Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A view of Nigerian politics now

The Economist editors offer some predictions about Nigerian politics. Ask your students next year to read it and evaluate the predictions. They can also evaluate the performance of President Jonathan by analyzing at his inauguration speech (you'll probably want them to read the whole thing: Sahel Blog offers a video and the text).

A man and a morass
Once again, Nigerians are hoping to see the back of their ruling elite. Goodluck Jonathan, the president, wafts along on a wave of personal goodwill and is mostly seen as benign. It is the men and women around him whom voters blame for Nigeria’s woes.

With Mr Jonathan’s inauguration on May 29th, and the formation of a new government, many expect a turnaround. Two-thirds of Nigerians think the election will change their lives…

The buoyant mood extends to the boardrooms and watering holes of Lagos, the business capital…

Though widely shared, that sentiment has not silenced the general dissatisfaction. If anything, it has grown louder as reform plans take shape and the rascal ways of the political class are unmistakably identified as the main reason for the lack of prosperity. The economy may be growing by 7% a year, but this feeds mostly the greedy mouths closest to government troughs. The speaker of the lower house of parliament was investigated this month for “misappropriating” $140m. Meanwhile, about 70% of Nigerians live on less than $2 a day.

The problem is not simply one of embezzlement and bribery. The entire state machinery exists to siphon off cash… A universe of red tape engulfs the economy… Senseless restrictions and arcane procedures abound… Massive economic failure is the result. Employment in industry has shrunk by 90% in the past decade…

Nigeria is the leading oil producer in Africa, with a revenue stream of about $40 billion a year. The effect of this wealth is mostly corrosive. “Nigerian politics is one big bun-fight over oil money,” says Antony Goldman, a consultant. Three-quarters of the government budget goes toward recurrent expenditure, including salaries. Parliamentarians are paid up to $2m a year—legally. Very little is invested in infrastructure. State governors all receive big slices of the oil pie. This has attracted some very shady characters into politics…

More than two-thirds of Nigerians are still subsistence farmers. The majority, many of them Muslims, live far away from the coast. Incomes per head in the north are 50% lower than in the Christian south, and falling. Literacy rates in the north-east are two-thirds lower than in Lagos…

It is no surprise that extremists thrive in this climate. Boko Haram, a local terror group, is roaming ever wider and fine-tuning its methods…

The two biggest beneficiaries of financial reforms would be agriculture and electricity. Farmers desperately need help. In 1997 they received 17% of total lending; today they get 1.4%. Once West Africa’s breadbasket, Nigeria can no longer feed itself. Last year it spent $1 billion on importing rice—ten-year-old rice from Indian grain reserves—while close to 40% of its own harvest rotted, mostly for lack of roads to markets and processing plants.

Infrastructure is key. And the single biggest impediment to building it is Nigeria’s negligible power supply. The situation is grotesque. MTN, a mobile-phone company, has masts all over the country, as it does in South Africa, where the power supply is better. Operating costs are three times lower there. In Nigeria MTN must equip each mast with a generator, a back-up generator, a fuel tank, guards to protect the fuel and a lorry to deliver it…

Reform will be worth little, however, if state corruption is not tackled. That needs institutional change. In the view of many Nigerians, high officials should lose their immunity; legislators’ salaries should be cut, so as not to attract cowboys; and the publication of all government accounts would be a good idea. Parliamentarians, of course, disagree. A constitutional convention may be needed to push through the trickiest reforms…

Power in Nigeria is exerted by groups, not individuals. The country is too big for one man to rule. Even military leaders two decades ago chose to share power with a clique. A system of ethnic and regional quotas has developed. Jobs in all institutions are apportioned. Each of Nigeria’s 36 state governments, for example, proposes one cabinet minister. Loyalty in cabinet is rarely to the president, but to the godfather who picked the minister—and now expects a share of the loot.

To change the system, Mr Jonathan would have to break with his backers. That is difficult, perhaps even dangerous. For instance, a mafia that embezzles vast fuel subsidies is said to be a big contributor to his campaign…

Which way Mr Jonathan will lean in the next four years should become clear soon. In early June he will unveil his new team. If he is going to defy the godfathers, this is the time to do it. The head of police, the customs chief, the chief justice, the main anti-corruption investigator—will they be partisan stooges, or men who put the country first?

And guess what President Jonathan promises? The Daily Champion reports:
Jonathan Vows to Transform the Country
President Goodluck Jonathan yesterday took oath of office with a vow to transform Nigeria. He promised not to let the people down.

The President while speaking after he was sworn in… listed the task before his administration to include that of transformation of the economy, maintenance of security and a better image for the country.

"You have entrusted me with your mandate and I will never let you down. I know your pains because I have been there; look beyond the hardship you have endured and see a new beginning, a new direction, a new spirit. Nigerians I want you to start to dream again, what you see in your dreams we can achieve together. I call upon all the Presidential candidates who contested with me to join hands with us as we begin the transformation of our country. Let us work together"…

He also acknowledged the challenges of driving reforms and healing wounds and rifts generated by the fierce election contests which saw mass protests and killing at least 10 members of the National Youth Service Commission (NYSC) and other Nigerians…

The President however advised Nigerians to put the era of lamentations behind them and forgive one another and embrace the new era that will be characterized by hard work and diligence…

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Teach for China

It doesn't quite sound like a modern version of being "sent down." It seems to resemble Teach for America. Or maybe it's just good politics. Watch and see.

President's letter to volunteers sparks passionate discussion about volunteerism
A letter from Chinese President Hu Jintao to volunteers who are teaching in rural areas has sparked passionate discussion among the country's college students and faculty.

In a letter dated May 10, the president spoke highly of work done by 18 graduate students from Peking University, saying that their volunteer project is an effective way to help young students learn from practice.

Hu said he hopes the university will continue the practice and encourage more young students to volunteer in the future.

