Switzerland: The Alpine Redoubt

Welcome dear reader or Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Ben Arrivata and Bainvegni for Switzerland, my country of choice for today has four official languages! That last word of welcome, Bainvegni, is actually Romansh, a language unique to Switzerland.

Anyhow, I’m not going to give you a language lesson have no fear!

Switzerland is actually a country I’ve been meaning to look at for a while and despite it being a non-EU member it has not been immune to the crises of the Eurozone and the refugee influx of the summer.

Let’s start with the economy first, as it is not in the EU (and not the Euro) the Swiss Franc currency has actually been surging forward this year hitting the dominant Swiss export market. The biggest trading partner of Switzerland is the EU, this makes sense given that it is completely surrounded by EU member states! Most exports to the EU consist of chemicals, medicines, machinery and watches according to the European Commission and it is noteworthy that it had one of the first Free Trade Agreements with the EU, signed back in 1972.

There are certainly small indicators of strain, such as the report in the French language Tribune de Geneve, concerning recent violence during protests over culture budget cuts in downtown Geneva. It resulted in luxury shops having their windows smashed and graffiti being sprayed across the elegant facade of the Grand Theatre. Inequality may well lurk beneath the surface in exclusive Switzerland and addressing this should also be a priority for the Swiss authorities. According to a survey conducted by the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (SGB) in May this year, the richest fifth of the country owns 86% of the assets, the gap being much greater than most think.

The Bern-based State Secretariat for Economic Affairs forecast that GDP growth would be 0.8% this year and 1.5%  in 2016. I have to say that on a recent trip to Zurich back in the summer I didn’t actually notice any ill effect on the economy but then what exactly was I meant to look out for on holiday!? There were certainly no beggars that I could see but that is a very superficial way of looking for inequality or lack of wealth.

The second point is the refugee crisis, and despite a large number of its population being foreign born (I think it is about a third!) Switzerland has grappled with the thorny issue of immigration for a long time.  In fact, in one of their unique direct democracy initiatives the Swiss narrowly voted to set quotas on immigration to their land, thereby throwing their treaty obligations with the EU over freedom of movement into disarray.

The incoming Swiss President, Johann Schneider-Ammann, has made it a priority to try and resolve this matter in the New Year and has said he is optimistic of an agreement over a form of ‘safety valve’ to control immigration flows, according to the Swiss German-language daily newspaper, Neue Zuercher Zeitung.

Mr Schneider-Ammann is not without domestic pressure, as the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) led by multibillionaire, Christoph Blocher, has led a fiercely anti-immigration campaign and on the back of that won the biggest share of the votes in the October parliamentary election and an extra seat on the governing, seven-member Federal Council (the Federal Council acting as a sort of collective Presidency with a Chairman who changes ever year).

Swiss politicians are also at risk of becoming out of touch with their electorate, a common complaint across Europe. This is odd for somebody from outside Switzerland to understand as Switzerland is often held up as a shining example of direct democracy (with regular referendums on issues ranging from garbage disposal to immigration), prized neutrality on international affairs and humanitarian principles (the UN has its second HQ in Geneva and hosts peace talks).

Edward Girardet, a former editor of English language Swiss newspaper, Le News, highlighted the Swiss aversion to controversy, such as immigration, therefore mainstream parties will not touch the subject, leaving to the SVP to make the running, and he criticises the own goal scored by the Swiss government’s recent decision to close a state sponsored popular English language news radio station, stating that it will deprive many newcomers to Switzerland of reliable news and society information.

As I mentioned earlier, I have been to Switzerland on several occasions and been from west to east and seen the modern, prosperous and cosmopolitan country it has become. However, what I did not see was the life outside the dynamic cities and the largely rural and rather isolated communities who like many of their counterparts in Europe and USA feel, erroneously in my humble opinion, that globalisation and contact with the outside world brings trouble to their way of life.  It needn’t but this has to be communicated to them by politicians challenging their viewpoints and standing up for the values that have made Switzerland such a beacon for many.

