Some fantastic (and alarming) pictures emerging from the coup that isn't officially a coup in Madagascar...
Soldiers loyal to the opposition broke into the office of the president, who had earlier sought refuge outside the capital. The president has now officially stepped down, handing over the reins to the military until the political crisis can be resolved.
The soldiers used tanks in the military take over of the presidential offices as well as the central bank.
Crowds have filled the streets of the capital in Antananarivo.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Andry Rajoelina is living up the moment... he better enjoy it, as governing the now divided country will not be nearly as fun as his former gig as a radio DJ.
After several months of opposition protests, now, Madagascar president Marc Ravalomanana has been forced to camp outside of the capital while tanks and gunmen break into his presidential compound. Opposition leader Andry Rajoelina has proclaimed himself leader, having appointed prime ministers and a cabinet. And he has called for the current president's arrest with the apparent support of at least part of the army.
Rajoelina claims all this is not a coup d'etat, but... can he suggest a better name?
Desperate to improve things, President Ravalomana offered to call an election over the weekend -- letting the voters decide who is really in change. Rajoelina, however, looks in no mood to negotiate. This wave of popular support is probably the best shot he has at power, and the opposition is keen to ride it to its fullest. African Union and United Nations calls for calm are falling on deaf ears.
What next? A worst case scenario will see a coup -- and one that promises to be bloody. On top of the 100 already killed in protests, more would certainly fall victim to the president's toppling. Ravalomanana supporters are gathering sticks and makeship weapons to defend his final stand outside the city.
The worse case could also see the exit of some of Madagascar's recent international investors -- mining companies and Korean giant Daewoo. Now is not the best time to be losing foreign cash, as developing countries are expected to see a $700 billion shortfall in the financial crisis. But somehow, I doubt all that is on Rajoelina's mind. He has a different kind of capital control to worry about.
As new president elect Mauricio Funes celebrates his victory in El Salvador, the world will be watching for answers to the inevitable question: has another Latin America country just turned to the Left?
The immediate answer is: yes. The victorious FMLN party claims deep Marxist roots -- having emerged out of an alliance of rebel groups from El Salvador's bloody civil war in 1992. FMLN appealed to voters who are fed up with poverty, crime, and the inertia of a decades-in-power ruling ARENA party. The party fell hard for Obamamania to get its point of "change" across.
But just how radical is the FMLN? That's a much more interesting thing to ponder. Funes himself is a moderate, but others in the party are less so. During the campaign, the now president elect stressed his business friendliness, and intention to keep up a strong U.S. relationship. But CATO analyst Carlos Hidalgo is still concerned. In a podcast last week, he said that high-ranking FMLN party members (including the Vice President) were intent on dismantling market reforms, dropping out of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and emulating Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution. That could undo gains including the near-halfing of poverty since the end of the war, Hidalgo worries.
Watch and wait, it seems. For now, as Bart Beeson writes for FP, the victory is exactly that for a country long troubled by civil conflict. Everyone seems to agree no matter how far left the FMLN may be, it's better that they've taken their revolution out of the jungle and into voting booths.
If you've been following the Chas Freeman saga, you'll certainly want to check out the former nominee's interview with The Nation's Robert Dreyfuss. In the interview, Freeman addresses the blistering e-mail message that The Cable's Laura Rozen featured on Tuesday:
The only thing I regret is that in my statement I embraced the term ‘Israel lobby.' This isn't really a lobby by, for or about Israel. It's really, well, I've decided I'm going to call it from now on the [Avigdor] Lieberman lobby. It's the very right-wing Likud in Israel and its fanatic supporters here. And Avigdor Lieberman is really the guy that they really agree with. And I think they're doing Israel in.
Freeman also says he wasn't too surprised by the unproductive conversations he had on Capitol Hill:
Well, they didn't go badly. But I'm one guy talking to one or two people, and they're quite a number of people and they're feeding all sorts of disinformation in, and they have established channels and they also have clout. So there wasn't much hope on my part that I could get many people to stand up and support me, because the down side of doing that is so obvious. Because if you go against this group, they either curtail your contributions or they arrange to contribute to an opponent. So it's not realistic to expect courage on the Hill. And I didn't.
