Monday, 29 June 2009

Soto-may-or may not have ruined her chances?

This is more of an update on a previous blog I did but it is a story that I have followed closely for a variety of reasons.

The news came in today that the Sotomayor decision that was up for review by the Supreme Court had been reversed by a 5-4 majority. I searched via twitter to check for reaction in the States and was surprised by what I found. A lot showed very little knowledge of the case and took to the assumption that Sotomayor was discriminating against white people; even amongst the educated class.

If this was the reaction amongst some academics you can only begin to imagine what the wider public thought. As well as the offensive cartoon above, many more people took her decision as an attack on white people in general. Others were just plain racist.

The truth of the matter is that she is likely to be confirmed anyway. She has an outstanding background as a prosecutor, lawyer and judge and there is the obvious political difficulty with attacking a Hispanic nominee. Plus the Senate will look at the New Haven decision but certainly more objectively than the American public.

One more sensible 'tweet' points out that even if Sotomayor was present in the court, the decision would still have been the same. This is true if looking purely along liberal/conservative lines but often a judge can influence the whole court on decisions close to their heart, one only has to look at Safford Unified School District vs. Redding for an example.

So rather than looking upon the reversal as a potential roadblock to tenure, people ought to take note of what is to come from Sotomayor. A lady who feels strongly about discrimination could lead to major beneficial interpretations of the constitution in the future.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Gran Cuñado is Watching You!

The crazy series of events you have just seen unfolding before your very eyes was part of a spoof Argentinian gameshow called 'Gran Cuñado' which loosely translates as 'Big Brother-in-law'. Effectively, 19 comedians have all dressed up as exaggerated caricatures of candidates for the mid-term legislative election on the 28th June. In fact, the election was not due until October but was brought forward by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as something of a referendum on the Kirchner rule that has dominated Argentina for the past 6 years.

The show really lays into the Kirchners but this is only a reflection of widespread opinion. Polls suggest that the ruling couple will lose their majority in the lower house of Congress. Another thing that has not helped them is the emergence of a more cohesive opposition from their own Peronist movement. In particular, Colombian born businessman Francisco de Narváez is leading a high profile campaign in Buenos Aires against former president Néstor Kirchner. A failure to top the poll in an area which accounts for 40% of the electorate would certainly be seen as a humiliating defeat.

The reason for this change of fortune seems to be the rejection of Kirchner economic policy, yet at first glance this seems impossible to believe. During Mr. Kirchner's time as president between 2003-7, the Argentinian economy recovered swiftly from the collapse of 2001-2 mainly as a result of debt restructuring by Kirchner. What's more it seems that Argentina is making an early recovery from the current global recession with export prices improving.

Whilst Mrs. Kirchner was elected in a landslide in 2007, it was widely believed she would be less hardline than her husband. This has not been the case thus far though and attempts to raise taxes on agricultural exports were resoundingly rejected whilst Mrs. Kirchner seems to have gone to war with private business in general.

On the ground, unemployment is a growing concern amongst the Argentinian people with rates rising as high as 17% in some areas of Buenos Aires. In the same areas the poor rate is as high as 40%, figures not seen since 2002.

With Argentina being one of the economic powerhouses in South America, perhaps it is up to de Narváez to promote the restoration of capitalism. Although he cannot run in the next presidential election (being foreign born), his potential success later this month should send a message to the president that more business-friendly policies are what is needed to not only solve unemployment but also make Argentina a major global economic force on the other side of the recession.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Preparing for the Future

The Mansion House speeches are normally more of a back patting exercise rather than the substantial debate of economic policy seen on the 17th June. The reason for this is the collapse of the financial system and in particular the near-death of the banks last October. All of this has resulted in the biggest rift between the government and the Bank of England since Gordon Brown (as chancellor) freed them 12 years ago.

In many respects Alistair Darling is lucky to be making a speech at all after the recent cabinet reshuffle. Nevertheless the speech is representative of new Labour policy and make interesting reading. Firstly, Mervyn King stated that the central bank should not only take charge of macroprudential regulation but should also be given new powers in order to do so effectively. This echoes the position of the Conservative party but in stark contrast, Darling suggested that "to concentrate on institutions seems to me to miss the point". In effect Darling said that no one system of regulation has protected a country though this view in itself seems to be missing the point and also appears naive of the situation.