Chinese college students and teachers saw the President's letter as a sign of attention and expectation from China's leadership, and also as a sign of support for student volunteers who serve in China's underdeveloped western regions…

Volunteerism can not only enhance college students' abilities, but also foster a sense of responsibility among them, said Jiang Yuxin, a Communist Youth League official from Shaanxi Normal University.

University students should carry forward a tradition of volunteerism and go to small towns and villages, bringing their talents to the places where they are truly needed, Jiang said…

In a notice to educational authorities and institutions across the country, the Ministry of Education reiterated the importance of educating through real-life experience and called for more efforts to improve students' volunteering habits.

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Monday, May 30, 2011

Historical case comparisons

Is the Arab Spring similar to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe? Marc M. Howard, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Government Department at Georgetown University offers his ideas. He suggests some interesting comparisons. How would your students evaluate his ideas?

Similarities and Differences between Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Middle East in 2011
In his speech on Saturday in Warsaw, President Obama alluded to the similarity between recent developments in the Middle East and the revolutions that overthrew communism in Poland and Eastern Europe over two decades ago. But how do those two situations compare? This post… lists five similarities and ten differences. It concludes by explaining why the latter outweigh the former…

The 2011 movements in the Middle East have been beautiful, inspiring, and worth supporting. They are certainly reminiscent of the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe in many respects. Yet a closer inspection shows that the important similarities are nonetheless outweighed by key differences. As a result, I am pessimistic about the long-term effects of these movements and their ability to bring about consolidated democracy…

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Sunday, May 29, 2011

New Nigerian president

Goodluck Jonathan sworn in as president
Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan has been sworn in as president for a new four-year term, following a clear poll win.

Foreign heads of state attended the lavish ceremony, which began with a military parade and inspection at Eagle Square in the country's capital, Abuja.

Mr Jonathan was promoted from vice-president after Umaru Yar'Adua died in office in 2010.

Despite his election win the country still has serious divisions and there were deadly riots after polling…

The BBC's Jonah Fisher in Abuja says the pressure is now on the winner to deliver on his many election promises…

On the campaign trail Mr Jonathan said fixing Nigeria's threadbare power sector would be a priority as would be reforming agriculture to increase food production.
Our correspondent says President Jonathan will not have to perform miracles to be hailed as a success - given the country's history of mismanagement and corruption most Nigerians would gladly accept some firm steps in the right direction…

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Friday, May 27, 2011

And the winner will be...

Joshua Tucker, Associate Professor of Politics at New York Univeristy, offers some ideas about next year's election.

Guarantee: One of These Two Will Win the 2012 Presidential Election…
As was the case four years ago, a year out from the presidential election we still have some uncertainty who will emerge victorious. Similarly to four years ago, this presidential election will not be determined at the ballot box, but instead in pre-election jockeying to see who ends up on the ballot. Unlike four years ago, however, we know now the winner will be one of two people: Dmitry Medvedev or Vladimir Putin…

That being said, things are once again getting interesting in Russia. I have previously pointed readers to RFE/RL’s excellent Russian politics blog, the Power Vertical. In a series of recent posts (see here, here, and here for example), the blog’s author Brian Whitmore has made the argument that a number of recent developments in Russia should at the very least suggest that the standard wisdom that Putin runs everything and Medvedev is simply a puppet needs to come under some serious scrutiny. This is not to say that Putin is devoid of power in Russia – he isn’t – or that Medvedev is running the show alone – he isn’t – but that there are numerous indicators that Medvedev does not simply intend to go quietly into the shadows with Putin returning to serve as Russia’s president in 2012…

Even if Putin is going to be in the background (attempting?) to continue pulling the strings, the fact that Medvedev may remain president is likely to have consequences. Of course, such a claim is dependent on Putin and Medvedev actually having different visions of how Russia ought to evolve over the next six years. Their perceived differences (or lack thereof) has long been a subject of discussion in the media and among pundits, but it is also the subject of a recent report by Mark Urnov of the Moscow Higher School of Economics entitled Modernization in Russia: Clash of Concepts…

For those interested in getting beyond the “horse-race” nature of the Putin vs. Medvedev contest for the 2012 Russian presidential election, it is an interesting read with some useful insights as to what the policy consequences of the 2012 presidential election “results” – and I use that word with explicit recognition of its particular meaning in the Russian context – might turn out to be.

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Campaigning with deregulation

How to win friends and votes in Russia.

Putin suspends bribery-driven Russian car inspections for the rest of the year
With elections less than a year off, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has found an easy way to give Russia’s car owners a gift that could be worth upward of $1 billion: He did away with auto inspections for the rest of 2011. And the best part of it is that most of the money won’t be coming out of the government’s coffers.

Who’ll pay? The traffic police and employees of the state-controlled company that performs the inspections. Both agencies have the authority to issue certificates, and both have devised inspection routines that are so onerous and unpredictable that cars somehow rarely pass them. Drivers, instead, grease palms — and the certificates magically appear…

Russians love their cars, and they hate the traffic police — the most visible and annoying embodiment of the arbitrary corruption that pervades the country — with a passion. Bribery and extortion have mushroomed here in all fields, and Russians show signs of finally getting fed up, which is not good news for Putin, Medvedev or the ruling United Russia party. But was this really a blow against the system?…

Of course, Putin’s decree looks good to voters and puts some money in their pockets, for now. But Kanaev wonders whether the change will turn out to be temporary or whether the government will decide to turn over the responsibility for shaking down car owners to more dependable bureaucrats?…

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mysterious threat

Here's a story to follow for insight into how the government responds to this if it's a new threat to the political system.

China blasts: Fuzhou government buildings hit
Three explosions have struck government buildings in eastern China's Jiangxi province, state media say.

Two people were killed and at least six injured in the blasts, in the city of Fuzhou.