Rumors started swirling the moment news surfaced: the truck driver in an accident that left Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's wife dead was contracted by USAID.
It was a hell of a twist to a terrible tale. The incident was already loaded with suspicion -- justifiable or not. Though Tsvangirai's opposition Movement for Democratic Change party said they did not suspect any foul play, they couldn't help noting, "We are... alive to the fact that a lot of Robert Mugabe's opponents died in suspicious road accidents involving army trucks."
Now, rumors of assasination are flying in the opposite direction. Did "the West" try to bring down Tsvangirai? One Zimbabwean MP seems to think so, and he's calling for an investigation to find out."Given the physical facts surrounding it, suspects in this tragic accident can only be those who have vigorously opposed the unity of Zimbabweans and who have responded to the formation of an inclusive government by extending their evil sanctions," he said.
Of course, if something was awry, then all should be debunked. But if accidents are accidents, this is dangerous stuff. Tsvingirai, in his mourning, will have to be careful to avoid being drawn into Mugabe's opposition to the U.S. and Britain. Even unintentional posturing could discredit him as a recipient of aid so desperately needed to stabilize Zimbabwe's economy.
Moreover, the position would shortcut any political sway he holds in the already precarious power-sharing government. Mugabe has survived on a story that paints himself as the sole liberator from Western intervention. If that "intervention" victimizes Tsvangirai, Mugabe will have rationalized his senior role as the regime's protectorate. Let's hope his recent rare kind words for the man are as close as the relationship gets.
DESMOND KWANDE/AFP/Getty Images
Raul Castro made some big changes in a cabinet shake-up in yesterday. The Cuban president consolidated ministries, appointed loyalists, and sent some of Fidel's former confidants packing. The message seemed clear enough: I'm the Castro of the family now. Or, as Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami, told me, "Power is in the hands of Raul... Fidel is not relevant."
While the reorganization was likely a domestic calculation, there are
several points worth flagging for Cuba watchers beyond Havana's ports.
First, it is increasingly clear that the military -- Raul's closest ally -- will be the winner in his government. Top posts went to uniformed allies of the Cuban president, only adding to the stronghold grip that the military has over the economy, controlling over 60 percent.
One department in the recent shake-up is telling: agriculture. High food prices and shortages have fueled discontent in recent months. So Castro has put food production squarely in military hands. Just six months ago, Raul Castro allowed peasants to borrow land from the government for cultivation -- a measure he hoped would spur both public and black market supplies. Now, he wants the military to bring even more "efficiency" to cultivation. "He wants to try to increase food production to calm down the Cuban people, who are upset," says Suchlicki.
Is the move one step further towards talks with the Obama Administration? Or perhaps a signal that Fidel's health continues to decline? I can't tell you the answers, but at least now we know who to ask: While Fidel strolls in the park, Raul is running the show.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Did MSNBC's Chris Matthews really just say that the struggling Republicans needed to "outsource" their response to Indian-American Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal?
Seems like an unfortunate choice of words.
Update: Mediabistro has the full quote and also video of (apparently) Matthews whispering "oh God" as Jindal walks out.
Last week, FP's Laura Rozen broke the story that former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman is the Obama administration's pick to head the National Intelligence Council, the internal think tank for the intelligence community responsible for producing National Intelligence Estimates.
Since Laura's story hit the Web, critics have been attacking the appointment over Freeman's views on Israel and ties to Saudi Arabia. Former AIPAC staffer (himself a pretty controversial guy) Steve Rosen, now of the Middle East Forum, is leading the charge against the appointment. Here's one controversial comment of Freeman's from a 2005 speech:
As long as the United States continues unconditionally to provide the subsidies and political protection that make the Israeli occupation and the high-handed and self-defeating policies it engenders possible, there is little, if any, reason to hope that anything resembling the former peace process can be resurrected. Israeli occupation and settlement of Arab lands is inherently violent.
He's also committed the unforgiveable sin of saying nice things about our colleague Steve Walt and publishing the original "Israel Lobby" article in his organization's journal.
There's also the fact that his organization, the Middle East Policy Council operates "thanks to the generosity of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia" (his own words) and that he's an advocate of improved U.S-Saudi relations.