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Prague in the spring!

vitejte v Praze! Czech for welcome to Prague! It’s a pleasure to welcome you back dear reader and seasonal felicitations to you all for this festive season!

Let’s go to Prague, ancient capital of the Czech Republic. Prague still captures the heart of many and is often described as the ‘Pearl of Europe’ for its many architectural and cultural treasures.

Its not the UNESCO sites I want to focus on but the politics of this nation which has of late become rather heated and bitter. Not a nice recipe for anything come to think of it!

The source of the problem is the ongoing feud between the Social Democrat Prime Minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, and the right wing President Milos Zeman. Nominally a figurehead, President Zeman, has been in office for almost three years. He won his election to the post by appealing beyond the people of Prague to the poor rural masses who feel left behind the benefits of EU membership and globalisation. After winning he was seen to stumble into a television studio live on Czech TV leading to speculation in the press about alleged excessive alcohol consumption.

He has since tried to insert the Czech Republic into the ‘awkward squad’of ex-Soviet country state leaders , such as Viktor Orban in Hungary and Robert Fico in Slovakia, who are openly anti-EU, xenophobic and homophobic.

The real decisionmaker however is Prime Minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, who became the first left wing PM in almost a decade when he took over in 2014, he has since tried to steer the country in a moderate and responsible direction. He should be a happy man because according to Deloitte (the global accouting company), the economy is the third fastest growing in the EU (after Ireland and Malta) at 4.3%. In fact, it is a manufacturing hub, with automotive production centres for Hynudai, Toyota and Daewoo in the country. This is partly because of its integration with other EU markets and flexible labour laws. Much to Mr Sobotka’s chagrin though, most Czechs are feeling pretty scared and poor as a recent survey in the English language Prague Post highlighted.  36% of those polled by the newspaper said they thought the economy would worsen and a similar number (28%) feared their own living standards would drop.

This worry for the future, has also translated into attitudes towards the EU’s big crisis of 2015, and that was the summer arrival on European shores of refugees, largely from war torn Syria. I have written extensively about the crisis and its effect on the tenor of the European debate and for neo-fascists and xenophobes it provided manna from heaven. Fear of dark skinned (although some of them looked pretty fair skinned to me!) Muslims (even though a lot of refugees were also Christians or members of other religious minorities!) allowed people like Mr Zeman, to prey on populist sentiment (which was already doing the rounds on social media and tabloid newspapers in Prague) and whip up even more fear and hatred. He even appeared alongside The Anti-Islam bloc leader, Martin Konvicka, at a rally where they promised not to allow Muslims onto Czech territory and claimed Daesh (ISIS) was poised to spead terror and set off bombs throughout the Czech Republic.

At European summits to discuss the crisis, the Prime Minister, facing a nationalistic backlash at home, initially resisted aiding his European partners in sharing some of the refugees amongst EU states but eventually agreed to accept a few hundred. This led to rallies in Prague and other cities in the Czech Republic, such as Pilsen and Brno, (where there had never been a xenophobic demonstration before!) demonstrators held aloft nooses and guillotines, as they chanted fascist slogans and made death threats. The police made some arrests but ironically they arrested six anti-fascist counter protesters! Mr Sobotka to his credit publicly upbraided the police and vowed not to be intimidated in his plans to accomodate the refugees.

Unfortunately, the attacks in Paris only made his job even more difficult and a government opinion poll, published by Jan Culik (a visiting academic at the University of Glasgow specialising in Czech politics) stated that 83% of Czechs are worried by the arrival of the refugees and generally view them as in some way affiliated to Daesh (ISIS).

Meanwhile, President Zeman continues with his rants and recently stated in a radio interview, as reported by Ceske Noviny (a Czech newspaper), that he wishes he could dismiss the Mr Sobotka from office.

