power in a coalition despite coming second to the Conservatives.

In the English-based media, Mr Salmond’s comments have been condemned as anti-democratic. If after the election the SNP is indeed the arbiter of who gets to form a government – the argument goes – this could result in Scottish voters imposing a government on the rest of the UK which it didn’t vote for.

The Conservative Party is also trying to play on this with a poster of a giant Mr Salmond with a tiny Ed Miliband in his pocket.

Putting aside these same commentators – and the Conservative Party – did not seem to object on the occasions since 1979 when Scottish voters got a government in London they didn’t vote for, the idea it is undemocratic for voters in one part of the UK to freely cast their ballots for the party of their choice risks suggesting those voters are somehow second class.

Scots, like the independence supporting Proclaimers, lamented in vain in the 1980s about “what to do you do when democracy fails you” .

The problem is the tone of much of this commentary has become increasingly hostile and insulting.

Even the liberal Guardian’s Steve Bell – well known for his hard-hitting cartoons – has portrayed Mr Salmond and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, in ways many found hard to imagine him doing if they were Jewish or black, rather than white Scots.

Notably, one of the better pieces on Mr Salmond’s gambit by the former Times Editor, Simon Jenkins, couldn’t resist portraying Scotland as living off English “subventions and subsidies” which is a strongly contested argument that appeals to English prejudices and ignores that Scotland’s contribution to UK GDP is roughly equal to its contribution to taxes, not to mention the benefit the whole of the UK has derived from North Sea oil and gas revenues over the past few decades.

Towards the end of the Scottish referendum campaign when it appeared the opinion polls were closing, London-based commentators and politicians were telling Scottish voters how much they valued their contribution to the Union, but last September now feels a long time ago.

Whatever the outcome of May’s election, the SNP is clearly popular at the moment in Scotland and the increasingly vituperative tone of the campaign and commentary in England over the way Scots might vote could provoke a backlash fuelling support for the SNP – and independence – and risking the end of the Union these commentators and politicians say they hold dear.

Brazil’s Right finds its voice

On the face of it Brazil has been governed by centre-left parties for twenty one years.

From 1994-2002, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party – PSDB – held the presidency and since then it has been the Workers’ Party – PT. And although the reality is somewhat more complicated in that the more business-friendly PSDB is more on the centre-right, the absence of a conservative right at federal level has been notable over the past two decades.

But that is now changing.

Last weekend saw large demonstrations in Sao Paulo and other cities. First out on the streets were supporters of the PT-led government, followed on Sunday in larger numbers by anti-government protesters, many calling for the impeachment of President Rousseff over the Petrobras corruption scandal.

The anti-Rousseff protesters were predominantly middle class and organised by young right-wing activists of the Free Brazil Movement with support from the PSDB-controlled local government. But some demonstrators also held placards calling for the return of military rule to ‘save’ Brazil – something that would have been unthinkable only a short time ago.

So why has the right found its voice again in Brazil?

Most reports and analysis have put this down to two things undermining the President.

The corruption scandal at the national oil company, Petrobras, where it appears funds have been diverted from the business to help fund political parties in Congress for many years, has come to light under the PT and made the party vulnerable. Ms Rousseff also chaired the board of Petrobras when Energy Minister and Chief of Staff under President Lula and her personal popularity has been dented too.

President Rousseff, who won re-election only last October, has also found her authority undermined because measures to revive a slowing economy have so far failed to boost GDP growth, which has ground to halt following impressive figures over the past decade.

So the right now has an opportunity to reassert itself because the overwhelming popularity which allowed the PT to dominate Brazilian politics for the past 12 years has diminished.

But there are other reasons which have been much less commented on.

One is the rightward drift of the PSDB which, despite its origins as a social democratic party, is now more openly pro-business. Although the austerity measures President Rousseff is trying to introduce now echo the PSDB’s defeated presidential candidate, Aecio Neves, he has lent support to the protests and the local PSDB authorities in Sao Paulo reportedly gave the anti-government demonstrators free use of the metro last Sunday.

At a more profound level, the very success of the PT’s core policies also help explain what is going on.

Presidents Lula and Rousseff – building on measures first introduced under PSDB President Cardoso – have taken the credit for reducing inequality.

Twenty years ago, Brazil was one of the most unequal countries in the world. But in recent years, 30 million Brazilians (out of population of 200 million) have been lifted out of poverty by federal government action.

The Bolsa Familia scheme, where the poor get cash supplements if they vaccinate their children and send them to school, along with extending employment rights to workers who’d previously worked on a casual basis have been very effective. There have also been attempts at affirmative action to give poorer Brazilians more opportunities in education.

The success of these PT policies has come to be resented by many in the traditional middle class who see them as a threat to their interests and this has fuelled the rightwing backlash.