The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg argues:
It would be inappropriate to appoint an official of AIPAC to run the National Intelligence Council (though it must be said that AIPAC doesn't receive any funding from the Israeli government) and it seems inappropriate to give the job to a Saudi sympathizer as well.
On the other hand, as Ben Smith notes:
Other appointees have worked for policy groups that accepted money from foreign governments -- though perhaps few as domestically unpopular as the Saudis. Ross, for one, is still listed as the chairman of the board of directors of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an Israeli government arm.
As General Zinni learned the hard way, no appointments are final until they are confirmed and the politics of this certainly don't bode well for Freeman. It would be a shame if he were spiked. Freeman's an experienced and highly qualified foreign-policy practitioner and one would hope that his critics can do a little better if they really hope to prove he's the agent of a foreign government. At the same time, one would also hope the Obama team anticipated the possible controversy and have good answers to some reasonable questions about Freeman's views and affiliations.
Want more Freeman? Check out this interview about the Taiwan Strait (he's also an old Asia hand who served as Richard Nixon's translator in China) that he gave to FP in 2007.
Photo: The Middle East Policy Council
U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman was in Israel over the weekend where he got the chance to meet with his namesake, right-wing politician and recent electoral kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman. Joe says he wanted to meet with Avigdor because "he will play an important role in the next government so it's important that we in the US get to know him well." But as the senator well knows, the controversial Israel Beiteinu leader is auditioning for the job of foreign minister and a meeting with a high-profile U.S. politician can only help his cause, and undermine negotiation efforts.
First of all, Joe Lieberman is helping to give international legitimacy to someone who describes peace negotiations as "a critical mistake" that will lead to Israel's destruction. Second, while Lieberman may deny that he's a racist, his quasi-fascist supporters don't even bother. Third, the guy's currently under investigation for money laundering.
I know it's a funny coincidence that they have the same last name ("Lieberman is the best name in the world," remarked an enthusiastic Avigdor after the meeting.) but is this really the company Joe wants to be keeping?
(Hat tip: Matt Yglesias)
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Latvia's four-party ruling coalition collapsed on Friday and the president called for talks to forge a new government to tackle a deepening economic crisis.
The coalition's fall, the second European government to succumb to the financial crisis, adds to the economic problems of the small Baltic state, which last year had to take a 7.5 billion euro ($9.43 billion) IMF-led rescue loan last year.
Political and social tensions exploded in January into a riot, though there has been little sign of a repeat in Latvia, a European Union and NATO member since 2004.
Latvia's president Valdis Zatlers will start work on forming a new government next week. Hopefully the country -- one of Eastern Europe's great success stories -- we soon be able to get back on track. At least the cattle mutiliation can stop now.
Two days after Venezuela celebrated the passage of a referendum to remove term limits, the country still seems to be shaking off a hangover. Analysts the world over are mulling over the Venezuela's rising inflation, alarming debt burden, and perceived fiscal shortfall as oil prices fall to dismal lows.
Putting it more frankly, a former Venezuelan central bank official says the country is headed for certain stagflation. "A model based on the state entrepreneurial role is being depleted," he told El Universal. Rough words for a President who has nationalized the oil industry, among others, and may soon do the same in banking.
But if the markets say anything, it is that Chavez will simply have to start reigning in his popular but extensive spending -- something he'd avoided doing until the votes were cast. The country's currency rose on precisely those hopes yesterday.
From the looks of it, Hugo Chavez did indeed enjoy the hell-of-a party in Caracas on Sunday night, celebrating his big win. Good thing. One of the catchier slogans of the campaign, "Oh, ah, Chavez no se va!", is Venezuela's reality: Chavez isn't going anywhere. Is he sure it's a job he wants anymore? La recesion, tampoco, no se va...
Photo: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
Hugo Chavez: destroyer of Venezuela or savior of the country's poorest? Whichever you believe, after Sunday, it's very possible that Chavez could be around to stay for another 10 or 20 years.
Venezuelans go to the polls Feb. 15 to vote on a referendum over whether to lift term limits for their president and other public officials. Chavez has called the referendum the crux of his self-titled bolivarian revolution. The opposition decries his increasing grip on power.