The first blast came outside the offices of the state prosecutor and the other explosions hit the city's food and drug agency and a district administration office…

The near-simultaneous blasts went off shortly after 0900 (0100 GMT), reports say…

Multiple bomb attacks in China are extremely rare, especially against government targets.

Analysts say the government will be alarmed by such an apparently well co-ordinated attack as it struggles with large numbers of disputes over land and living standards…

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Culture and politics

Cultural values are at the base of political policies. Here's a good example.

Nigeria population: Sachs' three-baby plan 'tricky'
A Nigerian family planning expert has told the BBC it would be difficult to implement the suggestion that Nigerians should only have three children.

Isaac Ogo pointed to the tradition of polygamy and the belief that the children were seen as a "gift from God" in a male-dominated society.

Recent UN figures suggest Nigeria's population could jump to 730 million by 2100 - behind only India and China.

UN special adviser Jeffrey Sachs said this prospect alarmed him.

"It is not healthy. Nigeria should work towards attaining a maximum of three children per family," he told the AFP news agency…

On the streets of the northern city of Kaduna, some people told the BBC that God decided how many children they had and so it would be wrong to try to limit the number of births.

"[The UN] should try to advise the government how to make the lives of Nigerians better, not telling Nigerians not to have children - that is not their business," one angry woman said…

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hobbling the government

Sanctions are meant to limit the capacity of the state as a way of influencing policy. Will it work in Iran, which already feels persecuted?

EU significantly extends sanctions against Iran, adds more than 100 entities to sanctions list
The European Union significantly extended its sanctions against Iran on Monday, reflecting mounting frustration over a lack of progress in nuclear talks with Tehran.

EU foreign ministers agreed at a meeting in Brussels to add more than 100 new entities to a list of companies and people affected by EU sanctions, designed to put economic pressure on Tehran to abandon its atomic program, EU diplomats said, according to Reuters…

World powers suspect Iran is trying to develop atomic weapons under the cover of its declared civilian nuclear energy program, but Tehran says it needs nuclear power to meet growing domestic demand for electricity.

Talks with Iran on suspending the nuclear program in return for trade and technology have ground to a halt…

The last talks, held in Istanbul in January, failed to yield results after Iran rejected any notion of suspending the enrichment program in return for benefits offered by negotiators…

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Another economic rival corralled

Just a couple days after oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov joined a political party seemingly supporting President Medvedev, another survivor of the struggle between economic and political power joins a Putin-oriented group. Is this part of the campaign for the presidency?

According to this report by Miriam Elder in The Guardian, United Russia has such high negatives, that Putin might be replacing it with a new organization.

Alexander Lebedev to join forces with Vladimir Putin
Alexander Lebedev, owner of the Independent and Evening Standard newspapers, has announced he is quitting business in Russia to join Vladimir Putin's latest political initiative as the country prepares for presidential elections…

The move comes after pressure has been building on National Reserve Bank, the jewel in Lebedev's empire. Its headquarters were raided by masked police late last year, allegedly as part of an investigation into fraud at a small failed bank acquired by NRB in 2008. Lebedev has blamed the pressure on his public statements…

Lebedev has been allowed to acquire great wealth in Russia despite his oft-critical statements of the country's leadership. Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper he co-owns with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, is Russia's leading opposition newspaper…

"Today we are ready not only to co-operate with the [new] Moscow leadership but also to support the People's Front created upon Vladimir Putin's initiative," Lebedev said, adding that he hoped to focus on the fight against corruption.

Putin announced the creation of the All Russia People's Front on 6 May at a congress of the increasingly unpopular ruling United Russia party, saying it would unite social organisations such as NGOs, trade unions and youth groups. Many analysts took the move as a sign Putin was seeking to build popular support ahead of parliamentary elections at the end of the year. The movement could also provide a base of support should Putin seek to distance himself from United Russia, whose approval ratings have fallen to near record lows, should he decide to return to the presidency next year.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Speculation continues in Tehran

Every journalist has an interpretation of the high level political struggle in Iran. Saeed Kamali Dehghan and Julian Borger, writing in The Guardian, wonder if Ahmadinejad can finish his term in office.

Ahmadinejad's enemies scent blood in Iran power struggle
In recent days, Ahmadinejad and the men described as his strongest allies – his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, and executive deputy, Hamid Baghaei – have come under direct attack from senior figures in the powerful Revolutionary Guards and some of most important clerics in the Islamic regime.

Ahmadinejad's many enemies across the political and religious spectrum have scented blood after the arrest of at least 25 people close to him and Mashaei. The president's immediate entourage has been reduced to a handful of serious people and has faced accusations of corruption, revolutionary "deviancy" and even espionage.

Even the president's spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who strongly supported him in the 2009 presidential election, is distancing himself…

"It is like wolves who have been waiting for a sign of weakness and they are now lunging in," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst and co-author of book on Ahmadinejad, The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran.

In the latest sign of his dwindling authority, Ahmadinejad's bid to streamline his cabinet and merge eight ministries into four was blocked by the supreme leader in a private meeting attended by the parliamentary chief, Ali Larijani…

It has not helped the president that the attacks come at a time when the cash-strapped government, straining under international sanctions, has gambled on removing long-standing but costly subsidies on fuel, food and other daily essentials, triggering widespread popular resentment.

With zero growth projected this year, organised labour is beginning to flex its muscles. Last week, some union members refused to go to work, in protest at delayed salaries and rising unemployment. They blamed Ahmadinejad for the crisis…

Ahmadinejad, whose presidency is limited to two terms under Iranian law, must step down in 2013. The depth of rift with the supreme leader has raised speculation he might leave early, triggering a crisis.

Some are comparing him to Abdulhassan Banisadr, Iran's first post-revolutionary president, who was impeached in 1981 after clashing with Ayatollah Khomeini and forced to flee the country…

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Private palace in the Forbidden City

Oh, Mao, where are you now? (Note that in the second article, officials decide they can't deny the evidence. However, they did identify a handy scapegoat: a private company.)

