South Africa: The giggling President is giggling no more…

Hello and welcome dear reader! It’s a pleasure to be in your company again.

Right, let’s head to South Africa, where the country’s embattled President today received a stinging rebuke from the Supreme Court. In a profound and unanimous ruling, the Court found that the already scandal plagued administration of President Jacob Zuma, had shown a “substantial disregard” for the findings of South Africa’s top anti corruption official, the formidable sounding Public Protector , in 2014 which had ordered him to pay back an excess charge to the state for home improvements to his extensive Nklanda estate. By home improvements I’m not talking about a lick of paint or some new potted plants, but a swimming pool, chicken run, gymnasium and other trimmings! His behaviour in flagrantly disregarding this report broke the law and infringed on the constitution the Supreme Court has said.

These are significant findings and add fuel to the fire for those who want to rid this promising rainbow nation of it’s increasingly beleaguered and lame duck President. If you want to see how these things can escalate you only have to look across the Atlantic to Brazil where a once powerful President is also slipping towards the exit door.

Fresh from the mishandling of a cabinet reshuffle (which I had previously written about in my articles) Mr Zuma is not likely to disappear soon, as he still has a large majority in Parliament of his hiterto loyal MPs from the ruling African National Congress (ANC). This a massive blow to the leader though and that old politicians’ nose for survival might force some ANC MPs to wake up and smell the coffee as the saying goes.

The South African daily newspaper, the Mail & Guardian, reported that President Zuma will not appeal the verdict and will “reflect upon” the Court’s declaration. Mr Zuma is clearly a man who believes that he can stick out this latest crisis. It follows hot on the heels of a scandal which broke earlier this month where several junior Ministers claimed they had been offered government jobs in exchange for favours by an influential family called the Guptas who employ Mr Zuma’s son. A drip drip effect is taking its heavy toll on the credibility of not just the government but also South Africa as a whole.

Following the botched handling of a reshuffle of Finance Ministers back in December, the economy and national currency (the rand) continue to plummet. eNCA, the respected South African news service, reported that the number of businesses going bust (or insolvent) is up 22.2% in February alone. The UK’s Financial Times noted that earlier this month the South African currency, the rand, took a 3% tumble as poor economic data was released and a spat over the powers of an anti corruption unit broke out. This has left it teetering on the brink of the notorious ‘junk status’ used by credit ratings agencies (such as Standard & Poor’s) to highlight investment potential. The IMF has already forecast a 0.7% GDP growth rate for the year, far below other emerging economies such as Indonesia, Bulgaria and Brazil.

This less than rosy picture of the economy is exacerbated by a government which is drifting and unable to push through reforms in the still restricted labour market or able to cut the onerous red tape which envelopes so many small businesses. Hence the increasing monthly bankruptcies, alas.

Another area for urgent government attention is the spiralling rate of crime. The increasing number of daily crimes eerily mirrors the start of the latest round of corruption allegations against Jacob Zuma. According to figures released by Statistics South Africa, the data collection government agency, the daily murder rate is nearly 50 every single day, almost five times the rate in New York. For young black males in the deprived township areas in urban centres, such as Soweto, it is even higher. This creeping increase started its upward trajectory in 2013, after falling steadily during the Mbeki and Mandela eras.

Unfortunately, whilst the blame for this collapsing economy and fragile society can be substantially attributed to the person of the President, it would not resolve the deep malaise which has set in for the country. Cyril Ramaphosa, the ambitious Deputy President, is angling for Mr Zuma’s job but recently commented on SABC (the South Afrcian Broadcasting Corporation) that ‘white people still dominate our industries.’ Whilst this is a cause for concern the solution doesn’t lie, as some in the ANC still believe, in seizing more property from the White South Africans but by creating more opportunities for young black people. It also fails to acknowledge the evident rise of a vibrant black middle class. A joint United Nations (UN) and African Development Bank study found 4.2 million black South Africans enjoyed a middle class lifestyle (as defined by the UN) which is just over 50% of the black population. More work still needs to be done of course, but there is progress and now the challenge is to roll out a proper, multi racial and inclusive apprenticeship and graduate schemes for the young in the still promising private sector.