My hope for the future of this land is that this doesn’t happen and that better news comes out from Prague in the spring!

#ZumaMustFall South Africa says!

Hello and welcome dear readers! Now I’m not going to try and do my usual trick of greeting you in the respective language of the country I aim to analyse, simply because my country of choice today has eleven official languages!

The country I am talking about today is South Africa. Things have not been well in South Africa for a while and the above hashtag, indicates growing unease with the country’s President, Jacob Zuma. As a non-millennial child I have been a bit slow on the uptake of hashtags on Twitter and Facebook but I have recently noticed that South Africans, interestingly of all races and backgrounds, have become very  disillusioned by the direction of their country.

Since the end of the apartheid system in 1994, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has governed the country and like any other political party the long period of continuous rule has turned the former liberation movement into a den of corruption and it has lost touch with the masses who it claimed to represent. This rot set in before Jacob Zuma but has accelerated and reached new heights under him. A catalogue of errors and scandals have befallen him, shredding his reputation and damaging the standing of South Africa in the process. This is not just my humble opinion but the words I have heard from many South African of all races, who I have spoken to.

According to reports by the respected South African online news journal, News 24, today a mass rally across cities and towns in South Africa is aiming to raise awareness of the growing feeling of discontent and anger. Hence the hashtag! One or two placards at the rally even said “Just bloody go!”

Mr Zuma’s most recent mistake was to fire the respected Finance Minister (FM), Nhlanhla Nene, sending the stock market and currency, which was down almost 10% against the dollar at one point, into freefall. This was allegedly over policy disagreements but he compounded the problem by appointing a pliable, novice MP, David van Rooyen. This caused an outcry among allies and investors alike and after a series of crises talks, Mr Zuma replaced Mr van Rooyen with an old hand = ex-Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan. The damage of having three FMs in a week battered the already struggling South African economy. An article in the respected South African newspaper, Moneyweb, said that South Africans are moving money out of the country at record rates and the GDP growth rate for this year will come in at a paltry 1%. South Africa is also perilously close to being given ‘junk status’ by several well regarded credit agencies, Fitch and also Moody’s. Unemployment crucially is hovering around 25% of the population and the young are migrating in larger numbers than ever before.

While no economy in any corner of the world is firing on all cylinders, other leaders are working assiduously to stabilise their economies, Mr Zuma can regularly be seen in Parliament laughing at other party leaders rather than addressing the substance of their claims. Already plagued by a notorious corruption scandal before he became President, following the conviction of his financial aide over fraud charges, his own Public Prosecutor recently (and justifiably!) questioned his use of state funds to upgrade his palatial residence, Nkandla. There are a litany  of noteworthy stories of scandals which I won’t go into now but his inept public utterances about the lack of rights for minorities and same sex relationships do him further, more explicit damage in my view.

Before his latest maladroit decision on the Finance Minister, Mr Zuma had already generated another hashtag, entitled #FeesMustFall. This came about after President Zuma unilaterally allowed an increase of fees charged by many highly regarded universities by ten per cent or more at some institutions. This touched a raw nerve with the bedrock of ANC support, the black students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are the most vulnerable to the increases. An unprecedented level of student protest erupted on campuses across university towns, from Cape Town to Durban, as the Mail & Guardian (a South African daily newspaper reported). Mr Zuma refused to talk to the protesters but backed down and managed to cancel the increases for next year.

This seething discontent has extended from the populace at large to the governing elite. Parliament has rarely looked so fractious as the erudite opposition leader, Mmusi Maimane, has regularly taken Mr Zuma to task over his gaffes and scandals!

