Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Sunday, January 31, 2010

An elder speaks

It was over 40 years ago that I first read Chinua Achebe. No one has helped me understand Nigeria, imperialism, and West Africa more than Achebe. His novels offered personalized and general images of the culture, politics, and governance of Nigeria. His essays offer a Nigerian and African perspective on "life, the universe, and everything" (almost).

Some of the novels are well-known (e.g. Things Fall Apart), but his essays are less known. Home and Exile taught me even more than the novels. On top of all that, Achebe's work is approachable even to a white guy from America's middle coast. I heartily recommend any and all of his books.

Achebe has published a new book of essays, The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays, and Kaiama L. Glover reviewed it in the New York Times.

Postcolonial Everyman
“The Education of a British-­Protected Child” belies the complexity of what he calls the “strongly multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious, somewhat chaotic” situation he was born into as a colonial subject whose first passport described him as a “British Protected Person.” As the 16 essays in this collection reveal, the “education” Achebe and his fellow Nigerians received from their exploitative and racist self-proclaimed protectors “would not be a model of perfection.”...

While he very clearly — though without any particular drama — denounces colonialism, Achebe is equally clear in his intention not to be reactionary in his reactions, to concern himself with individuals rather than ideologies. This personal and political position, which he calls the “middle ground,” is defined as “the home of doubt and indecision, of suspension of disbelief, of make-believe, of playfulness, of the unpredictable, of irony.”...

Simply and directly, he addresses many of the most fraught realities of colonial and postcolonial existence for the 20th- and 21st-century West African. The tone of his book is patient and measured, his voice personable and welcoming...

“The Education of a British-Protected Child” does, however, succeed in presenting an eclectic and thorough view of Achebe in his longtime roles as writer, father and teacher...

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Regional politics in Nigeria

If we need another reminder of the power of regional and identity politics in Nigeria, the resolution reported here by Vanguard (Lagos) provides it.

I would have appreciated some mention of political parties in this article, but the absence of a reference to a party suggests that party politics are not relevant to these activists.

Swear in Jonathan, Says South-South, South-West Leaders
LEADERS of the South South and South West zones of the country yesterday called for the immediate swearing in of Vice President Goodluck Jonathan as Acting President of the country following the inability of President Umaru Yar'Adua to run the affairs of the country as a result of his ill health.

In a joint statement issued in Abuja yesterday at the end of their meeting titled 'joint statement issued by Yoruba leaders of conscience and South_South elders and leaders on the state of the nation', the leaders noted that persistent violations of the provisions of the Constitution have created a needless constitutional crisis that were capable of threatening the very stability of the country.

The Statement was signed by former Information Commissioner and Elderstatesman, Chief Edwin K. Clark, Bishop Emmanuel Gbonigi, Dr. Frederick Faseheun and Chief Sunny Jackson Udoh...

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Cult of Putin

Karmin Tomlinson, who teaches in Oregon City, OR, sent along these hints for understanding part of the Putin mystique.

The video for "I want a man like Putin" Такого как Путин (English version)

Or how about Такого как Путин / One Like Putin (English subtitles)?

If you want 28 seconds of The Putin Girls (just the song): I want a man like Putin

And here are the translated lyrics for "I Want a Man Like Putin"

My boyfriend is in trouble again,
He got into a fight and got stoned on something,
I am sick of him and so I told him, 'get out of here',
And now I want a man like Putin.
A man like Putin, full of energy,
A man like Putin who doesn't drink,
A man like Putin who wouldn't hurt me,
A man like Putin who wouldn't run away from me.
I saw him in the news yesterday,
He was saying the world was at the crossroads,
It's easy with a man like him at home or out and about,
And now I want a man like Putin."

Here's another music video: Putin forever - Путин навсегда

And yet another: Putin "the legend"

How about a blog entry on the Putin Cult?

This is relevant to the political culture. Put it in context with the relationship with Medvedev and the security ministries.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mexican political culture and public opinion

Daniel Wilson, writing in the blog Under the Volcano, cites poll results showing that people in Mexico want change, but aren't sure what change will work.

Public backs political reform in general, but level of knowledge is low
An El Universal national telephone poll showed broad support for the concept of political reform (89% approval) and President Calderón’s proposal (69% approval). However, there is a low level of actual knowledge – only 20% said they knew the specifics of Calderón’s proposal.  Of the specific proposals, reducing the size of Congress had the highest support, and reelection the lowest.

Original article (in Spanish).

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Resources on elections

If you want another source to refer students to when they're looking for elections information and data (or if you're looking for data for a lecture), here's a really good suggestion.

Josh Tucker, on The Monkey Cage blog, points out this valuable resource on election data:
For those who are not yet aware of it, I wanted to draw your attention to Manuel Alvarez-Rivera’s election-related websites.

His Election Resources on the Web site has data, links to official election results, and lots of other useful information.

Users should be aware that this is not simply one large dataset that you can download, but instead is a great resource if you are trying to find election results and related links to both data and more information about that election.

I’ve only just begun poking around, but there seems to be some variety in how far back the data go.

Also, interestingly, the cover page is organized chronologically by election - which is nice if you want to quickly look for recent elections - and not alphabetically by country, but this is easily overcome by simply using a the “Find” function in your browser.

He’s also got an accompanying blog to the site here.

This data should be a nice compliment to the voluminous election results now found on Wikipedia (here and here and here and here), which is where the old Wilfried Derksen Election Archives migrated. As with Alvarez-Rivera’s site you get the added advantage of knowing a single standard (or at the very least a single person using their own standard) is being applied to collect the data.