Rumors of a Private Club in the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City’s management group handed out registration forms last month for a luxury private club to be located in the compound’s Jianfu Pavilion, which was restored with money from a fund in Hong Kong, according to a report in The Beijing News on Sunday and in the English-language edition of Global Times on Monday.

Rumors about the club surfaced last week, when Rui Chenggang, an anchor for China Central Television, said on his microblog that the entry fee was one million renminbi, or about $154,000.

Officials sent a statement to Global Times saying there were no plans to open any club.

China's Forbidden City admits plans for 'rich club'
Officials at the former home of China's emperors have admitted that there were plans to open an exclusive private club inside the palace.

They had initially denied the historic site was being used for private profit…

Photographs of the opening ceremony have been posted online.

They show attendants dressed as ancient warriors, as they might have done when emperors strolled the palace corridors…

Another picture shows a welcome note prepared by the organisers. It says the club is intended as a meeting place for the "wise elites" in society.

The Forbidden City authorities say the club was being organised without their knowledge by the Beijing Palace Museum Royal Court Cultural Development Company, a firm linked to the museum…

Plans to go ahead and recruit members have now been scrapped…

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Directed democracy

I guess Prokhorov doesn't want to end up like Khodorkovsky

Russian Billionaire Announces Plan for Political Party
Mikhail D. Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire and principal owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, announced Monday that he would lead a liberal Russian political party with close ties to the Kremlin.

The decision, seven months before parliamentary elections, seems to be part of a Kremlin effort to provide an alternative for Russians disaffected with the country’s dominant political party, United Russia, while still ensuring continued support for the ruling authorities.

The party that Mr. Prokhorov will lead, Right Cause, generally espouses pro-Western liberal views in tune with those of the business and intellectual elite in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was set up by the Kremlin in 2008, and some critics refer to it as nothing more than a fake opposition intended to help give Russia the semblance of a true multiparty democracy.

The Kremlin did not immediately comment, though it is very unlikely that Mr. Prokhorov would have made the decision without the approval of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin and President Dmitri A. Medvedev…

Mr. Prokhorov’s decision seems certain to increase speculation over which of Russia’s leaders will run in the presidential election in March 2012. Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev, longtime political allies, have said that that they would not compete against each other and that they would decide between themselves who would run.

That has not prevented the country’s elite from taking sides. Mr. Putin, as United Russia’s leader, has the party’s backing. The prime minister has also unveiled a new political organization, the All-Russia People’s Front, that appears to be part of an effort to broaden his support.

Right Cause has already declared its support for a second term for Mr. Medvedev, though it was unclear whether Mr. Prokhorov would personally follow suit…

Denis Volkov, an analyst at the Levada Center, a research organization in Moscow, said it was too early to tell how Mr. Prokhorov’s foray into politics might alter the political calculus, to the extent that there is one in Russia. He also said that Mr. Prokhorov had probably had little choice.

“Major businessmen are under the authorities’ control,” Mr. Volkov said. “If the government says you have to head a party, you head a party.”

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Evidence of invisible politics

The evidence of political turmoil in Iran continues to surface. If you're looking for definitive explanations, they'll probably never come. However, you can be assured that many people will have interpretations to offer.

Ayatollah: Iran’s president ‘bewitched’ by senior aide
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came under new pressure Sunday, as an influential cleric charged that he has been “bewitched” by a controversial senior aide and key lawmakers renewed their impeachment threat.

Ahmadinejad is behaving “unnaturally” and needs to be “saved,” Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, a former supporter of the president, told the weekly Shoma magazine.

The cleric said Ahmadinejad’s top adviser, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, has used has hypnotism, spells or charms to take control of Iran’s elected leader. “I am almost certain that he has been bewitched,” Yazdi said.

The president’s close relationship with Mashaei, and his recent refusal to cut those ties, has become a major liability for Ahmadinejad…

The new accusations from Yazdi indicate that decision-makers within Iran’s ruling elite want the adviser fired, a move which would seriously limit Ahmadinejad’s presidency, analysts say…

There was also fresh criticism over Ahmadinejad’s policies. Members of parliament Sunday threatened the president with impeachment over what they said was his abuse of power and illegal acts…

The accusations illustrate a political shift that has taken place in Iran following a dispute between the president and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the forced resignation of the intelligence minister in April. The issue laid bare long-simmering dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad’s confrontational policies among some of his top supporters.

While the rift is over the extent of presidential power, the criticism largely focuses on Ahmadinejad’s closest aide, Mashaei, who opponents say leads a “deviated” current that is planning to bring down Iran’s system of clerical rule…

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Thursday, May 12, 2011

On the road again...

Pronunciation: \-ˈmi-tənt\
Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin intermittent-, intermittens, present participle of intermittere
Date: 1601
: coming and going at intervals : not continuous ; also : occasional
— in·ter·mit·tent·ly adverb
Source: Mirriam-Webster Online Dictionary
Retrieved 2 December 2010

Spring is near. I'll be on the road for the next week or so. Postings here will be intermittent. If you find a bit of information that might be useful for teaching comparative politics, post it at Sharing Comparative or send me a note with the information. I might be able to get online now and again.
Remember, nearly all* the 2183 entries here are indexed at delicious.com/CompGovPol. There are 77 categories and you can use more than one category at a time to find something appropriate to your needs. Look at the "pedagogy" category if you're an AP teacher looking for after-the-exam ideas.

*The most recent entries are not indexed because Delicious has new owners and the transition is going slowly. But you can read those most recent entries by looking at the list of recent postings.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Electoral equalities

Talk about affirmative action.

China starts lawmakers' elections with equal representation of farmers, urbanites
China started elections of lawmakers at the county- and township-levels on Saturday, which granted, for the first time, equal representation in legislative bodies to rural and urban citizens…

These are the first elections after the Electoral Law amendments were adopted in March 2010 that require both rural and urban areas to adopt the same ratio of deputies to the represented population in elections of people's congress deputies.

