Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The see-saw version of history

My students have heard me say many times that comparative politics is not history; it's an analysis of what's going on now. Then they'll hear me explain the historic origins of some bit of political culture or practice. As I say in my review book, comparative politics is rife with ambiguity. Students must learn to tolerate and appreciate it.

Sergey Kuznetsov, a Russian author, tries to explain Russian politics in a historical framework. Historians, feel free to add your comments on his historiography. Nonetheless, Kuznetsov offers sort of testable hypotheses (if we're patient), and that makes his explanation more a social scientific commentary.

A Choice Between Boredom and Blood
I was born in Russia at the dawn of the Brezhnev era…
Brezhnev

The world of my childhood was quiet and secure. There were no unemployed, beggars or homeless — or maybe I just never met them. There was no Coca-Cola or McDonald’s — but no one was starving, either. Of course, the TV and newspapers were filled with state propaganda, but we tuned it out, the way our children tune out annoying ads.

The world of my Soviet childhood didn’t look like a totalitarian dystopia or the threshold of a gulag. It was just boring…

Really, I hated it all. I sensed a big lie. I was sure that there was hidden terror under the surface of everyday life. There had to exist zones of violence and chaos — I knew this even before I heard about the prison camps and political repression.

And then Brezhnev died and the chaos I had always suspected rose to the surface. The Soviet Union collapsed, and the ’90s became a frightening decade of gangsters, corruption and poverty…

Shelling the Duma, 1993

My generation, which had been on its way to living the boring lives of state employees, was enchanted. An underground punk group sang, “We left our melancholy in the past to turn Moscow into Beirut!” and a young journalist, commenting on the bloody conflicts in October 1993 that followed Yeltsin’s attempt to dissolve the legislature, marveled, “I had never expected to see Russian tanks shoot at the Russian Parliament!” …

In the ’90s, we discovered that Russian history is cyclical. A phase of boring bureaucracy is replaced by a phase of chaos and violence. So Stalin came to power after the Russian Civil War, and Brezhnev’s boring ’70s replaced the dramatic ’60s…

Putin
By the end of the ’90s, many of us regretted the excitement we had once felt. Everyone was tired of anarchy. Even teenagers had come to appreciate family values and stability. This mood helped Vladimir V. Putin rocket to power in the Kremlin. He resurrected the Soviet culture of our childhoods, with old hymns and state propaganda on TV. Of course, political repression and persecution soon followed.

Brezhnev had been the head of the Soviet Union for 18 years. Mr. Putin has ruled Russia for nearly 15. It’s time to turn the wheel of Russian history once again. The anti-Putin rallies of 2011-12 were the first reminder of this; the Ukrainian Maidan revolution was the second. My guess is that Mr. Putin’s sincere fear of this cycle is one of the reasons for the current war…

Chaos at the margins can make a repressive system stronger. However, the system has to up the ante in order to maintain itself. This time, the zone of lawlessness is bigger than ever. Instead of risking his own Maidan revolution in Red Square, Mr. Putin has exported Russia’s Chechnya-style chaos to the southeast of Ukraine…

Now I see that the choice between boredom and chaos is only the tool that corrupt rulers use to save their regimes. I hope that Russia can escape from this deadly cycle in time to avoid new victims, inside and outside.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sharing power (?) in China

Judges in China rank low in the bureaucracy. Will they get promotions?

Rule of law: Realigning justice
IN JULY Zhou Qiang, the president of China’s Supreme People’s Court, visited Yan’an, the spiritual home of the Communist Party in rural Shaanxi province, to lead local court officials there in an old communist ritual: self-criticism. “I have grown accustomed to having the final say and often have preconceived ideas when making decisions,” one local judge told the meeting. “I try to avoid taking a stand in major cases,” said a judicial colleague. “I don’t want to get into trouble.”

In China’s judiciary such shortcomings are the norm. But change may be coming. On July 29th it was announced that the party’s Central Committee, comprising more than 370 leaders, will gather in October to discuss ways of strengthening the rule of law, a novelty for such a gathering. President Xi Jinping, who is waging a sweeping campaign against corruption, says he wants the courts to help him “lock power in a cage”. Officials have begun to recognise that this will mean changing the kind of habits that prevail in Yan’an and throughout the judicial system.

Long before Mr Xi, leaders had often talked about the importance of the rule of law. But they showed little enthusiasm for reforms that would take judicial authority away from party officials and give it to judges. The court system in China is often just a rubber-stamp for decisions made in secret by party committees in cahoots with police and prosecutors…

In June state media revealed that six provincial-level jurisdictions would become testing grounds for reforms. Full details have not been announced, but they appear aimed at allowing judges to decide more for themselves, at least in cases that are not politically sensitive.