On the eve of the event, FP is featuring arguments from both sides. Check out Lucy Conger's take on how crashing oil prices could stop Venezuela's international ambitions in their tracks. Meanwhile, in an interview, two pro-Chavez legislators say that the fate of their country depends on Chavez. Off to the polls!
Photo: JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
The Financial Times reported this morning that Mohammad Khatami is "expected to announce that he will contest the presidential elections in June," according to a handful of reformist politicians who seem to be trying to create a fait accompli by talking to the press.
So far, the moderate former Iranian president hasn't announced squat and seems to be hoping that Mir-Hossein Moussavi, an ex-prime minister also in the reformist camp, will run in his stead.
If he indeed runs -- pass. the. popcorn. As one leading Iranian reformist told the FT, "If it is Khatami versus Ahmadi-Nejad, this will be the most interesting election in the world."
But I'll believe it when I see it. Khatami seems like a good guy, but the rap on him has always been that he shies away from conflict. Does he have the stomach for political hardball? I'm not so sure, but as someone who's fascinated by Iranian politics, I'll be watching closely.
The latest perpetrator of hopejacking -- attempting to Obamafy one's image by claiming association with him or co-opting his message of change -- is Rahul Gandhi, general secretary of India's ruling Congress party and scion of India's Gandhi-Nehru political dynasty:
"I think we have millions of Barack Obamas in India," he said, about unleashing the powerful democratic spirit that lies within India's 1.2bn people.
"It is the question of channelling [their energy], giving them voice and power. The reason I am opening them up is that I fully intend to give power to them," he added.
The people-power sentiment is fine, if a little vacuous. But it's kind of rich coming from a politician whose father, grandmother, and great grandfather were all prime ministers. I guess citing Caroline Kennedy wouldn't be quite as inspiring.
Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images
If you're looking for job security, you probably don’t want to run for prime minister of Japan. Prime Minister Taro Aso’s government is once again under
threat, following former Japanese minister Yoshimi Watanabe’s resignation from
the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has governed
Ever since 2006,
The legacy of Junichiro Koizumi, who served as
"Koizumi was committed to serious, structural reforms, and no other Prime Minister has made that sort of connection with the Japanese public," the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons told me.
The good news is that
Photo: Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images
After Kenya's, Zimbabwe's and Nigeria's recent election mayhem, observers worried Ghana might fall into the same electoral dissaray. In the runup to the recent presidential vote, both major candidates claimed they were set for victory.
Initial polls in December left a tightly contested race -- with the two leading candidates within just one percent of each other. The governing party candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo and the opposition leader and former professor John Atta Mills bitterly contested the second round of elections. After being seperated by just 23,000 votes, Ghana's final constituency voted on Saturday and catupluted Mills to the presidency.
And thus Ghana avoided the election trap. The first African country to gain its independence in 1960 holds its reputation as a democracy where power has been transfered peacefully and often, with only minor incidents (like this one). The outgoing president didn't try to extend his term, and he urged a peaceful transition. Mills' opponent conceded gracefully and the incoming president promised to be a "president for all."
Good. But now, as many governments have learned the hard way, the more difficult part is yet to come, and Ghana finds itself in an unusually precarious (or promising) turning point.
Ghana is a commodity-dependent economy in a market reeling from bubble and burst. Gold, cocoa and timber make much of the country's GDP, and agriculture employs over half the population. The fall in commodity prices spells hope and disaster all at once; lucrative exports will suffer, as will farmers' bottom lines. But urban food prices -- once crushing for the average Ghanaian -- will come down from sky high.
And despite Ghana's healthy growth rate, the impoverished majority is hungry for prosperity to trickle down. Offshore oil -- found in the summer of 2007 -- once promised to pay for a host of new public services. Now, the sunken petrol price stop drilling before it even begins.
The incoming president seems to have a good head about the economic policies needed to move forward. But he'll need the world economy, the increasingly corrupt bureaucracy, and his country's belief in democracy to be on his side, as well.