[Hat tip to Athanassios Roussias]

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Issue: size of government

The size of government is a global issue. And The Economist offers a great teaching tool in the Jan. 23 issue. The article offers many international comparisons and good arguments why large government is necessary and a potential problem. It also suggests that shrinking government will be very difficult. I'd want to use this early in the course and ask students to evaluate the comparisons and the arguments.

Leviathan stirs again: The return of big government means that policymakers must grapple again with some basic questions. They are now even harder to answer
FIFTEEN years ago it seemed that the great debate about the proper size and role of the state had been resolved. In Britain and America alike, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton pronounced the last rites of “the era of big government”. Privatising state-run companies was all the rage. The Washington consensus reigned supreme: persuade governments to put on “the golden straitjacket”, in Tom Friedman’s phrase, and prosperity would follow.

Today big government is back with a vengeance: not just as a brute fact, but as a vigorous ideology. Britain’s public spending is set to exceed 50% of GDP (see chart 1). America’s financial capital has shifted from New York to Washington, DC, and the government has been trying to extend its control over the health-care industry. Huge state-run companies such as Gazprom and PetroChina are on the march. Nicolas Sarkozy, having run for office as a French Margaret Thatcher, now argues that the main feature of the credit crisis is “the return of the state, the end of the ideology of public powerlessness”.

“The return of the state” is stirring up fiery opposition as well as praise...

The obvious reason for the change is the financial crisis...

The crisis upended conventional wisdom about the relative merits of governments and markets. Where government, in Ronald Reagan’s aphorism, was once the problem, today the default villain is the market...

The demand for public services will soar in the coming decades, thanks to the ageing of the population...

Fear of terrorism and worries about rising crime have also inflated the state...

Another form of the advancing state is more insidious. Annual lists of the world’s biggest companies have begun to feature new kinds of corporate entities: companies that are either directly owned or substantially controlled by the state...

The rise of state capitalism is fraught with problems. It may be hard to argue with China’s 30 years of hefty economic growth and $2.3 trillion in foreign-currency reserves. But subordinating economic decisions to political ones can come with a price-tag in the long term: politicians are reluctant to let “strategic” companies fail, and companies become adjuncts of the state patronage machine. Giving the imprimatur of the state to global companies is also fraught with risks...

The most interesting arguments over the next few years will weigh government failure against market failure... The rise of cowboy capitalism in Russia under Boris Yeltsin persuaded many people—not least the Chinese—of the importance of strong government. And the threat of global warming is an obvious example of how government intervention is needed to deter people from overheating the world...

But the fact that markets are prone to sometimes spectacular failure does not mean that governments are immune to it. Government departments are good at expanding their empires...

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Nigerian crisis, continued

Given the inability of the courts to enforce orders and the questionable constitutionality of a cabinet resolution, I don't know how much weight to give to the headlined facts. However, when the former president speaks, that's likely to have more influence on events. Watch for more developments.

Nigeria cabinet to decide on leader
Nigeria's High Court has ordered the cabinet to pass a resolution within a fortnight on whether the ailing president is capable of ruling the country...

Opposition groups have been calling for the president to step down and on Thursday, thousands of people rallied in Lagos demanding his resignation.

Also on Thursday, Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's former president, suggested that his ailing successor should step aside.

"If you take up a job, elected ...and then your health starts to fail you and you will not able to deliver, to satisfy yourself and satisfy the people you are supposed to serve, then there is a path of honour and path of morality," Obasanjo said...

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

What does China censor online?

From Information is Beautiful
Chris Kuberski, who teaches in Chicago, pointed me to a great graphic of words and web sites blocked by the Great Firewall of China. Red type of the words forms the shape of the country; black type of the banned sites frames the map.

You could offer students a selection of the words and sites and ask them what the powers that be fear. (You might not want to set them loose on the whole list, since some of the sites China blocks are also "blocked" by schools or for children.)

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Iranian exam boycott

At first this sounds incongruous. Students refuse to take exams as a political protest. But, it is apparently going on in Iran. Once again, the protest is centered in the most cosmopolitan part of the population.

Iran students boycott exams to protest disputed election
Students in Iran have been boycotting end-of-term exams as they continue to show their opposition to the outcome of last year's disputed presidential election...

The examinations boycott began at Amir Kabir University, a well respected institution with a well organised pro-reform student union...

Activists say there are no laws to punish students who refuse to take part in exams, but they fear that students might face different forms of reprisal from the state.

The Deputy Minister for Education, Hossein Naderi-Manesh, has said that boycotting exams "is part of a conspiracy to agitate the students and create chaos in academic institutions"...

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

No problem

Nigeria's absent president

A video of an interview with Nigeria's Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe on BBC's HardCopy. He insists that the absence of his country's president through illness is not a problem.

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Electoral politics in Mexico

Daniel Wilson, writing in the blog Under the Volcano, summarizes a couple news stories about efforts by PAN and PRD to combat the resurgent popularity of PRI.

I have to take his word for this, since I can't read enough of the Spanish articles this post is based on. If you can read them, you can check out his interpretation at PAN y PRD van en alianza por 3 estados and PAN y PRD de novios.

PAN and PRD agree to state alliances to face PRI
The PAN and PRD agreed in principle to form electoral alliances in at least three states in the 2010 state elections: Sinaloa, Oaxaca, and Puebla. Twelve states elect governors this year, and another three have congressional or municipal elections. According to the deputy Secretary General of the PAN, Alfredo Rivadeneyra, the PRI’s dominance in these states meant, “There is an absence of alternation in power, which translates into a lack of democracy, transparency, and respect between the different branches of government.”