The previous electoral law stipulated that each rural deputy represented a population four times that of an urban deputy, which was interpreted as "farmers only enjoy one-quarter of the suffrage of their urban counterparts."…

Organizers should also safeguard the electoral rights of the country's 200 million migrant population, who either register in their hometown or in the cities they migrate to.

Efforts should also be made to ensure the elections have broad representation, especially to increase the ratio of workers, farmers, professionals, technicians and women…

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Political theater in Moscow

Kathy Lally's analysis in The Washington Post suggests there is no politics in Russia, only theater.

Awaiting Russian presidential vote, is Putin-Medvedev rift all part of the game?
Less than a year before the presidential election, with the country ruled in deep secrecy, political discourse has been reduced to parsing every remark by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev for signs of their intentions…

“I believe there is no competition,” says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a member of Putin’s United Russia party and a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences who studies the decision-making elite. “Our politics are a theater. There are directors and a script. And for some reason they love it when the public says there are conflicts.”

Lilia Shevtsova, a mordant critic of the administration and a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, uses remarkably similar language in reaching a comparable conclusion. “There are no politics,” she says. “Politics exist where you have an independent media, attentive audience and unpredictable script. What’s interesting is that the Kremlin supports this story-telling.”

In the Soviet era, outsiders divined the workings of the Politburo by studying Red Square parades to see who was standing next to whom on top of Lenin’s tomb…

Today’s Kremlinologists rely on public comments that may eventually prove just as misleading…

Shevtsova… sees a resemblance between the Kremlinology of the Leonid Brezhnev years — Brezhnev was head of the Soviet Union from 1964 until he died in 1982 — and now. “We have personalized power now, as we did then,” she says, “and we all have to remain guessers. We still are wondering who is behind the curtain.”…

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Monday, May 09, 2011

Good governor

Babatunde Fashola is the governor of the city-state of Lagos. The Economist reporter thinks he's doing a good job, and that's unusual in Nigeria.

A rare good man
WHEN Babatunde Fashola goes to the theatre in Lagos, his entrance usually sparks more applause than the cast’s final bow. He has been something of a hero in Nigeria’s business capital since becoming its governor in 2007. Last month he was reelected with 81% of the vote, having attempted to tame the unruly metropolis…

Of course Mr Fashola is simply doing his job. But that is quite rare among Nigerian governors, many of whom are bent on lining their pockets. “There has long been a disconnect between the people and their government,” says Mr Fashola, sporting a floppy blue hat popular among his fellow Yoruba. He stresses a rise in the tax take, which now accounts for 65% of the city-state’s revenues. If Lagos were a country, its GDP of $43 billion would make it the fifth-biggest economy in sub-Saharan Africa…

Starting his second four-year term, Mr Fashola hopes to complete promised commuter-rail lines and expressways and to launch an affordable-housing project…

See also:
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Informed analysis of conflict in Iran

Peter Whitehouse, who teaches at The Bolles School in Jacksonville, FL, pointed out Juan Cole's blog, Informed Comment. The most recent positing there was an analysis of the power struggle in Iran by Dr. Farhang Jahanpour. Dr. Jahanpour is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan, Iran, and now a tutor at the University of Oxford.

Thanks for the tip. The analysis is helpful in making sense of what's going on in Tehran.

Is Iran Next? Supreme Leader Versus Ahmadinejad
Despite the political turmoil and subsequent crackdowns in Iran since summer, 2009, seeming unity among the hardliners who rule the country was largely preserved. Recently, however, the façade of unity between Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been totally shattered and deep hostility between them has come to the fore…

[T]wo weeks ago, [Ahmadinejad] dismissed the new Minister of Intelligence, Heydar Moslehi. Various Iranian sources have reported that allegedly Moslehi was secretly recording the telephone conversations of Masha’i and other government ministers. However, the problem goes deeper than that. The next Iranian parliamentary election is due to be held in March 2012, followed by the next presidential election in June 2013. Ahmadinejad has been trying to groom Masha’i as the next president so that his legacy will continue.

Many pro-government websites in Iran have compared the relationship between Ahmadinejad and Masha’i to that between the former Russian President Vladimir Putin and his protégé President Dmitry Medvedev. If Masha’i could succeed Ahmadinejad, there is a chance that Ahmadinejad could run again after Masha’i’s term. However, the qualifications of the candidates both for Majlis and presidential elections should be approved by the Guardian Council, which acts partly on the recommendation of the minister of intelligence. Therefore, the reports prepared by the minister of intelligence are crucial for the success or failure of any presumptive candidates…

This time, Khamene’i objected to Moslehi’s dismissal, but as usual Ahmadinejad ignored his advice. This forced the leader to go over the president’s head and in a letter to Moslehi he reinstated him to his post…

This is certainly the biggest challenge facing Ahmadinejad and one of the most serious challenges facing Khamene’i. It was assumed that the president enjoyed the backing of the revolutionary guards, in which he had served during the Iran-Iraq war. However, it seems that the revolutionary guards are more inclined to back the supreme leader. With the support of powerful revolutionary guards and the overwhelming majority of the top clerics, Khamene’i is in a much stronger position than his appointed president…

Ahmadinejad seems to have three options, either to resign and go quietly, or to stand up to Khamene’i and face a major and probably a bloody showdown, or finally to swallow his pride, remain in office but continue to oppose Khamene’i’s policies. In any case, the Islamic Republic of Iran is going to have an exciting time ahead of it.

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An Arab report on Iranian power struggle

After a couple weeks of making news in Europe, the power struggle in Iran finally made news in al Arabiya.