The most interesting exchange though took place on the European level. This comes after a meeting of European leaders on the 18th and 19th June where it was recommended that more regulatory power be shifted to Europe. The proposals would include a 'European Systemic Risk Board' (ESRB) that would look out for dangers to financial stability then suggest how to avoid them flaring up any further. On top of this a 'European System of Financial Supervisors' would aim for more convergence in financial regulation.

In general I am an anti-European man myself but if you had asked me in 1957 whether I supported the newly formed European Economic Community (EEC) I would have said yes. Any institution which facilitates free trade is good in my eyes. This is why I support these reforms even where pro-European new Labour have some concerns. Darling agrees that there should be more co-operation on both a European and global level but dislikes the proposed commanding role of the head of the European Central Bank as well as believing bank supervision should remain a national responsibility. To a large extent I agree with this position. If, as happened with the EEC, Europe begins sticking it's oar in where it is not wanted then we may not only lose our own sovereignty but, particularly here, land ourselves in serious economic trouble. However, it should be noted that when European Finance Ministers met on the 9th June it was recognised that European supervisory ruling should not impinge on national fiscal sovereignty.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Power to the Tweeple!

Most of the blogs on here tend to be very generalised accounts of governments across the world but this is a bit more localised and personal.

For some reason we get the Daily Mail delivered to our house. We used to get the Daily Express but for some reason (my mother's Nazi tendencies) the authoritarian bile poisons our letter box every morning.

From this attitude you can imagine my glee when my beloved twitter launched a campaign involving many influential tweeters to skew the poll asking "Should the NHS allow gypsies to jump the queue?" towards the positive. Reports have come in that within 20 minutes we were already at 86% yes 32% no! By 94-6 the Daily Mail responded by removing the poll. At a time when the Iranian regime is being criticised by the world press for something very similar, it is interesting to see the same thing here in our own country.

What will possibly be most interesting is the reaction of the Daily Mail. It seems hard to defend their position, especially as these polls are specially constructed. Furthermore they can't argue that twitter users are all lefties because there is a clear sense of irony. A fightback against such medieval attitudes.

Hopefully the rest of the press will have a field day too. I've already seen an online response by The Guardian and MSN has branded the poll 'ridiculous'. With the Mail trying to corrupt the British people's views towards xenophobic hatred, hopefully this will give the public a much-needed reality check.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Bibi See Two

In a landmark speech on Sunday, Binyamin Netanyahu finally accepted the two-state solution proposed by many as the answer to the Palestine-Israeli conflict. President Obama may rightly call this a victory on his part, but has this truly made a difference to the position we were in before?

Looking at Israeli politics it seems that only those on the far-right have publicly condemned the speech as a "surrender". Within the governing coalition there have been some small grumblings but nothing on the scale one would naturally expect.

The reason for this can be noted by a detailed look at the speech itself. Netanyahu stated he would accept the Palestinian state if two principles were fulfilled. The first of these has been labelled by Hamas as racist, which maybe goes a step too far, but the actual criticism itself is well grounded. The principle that a Palestinian state must “clearly and unambiguously recognise Israel as the state of the Jewish people” has certain side effects which discriminate against the Palestinian people. In plain terms it means that any Palestinian refugees would have to be settled outside Israel's border so as to not "undermine Israel’s continued existence as the state of the Jewish people".

Secondly Netanyahu demanded that the Palestinian state be completely demilitarised. This also means that the government may form no military pacts with other countries and would have no control over its own airspace. In a 21st century middle-east this is completely unfeasible and will have to be challenged.

Hence we return to Obama who has to make the most of this concession. The general acceptance of a two-state solution has to be welcomed as a step forward but now a fair, realistic deal must be brokered.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Iran Votes 09

Today Iranians go to the polls in what is probably one of the most interesting political systems in the world. The Islamic Republic's politics is dominated by religion but with a number of candidates presenting a challenge to the incumbent Ahmadinejad the contest is turning into the sort of slagging match we would expect here in the UK.

Originally the contest looked as if it were going to be rather dull when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, seemed to show support for Ahmadinejad and resultantly Muhammad Khatami pulled out. Furthermore the Council of Guardians removed many of the candidates in May. When this occured only three opponents were left standing: Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi on a mildly reformist platform; and Mohsen Rezai of the ultra-conservative wing.

Although it is likely that the reformist candidates will split the protest vote to allow Ahmadinejad back in, the level of interest in Iranian politics is as high as it was in 1979 on the eve of the Iran-Iraq war. However, it is possible that divisions amongst conservatives may lead to a second round run-off against a reformist challenger. In all likeliness the leading opponent is Mousavi and it is certainly true to say that if this is the case, Ahmadinejad will face a tough time of it.