Commentators think that there are several more states where the two will field joint candidates to face the PRI juggernaut.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Educating and empowering women

If huge numbers of girls in Nigeria are denied education, that creates dangers and tragedies for them. It also creates situations that the state must deal with and deprives the state of contributions to its social, economic, and political well being.

Good policy choices could help, but what if the capacity of the state is so limited that little can be done? What are good choices for public policy?

From This Day

Four Million Girls Out of School - Minister
Over four million girls between the ages of 6 and 11 do not have access to primary education in Nigeria, a joint UNESCO-UNICEF report has said.

Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development Hajia Salamatu Sulieman disclosed this yesterday while on advocacy visit to Borno State.

She described illiteracy as catastrophic for any child, especially the girl child, saying it exposes them to poverty, ignorance, maternal mortality, hunger, violence, abuse, exploitation, trafficking, HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

"As we all know, education is a basic human right, vital to personal and social development and well being. Therefore, all children including the girl child deserve quality education. Unfortunately, the child is often marginalized and her prospects are sacrificed when it comes to sending children to school...

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

More on violence in Jos

Jeremy Wheate, writing in his blog Naijablog from London has this comment about the violence in Jos.
At the root of the conflict in Plateau State are two core issues: poverty and an artificial distinction between "settler" and "indigene". Although a few years old now, this report by Human Rights Watch gives a good background to the issue. You can download the pdf here.

The settler/indigene dichotomy goes against the fundamental freedoms granted in sections 42 and 43 of the constitution. Both these sections are good and should remain in a reformed constitution. It is also quite arbitrary who is classified as a settler and who as a indigene. Many ethnic groups in Nigeria migrated from elsewhere (the Beroms in Plateau State are thought to have migrated centuries ago from Niger; the Efiks in Calabar were originally from Sudan etc.)

Until the government takes a hard look at the issues that block 42 and 43 from functioning ("Federal character" guidelines and the "State of origin" law), the conflicts will remain and Jos will continue to be a flashpoint. Violent conflict will probably exacerbate as desertification, water scarcity and population growth drive northern populations southwards into the Middle Belt in the next decade.

The report recommends that state laws that are biased in favour of 'indigenes' should be repealed. Four years after it was written, that's still a very good recommendation. But in a country where politicians don't need to have ideas or practical policies, who is going to stand up and push this forward?

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The Party in China makes noises about fighting corruption

The Chinese Communist Party regularly says it's going to make greater efforts to fight corruption. Whether those prosecuted are the guilty or the politically incautious is an open question.

CPC pushes Party leaders to report family information to stem corruption
Communist Party of China (CPC)... pledged to strengthen its anti-corruption efforts by further implementing the Party officials' family reporting regulation.

Party organs at all levels should carefully administer the family reporting regulation to prevent officials from abusing power, taking bribes and participating in other illegal activities, according to a communique issued by the fifth plenary session of the CPC's 17th Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).

The CPC promulgated the family reporting regulation in 2006, by which Party officials are obliged to report information such as employment conditions of their spouses and children, real estate and investment...

CPC flexes muscles to combat corruption in "arduous" mission
China was flexing its muscles to fight corruption which was still an "persistent, complicated and arduous" task, said an expert as the internal anti-graft body of the Communist Party of China (CPC) convened its three-day plenary session.

President Hu Jintao told the meeting of the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) that the Party should "fully recognize the situation of the fight against corruption," which was "persistent, complicated and arduous."...

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Conflict in Nigeria's Middle Belt

In spite of the reported causes of the unrest, the BBC headline writers go ahead and blame religious differences for the problem. Don't they read their own reporters' words? The last time there was major violence in Jos, the cause seemed to be competition between farmers and herders for land (granted that there were ethnic and religious differences between the herders and the farmers).

Nigeria troops patrol in Jos after religious clashes
Troops and riot police are patrolling the Nigerian city of Jos, after fighting between gangs of Muslim and Christian youths in the central city...

The city has a history of ethnic and religious tension - at least 200 people were killed in 2008 and 1,000 in 2001.

Dan Manjang, special adviser on media to the Plateau State governor, said it was not yet known what sparked the unrest on Sunday...

He told the BBC's Network Africa programme there were reports it may have started after a football match...

Reuters news agency quotes residents as saying the violence started after an argument over the rebuilding of homes destroyed in the 2008 clashes...

Correspondents say such clashes in Nigeria are often blamed on sectarianism, however poverty and access to resources such as land often lies at the root of the violence...

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Freedom in the world

Kevin James, who teaches at Albany High School, pointed out in his blog for the comparative government and politics class, the Freedom House 2010 survey of Freedom in the world.

He quoted the press release from Freedom House: "According to the survey’s findings, 2009 marked the fourth consecutive year in which global freedom suffered a decline—the longest consecutive period of setbacks for freedom in the nearly 40-year history of the report. These declines were most pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa, although they also occurred in most other regions of the world. Furthermore, the erosion in freedom took place during a year marked by intensified repression against human rights defenders and democracy activists by many of the world’s most powerful authoritarian regimes, including Russia and China."

The whole Freedom House report won't be issued for a couple months, but there's enough in the press release, an overview essay, some tables and graphs, and the "Map of Freedom 2010" to create some valuable teaching plans.
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Friday, January 15, 2010

Government by Revolutionary Guards

Following up on yesterday's post here about the militarization of the judiciary in Iran, comes this analysis from The Washington Post.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard seems to have grown from an elite fighting force to protect the Islamic Republic to a huge economic and political force. Is it replacing the government and/or the regime?