There is a lot of room for improvement. Judges are generally beholden to local interests. They are hired and promoted at the will of their jurisdiction’s party secretary… and they usually spend their entire careers at the same court in which they started. They have less power in their localities than do the police or prosecutors, or even politically connected local businessmen. A judge is often one of the least powerful figures in his own courtroom…

Career prospects are unappealing for the young and well-educated… The overall quality of judges has risen dramatically in recent decades, but there are still plenty of older, senior judges with next to no formal legal training…

The most important reforms will affect the bureaucracies that control how judges are hired and promoted. Responsibility will be… shifted upwards to provincial-level authorities—in theory making it more difficult for local officials to persuade or order judges to see things their way on illegal land seizures, polluting factories and so on.

Central leaders have a keen interest in stamping out such behaviour because it tarnishes the party’s image. But many local officials, some of whom make a lot of money from land-grabs and dirty factories, will resist change…

An oft-stated goal of the reforms is that “judges should decide the cases they hear, and they should hear the cases they decide.” But Mr Xi is also making it clear that the party remains the ultimate arbiter. He is trying to boost loyalty to the party among judges and other court officials by requiring they attend ideological “study sessions”. Most judges and prosecutors are party members…

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Campaigning for Scotland's future

The campaign for "Better Together" (keeping Scotland part of the UK) is a campaign. "Yes Scotland," the independence theme describes something more like a social movement. Will the differences determine the outcome?

Aye’ll be back
DAVID CAMERON reckons people should think jolly hard before they vote in Scotland’s upcoming referendum on independence. As he and other unionist leaders often argue, the result on September 18th will be irreversible and binding…. Such entreaties seem to be working: the “no” to independence campaign has a comfortable poll lead.

Scottish nationalist
A second warning lurks between the lines: if they vote “no”, Scots had better accept that outcome, too. There should be no “neverendum”; the term applied to Quebec’s decades-long deliberations over breaking from Canada. Whether or not this message will go heeded is less certain. The reason can be found in the comparison between the “yes” and “no” campaigns.

In Bathgate… Harry Cartmill, [is] counting out leaflets. Like many [in the Better Together campaign], he is also active in the unionist Labour Party. The drill here is as in election years: canvass swing voters by phone or in person, constantly refine the database and hit targets set by headquarters. They may not be terribly impassioned, but unionists are disciplined, dutiful and experienced.

If the “no” campaign is a machine, “yes” is a carnival… es Scotland, the official campaign, provides local groups with materials but otherwise lets them do what they want. Many canvass, but others prefer street stalls, film screenings and pop-up “independence cafes”… This is understandable: most Scots say they do not support independence; Yes Scotland has to win people over, not just induce them to vote.

Several larger nationalist initiatives have developed lives of their own. National Collective, a gathering of creative types, has toured Scotland putting on pro-independence arts and music festivals collectively known as “Yestival”. Other bodies, like Common Weal and Radical Independence, are marshalling idealistic ideas for an independent Scotland and connecting the “yes” campaign to other causes, like nuclear disarmament…

But raucousness can also alarm the undecided. Yes Scotland may have a larger online presence (including many more Facebook and Twitter followers), but this is polluted by “cyber-nationalists”: bloggers who harass unionists, peddle conspiracy theories and generally undermine the cause…

This spirited chaos may be making it harder to turn fizz into votes… Blair McDougall, director of Better Together, offers a related explanation: his side is more focused and better at using its canvassing to direct the campaign’s messages effectively. Nevertheless, his opponents are confident that energy and numbers will boost nationalist turnout on polling day. Canvassing consistently shows that “yes” voters are more passionate in their views than “no” ones, claims Blair Jenkins, who runs Yes Scotland.

The distinction between the campaigns has a second, bigger implication… Successful or not, that campaign will fold after September 18th. But the “yes” campaign is a movement… A group of them will meet in late August to discuss next steps after the referendum.

“If we lose, our anger will turn into determination,” predicts Robin McAlpine, director of Common Weal. He expects another referendum within five years if Scotland votes “no”. “Whether people move on is up to the nationalists,” adds Mr McDougall at Better Together. Thus looms the prospect of a “neverendum”. If unsuccessful, “yes” campaigners could import that decades-long limbo to Britain.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

How to lose political power

It doesn't seem to matter what country you're in, if you get caught acting in ways that contradict your professed values, you're in big trouble.

Embarrassing video costs Mexican politician Luis Villarreal his job
Yet another embarrassing video in Mexico has cost a major politician his job.

Villarreal
The head of Mexico’s former ruling party… fired Congressman Luis Villarreal from his position as leader of the group’s delegation in the lower House of Deputies…

Villarreal and several other PAN politicians were taped having quite a party in the coastal resort of Puerto Vallarta. There were many drinks and much dancing with, ahem, young-women-not-the-politicians’-wives.

Newspapers identified the women as “sex workers.”