Whatever happens, this election has undermined the once uncriticised Ahmadinejad and led to greater openness in a country which badly needs it.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Look for your legacy elsewhere Gordon.

If you cast your mind back to the end of Tony Blair's reign as Prime Minister you will remember there was a lot of talk about what his legacy will be. In the main, most people decided it would be the Iraq war but in the longer term he will probably be recognised as the Prime Minister who introduced the Human Rights Act or the National Minimum Wage Act.

Back to today and there is a realistic chance that Gordon Brown will have to endure the legacy of being neither voted in or out by the British electorate. In order to prevent this and perhaps hold onto his job for a while longer, Brown will make an announcement today at 12.30 to consider reforming the voting system. The proposed 'alternative vote' has not gone without criticism while others see it as a manipulation of the system to suit Labour interests.

The proposal for constitutional reform has been thrown around since the MP's expenses scandal broke more than a month ago. The truth is, we are still suffering the reverberations from this and even today The Daily Telegraph is publishing stories on the scandal. We can change the electoral system and change all the MPs, but if there is still an 'in it for yourself' attitude then this will all have been for nothing.

As there constitutionally must be a general election within the next 12 months it seems highly unlikely that such legislation will be passed but this doesn't mean Gordon Brown can't make a difference with the rest of his time in office. Firstly there needs to be reform of the current MP's expenses system which will probably mean, at the very least, accepting the changes proposed by the Kelly committee.

I believe though that if Gordon Brown were to go further than this then he could secure something of a legacy in terms of openness of government. He was already praised at the start of his premiership for scrapping plans to limit the Freedom of Information Act proposed by Blair. Now will be the best time to pursue the Act further and allow greater access to information on the mandate that public money is unknowingly being mis-spent. Reforms could include being able to scrutinise private companies that execute a public function, being able to look more closely at QUANGOs such as Network Rail and even scrapping the rule that public records cannot be released until 30 years down the line. The Dacre Review conceded, correctly, that sensitive information could be kept for the 30 year period but there is still a lot of other important information being kept away from the press and public.

If this is pushed through along with making the Minstry of Justice (the department that deals with requests for information) more efficient then I believe Gordon Brown, in this respect, can leave Number 10 with his head held high. He vowed to remove the sleaze from politics that Tony Blair brought with him and, although an obscure way of going about it, he can tick that box.

Monday, 8 June 2009

BNP win is proof of democracy working

As people woke up this morning to find that the BNP had gained more seats than any other party in the European elections they were rightly disgusted that the UK is, for the first time, returning a fascist to Strasbourg. Interestingly the blog world has also become obsessed with this story and I would suggest this is more to do with the failure of their own party than anything else. One LibDem blogger suggests that proportional representation is not to blame but let us remember that they gained one seat despite losing 1.2% of their total vote share from last time. Meanwhile a Tory blogger goes so far as to suggest that the BNP are on the far-left of the political spectrum! This politically naive argument only detracts from the Conservative party gaining a paltry 1% of the popular vote when the governing national party is in disarray.

Without a shadow of a doubt it is the BNP who have been the most successful in these elections. Although the Green party went up by 2.4% in terms of the total vote share compared to the BNP's 1.3%, the Green's did not gain any extra seats whilst Nick Griffin squeezed into the North-West of England by around 1,200 votes and Andrew Brons earned more than 120,000 votes to secure a seat in Yorkshire and the Humber.

There are many reasons which can be attributed to the BNP winning nearly 1 million votes. Firstly the electoral system has to take some of the blame. Proportional representation (PR) is often banded around as being more fair and democratic but the truth of the matter is that it allows fringe parties not only to get their hands on power but to be a controlling influence as a coalition partner. The good news from this is that a chance of BNP success in a general election is slim.

Going back to the Euro election results though the online world seems almost apologetic for letting the BNP represent the UK but the far-right have had a lot of success across Europe in countries such as Austria, Denmark, Slovakia, Hungary and especially the Netherlands where Geert Wilders' PVV party picked up 17% of the popular vote along with four seats, in the end finishing up in second place overall.

The current economic climate could have left the gate open to parties on the left of the political spectrum who would offer both greater control of the economy but also greater redistribution of wealth. However the far-left only made a small gain in Denmark and none whatsoever in either France or Germany where they were expected to do well. Instead it seems to be the authoritarian right which is doing best across Europe. The UK is a good microcosm of this fact and not just in relation to the BNP. The Conservatives won the election and now seek to form a new anti-federalist alliance with other winners in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) also had success in beating the Labour party to second place, showing that their performance in 2004 was by no means a fluke.