Photo: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
The first thing to say about the coup attempt that followed the death of Guinean President Lansana Conté is that it's something of a miracle it took 24 years. The president, who died of diabetes Monday, was hardly a beloved exemplar of democratic values. By the time of his death, even the once-loyal Army was starting to mutiny over low pay. In fact, for many West Africa watchers, Guinea's fall into chaos has only been a matter of time.
For more than two years leading up the president's death, political wrangling and unrest were the norm. General strikes in 2006 paralyzed the country. Conté refused to leave power and poverty was consuming the country. I was in Senegal at the time, and the stories we heard there were fierce: Strikes were so strictly adhered to that any passing soul on the street would be shot. There was violence between police and civilians -- as has also become the norm in times of crisis in Guinea.
In the compromise that ended those strikes, the president finally named a prime minister. There have been several in recent years, and the most recent, Ahmed Tidiane Souare, was a close Conté ally whom the International Crisis group wrote in June "puts reform at risk." Democratic legislative elections were scheduled for this month.
Instead, Guinea got a coup.
So now what? For now, the military has the reins, despite claims from Souare that he retains control. The perpetrators of the coup, calling themselves the National Council for Democracy and Development, have called a curfew and promised elections in two years. As in previous times of tension, soldiers fill the streets and much of Conakry is shut down. Companies, such as mining giant BHP, are closing offices for now. Other countries in the region are condemning the coup.
So what at first seemed like a Christmas miracle for Conakry has taken a dangerous turn for the worse.
Photo: SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images
For much of late 2007, Belgium looked like it was on the verge of being split in two as Flemish and Wallonian politicians struggled to form a government that would preserve national unity. At one point, erstwhile Prime Minister Yves Leterme even said that there was nothing holding the country together but "the king, the football team, some beers."
Now, Leterme has been forced to step down, along with his entire government, not because of nationalist sentiment, but because of an old-fashioned banking scandal. Leterme and his ministers are accused of applying undue pressure to push through a bargain-basement sale of Belgium's partially-nationalized bank Fortis to the French bank BNP Paribas, at the expense of Belgian workers and shareholders. King Albert is now struggling to find a prime minister who is both untainted by "Fortisgate" and capable of keeping the fragile Flemish-Walloon coalition intact. No easy task.
The financial crisis and government responses seem to be having interesting effects on nationalist sentiment in Europe. In Scotland, nationalist parties saw their cause set way back by the UK government's massive bailouts of Scottish banks, which made the idea of Scottish self-sufficiency look patently ridiculous. In Belgium, it seems like Flemish nationalists could be emboldened by the central government's failure and will likely continue to make the case that the poorer French-speaking Wallonia is a drag on the national economy. This could make keeping the place intact all the more challenging.
Seth Mydans profiles Abhisit Vejjajiva, the dapper new prime minister of Thailand. Apparently, he is a Barry Manilow fan:
Critics say Mr. Abhisit is handsome, articulate and well mannered but lacks the hearty touch of successful Thai politicians. They joke that he would need a visa to travel to the rural heartland of the north and the northeast. [...]
But his cultural divide from the heartland may be difficult to breach. Asked last year about his likes and dislikes, he said that his favorite book was "The Myth of Sisyphus" by Camus and that he was a devotee of the singer Barry Manilow, whose voice is rarely heard in rural Thailand.
Photo: PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images
I'm sure you've heard plenty about the Rod Blagojevich corruption scandal by now. But did you know his father, Radisa Blagojevich, was a Serbian immigrant? Apparently, the story has been getting big play in the old country.
The Chicago Tribune reports that, if Internet comment sections are any indication, there isn't a lot of sympathy in Serbia for the Illinois governor.
But the Associated Press did manage to find some folks who thinks the whole thing is an American plot. "He must have been framed, it's all politics," Rod's (supposed) cousin Dragan told Blic, a Serbian tabloid, in a story that ran under the headline "The Governor Defying Entire America." The AP adds:
Cousin Dragan appeared again in Friday's Blic, saying his famous relative still owns some land in the village so "he can come to Serbia if he cannot take it any more in America."
"He can have a cow or a pig or two, a chicken. ... He is always welcome."