Iran conservatives turn up heat on Ahmadinejad over his row with Khamenei
A power struggle between Iran’s top leaders could shake the Islamic Republic to its foundations, with no sign that its president can regain the trust of conservative politicians and clerics, analysts say.

The ruling conservatives have increased the pressure on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to “obey” the Islamic republic’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying his latest pledges did not go far enough…

Some parliamentarians argued that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s allies wanted to control the intelligence ministry to secure a majority in the 2012 parliamentary elections, since the intelligence ministry is in charge of checking backgrounds of potential candidates…

The clash over control of the intelligence ministry triggered a conservative backlash against the president that shows little sign of abating.

Presidential prayer leader Hojatoleslam Abbas Amirifar, an ally of President Ahmadinejad, was arrested May 1 for his murky role in the distribution of a DVD announcing the imminent return of the hidden imam, whom Shiite Muslims believe to be the ultimate savior of humankind who will bring justice to the world.

A court also initiated the arrest of a “sorcerer” who was allegedly linked to Esfandiyar Rahim Mashaie, Mr. Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, according to AFP…

Analysts say the outcome of Iran’s power struggle is uncertain but that it could have been kindled in part by concerns over any spillover effect of popular uprisings against dictatorial leaders in the Arab world…

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Protest in Mexico

Protests in Mexico are not unusual, but a protest against government attempts to quell wars between drug cartels?

Tens of Thousands March in Mexico City
Javier Sicilia, the poet who has become an unlikely hero in a movement calling for an end to Mexico’s drug war, asked for five minutes of silence at the end of a Sunday rally in this city’s giant central plaza.

The silence was to honor the dead — more than 35,000 since President Felipe Calderón sent the military to fight drug cartels four and a half years ago.

Among the dead is Mr. Sicilia’s son, killed seven weeks ago in the colonial city of Cuernavaca…

Since Mr. Calderón began his crackdown, sending soldiers to patrol large parts of northern and western Mexico, the government has argued that the dead are almost all members of rival gangs killed as drug cartels fight over territory and smuggling routes to the United States.

But the violence continues to increase and the toll of innocent victims has mounted as drug gangs have become more ruthless. Authorities have failed to check the killings because of a what even the government admits is a combination of corruption, fear and inefficiency…

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Changes in traditional parties

Along with the decline of the welfare states (see The shrinking of the social welfare state), the traditional "big tent" political parties are suffering from competition with smaller parties with narrower constituencies.

The shrinking big tents
Across Europe, once-dominant political parties are seeing their support fragment (see chart). Some "natural" parties of government, such as Fianna Fail in Ireland and the Social Democrats in Sweden, are out in the cold after decades of hegemony. In Britain and Germany systems in which power alternated between centre-left and centre-right for generations have been upset by the strength of smaller parties. A new politics has emerged in which old allegiances have frayed, political identities have blurred and voters’ trust in familiar parties has crumbled. One result [or is it a cause]is that voter turnout has fallen almost everywhere.

Recent elections have laid bare the established parties’ woes, but the causes go back decades. One is the decline of institutions that linked individuals to parties—the church in countries with a tradition of Christian democracy, or trade unions that channelled funds (and votes) to left-wing parties. With pews empty and unions shrinking to a mostly public-sector rump, old parties are seeing their membership lists shrivel and their financing dry up.

Class allegiances and tribal ties have also lost their force. Britain’s Conservative and Labour parties could once rely on millions of “votes for life”. No longer. Voting has become more a matter of consumer choice than of ideological fealty. The cosy consensus that so often marked post-war politics is gone. “People are no longer spending 20 years in a party, a union or even a job,” says Bruno Cautrès at Sciences Po university in Paris. “They don’t like organisations to speak for them; they want to speak for themselves.”

In the decades after the war, when strong forces forged political consensus, economies were growing fast and demography seemed favourable, the big-tent parties could make a clear offer to voters: state health care, government-funded pensions. Today, when governments seem unable to stop factories shifting jobs to Asia or immigrants flooding in, voters find the big parties less appealing...

As the big parties flounder, a cadre of challengers is on the march. In some countries former fringe parties have joined the mainstream, often holding the balance of power. Britain’s Liberal Democrats, whose predecessor party took just 3% of the vote in the 1950s, joined a Tory-led coalition after winning 23% last year. Germany’s Greens, who are soaring in the polls, may join the federal government again after the next election. Regional parties are growing in such countries as Britain, Italy and Spain, sometimes joining or becoming key supports for national governments.

But the phenomenon that has grabbed most attention is the rise of populist parties often termed “far right”. The label can be misleading...

Yet they share a dislike of immigrants and the European Union. Their leaders, often charismatic, telegenic personalities, rail against the establishment both at home and in Brussels...

Not all new parties thrive. Yet several are changing national politics...

This suggests that the mainstream parties are running out of coping strategies. “This is not going away,” says André Krouwel at the Free University in Amsterdam. “The economic crisis, the Arab spring, immigration pressures on Europe—it is only going to get worse for the established parties.”...

The next threat may be splits. “Without a strong ideology, there’s little reason why big parties should hold together,” says Peter Mair of the European University Institute in Florence. “If you’re an ambitious politician, why not form your own grouping?”...

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Saturday, May 07, 2011

Politics in Iran

Neil MacFarquhar and Artin Afkhami offer some analysis and speculation about the power struggle in Iran for The New York Times. Their view seems to be that it's a government of people, not laws. Are they right? They also imply that Ahmadinejad was supposed to be the sidekick to super leader Khamenei, but that the assistant had higher aspirations.

One of the surprising things I've noticed is that neither al Jazeera nor al Arabya, the Muslim world's news services, has mentioned the power struggle in Iran.

Power Struggle in Iran Enters the Mosque
The unprecedented power struggle between the two most powerful leaders in Iran deepened Friday, spilling out into Tehran’s public prayers where the mullah leading the service indirectly criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while the crowd chanted “Death to opponents of the supreme leader!”