Elite Revolutionary Guard's expanding role in Iran may limit U.S. options
A major expansion in the role played by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps is giving the elite force new economic and political clout...

Commanders of the Revolutionary Guard say its growth represents a logical expansion for an organization that is not a military force but a popular movement that protects the ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Guard's expanded economic role is mirrored by a greater role in politics and security...

Supporters and opponents alike say the Guard has dramatically expanded its reach into Iran's economy, with vast investments in thousands of companies across a range of sectors...

Constitutionally established as a defender of the Islamic revolution, the Guard was created to work separately from the regular army, which was distrusted by the country's new leaders when they took over in 1979. The religious leadership has used the Guard to take on competing political and ethnic groups. It was also at the forefront of fighting during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s...

The Guard has since grown into one of the most visible power players in the country and is the strongest opponent of the grass-roots movement that has staged protests in several cities...

Key cabinet ministries, such as oil, energy, interior and defense, are led by former Guard commanders. A former energy minister, Parviz Fattah, was appointed deputy commander of the Guard's massive Khatam ol-Anbia construction division, which is at the heart of the organization's business activities. It has 29 branches, called 'Ghorbs,' which build airplanes, dams, and oil and gas installations. Most of the Guard's contracts are with the government...

The Guard's expansion into Iran's economy started in the early 1990s, when then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani tried to jump-start private enterprise in the state-run economy by allowing state organizations to undertake commercial projects. The political rise of the Guard runs parallel with the ascendancy of the reformists in 1997. The movement called for more personal freedoms, fewer Islamic restrictions and a greater role for democracy. Political hard-liners turned to the Guard for more muscle in combating the reformists; in exchange, the Guard was given more influence in the economy and in politics...

The result has been that the Guard controls a large part of Iran's economy, analysts say. "You can't see a single project above $10 million that is not executed by the Guard or one of their organizations," said Shamsolvaezin, the analyst. He warned that economic power could produce more demands for political power. "Some of our leaders now fear that [the Guard] will take everything into their hands."

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

More signs of militarization in Iran

There have been other signs of the growing power and influence of the military in Iran. Here's another. This op-ed piece in The Guardian (UK) was written by Massoumeh Torfeh. She's a scholar and researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

The question becomes one of "Who's in charge?" Is the Supreme Leader? the president? the ayatollahs? the military establishment?

Iran's judiciary takes a military colour
A new phase of political killings is set to begin in Iran with the trial of five demonstrators charged with being mohareb – a description for someone who fights against Islam.

Tehran's "general and revolutionary" prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, told the Iranian news agency, IRNA, that those who "set fire to vehicles and committed other crimes" could be regarded as mohareb... The usual punishment for being a mohareb in the Islamic Republic is execution...

[I]n the last week religious and political authorities have raised the bars by calling demonstrators mohareb. Two high-ranking officials, both with background in the Revolutionary Guards – the police chief, General Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam and the interior minister, General Mostafa Najjar – have called for the need to regard demonstrators as mohareb...

Proposing new laws to deal with recent "riots", the head of judiciary in Iran, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, asked the parliament – where his brother Ali Larijani is the speaker – to co-operate. He said people are "demanding firm action" and proposed a revival of judicial police force. To create a new military dimension to the judiciary, Larijani selected as his adviser a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad-Bagher Zolghadr, who has held several security posts.

So, the stage is set in every sense for putting the demonstrators on trial, accusing them of being mofsed fel arz or mohareb, giving them five days to appeal, and then in all probability sending them for execution. More than 500 were arrested in Ashura demonstrations. Several leading opposition figures were targeted and detained over the past two weeks...

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Nigerian details

Jean Herskovits, a research professor of history at the State University of New York's Purchase College, offers some analysis and details in Foreign Policy magazine.

Is the President of Nigeria Brain Dead?
So, is the president of Africa's most populous country, and its largest oil producer, out of commission or not?... Nigerians [are]... demanding photographic evidence that their president is indeed alive. It's a question that matters: For all practical purposes, Nigeria has been without a government since November, its some 150 million people living in a tense, rumor-filled kind of limbo.

During the seven weeks since Yar'Adua was hospitalized in Saudi Arabia, Nigerian officials have either remained silent or made vague statements that Nigerians struggled to believe...

Indeed, the last month and a half of political uncertainty has been consumed by planning, plotting, and maneuvering among Nigeria's political classes. The debate revolves around two issues: Should Yar'Adua be replaced? The emerging consensus seems to be yes. And if so, who will become vice president?

In theory, the procedure for replacing Yar'Adua is clear: Nigeria's Constitution resembles its U.S. model, whereby the vice president succeeds his boss. But there are a few decidedly Nigerian differences that complicate matters. Any transition requires... both houses of the National Assembly... to approve the successor's choice of vice president. This last bit -- the potential of an open post at the top -- means that the internal politics of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), Nigeria's de facto sole political party in a theoretically multiparty state, are where the real action is. The PDP has a substantial majority in both houses, but party loyalties are divided among many "godfathers."...

Another complicating factor is an informal PDP arrangement whereby the office of president is to alternate between the largely Christian south and the largely Muslim north every eight years. Obasanjo was from the south, so Yar'Adua, a Muslim, was supposed to be representing the north's turn. If he has to leave office early, some northerners might feel deprived of their full time to rule. However, influential voices from the north have joined those from the south in insisting that the constitutional provisions for succession must be followed.

Amid the jockeying for power, two divergent agendas have emerged. Supporters of the first are pushing for a northern vice president to be chosen... Multiple, self-interested groups of current and former officeholders want to nominate the person who would benefit them most in power...