Photo: Brian Kersey/Getty Images News
Give Tzipi Livni some credit -- she's still keeping it real. Even with Israel's upcoming election looking ever-tight, with Likud narrowing the margin, Livni's not kowtowing to anyone. As a result, she's been pissing off, well, pretty much everyone, Arabs and Jews alike.
The Kadima party candidate might have made a misstep when, in an address students over the radio yesterday about her solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, said: "I will also be able to approach the Palestinian residents of Israel... and tell them: 'Your national aspirations lie elsewhere.'"
While Livni was merely expanding on her idea "to have two distinct national entities," she left the comment open ended. "Transferring" Israeli Arabs out of Israel is understandably a touchy subject, and one usually associated with hardline right-wingers. Needless to say, the Israeli Arab population took note and demanded that the PM hopeful define her position.
In true Livni style she clarified her statement on public radio but made no soft-ball apologies.
There is no question of carrying out a transfer or forcing them [Israeli Arabs] to leave.... I am willing to give up a part of the country over which I believe we have rights so that Israel will remain a Jewish and democratic state in which citizens have equal rights, whatever their religion."
All better, right? Not quite. Today it was the Jews turn to get offended at Livni truth-telling, this time over the return of Israeli soldier, Galid Shalit, who is being held by Hamas. "It's not always possible to bring everyone home," Livni said. Even as protestors piled up in front of her Tel Aviv home today, Livni would not take back her words.
Whether or not Livni is going to lose political ground here, she's not pandering to anyone. Perhaps Livni knows better than most that you can't please everyone all the time, especially in Israel.
Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Binyavanga Wainaina has written a viciously funny step-by-step "guide" for aspiring African dictators in South Africa's Mail & Guardian. Some of the highlights:
Rule 3. Make America or China happy. Make Israel and Saudi Arabia very happy. Become a Muslim, like Idi Amin. Visit Moammar Gadaffi often. He likes African leaders. We do not know why. Pray with George Bush and let him see your soul. Make your country's leading supermodel the ambassador to France and Italy. Ask her to wear a mini when presenting her papers to Nicholas Sarkozy...
Rule 6. Colonial countries expected little of Africans. Maintain this illusion...
Rule 10. A free press is important. But have shares in all major media and make sure that you allow them to be very critical of everything, except you. You can, these days, secretly pay bloggers. They can say, for example, that your economic policy is Keynesian, but they should never say you are a "corrupt Zulu warlord"...
If all these things fail and you find yourself in State House surrounded by screaming citizens carrying homemade weaponry, make sure you have a Hummer (Raila Odinga) in your garage. They are cheap now in America. You can burst out of your palace and make your way to Somalia, where you can become a pirate who earns $50-million a year.
Of course, if you don't have government connections in an unstable African country, you may have to start a country of your own. FP's got your back.
(Hat tip: Ethan Zuckerman)
Update: Apparently I had a brain malfunction and Beth flagged this last week in Smart takes. Sorry about that.
Photo: WALTER DHLADHLA/AFP/Getty Images
Peace talks opened in Nairobi today between the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the rebel group led by General Laurent Nkunda. There is one reason -- above the many other good ones -- that I am unfortunately a skeptic: the U.N.-appointed moderator, Olusegun Obasanjo.
At first glance, Obasanjo is a great pick. He's an African statesman who helped bring democracy to Nigeria after a history that included a brutal civil war, a string of military dictators (he was one of them), and years of economic decline. "Baba," his nickname meaning "Papa', aptly characterized his ruling style: a benevolent elected dictator who -- for the most part -- had control over an unwieldly country.
But then there are the details. Obasanjo managed those various parties through patronage -- granting monies here and there, favoritism or punishment to this and that. He was the master of holding peace summits with little goal other than the summit itself. Behind the scenes, the governors under his watch paid off militants, sometimes supported them, and skimmed oil wealth off the top. The status quo was stable only so far as everyone could be paid off. Today, without his personality to manage the situation, the delta is on the brink of exploding.
Then there are the elections. In Obasanjo's last days as president, he tried (unsuccesfully) to change the constitution so that he could run for a third term. In the neighborhood I used to live, rumor had it that truckloads of money were delivered to the homes of skeptical senators. When elections did take place, they were so massively rigged that the ruling party easily won.