At the #ZumaMustFall protests today erstwhile coalition allies, from the trade union movement COSATU and Communist Party spoke out against President Zuma, even ANC stalwarts such as the daugher of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the grandson of Walter Sisulu have called on the President to resign. This is in spite of Mr Zuma’s re-election last year. He still has till 2019 left to govern (poor South Africans!) but many are already talking of him as a lame duck and betting on how much longer he can cling to office. Even his Deputy President and wealthy rival, Cyril Ramaphosa, has watched events unfold relatively quietly but how much longer he has to wait till he obtains the highest office in the land or whether his once titanic party can even remain in power after 2019 is a lot less certain now, and that may be a good thing for South African democracy and at least something to thank Mr Zuma for!

Reds going under the bed?

Hello dear readers, welcome back, and today I’m going to be a bit broad in my analysis and look at recent changes in Latin America!

So, in the 2000s a series of Latin American states elected left wing governments (some being more radical than others I must add!) and 2015 has been rumoured by some commentators when the left wing era ends. They are emphatically wrong my dear friends!

I’ll tell you why!

Argentina

In Argentina yesterday a new centre right President, Mauricio Macri, was elected. He promises to build strong international relations with countries, such as the USA, where (much like the Middle East) the Americans are largely viewed with suspicion for their sponsoring of coups in the region.

This may be the easy part of Mr Macri’s task however, because tough economic decisions loom and his still popular predecessor, Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, built up a formidable reputation in her defence of the poor, she increased the minimum wage and established a $3 billion fund to help underprivileged women during their pregnancies. This and her indefatigable championing of the Plaza de Mayo grandmothers’ cause (those whose loved ones were mercilessly executed by the military juntas) made her a hero on the scale of Eva Peron.

The Kirchner foreign policy was also a breath of fresh air, as the President opened her country up to new markets in Asia, such as China, and the Middle East. She was even ahead of time by sealing a deal with oil rich Iran in 2013, which normalised relations 2 years before the US and EU nations did so, and she travelled the world promoting Argentina to the globe, going beyond the old regional and US relationships.

With key allies still in charge in Congress, the judiciary, diplomatic service and civil service, not forgetting her liking of social media, she may bounce back in 2019! As the Buenos Aires Herald reports, Mrs Kirchner (after a packed rally outside the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in downtown Buenos Aires) flew back to her home province of Patagonia and was cheered on by supporters and well wishes, some of whom shouted ‘we will be back’ and ‘Cristina2019’ it is truly a long goodbye so I have my doubts as to whether it really is ‘Adios’ to the Kirchner era and the populist brand of ‘Kirchnerism.’

Lest we forget there is also a charismatic son, Maximo, now a Congressman, who is likely to take up the reins when the time comes!

Venezuela

Now to Venezuela, where last weekend saw the defeat for the first time of the ruling United Socialist Party of President Nicolas Maduro.

A conservative alliance swept to a two thirds majority in Congressional elections which paved the way for a possible recall referendum of President Maduro’s mandate and the powers to shake up the judiciary and key government appointments.

Venezuela was where it all began for the left wingers in Latin America in 1999, when Hugo Chavez, a charismatic former paratrooper swept into office with a promise to quash decades long inequality in wealth and a less US orientated foreign policy. He succeeded but after passing away in 2013 from cancer his hand picked successor, Mr Maduro, has struggled but it didn’t help that he took the helm just when a crash in oil prices, oil being a key export of the Venezuelan economy, hit hard and led to a full blown recession with reported shortages of everyday items such as cooking oil and tissues. The government voiced it’s frustrations at a meeting of the oil producing cartel, OPEC, earlier this month but in vain.

While the elections last weekend are the first real defeat for ‘Chaveismo’ the governing Socialists still won 43% of the vote and retain control of the Presidency and key organs of state, like the armed forces. As Venezuela Analysis, an online newspaper reports, the President has called for “debate, consultation and action” and Mr Maduro deserves credit for the fair handling of polling day where minimal violence was reported, in spite of Western criticism before voting day.

The rest of Latin America may start to see the ebbs and flows along similar lines but it is a comely situation and given the voice many of these movements have given to the working classes and suppressed minorities, the fellow leftist leaders in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador may still weather the storm as yet!