The split started about two weeks ago after the president tried to dismiss the head of the intelligence ministry, the powerful government branch that exerts widespread control over domestic life. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, ordered that the minister, Heydar Moslehi, keep the post.

Mr. Ahmadinejad then stayed home for 11 days, according to reports from Iran, engaging in a visible fit of pique that threatened to undermine the staunch alliance the two had forged since Mr. Ahmadinejad was first elected president in 2005.

The spat dragged into the open several factional fights…

“It is quite astounding in a way where on a daily basis people are coming out and saying that Khamenei has the constitutional right and the religious right to do what he wants to do,” said Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii. “Ahmadinejad has effectively lost the support of the base. If you do not have the support of Khamenei, you are nobody.”…

Analysts suggested various possible reasons that the fight may have deepened. Mr. Khamenei prides himself in getting involved in the smallest details of running Iran, and the intelligence ministry is a favorite. Also, the president’s controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, said to harbor presidential ambitions, reportedly initiated the move, they said.

Government opponents accuse the Intelligence Ministry of rigging the election that won Mr. Ahmadinejad a second term, a power Mr. Khamenei may not have wanted him to have again, analysts said. In another conjecture, the supreme leader’s son, Mujtabah Khamenei, who heads intelligence for the Revolutionary Guards, is said to have designs on the ministry…

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Friday, May 06, 2011

China bans detective fiction as well as time travel fiction

Government regulators in China have told television broadcasters not to run any detective or spy dramas. This comes not long after time travel plots were banned for being fiction.

Chinese regulators suspend TV crime and spy dramas
China has ordered TV stations across the country not to air any detective shows, spy thrillers or dramas about time-travel for the next three months…

China's Communist Party is preparing to mark 90 years since its founding and the authorities want TV stations to air programmes praising the party instead.

The government wants China's one billion television viewers to tune in to a wholesome diet of patriotic propaganda that will glorify the party ahead of the anniversary on 1 July…

So what many Chinese viewers will now see in the coming weeks are shows like the specially-made historical drama Dong Fang… the show charts the development of Marxism-Leninism in China and the achievements of the Communist Party in politics, military, culture, economics and diplomacy.

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UK local elections

The Lib Dems lose big, but not the Conservatives

Vote 2011: Lib Dems suffer election losses
Nick Clegg has said the Lib Dems are being "blamed" for coalition spending cuts as the party suffers heavy losses in English local elections.

The Lib Dems have lost almost half their councillors in results declared so far, with many seats going to Labour. The Tory vote is holding up.

The SNP has won a majority in the Scottish Parliament, making it the first party ever to do so.

And Labour failed by one seat to take a majority in the Welsh Assembly…

Gary Long, leader of the Lib Dem group on Nottingham City Council, urged Mr Clegg to "resign immediately", while Irene Davidson, of Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council, said he should "think about his position".

But Business Secretary Vince Cable ruled out a leadership contest…

The result of a UK-wide referendum on whether to end the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections and replace it with the alternative vote (AV) system will not be known until Friday evening…

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Mexican oil production decline

Mexico faces a decline in oil production, which means the government faces a decline in revenue. What does that mean for governance? politics? state capacity?

Thanks to Nan Wright, who teaches in Houston, and her daughter who pointed out this article from Rice University.

Baker Institute researchers conclude Mexico could become oil importer by 2020 without new investment
Without sufficient investments in upstream oil-field activities utilizing new and advanced technologies, Mexico faces the prospect of becoming a net oil importer in 10 years…

Mexican petroleum production has been falling -- more than 25 percent since its peak in 2004 of 3.9 million barrels per day. Mexico produced 2.98 million barrels per day in 2010… At present, Mexico is a net oil exporter, with total net exports in 2009 running at just under 1 million barrels per day.

These two trends -- lower overall production and growing internal demand -- pose serious challenges for the Mexican government…

Mexican leaders are keenly aware of the potential problems caused by falling oil exports and rising public expectations. Pemex has taken steps to slow the declining production by increasing investment in two newer fields…

The study's final determination is that the decline in Mexican oil revenues is likely to be gradual rather than rapid and reduce the chances that a sudden, deep crisis will create the political will to make hard choices or unpopular reforms. For instance, if Pemex is able to maintain production levels through new finds and better efficiency, it could postpone the export crisis for three decades. But even with this expanded time frame, it is not assured that Mexico will undertake an orderly adjustment…

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Thursday, May 05, 2011

Why democracy in Nigeria?

In this analysis, Paul Beckett asks why people seem so determined to have a democracy, in spite of the dangers of democracy in a country like Nigeria. This is a good review of some of the basics about Nigerian political culture.

Beckett was a political scientist who taught at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, from 1969 to 1976.

Slouching Towards Democracy
Nigeria is among the world's most dangerous countries. Nigeria has the seventh largest population in the world (nearly 160 million), and that population is a potentially explosive mixture of peoples, regions, and religions - a mixture of almost infinite complexity…

As Nigeria celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence from Britain last year, the country had had elected governments for only about 20 years…

Nigeria has spent enormous sums of money trying to create fair and transparent electoral systems. Yet rare is the election that has not been condemned as false by the loser (often, by everyone except the winner!)…

As we recommend democracy for all countries, we should be conscious that democracy can be dangerous in a country like Nigeria: very dangerous. Democracy has been a significant factor in Nigeria's horrific communal clashes (stretching from the pogroms against the Igbos in the middle 1960s to the bloody clashes in the Jos area that are on-going now). Scores and sometimes hundreds have been killed in violence in each national election…

If the presidential election of Goodluck Jonathon [sic] of the People's Democratic Party was generally peaceful and fair, as observers tell us, the results may still prove dangerous for the future…

Viewed in national political terms, the far north finds itself (temporarily, at least) in unprecedented isolation. Over most of the previous half century, the Muslim (in ethnic terms,mainly Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri) far north… has generally provided the core political leadership for the rest of the huge area of the original Northern Region. During the first political decade, their dominance was absolute.