The second agenda... comes from some Nigerians more concerned with the national interest than their own. Their goal is to find someone -- also a northerner -- of maturity, experience, stature, and integrity to be able to do two things: assist a President Jonathan in dealing with the overwhelming problems Nigeria faces... and put in place electoral reform. With national elections due in 2011, that reform, which is in draft form now, is desperately needed to give Nigeria's battered democracy... a chance at last.

If the situation deteriorates, military intervention cannot be ruled out. Nigerians' desperation with their plight is startlingly evident. And the military has staged coups in the past when popular anger has boiled over. Still, the military hierarchy must know that to move now would be seen as aimed at blocking a Jonathan -- read "southern" --presidency. Widespread, unpredictable violence could be the result -- not least in the turbulent Niger Delta region, where many would see themselves deprived of their right to national leadership through Jonathan...

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Public policy priorities in Mexico

When a president who cannot run for reelection announces a major change in policy priorities, is he still doing that for political reasons?

Mexican president says crime now 3rd priority
Mexican President Felipe Calderon said Wednesday that jobs and reducing poverty will be his top two priorities in 2010, while the fight against drug cartels that dominated the first half of his presidency placed third.

In a televised speech, the conservative president promised historic levels of investment in roads, seaports and airports to create jobs as Mexico emerges from a deep economic recession.

"Creating jobs, that is the most important thing for a family to get ahead in life," said Calderon, whose election campaign cast him as "the jobs president," only to see the drug war overshadow that slogan...

The apparent change in emphasis reflects figures that show nationwide unemployment topping 5 percent in November. But that number may be an underestimate, since most of Mexico has no unemployment insurance system and unemployed people usually seek to eke out a living as street vendors or in other occupations in the informal sector...

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Poor prognosis for Iranian government

If you're a subscriber to The Economist (or you can use the library's subscription), you can access an analysis piece on politics in Iran. It would be a great bit of analysis to present to your students after they master the basics of the regime, politics, and actors. How would they evaluate the editors' pessimism? Will history prove them wrong? or right?

A supreme leader at bay
Ever since last June’s disputed election, Mr Khamenei has striven to give an impression of firmness... Later, as the opposition “green” movement grew in strength, posing a challenge to the Islamic Republic in general and to Mr Khamenei’s sinecure, the “guardianship of the jurist” (a cleric at the apex of government) in particular, he let it be known through his ciphers that his critics’ only hope of leniency was to repent and throw themselves on his mercy.

The supreme leader’s inflexibility now looks like an error. He has infuriated those moderate conservatives who recognise that the events of the second half of last year have changed Iran irrevocably, and who advocate concessions in the name of national unity...

People who know the supreme leader are unsurprised by his obduracy. He spent the eight-year presidency of Muhammad Khatami, Iran’s only reformist president to date, obstructing far more innocuous measures than are now being proposed. To make concessions under pressure, the ayatollah apparently believes, is a sign less of wisdom than of weakness. So he has contented himself with vague calls for national unity, even as the baseej bash opposition heads and the nation’s prison officers gain notoriety as rapists and torturers.

Having survived more than two decades at the top of Iran’s power structure, Mr Khamenei is now looking acutely uncomfortable... As recently as a few months ago, few Tehranis would have dared whisper “Death to Khamenei”. Now that slogan has become a commonplace.

None of this means that the ayatollah is about to fall. Strikes, which ended the shah’s regime, are so far confined to students boycotting exams. No one in the opposition expects quick results... But many Iranians remain convinced less by democracy than by traditional notions of a just ruler, empowered by divine grace and legitimised as much by his ability to keep the country together as by his innate justice. This summer, that mantle started to slip from Mr Khamanei’s shoulders. It will take uncommon skill for him to stop it falling.

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State "Capitalism"

As a student of capitalistic economics, I have trouble making sense of this story told by Ellen Barry in the New York Times. As a student of cultures, I feel like I'm being told about an exotic place with a strange frame of reference and mysterious values.

How well could your students point out the political and cultural pressures that create the attitudes and the policies described here?

In Russia, a Bankrupt Town Keeps Humming
For a few weeks this winter, this town wobbled on the edge of nonexistence.

Workers were showing up every morning at Baranchinsky’s lone factory, even though many had received their tiny salaries only once in the last 16 months. But then the local utilities cut off the factory’s electricity and heat over unpaid debts. Temperatures were dropping to 15 degrees below zero, and exterior pipes began to burst. A few more days and the factory would be damaged beyond repair.

Workers were showing up every morning at Baranchinsky’s lone factory, even though many had received their tiny salaries only once in the last 16 months. But then the local utilities cut off the factory’s electricity and heat over unpaid debts. Temperatures were dropping to 15 degrees below zero, and exterior pipes began to burst. A few more days and the factory would be damaged beyond repair...

For more than a year, the Kremlin has been scrambling to address the future of places like Baranchinsky, one of Russia’s 300 or so “monocities,” where a single plant supplies heat, income and social security. Many of these factories are hemorrhaging money, leaving leaders with an array of unpalatable choices: To allow factory towns to die gradually, as they did in the 1990s? To liquidate them? Save them?

What happened in Baranchinsky, population 11,000, says much about the consensus Russia reached in 2009. Business did not want to spend money; workers did not want to relocate; the government did not want the political instability that comes with unemployment and was able to pay huge sums to stave it off. This consensus has kept much of Russia in a state of suspension, just when the economy would seem to demand change, said Natalya V. Zubarevich, an analyst at the Moscow-based Independent Institute for Social Policy...