To get there means making sure the education sector is not a closed shop for the poor, no matter what their race. The increasing tuition fees, some by over 10%,  imposed by the government priced out many, not just lower income but middle income students, and led to violent clashes with police and demonstrations on campuses. On social media, the hashtags #feesmustfall and #zumamustfall, spread like wildfire and it forced the President into a humiliating defeat on the matter. An inquiry has been set up and in the meantime the government has extended the provision of subsidies to universities for the next two years, meaning a fee increase is no longer necessary.

The common thread running through all these three issues – economy, crime and university education, is inequality. South Africa is still a very unequal society, but it is no longer as race based as it used to be. The inept administration currently at the helm   has singularly failed to grasp the nettle on this and instead has become cosseted by the privileges of high office. It goes beyond the leader, who has been prone to arrogantly and dismissively giggle at each accusation he has been challenged with, to the heart of the once revolutionary and radical ANC, which offered hope to many but like many modern democratic societies South Africa finds it is now long overdue for a change.

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Belgium attacked: #Brusselsattacks

A very sad week my dear friends and readers. Brussels, a city I used to call home and, still think of like a second home, came under attack. I held back from writing in the immediate aftermath of this terrible tragedy until raw emotion and blind rage had subsided somewhat. This is now going to be slightly different from my usual reports and it will be a much more personal piece with none of the usual facts and figures.

So, only four months ago it was Paris, last week it was Istanbul, the week before Bamako and Abidjan, and on Tuesday it was the airport and Metro system in Brussels. A few people I know narrowly avoided being caught up in the terrorists’ path in Belgium this week so for that I am truly thankful.

We must focus on where we go from here.

As strange as it may sound Europe has lived with the menace of terrorism for decades prior to the Brussels and Paris bombings. The UK had the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Germany had the Baader Meinhof Gang, Italy the Red Brigades, Spain had the Basque terrorists of ETA, and so on. It was a rare interlude in the early part of this century where we saw fewer violent extremist incidents on the European mainland. It has changed in that through the prism of 24/7 media and social media we now have a far more intense experience of these terrible occurrences whilst sitting in our living rooms hundreds of miles away. The sad images of bloodied bodies and walking wounded amongst the ruined trappings of daily lives (in offices, shopping malls, metro systems, airports, hotels etc.) go from Indonesia to USA.

In Europe, we have shared experiences and much like we have (eventually!) realised we can tackle climate change, economic problems in the Eurozone and refugee influxes together we must now extend the same philosophy into the security sphere.

In prior articles I have discussed how we can prevent such attacks and reduce their frequency through enhanced co-operation across national boundaries. For that organisations like Europol and the European Arrest Warrant (the EAW was used to extradite a London 7/7 attacker from Rome in 2005) are key mechanisms.

However, getting security agencies (who are reluctant to share even between their respective departments) to co-operate across borders is an unenviable task. Unfortunately, to even put it on the agenda has needed these two brazen and cowardly terrorist incidents. We did see it on the agenda during a European summit of Interior Ministers on Thursday in Brussels where ministers singularly failed to improve co-ordination in the areas of air passenger data sharing and intelligence exchange. Still, we can but hope that the gravity of the situation is not lost on the officials and that at least behind the scenes the security services are starting to see each other as allies rather than foes. Within these shadowy institutions it is also necessary to focus their resources on external enemies rather than seeking to spy on internal political opponents, not view them as continued threats to democratic governments or grab more, needless control over the data held on the public at large, which has led many agencies to compromise themselves and their work. Structurally, many of them need to improve their expertise (moving out from the Cold War mentality) and ensure they have a strong centralised core for intelligence processing. Examples of those that could be improved include Italy’s AISI, the UK’s MI5 and now Belgium’s SSS most prominently.