And throughout the independence period the influence of the far north has been disproportionate at the national level, too…

Thus, the landslide election of Jonathon maymark a watershed event in the evolution of Nigerian politics. The historic pattern of at least mild hegemony exerted from the far north may have largely run its course. Which in turn returns us to the question:Why does Nigeria work so hard and so persistently to create a functioning, stable, permanent democracy?The costs and dangers, after all, are great…

With the country's complex ethnic makeup,and the now bitter relations between many Christian and Muslim communities, Nigerians know that they live over a political sea of magma that could, at almost any time, erupt.

Yet Nigeria persists in the effort, and, I believe, will continue to persist. At the time that Nigerians were emerging from more than a decade of military rule in the latter 1970s, intellectuals advanced many ideas for a constitutional system that would work for Nigeria, not as one might want Nigeria to be, but as it is. A number advocated indirect, or "guided democracy," or a benign single-party system. Ultimately, such compromises were rejected in favor of straight, unadulterated winner-take-all electoral democracy with competitive parties.

The preponderance of opinion was that Nigeria was too complex a country to function as a single party system, and their experience with military rule had convinced them that benign dictatorship never remains benign. One could say that Nigeria needs to be a democracy not in spite of its staggering complexity, but because of it.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Direct voting

The headline and the seven illustrations make clear that this was not a normal election in China.

Direct voting held to vote for village committee in E. China

Newly-elected village heads Wang Qiang (C), Wang Yanqiang (L) and Tan Qing pose with their certificates for a photo in Nanlingqianzhuang Village, Wuning Town, east China's Shandong Province, April 23, 2011. Nanlingqianzhuang held a direct voting Saturday, where a total of 276 villagers voted for the new village committee.

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Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Some reelections in Mexico

This change might be a harbinger of bigger things to come.

Mexican Senate approves re-election for lawmakers
Mexico's Senate approved constitutional changes Wednesday that would let lawmakers run for re-election and permit independents to seek office, part of a bid to make the political system more accountable to voters.

The changes, passed by the Senate in a 95-8 vote with eight abstentions, must still be approved by the lower house of Congress, at least 16 of Mexico's 31 state legislatures and the president.

Under Mexico's current system, candidates for all local, state and federal offices must be endorsed by a political party and no publicly elected official at any level can seek re-election. The constitutional proposal would allow independent candidates for any office, but the re-election change would apply only to federal legislators…

Several Latin American countries have changed their constitutions in recent years to allow presidential re-election but that idea remains unpopular in Mexico. A one-term presidency was a key principle of the Mexican Revolution a century ago, seen as a way to end the era of strongmen...

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Monday, May 02, 2011

Non-public oppression

Freedom House says Mexico does not have a free press. But the government is only indirectly responsible because the government lacks the capacity to guarantee the freedom.

Mexican press tagged 'not free' amid drug war violence, self-censorship
In March, major media outlets signed a pact that, among other things, promises to de-glorify drug trafficking by refusing to print or air grisly photos and menacing messages.

In a culture where children role-play as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Mexico's most-wanted fugitive, and where telenovelas, folk songs called narcocorridos, video games, and even a new opera are based on drug exploits, some call the move a noble one. But it also raises questions about censorship as press freedom has declined sharply in Mexico.

Freedom House, in its annual report released today, says that Mexico is facing one of the world’s most radical declines in press freedom, as journalists are killed and intimidated and newspapers are forced to publish press releases from criminal groups as if they were pure news. Navigating the drug conflict in Mexico has dogged every institution, from the presidency to the local police, and it is proving no less complicated for journalists and media outlets across the nation…

Press Freedom Index: The top 10 worst countries
Iran and China are on the "bottom 10" list.

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The shrinking of the social welfare state

Since one of the practice questions I posed for students preparing for the Advanced Placement exam (at Studying Comparative) asked about differences between neo-liberal governments' approaches to public policies and social democratic governments' policies, this article from The Washington Post seems an appropriate review.

Europeans shift long-held view that social benefits are untouchable
From blanket health insurance to long vacations and early retirement, the cozy social benefits that have been a way of life in Western Europe since World War II increasingly appear to be luxuries the continent can no longer afford.

Particularly since the global economic crisis erupted in 2008, benefits have begun to stagnate or shrink in the face of exploding government deficits. In effect, the continent has reversed a half-century history of continual improvements that made Western Europe the envy of many and attracted millions of immigrants from less fortunate societies…

Western Europe’s generous welfare programs had generally been embraced by the right as well as the left. Against that background, the new wave of cutbacks seems to signal a dramatic shift in attitude toward benefits that many Europeans had come to see as a birthright and that politicians of any stripe could challenge only at the risk of their careers…

In a measure of the shift, Manuel Valls, a presidential hopeful in France’s Socialist Party, challenged party doctrine recently by declaring that it should not make an issue of preserving the 35-hour workweek if French factories have to compete with Chinese factories where the workweek starts at 60 hours and goes up from there. In Denmark, Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen rattled many in that icon of Scandinavian cradle-to-grave welfare by suggesting Danes should work longer before retiring, to peel back the deficit by $2.8 billion…

France, emblematic of Europe’s social advances, has considered a generous protection system part of the landscape ever since Charles de Gaulle embraced a program put forward by Communist resistance groups immediately after World War II. With subsequent additions under the Socialist Party’s two turns in power since then, including the 35-hour workweek and more vacation time, the welfare state has since been taken to a level that made this country the envy of many.

When the global crisis hit, the French social protection net — which helps push government expenditures to 54 percent of gross domestic product — cushioned people from the worst effects. But now, as Europe struggles to return to growth, conservatives in and outside the government have said the protections are threatening the health of public finances and holding back the economy...

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