In recent years, I have heard private complaints about children not being able to get on the course they want at university because of positive discrimination or that the people receiving the Bolsa Familia are freeloading on the taxpayer.

These grievances have been growing and explain some of the anti-PT sentiment behind the protests.

There are also what one Brazilian commentator has called the country’s bizarre McCarthyites who say the PT is trying to turn the country communist.

It is these people who are most likely to be the ones calling for the return of military dictatorship.

Many Brazilians who lived through the dictatorship see the invitations to the military to intervene as sinister. Although, the numbers of people murdered, tortured and disappeared in Brazil were not as high as in Chile or Argentina, the Truth Commission which reported last year found over 400 people were killed or disappeared at the hands of the military.

The President herself was a victim of torture as a young activist – as she memorably testified to a Senate committee in 2008.

Some of the protesters holding these placards are clearly too young to remember those years, but others are not, and they are a reminder that, at the time, the dictatorship was not unpopular with many wealthier Brazilians.

The 1964 coup, 51 years ago this month, was called a revolution to save the country from communism. Under the generals, who ruled until 1985, there was economic growth before the debt crisis of the 1980s; the economic privileges of the middle class were protected and nothing was done to reduce the extreme inequality in Brazil.

As things stand, there seems little popular appetite to undermine the democracy Brazil has built since the generals handed power back to the civilians thirty years ago.

So the protests may well go on. Though for now there are no grounds for impeachment of Ms Rousseff because she was not chair of Petrobras while president, she – and the PT – have been weakened and conservatives have found their voice again.

If the right can establish itself as a coherent force in Congress, in coming years Brazilian politics may come to look more like other democracies where parties more clearly of the left and right vie for power.

Germany: risking its post WW2 modest image for little gain

When it came to foreign policy, the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, advised his countrymen to “keep a low profile and achieve something” by which he meant concentrate on the economy and avoid getting involved in disputes.

This week has raised the question – should Germany’s leaders heed Deng’s advice?

On Monday, Chancellor Merkel was in Japan and chose to issue her hosts some of her own advice in dealing with the legacy of Tokyo’s conduct in World War 2 which is still souring relations with its neighbours, especially China and South Korea.

Ms Merkel’s speech reminded us how much Germans pride themselves on coming to terms with the Nazis’ wartime record and reconciling with their neighbours.

As speculation grows that Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, may use the 70th anniversary of the end of the war to water down previous Japanese apologies to its neighbours, Ms Merkel took it upon herself to urge the Japanese to follow Germany’s example.

Her hosts were polite and did not give away how they felt about Chancellor Merkel’s comments, but shortly after her speech events back home suggest it may have been wiser to avoid the risk of hubris and keep out of the debate about Japan’s wartime past.

On Wednesday, the very public row between Berlin and Athens over debt escalated with a reminder that perhaps Germany’s reconciliation with the victims of Nazi aggression has not been as successful as it thinks.

The new Greek government is trying to renegotiate the terms of its debt to the rest of the EU and IMF and wants to end the 2010 bailout – largely funded by Berlin – negotiated by its predecessor during the Eurocrisis which mandates economic austerity that Athens says kills any chance for growth.

German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has been using insultingly undiplomatic language to tell his Greek counterpart – with an eye to his own taxpayers – that Berlin has been generous enough already and will not countenance further debt forgiveness.

The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, responded – also with an eye to his political supporters – by reviving claims that Berlin pay reparations for Germany’s harsh wartime occupation.

But instead of trying to emolliate Athens, as German governments of the past might have, the response of Chancellor Merkel’s spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, was dismissive “the question of reparations and compensation is legally and politically closed”.

It is no secret to anyone in Europe that the Eurocrisis means Germany is now the continent’s undisputed political as well as economic leader. Berlin’s traditional policy of hiding its economic strength by letting France take the political lead is no longer viable given current French weakness.

It is also obvious when talking privately to Germans born since 1945 that they are increasingly tired of being reminded of what their grandparents’ generation did and feel others use the Nazi past to justify freeloading on their generosity.

But Germany is now risking undermining its newfound leadership by appearing arrogant and overplaying its hand.

It is not just the Greeks who are beginning to chafe at Berlin’s attitude. There is growing anti-German sentiment in Italy too. Outside the EU, Germany has taken the lead role in pressurising Serbia to accept the secession of Kosovo reviving many Serbs’ historical distrust and resentment of Berlin’s wartime record.

The EU works by consensus and goodwill to build common interests and Germany has prospered since 1945 by pooling sovereignty with its former enemies and appearing unthreatening.

But circumstances change and now demand Berlin take a more active leadership role in Europe because it is the only country economically strong enough to bail out its partners and save the Euro.

However, it is one thing to lead by force majeure and quite another to take people with you.