The respected European politician and ex-PM of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt, has hit the nail on the head by promoting the idea of a European-style ‘FBI’ with the proper resources of manpower and finance. In spite of media claims that one organisation has superiority over the other, each EU state has a skill it brings to the table. If we are to maintain the European Schengen system of free borders the job remains half complete if we do not have the proper co-ordination and levels of professionalism amongst Member States which this necessitates. For some states they need to improve their engagement with Muslim communities, by that I mean treat the residents of ethnic minority neighbourhoods as allies rather than ‘Trojan Horses’, (this is what the UK is still learning in the wake of the 7/7 London attacks)and for others it is reforming their internal and external security apparatus (as Belgium now should) and hold much more regular meetings to secure intra-European exchange of information and data sharing.

In order to most effectively crackdown on terrorist groups it is important to look beyond Europe’s borders to the Muslim world which has suffered the most in terms of sheer numbers from Daesh, Al Qaeda, Taliban and Boko Haram brutality. The UN estimates (OK here is one statistic, I cannot resist!) that in the first four months of 2014 nearly 10,000 Sunni Muslims were killed by their supposed ‘saviours’ in Daesh and over 17,000 injured over minor issues such as refusing to swear allegiance to the group. They have also destroyed countless mosques, libraries and executed Sunni Muslim clerics for what they perceive as insults and the teaching of principles which doesn’t adhere to their own thuggish agenda.

Like the Cold War, Europe and USA will have to accept making allies with nations which don’t share some or maybe even all of their human rights obligations. This is not to say we should not speak out about it (obviously it led to too many scandals over CIA rendition and debates over torture) but we should certainly train with their armies and improve people to people contacts. If we take Pakistan for example, this country has according to the South Asian Terrorism Portal, reduced terrorist attacks by 70% from a peak of 2,246 in 2013 to 680 in 2015 (OK, I acknowledge I am now failing to keep my word about an article free from figures!). The country which was once synonymous with terrorism and Al Qaeda is seeing increased tourism, more people eating out in upmarket hotels and restaurants and a boost in business confidence. There are even rumors the Pope plans to visit. It improved its chances by highlighting how un-Islamic the behaviour of the terrorists were and a concerted attempt to flush out terrorists in cities and towns using the powerful army and intelligence services to full effect. This has not been without significant bloodshed and stumping up of cash but it is starting to work.

In conclusion I do not claim that any of my suggestions above are a silver bullet or will be an easy answer to a very complex question. My overarching message is that the proper message of Islam, mainstream Muslims in Europe and the Muslim world are the biggest assets in draining the power and potency of what is essentially a group for runaway drug dealers and unintelligent petty criminals turned torturers. Daesh and Al Qaeda are on the backfoot in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It is underreported how much the Muslim world is doing to combat this menace in their midst, or highlighted how embarrassed and affronted by the behaviour of a few hundred (if that) Muslim are, amongst a total of nearly 2 billion Muslims worldwide.

 

Japan: The sleeping giant awakes?

Youkoso, welcome dear readers as I take you on a long haul journey to the land of the rising sun – Japan!

Under the leadership of semi-nationalist Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who is attempting to erase memories of his brief and forgettable first stint at governing in 2006-2007, Mr Abe has embarked on a thorough shake up of Japan’s economic and foreign policies. This is potentially the most significant change since 1945.

For many decades Japan has built itself up economically since those war years but has kept its head well and truly down in terms of foreign policy. Its foreign policy was described by scholars, such as Noam Chomsky, as ‘chequebook diplomacy.’ A prime example was the relationship with post-Communist, war ravaged Cambodia where the Japanese Embassy in Cambodia outlines how it has provided $1.2 billion in aid to Cambodia for civilian infrastructure projects, such as schools and hospitals, since the 1990s.