So can Obasanjo bring the two sides together in the DR Congo? I sure hope so. Perhaps his wiley personality can do just that. I just hope his example isn't the one they follow.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
The explosive events that regularly occur in Lebanon tend to obscure, rather than reveal, the balance of power in the country. Analysts have a habit of taking
the latest news as proof that the country is completely dominated by
By far the worst example of this is former Middle East
correspondent Thanassis Cambanis, who pontificated recently in
the Middle East Bulletin that, "
Are Hezbollah and
Hezbollah recently won an important victory against the
government through an armed invasion of Sunni areas of
Imagine living in a country with 231 million percent inflation, a failed power-sharing agreement, closing schools and hospitals, and an astronomical emigration rate of refugees into neighboring South Africa.
Now, add a cholera epidemic that has left more than 300 people dead and thousands more sick. And President Robert Mugabe, instead of ending the crisis, seems to be using it as an "excuse to clamp down on everyday life," according to SW Radio Africa.
Power sharing talks were set to reconvene today under former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki's mediation, but serious disputes remain about the allocation of ministries between President Robert Mugabe and his opposition-party prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai. In a sign of his unwillingness to yield power, Mugabe accussed a delegation of "elders," including Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, and Graça Machel (the former wife of Nelson Mandela) of trying to oust his government. He refused them entry to the crippled country.
But after everything else, it might be cholera that pushes the limits of how far failed this failed-state can go. South Africa is doing its best to keep the cholera on one side of the border, but further collapse could send an flood of refugees where there has always been a trickle. That would further destabilize a politically shaky South Africa in the midst of its presidential transition.
It's time to change our rhetorical terms on Zimbabwe. No longer on the brink of collapse: over the edge.
The world isn't lacking in politicians caught in love scandals, but Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has embroiled himself in a drama so juicy it feels scripted for daytime soaps.
His ex-wife, Marisabel Rodriguez -- a blond haired, blue-eyed former television anchor (now married to her tennis coach) -- has been mirthlessly needling her ex-husband while she herself campaigns to become mayor of Barquisimeto, Venezuela, on an opposition ticket.
The couple divorced in 2004 after seven years of marriage and made headlines last year when Chávez rather publicly sued over custody issues pertaining to their daughter, Rosines. Though the president withdrew the suit, Rodriguez claimed it was a ploy to sabotage her newly announced political pursuits -- a ruling against her, under Venezuelan law, could have legally kept her from running for public office.
Chávez has good reason not to want his ex to run. Aside from any personal embarrassment the Venezuelan leader might endure over Rodriguez's outspoken campaigning style and her public criticisms of his presidency, he could suffer politically. His high approval ratings are said to be slipping, and the opposition stands to gain significant ground -- as many as one third of the country's governorships -- in regional elections Sunday.
Venezuelans are keen to hear the former Mrs. Chávez's insights on her ex-husband's intentions for his country:
[T]he Chávez of today ... doesn't have much in common with [the Chávez] of 1997,” she said. "If he is not a dictator, at least he seems it."
What's more, Ms. Rodriguez is proving hugely popular among women voters. In general, these women are turned off by the president's "testosterone-pumped politics" and can relate to the former first lady's emotional suffering.
Photo: ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
Western media have picked up a story from the Russian business daily Vedemosti speculating that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin may be planning a return to the presidency, perhaps as early as 2009. That the whole story is reported second-hand and based on one anonymous source makes me a bit wary (Matt Drudge is less cautious). That said, the scenario doesn't seem completely outlandish and fits with some of the theories that were floating around back when Putin first announced Dmitry Medvedev as his replacement in December 2007.
Medvedev's proposal to expand the presidential term to six years may have been step one of the plan:
Mr Medvedev announced the reform today [Wednesday] in his first state-of-the-nation address to Russia's legislators. The newspaper quoted an unidentified Kremlin official as saying that the initiative had been drawn up last year, while Mr Putin was still president.
Mr Medvedev, 43, would oversee the constitutional amendment and push through some unpopular social reforms before resigning in 2009 and calling a snap election to make way for his mentor.