The new governor of Sverdlovsk Oblast [map above], Aleksandr S. Misharin, had been in office just four days, but it was no coincidence that his first trip was to Baranchinsky. The Kremlin had put him in charge of one of Russia’s biggest collections of monocities, and it was the small, isolated ones Moscow viewed as tinderboxes...

That day the demise of Baranchinsky’s factory was, if not averted, postponed for the foreseeable future. Its longtime general manager and commercial director, minority shareholders who had been locked in a bitter feud with the majority shareholder, were arrested on fraud charges; the utilities reluctantly agreed to overlook an estimated $14 million in debts and turn the heat and electricity back on...

And so the crisis passed, for the moment. The past year could have forced the closure of scores of small factories in the Urals — many of them outfitted with 19th-century technology — but the state has taken pains to prevent this... There was also a ban on layoffs, which could have allowed business to set aside money for improvements. The policies averted social unrest, she said, but they will slow Russia’s recovery and modernization...

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Political consequences of economic change

In the USA, the rule of thumb is that negative economic events impact the government in power negatively. Here's part of the reason the Labour government in the UK is in trouble.

UK standard of living drops below 2005 level
The recession has pushed living standards in Britain to below the 2005 general election level, a leading think tank says as it warns that the country faces a "new age of austerity".

Although many economists think the economy probably returned to growth in the quarter just ending, the deepest recession in decades has punished everyone, according to a report by Oxford Economics...

The recession has foiled Gordon Brown's claims to have ended 'Tory boom and bust' according to think tank Oxford Economics.
Oxford Economics says that gross domestic product per person has fallen to £22,700 on average in 2009, down from £23,000 in 2005 after adjusting for inflation – a fall of 1.3%. In Labour's first two terms GDP per head grew 12.6% and 8.3% respectively...

In 2007, UK GDP per capita measured in US dollars was $45,890 – rivalling that of the United States and well ahead of that in Germany, France, Italy and Japan.

But now UK GDP per person has fallen to $35,590 – 23% lower than in the US and more than 10% lower than in Germany, France and Japan...

Measured at purchasing power parity, which irons out those differences, British living standards in 2009 were still higher than in Germany, France, Italy and Japan. But UK living standards still trail those in the US by almost 25% on this measure and the gap is expected to widen in 2010 as the US economy recovers more strongly...

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Friday, January 08, 2010

Singing for electricity and power

Solomonsydelle, a Nigerian living and blogging in Maryland, points out a Nigerian song with political implications, "This is '2010,' by Sound Sultan... With this tune, '2010,' he calls for Nigerians to 'Rise Up' and demand electricity, using the well recognized 'LightUpNaija' call... The upcoming elections of 2011 will give Nigerians an opportunity to elect officials that will be held accountable if they fail to perform as expected."

LightUpNaija/Rise Up Naija

See also Sound Sultan is Nigeria's 007

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Melodrama in Nigeria

It would be melodrama if it weren't so serious. The Nigerian Bar Association is one of the most powerful civil society groups, and it has called for the president's resignation or return to Aso Rock, the president's home and office in Abuja.

Ed Webb, Assistant Professor of Political Science & International Studies at Dickinson College pointed out this article describing the latest developments.

I saw the Nigerian Foreign Minister interviewed on BBC News last night and he all but admitted that he had not talked to President Yar'Adua in six weeks. He could only suggest that he expected to talk to him soon.

Prove you are alive: clamour for missing Nigerian leader to show his face
Opposition politicians are demanding visual proof that the NIgerian President is still alive and fit to govern, six weeks after he left the country for medical treatment.

President Yar’ Adua left Nigeria on November 23 complaining of chest pains and has not been seen in public since. He is thought to be receiving treatment for a heart condition at a clinic in Saudi Arabia, but his absence has created a dangerous power vacuum at the top of Africa’s most populous nation and one of the continent’s biggest oil producers...

The vacuum at the top of a centralised bureaucracy, in which much power is vested in the presidency, is already having a serious impact...

“It is a civil-political right to know where our President is and what is the state of his health,” Emmanuel Onwubiko of the Human Rights Writers Association told The Times. Mr Onwubiko called for the National Assembly to convene a search party to find the President and to provide verifiable evidence of his good health.

On Tuesday a federal court in Abuja,the capital, will begin hearing three separate lawsuits aimed at forcing Mr Yar’ Adua to cede power. One calls for his deputy to be appointed leader, another for his sacking and a third for all Cabinet decisions taken in his absence to be annulled...

Complicating matters is the unwritten agreement underpinning Nigerian politics whereby northerners and southerners alternate every two terms. Mr Yar’ Adua, a northerner, replaced Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military ruler and southener. But his deputy, Mr Jonathan, is another southerner, meaning were he to step in, northerners would feel cheated...

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Putin and an oligarch

Wayne Berbert, who teaches at Syosset High School in New York, recommended this article. It's a good one and throws light on another aspect of the government's relationship with the economic state. Wayne wrote, "This article is good enough on its own but could also be a good comparison with the New York Times article from last month on Mikhail Khodorvsky.  Why is the relationship between these two men and Putin different?  Does it take away the credibility of the West's interpretation that Putin is trying to consolidate power by taking Khodorvsky down?  You could also use it to compare Russia's handling of the economic crisis with our own."

Thanks, Wayne.

[If the link here doesn't work, go to Google or Yahoo News and search for "Deripaska."]

New Détente: Putin, Tycoons Rescue Each Other in Crisis
Swamped with debt, Oleg Deripaska seemed the most likely of Russia's tycoons to fall victim to the financial crisis a year ago. Today he is on his way to preserving most of his sprawling empire, thanks to bailouts from the Kremlin and breaks from foreign lenders...