In my opinion, if you do not vote then you accept the results of the election and continuing with this logic, 68% of the total electorate accept the BNP as our representatives in Europe. With poor turnout and PR contributing to the result we still have to say that democracy is working, but as the old cliche goes: 'you get what you vote for'.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Sonia way to the Supreme Court

Despite the best efforts of major conservative groups such as the Fox Corporation and the Judicial Confirmation Network (also see above YouTube video) it is almost certain that Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, will be voted the replacement for David Souter by the Senate after Barack Obama nominated her on the 26th May.

Seemingly, the only thing that stands in her way is Ricci v. DeStefano. In the case, Sotomayor appears to approve of affirmative action (the American name for 'positive discrimination') when a city in Conneticut refused to promote any of a group of firefighters because there were no African-Americans amongst them.

In her judgment, Sotomayor describes the decision as "facially race-neutral" which has baffled a lot of legal critics. The fact of the matter though is that under the American system it is likely that the city would have been sued whatever decision it made and this is to some extent being explored as the case lies in the Supreme Court at the moment.

Most major critics though are looking at the wider implications of the decision. They suggest that race and sex should be irrelevant when deciding who gets promoted and some hint that the same logic should apply to Sotomayor herself. At first glance it does look like the appointment was a political one and appeases both the female and Latino demographics but Obama insists that his decision was based on her intellect and broad legal experience. However, her background does make Republican criticism harder. Any major opposition to Sotomayor will only tend to alienate female and Hispanic voters even more.

Some have suggested that Sotomayor is more to the left than any of the other judges on the bench whilst others believe she is keen to make the law rather than to simply interpret it. Overall this seems unlikely and can be attributed to an errant quote pulled out of the dusty archives somewhere. As a matter of fact, Sotomayor hasn't yet ruled on some of the more contentious issues in American politics such as gay marriage which only makes her a less controversial choice. This also means there is a slim possibility that this decision could backfire but for the time being this is looking like a very shrewd appointment.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Hanging in the Balance

With the upcoming European elections drawing so much attention in the UK press it is a shame that the elections in Lebanon on 7th June have failed to attract much attention. Some argue that even in spite of this the election in a country only 4 million strong can only have a minute effect on the contentious region. This though seems unlikely as many look towards the results here as a barometer for the Middle East.

Most know nothing or very little about Lebanese politics per se but will have heard of the main opposition group; Hizbullah. In 2006, the Hizbullah field militia fought the Israelis in a quick but bruising battle. Now they are seeking to do battle again but this time with the shaky governing coalition consisting of Druze, Sunni Muslims and various Christians. Although the latest opinion polls show a slight lead for the opposition, the March 14th coalition has the advantage of American support and vice-president Joe Biden recently stopped by on a flying visit. He even hinted that a Hizbullah victory could put the vast amount of American aid currently going to Lebanon into jeopardy.

But America isn't the only heavy-weight power to wade in on this election. Both Iran and Syria help to finance Hizbullah and have strong connections with the country as their respective armies dominated Lebanon as a peacekeeping force until 1998. By Western standards, corruption is rife on all sides. In particular, Saudi Arabia is effectively financing an anti-Hizbullah campaign.

Lebanon is taking steps in the right direction with an attempted cap on campaign spending but this is easily exploited and as yet there is no uniform national ballot despite protests.

The general mainstream media, particularly in the US, is all too quick to point out that Hizbullah are the bad boys and they certainly don't endear themselves to the press after claiming "divine victory" in the six week war.Even their leader, Hasan Nasrallah, is a charismatic cleric who has found his way onto the Middle East's 'most wanted' list. There may well be a certain fear of the unknown involved as Hizbullah command enormous street power and their militia has superior training, equipment and morale which is the envy of the Arab world. Nevertheless they have also begun to play the political game nearly just as effectively by allying with an alliance of Christian factions and toning down their own religious zeal a tad.

Hizbullah must not be underestimated though and recent reports that link the group with the assassination of Rafik Hariri only serve to highlight this. In fact the Jerusalem Post is probbaly right to suggest that no matter what the result is on Sunday they will continue to play a major role in Lebanese politics. Rather these elections are turning out to be more important on a wider scale as East takes on West in something of a circus of politics before Iraninans go to the polls themselves on the 12th.