Germany and the rest of EU face tough enough challenges trying to revive economic growth and ensure the Euro has a future.

If Berlin abandons the modesty that has reassured the rest of the world it no longer harbours the desire to dominate and awakens the ghosts of the past by lecuring others and deliberately reminding its neighbours just how powerful it is, it will make the job of leadership even harder and risk undermining its newfound role before it takes root.


China’s choice: push reunification or build soft power

China’s parliament, the National Peoples’ Congress, has begun its annual session in Beijing and there has been inevitable western press coverage of plans for next year’s defence budget – which is expected to increase by 10%.

Now, depending on what you read this is either a commitment to maintaining high defence spending despite slower economic growth or a cut in the increase in defence spending because of that slowdown.

The headlines and attention now paid to China’s military budget fit into a western narrative, increasingly reflected among China’s neighbours, that its rapidly modernising armed forces are a threat increasingly capable of challenging US military dominance in East Asia.

In order to counter this narrative and reassure its neighbours – and the rest of the world – China describes itself as a rising, but peaceful power, arguing its military modernisation is partly catch-up after years of underspending on the military and partly natural for a country dependent on energy imports and foreign trade for its prosperity.

And to get its peaceful message across, Beijing has invested heavily in soft power tools, spending billions expanding China Central TV’s broadcasts in English and other languages and opening 450 Confucius Institutes around the world teaching Chinese language and culture – it is even trying to create a global pop star, Jia Ruhan, to project a softer image.

Although asserting its maritime claims against the Philippines and Vietnam has undermined these efforts with those countries, Beijing’s global soft power push has continued and involves more than public diplomacy tools.

Soon after taking over the leadership in Beijing two years ago, President Xi Jinping – understanding he needed a national story to tell his own people and the world about what China stands for – articulated what he called The Chinese Dream.

When it comes to constructing an attractive narrative about your country language is crucial and President Xi’s formulation is almost certainly a deliberate echo of The American Dream – a concept which is seen as central to the attractiveness and soft power of the US.

Loosely defined, The Chinese Dream is not only about increasing prosperity for the Chinese people, it is also about national rejuvenation – and an important part of that rejuvenation is to reunify the lands lost to foreign powers during China’s decline in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It is here that Beijing faces a dilemma.

The main remaining candidate for reunification is Taiwan and it shows no sign of wanting to return to the fold while the Communist Party continues to run things in China, and Beijing has made it clear that if the island were to declare formal – as opposed to de facto – independence, it would use force to stop it.

And as the delegates to the NPC were gathering in Beijing last week, President Xi returned to this theme with a veiled warning to Taiwanese who want independence .

The problem for Beijing is China’s soft power projection requires the world to see it as benign, so any use of force against Taiwan would have the opposite effect.

It would be widely seen outside China as an act of aggression and probably lead to conflict with the US which has given the island security guarantees.

To avoid this Beijing has been trying to woo Taiwan back into the fold since the 1990s using a combination of trade, investment, diplomacy and tourism, encouraging ordinary Taiwanese to visit their ancestral homes on the mainland.

Beijing has also hoped that the way it handled reunification with Hong Kong and Macao, which were returned to China by Britain and Portugal in the late 1990s, would help its case with Taiwan.

Both former colonies were given special administrative status within the Peoples’ Republic, including a high level of autonomy and the retention of their own legal systems.

But the student-led pro-democracy protests last autumn in Hong Kong show how complicated a balancing act this is for Beijing and the risks to its soft power.

The demonstrations were sparked by plans to extend the franchise for the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive so voters would be able to directly elect their leader for the first time. But the catch was that a Beijing-appointed committee would vet the candidates first.

The protests attracted large crowds and lasted weeks, bringing parts of central Hong Kong to a standstill. The Beijing appointed administration stood firm and there were violent clashes between police and protesters which were shown on news broadcasts all over the world.

So a reform which would actually extended democracy in Hong Kong ended up in a setback to China’s image – especially in Taiwan which had seen its own student protests against closer ties with Beijing earlier last year.

De facto, the world has been living with two Chinas since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949 with the defeated forces of Chiang Kai Shek’s KMT fleeing to the island, where it continued to be recognised by the US and the UN as the rightful government of China throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Since losing most international recognition after the 1970s when Washington decided to open up to the Peoples’ Republic, Taiwan – or the Republic of China to give it its official name – has become a democracy with one of its major parties, the Democratic Progressive Party, flirting with the idea of de jure independence.

The DPP looks set to win next year’s elections and Mr Xi’s comments last week show how a DPP victory could raise tensions over Taiwan.

But unless Beijing finds a way to resolve the apparent contradiction between projecting a peaceful message towards its neighbours and the world with the threat of force to prevent Taiwanese independence, it will undermine its soft power efforts and find the huge sums it has spent on public diplomacy have been wasted.

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