Mr. Deripaska's experience underscores the strangely symbiotic relationship between Russia's oligarchs and a leader, Prime Minister Putin... [at left]

The waves of bankruptcies and nationalizations many here expected were judged too destabilizing to risk, according to government advisers. Keeping loyal oligarchs afloat has checked the political impact of the financial crisis by limiting layoffs. The tycoons, in turn, have obliged by sometimes playing the role of whipping boy on state television. Mr. Putin "needs there to be a multiplicity of oligarchs for him to keep power," said one person close to Rusal...

Like the other remaining oligarchs, he studiously avoids independent political activity... amid what U.S. officials say are concerns about whether Mr. Deripaska has ties to organized crime...

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Russian leadership

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote this bit of analysis for Project Syndicate. He tries to make sense of the dual leadership in Russia.

IT would be good to use this when reviewing Russia in a few months. I'd ask students to evaluate his analysis in light of events in the first part of 2010.

The Kremlin Two Step
Westerners often see Russian politics in terms of a high-level struggle between liberals and conservatives... They also view Russia in terms of a tradition whereby every new tsar partly repudiates the legacy of his predecessor, creating a political thaw at the beginning of a new reign...

Both methods were used to describe the Putin-Medvedev relationship – to understand its nature and dynamic, and what it portends for Russia. But observers remain puzzled.

To dismiss Medvedev as a mere Putin puppet, a constitutional bridge between Putin’s second and third presidential terms, would be both unfair and wrong. Russia’s third president has a broader role and a distinct function. Conversely, portraying Putin as “a man from the past,” and Medvedev as “a hope for the future,” exaggerates the differences between them and omits the more important factors that unite them. A better analytical model is needed...

The 75% of Russians who make up the Putin majority are essentially passive, and seek only the preservation of a paternalistic state. Putin can sit on their support, but cannot ride forward with it. The best and brightest are not there.

Enter Medvedev. His Internet-surfing, compassionate, and generally liberal image helps recruit a key constituency – those beyond the reach of Putin himself – to the Putin plan. Whether the plan succeeds is another matter.

Conservative modernization is a gamble. To modernize Russia, one must break the stranglehold of corruption, establish accountability, and free the media. At some point, Putin and Medvedev will have to decide. Either they give priority to the survival of the current system and accept Russia’s steady marginalization, or they start opening up the system, putting its survival at risk...

Putin’s governing pact with Medvedev, his trademark creation, is likely to remain in force. Both members need each other. So the real issue is not whether the noises that Putin and Medvedev make suggest real divergence, and a potential for rivalry, but whether there is daylight at the end of the tandem...

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

More equality in China

The problem has been around as long as China has. Rural poverty. The government is once again talking about doing something.

China to spur rural demand, enhance farmer's living standards
China's government will step up efforts to stimulate rural consumption and raise rural living standards to promote economic growth and ensure social stability, said a statement released Monday at the conclusion of the Central Conference on Rural Work...

The government would continue to improve farmers' lives as a crucial plank in its efforts to rebalance income distribution, said the statement.

It would keep stimulating rural consumption, which was significant to drive domestic demand, according to the two-day meeting which laid out work for next year's agricultural and rural development...

The per capita annual net income of Chinese farmers rose to a high of 5,000 yuan (735 U.S. dollars), up more than 6 percent from a year ago...

Although rural residents comprise more than 70 percent of China's population, public resources are conventionally lean to the better-developed urban areas. That leaves a widening gap between the two, a perennial matter the government has vowed to solve...

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Labour troubles

As a sign of how much political trouble PM Brown is in, former members of his cabinet are calling for a vote on his leadership within the Labour Party.

Hewitt and Hoon call for Brown leadership ballot
Two ex-cabinet ministers are calling for a secret ballot on Gordon Brown's leadership, only months before a general election must be called.

Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon have written to Labour MPs saying the issue must be sorted out "once and for all"...

BBC political editor Nick Robinson said the letter was an extraordinary development but he did not know if it was possible to force a leadership ballot...

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Leadership crisis in Nigeria

The political pressures are building in Nigeria. If the president's absence has not yet created a crisis, a variety of forces are pushing in that direction.

Triple legal challenge for Nigeria President Yar'Adua
Three legal challenges have been filed against Nigeria's President Umaru Yar'Adua, who has been in a Saudi hospital for the past six weeks.

The Nigerian Bar Association is demanding that he hand over power to his deputy Goodluck Jonathan.

The other suits say cabinet decisions made in his absence should be annulled and he should be sacked. And a rights group wants him declared "missing".

Many Nigerians feeling there is a power vacuum in the country...

Correspondents say the situation is complicated because of the system of alternating power between north and south.

Mr Yar'Adua is a northerner, while Vice-President Jonathan is from the south, so if he were to assume presidential duties, this would shorten the north's "turn"...

Last week, a new chief justice was sworn in despite Mr Yar'Adua's absence.

Some lawyers have challenged this, as the constitution states that chief justices should take the oath of office to the president.

Instead, the ceremony was presided over by the outgoing chief justice. He denies claims that the ceremony was illegal...

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Okay, maybe the snow in Beijing was more than half an inch

Wen Ling is a Beijing photographer who creates the photo-blog "ziboy.com". The blog has been online since 2001, and Wen offers some great images of life in the Chinese capital. There are pictures of his family and friends, street scenes, punk rock concerts, and public events.

Images of everyday life help me create mental pictures of places I've never been, and Wen offers many of those images from Beijing. I have recommended his pictures here before, especially as counterpoints to many of the historic and official photographs that appear in textbooks.