 

 

Spain’s quiet revolution!

Hola, Que tal? (Spanish) In English, hello, how are you? Welcome back dear readers, it’s a pleasure to be in your company again!

I’m taking you to sunny Spain for this article. The countdown has begun on an election that is likely to be unique in Spain but pretty commonplace in the rest of Europe. Basically, Spain is going to enter the era of multiparty politics after decades of alternating between the centre left Socialist Party (PSOE) and the centre right, Popular Party (PP). It follows a trend across Europe  which has seen new parties springing up in Germany, Italy, Greece and others are countries which have faced societal or economic challenges, and citizens increasingly look to new kids on the block to shake things up a bit!

In Spain, the conservative ruling PP, led by the dour Mariano Rajoy, maintains a slight edge according to the polls in El Pais, the respected Spanish newspaper, but he has made an error by not even turning up for the first TV election debate! His office stated he had to attend the Paris climate change conference but given the short distance to Paris from Madrid it increasingly looks like he flaked out. Given that two of his opponents at least are fresh faced and telegenic the charmless Mr Rajoy might have felt slightly upstaged. I know that is a little harsh on Mr Rajoy but he always reminds me of the taxman for some reason! However, there is still another debate to be held, so the Spanish have no fear of missing anything!

Now, the real news of this election will be the performance of Ciudandos (Citizens) Party. Led by one of the telegenic gentlemen I referred to earlier, Senor Albert Rivera, leads a liberal party blending free market economics with social equality and a pro-immigration platform. Launched in 2006  by Mr Rivera, who incidentally posed naked on his first campaign posters, he is ‘outpolling’ the Socialists according to El Pais, so he no longer needs to strip off as the voters of Spain seem to have been won over by his new brand of politics!

In case you may be wondering dear reader, it is not just El Pais but other equally good quality Spanish newspapers, such as El Mundo that have confirmed the support levels of Ciudandos. I do love my polls I must confess, so just to give substance to my claims Telecinco (a Spanish TV channel) has the PP on 27.5%, Ciudandos on 21.4% and PSOE on 20.3%. The real surprise has been of Podemos, who are radical leftists led by Pablo Iglesias, who made himself distinctive by sporting a pony-tail. Not my cup of tea if I’m honest but I suppose it appeals to the bohemian side of one’s character! Anyhow, after seeing his star rise he has of late been trailing in fourth place, in the Telecinco poll he is on 15.7% support. This is borne out in the other polls and whilst talking sense on some issues, such as cracking down on the supply of arms to Middle Eastern dictators (to reduce the support of Daesh/ISIS following the Paris attacks), after seeing the erratic behavior of Syriza in government, the Greek sister party of Podemos, many Spaniards are opting for a less destabilising force for change.

It is true that Spain is in a better place than five years ago, its economy (the fourth largest in the European Union) has shown recent signs of promising growth after the economic crisis of 2008, with GDP economic growth forecast to be 3.3% for this year, up from 1.4% in 2014. This is mainly through increased consumer spending and investment according to a recent INE (Spain’s official statistics agency) report. Jobs are being created but with a youth unemployment rate of almost 50%, higher than Greece, more still needs to be done.

After being beset by a party funding scandal, Prime Minister Rajoy was almost forced to resign last year but he has weathered storm. Analysts, after taking stock of the above polls, have speculated that Ciudandos and the PP could form a coalition but with a staunch anti-corruption platform it may pressure the PP to oust Rajoy and break with the old characters in order to secure its backing in any formal coalition deal.

There are still three weeks to go until polling down, pity the poor Spaniards with politicos on their doorstep at this time of year, and anything could happen but my prediction is a PP-Ciudandos coalition (which would actually be a pretty good option IMHO) but maybe minus Premier Rajoy! Either way, the elegant corridors of the Cortes Generales (Spanish Parliament) in Madrid are likely to see some sharp suited newcomers before the year is out!