Mexican commentators and others seized on the hypocrisy: The PAN was founded on, and still prides itself for, traditional family values and deep Catholic roots…

Villarreal did not help his case with his defense. Rather than address what was happening at the fiesta, he lashed out at whoever took the “illegal videos” for “political ends.”…

The tape of Villarreal, the PAN legislator, was apparently made in January but for reasons not clear not released until now. Villarreal retains his position as congressman and a member of the party.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Evaluating a president

Majid Rafizadeh, writing on the Al Arabiya web site, offers this evaluation of the first year of Iranian President Rowhani's first year in office.

Iran: One year under Rowhani the pragmatist
Rowhani at the UN
How has President Rowhani addressed the critical issues on Tehran’s agenda in his first year and has he succeeded in fulfilling his promises?

To his credit, Rowhani’s policies on rapprochement with the West and stance on Iran’s nuclear program has alleviated the threat partially.

According to the International Monetary Fund, the Islamic Republic’s economy has been stabilized and has grown by one to two percent, rather than contracting…

In the first year under his presidency, President Hassan Rowhani’s strategy has primarily focused on spending a significant amount of political capital on foreign policy rather than domestic policies…

[B]y striking the nuclear interim deal with the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom, plus Germany), President Hassan Rowhani and his technocrat nuclear team were successful in obtaining sanctions relief-- worth about $7 billion…

With regards to diplomatic headways and the relationships between the Islamic Republic and the United States, Rowhani managed to break several taboos in the Islamic Republic including the historic phone call between him and President Barack Obama. Currently, officials from Iran and the US regularly speak with each other either in nuclear talks in Europe or through various social networks.

In addition, President Hassan Rowhani’s administration has managed to normalize diplomatic relationships with the United Kingdom…

President Rouhani voiced his support for the Syrian government… Even after the use of chemical weapons against the civilians in Syria, Rowhani’s administration has not shifted its support and policies towards President Bashar al-Assad.

In addition, under Rowhani’s administration, the Islamic Republic continues to support non state regional actors such as Hezbollah and Hamas…
In terms of the domestic economy, Rowhani’s administration carried out some fiscal and monetary policies such as removing some of the subsidies and increasing the prices in the energy sector… 
[T]he rate of inflation is still around 30 percent , which still posses hardship on eighty million ordinary Iranian people. In addition, the unemployment rate is still in double digits.

When it comes to human rights and freedoms, President Hassan Rowhani has not made progress. According to Human Rights Watch, there has been “no sign of improvement”…

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Keeping up to date on changes in Mexico

The changes to Mexico's petroleum industry have been underway for a long time. Here's the latest.

Mexico approves oil sector reforms
Mexico's Congress has approved sweeping changes to the country's energy industry which will see private oil contracts awarded in the country for the first time since 1938…

As a result, state-owned energy group Pemex will lose the monopoly it has held since nationalisation…

Crumbling infrastructure, bureaucracy and corruption have pared Mexican production from 3.6 million barrels a day in 2004 to just 2.5 million.

The ending of Pemex's monopoly required changes to the constitution, signed into law last year.

President Pena Nieto
The reforms are expected to attract billions of dollars of investment into the country, the world's ninth-largest oil producer.

They also authorise private production of electricity.

President Pena Nieto tweeted: "A more competitive and prosperous Mexico. They have laid the foundation for a new era of development and prosperity for Mexican families."…

The break-up of the oil industry is the climax of years of attempts to liberalise the Mexican economy that began in the early 1980s…

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Theology with Chinese characteristics

Jennifer Biddy pointed me toward this article from China Daily. Thanks, Jennifer.

It's a reminder that the Communist Party does not tolerate civil society independent of the Party's control.

China plans establishment of Christian theology
China will continue to promote the development of Christian theology and establish a Chinese Christian theology, a top religious affairs official said on Tuesday.

"Over the past decades, the Protestant churches in China have developed very quickly with the implementation of the country's religious policy. In the future, we will continue to boost the development of Christianity in China," said Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs.

Wang said Chinese Christian theology should be compatible with the country's path of socialism.

"The construction of Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China's national condition and integrate with Chinese culture," Wang said at a seminar on the Sinicization of Christianity in Shanghai, part of an event to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China…

According to the State Administration for Religious Affairs in 2012, the country has about 139,000 approved religious places. Among them, there are about 56,000 Christian churches and gathering sites.

By the end of last year, the country had published 65 million copies of the Bible, including editions in minority languages. Additionally, China has 22 theological seminaries across the country…

A five-year campaign to promote Christian theology in China, launched in 2013, will provide theological guidance for church rostrums in China and will promote the positive and correct theological thinking with a range of publications, exchanges, discussions and evangelism…

"This will encourage more believers to make contributions to the country's harmonious social progress, cultural prosperity and economic development," Gu Mengfei, deputy secretary-general of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China, said.

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