A few days ago, I made light of the report from Xinhua that Beijing's record snowfall that tied up the city was a whole half inch of snow, even though I suspected there was a translation problem.

Wen's photos show that there was more than a half inch of snow. But, from my Minnesota experience, it doesn't look like a snowfall that would tie up a city... unless you have to rely on people and brooms to clear the streets.

[First two photos are by Wen Ling; the third is from Xinhua. I love the Totoro-like snowman in Tiananmen Square (similar snowmen appeared in other photos from Chinese snowstorms).]

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Bring on the peasants

The malapportionment of the Peoples Congress was recognized by the Party. Now there are proposals for a "remedy."

This article, like many first translations, is not in good English, but the real pro translators will get around to revisions later if you look for them.

Amended electoral law to ensure grassroots representation
A draft law amendment that says the number of grassroots deputies of farmers, workers and "intellectuals" should be guaranteed, is being discussed at the ongoing session of China's top legislature.

Currently, a large number of legislators in China are government officials and entrepreneurs, leaving less seats for farmers and workers.

The draft amendment under review requires "both rural and urban areas adopt the same ratio of deputies to the represented population in elections of people's congress deputies."

 Currently, every 960,000 rural residents and every 240,000 urbanites are represented by one National People's Congress (NPC) deputy respectively, according to the law.

Critics say this could be interpreted as "farmers only enjoying a quarter of the suffrage of their urban counterparts."...

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Democracy without democrats

The tension between democratic centralism and democratic practice in China and the Communist Party has been around for a long time. Centralism seems to be winning again.

Control freaks
[T]he ruling Communist Party is acutely conscious of its own frailties. Although students are still desperate to join the party, that is not because they believe in Marxism, but because they are worried about their job prospects and party membership can pull strings. Once in, they find an organisation that cloaks itself in the mind-numbing dogma of yesteryear, pays little heed to the will of its 76m members and revels in costly, time-wasting meetings to rubber-stamp the leaders’ decisions. It is a formula that buys the party short-term comfort at the expense of long-term instability...

Party leaders admit that this is a weakness. The party’s immunity to scrutiny, even by its own members, fosters corruption and leaves decisions prone to error. Giving supposedly elected posts in the party to hand-picked favourites generates resentment and cynicism. Members from the private sector are often still marginalised. So too, at the top, are women...

China’s leaders have begun manoeuvring their favourites into senior positions in readiness for them to take power in 2012 when Mr Hu, it is assumed, steps down as party chief. Success or failure in the struggle for power will be decided not by the ballot box but by backroom deals between factions...

Optimists in China have suggested that internal democracy could help the party evolve into something like Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled for 54 years with only a brief interruption until its defeat this year. But that would happen only if party factions could compete openly before facing the electorate. Mr Hu, for all his talk of democracy, stresses the need to uphold the party’s tradition of “centralism”—following the leader, with no open dissent...

Big surprise
“INNER-PARTY democracy is the life of the party,” enthused China’s former president, Jiang Zemin, as he prepared to hand over to Hu Jintao seven years ago. It could, he said, promote democracy in the country as a whole. But Mr Hu’s cautious experiments with reform inside the party appear to have fizzled. So too, it seems, has his own commitment to the idea...

Party reformers had hoped that the new generation of leaders who will come to the top in 2012 would be chosen after at least a modicum of competition. The transfer of power, during which Mr Hu himself is expected to step down, is getting under way. But the stagnation of reform experiments at the bottom, together with the recent appointment at the top of five new provincial party leaders, apparently without any real consultation, does not bode well for inner-party democracy...

The core of the problem is the principle of “centralism”. This means that members must uphold party decisions without dissent. Liberals think reforms will not work unless this requirement is changed. But at the party meeting in September, Mr Hu qualified his predecessor’s remark. “Inner-party democracy is the life of the party,” he said, before adding: “Centralism and unity are the guarantee of its strength.”...

PS: This is entry #1600 for the Teaching Comparative blog. Access to past entries is easy since entries are indexed.

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Sunday, January 03, 2010

Sound familiar?

Maybe for Atlanta or Dallas, but half an inch of snow here in Minnesota hardly warrants plowing or shoveling. Even if the measurements are actually in centimeters rather than millimeters, 12.6cm is still only 5". Now, if the measurements were in meters...

Heavy snow hits north China, disrupting traffic, classes
Beijing traffic authority has decided to go all out to deal with possible traffic jams or accidents during peak hours Monday morning after a snow storm Sunday caused traffic breakdown in the national capital.

"Low temperature and ice-covered roads are expected to severely affect local traffic on Monday morning," said Song Jianguo, head of the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau.

More than 7,000 traffic police will be deployed to patrol the city's main roads from 7:00 a.m. on Monday, and more than 5,000 volunteers to maintain order on crowded bus stops, said Song...

Due to the snow storm, education authorities in Beijing and Tianjin announced on Sunday that classes in primary and middle schools would be suspended on Monday...

"The yellow alert means that the snowfall is going to turn heavier to above 6 millimeters in the next 12 hours," said Guo Hu, the bureau chief.

He said that the northern part of Beijing received the most snowfall, or 12.6 millimeters [0.5 inches] by Sunday morning. The average snowfall in the city reached 4.8 millimeters [0.19 inches].

The snowfall in Beijing set a daily record since 1951, according to the National Meteorological Center.

"I don't remember I have ever seen such a big snowfall in the city. I am wondering about tomorrow's traffic, as snow has blanketed roads," said a local resident surnamed Zhou in her 30s.

The city government has mobilized 300,000 people to clear the snow...

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