Mr Putin, 56, would then govern for two more terms, totaling 12 years. This would take his second presidential era to 2021, the paper noted, one year beyond the completion of the so-called "Putin Plan" for Russia's economic and social development.
Putin might also use the financial crisis to his advantage. Medvedev seems to be taking the lead in talking to the Russian public about the economy while Putin sticks to foreign policy, his strong suit. If the economic situation significantly worsens, Medvedev and his fellow "liberals" can take the blame for the fallout. Putin can then make his return to the presidency on a hardline nationalist platform. How much say Medvedev has in all of this is anyone's guess.
I would treat this story more as a calculated leak designed to test public opinion rather than a set plan of action, but it's certainly appearing more likely that the United States will be dealing with Vladimir Putin throughout the Obama administration, and perhaps into the next one as well.
Photo: Artyom Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images
When economic times get tough, sounding out of touch on pocketbook issues can debilitate even the most nimble politician. Just ask Taro Aso. The Japanese prime minister was already being pilloried as an elitist over his hotel bar tab and his epicurean tastes. So you'd think he'd be extra careful to avoid a pocketbook gaffe, right?
Wrong. Now, Aso has bungled a key question for any Japanese politician: What's the price of a cup of instant noodles?
Aso said: 'I think it used to be very cheap, but now it costs around 400 yen (4.12 dollars), doesn't it?'
An opposition lawmaker immediately retorted that a cup of instant noodles -- popular with Japanese on a tight budget -- actually costs around 170 yen.
Aso admitted with a wry smile: "I don't buy them myself these days."
Granted, it's better to err on the high side in making these sorts of seat-of-the-pants estimates. But what's with the gratuitous remark there at the end? It's almost like he's trying to give the opposition a boost.
As for this ill-timed photo op from earlier today, it's just icing on the cake:
Austrian politics are turning out to be uncharacteristically interesting these days. Stefan Petzner (right), the successor to Jörg Haider, was sacked yesterday after admitting to having a long-running affair with the leader of Austria's far right.
Haider died earlier this month in a high-speed car crash after drinking heavily at a gay club. Then on Wednesday, Petzner announced that Haider was "the man of my life," and that "we had a special relationship that went far beyond friendship." Before meeting Haider, the 27-year-old Petzner had previously been a journalist writing about cosmetic treatments. His ascent to the head of the party was seen as a fulfillment of Haider's last wish, as Haider had frequently mentioned that he wanted Petzner to succeed him.
Haider's homosexuality had been widely rumored, though the mainstream Austrian press had refrained from reporting on it before Petzner's tell-all interview. Haider became infamous for his seemingly sympathetic views toward the Nazi regime. If only this conflicted man was still alive, and one could confront him with evidence about what the Nazis did to people like him.
There are two stories today about Western politicans soliciting donations from Russian citizens. One is just funny, the other, a potentially bigger deal.
The BBC reports that Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin has been receiving mailers from McCain's campaign asking for help to "stop the Democrats from seizing control of Washington and implementing their radically liberal policy for our nation."
It's obviously just a mistake so there's no foul here, but Russia's U.N. mission seems to be relishing the opportunity to embarrass Mr. "We are all Georgians." As McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said, "it sounds like they're having a little fun at our expense."
If the British media seems to be overselling the Churkin story, it's probably an attempt to tie it to a British scandal with potentially far more serious implications. In a letter to the Times of London today, hedge fund manager Nathaniel Rothschild accused shadow chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne (above) of soliciting a donation to the Conservative Party from Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska while all three were vacationing on the Greek Island of Corfu over the Summer.
Rothschild suggests that Osborne asked for £50,000 on board Deripaska's private yacht and discussed with a Tory fund raiser how the Russian citizen's donation could be channeled through one of the British companies he owns. Osborne has denied soliciting the donation, though he admits spending time on the yacht. The Osborne allegations are actually just the latest twist in a scandal that until now focused on European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, a Labour Party member, who also availed himself of Deripaska's hospitality at the same gathering.
Memo to politicians everywhere: Even if you're not doing anything explicitly illegal, avoid spending time on yachts with wealthy foreign nationals. It never looks good.
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