This state of affairs continued relatively unfettered until the 9/11 attacks in New York when Japan found itself with new parameters of responsibility in the Pacific region as USA engaged in combat elsewhere. Never entirely reconciled to its WWII history, unlike the Germans who have thoroughly repented, the Japanese still have shrines where WWII era officials are honoured. This has caused resentment with neighbours such as democratic South Korea, Communist China, capitalist Philippines and other countries who were occupied or attacked by Japanese forces during the War.

The return to office of PM Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party in 2012, crucially during a time of economic stagnation and concerted moves by nationalist Japanese to revise the pacifist constitution, has led him to try remedies which have alarmed neighbours and reawakened fears that an unrepentant Japan has woken from its slumber to lead and dominate the Asia Pacific again.

Economy

Let us turn to the economy first. Mr Abe has attempted to get Japan out of a spiral of deflation and limited economic growth which has lasted for almost two decades by applying shock measures which analysts have dubbed ‘Abenomics.’ A mixture of ‘three arrows’ in policies which call for increasing government spending, monetary easing and structural reforms is how the Financial Times newspaper describes it. It has been compared to similar goals pursued by the Meiji era of ‘fukoku kyohei’ which ominously means ‘enrich the economy, strengthening the army.’

‘Abenonics’ was initially praised by economists and data from the Bank of Japan reported a modest 1.6% rise on GDP growth rates for 2013, just after the unveiling of the plan. The Nikkei share index rose by 22% in one month and Nihon Keizai Shimbun newspaper reported that 74% of Japanese voters approved of the programme.

However, recent figures have shown the Japanese economy remains stuck in neutral. Kyodo News, the respected English language online newspaper, found in an internally conducted survey, that 73% of respondents in 2014 had felt no positive effects of the reforms and importantly wages have stagnated. The International Monetary Fund in a press release on the matter urged the Japanese government to adopt a carrot and stick approach to get companies to increase salaries.

Companies such as Toyota, Hyundai, Hitachi and others have been singled out as culprits, with Toyota only increasing the salary of workers by 0.42%. This is already going to dampen consumer spending as an expected VAT sales tax increase is due to come in to effect next year, says the IHS economics group. GDP growth has now also gone into reverse with a contraction of 0.3% by end of December 2015, OECD statistics show.

To keep up with volatility in the world economy and itself above the waterline Japan needs deeper structural reforms. Opening up the traditionally closed economy and challenging narrow minded views of foreigners (which is prevalent in some quarters) would help improve competitiveness and innovation, areas which have become weak spots in the economy. The proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) offers the opportunity to change that by lowering tariffs for foreign companies, especially in the highly cosseted agricultural sector. Tariffs on beef should come down by 9%, ground pork, poultry and eggs to 0% within six years. These tariffs have already caused resentment among other nations, as the record 159 pending trade dispute cases at the World Trade Organisation attests to. These agreements with the EU, Asian neighbours and Australia would be to Tokyo’s advantage and generate much needed goodwill towards Japan’s global ambitions if they can be achieved.

Foreign Policy

As an ancient and proud civilisation Japan is a country of fascination and wonder for outsiders. However, prickliness and suspicion towards foreign nationals (Zainichi in Japanese) has its downsides and again it is in this area that Japan is facing an acute challenge.

Facing a severe demographic situation, with a rapidly ageing population, Japan needs to improve the rights of immigrants if it is to maintain its status as an influential world economy. For example, discrimination against the increasing number of Korean migrants, who have faced down racist attitudes when trying to rent accommodation or interview for a job, have led many to change their names or intermarry to dilute their roots says Toitsu Nippo, the Korean-Japanese organisation. There is already tension over the reluctance of Japan to address the issue of sexual violence in occupied Korea from 1932-1945 and Amnesty International has doggedly researched and documented individual cases to present at international forums to seek justice for the victims and their descendants.

This issue is important to foreign policy as it feeds into friendly relations with South Korea and other nations. Since Shinzo Abe came back to power he has, by hook or by crook, attempted to rewrite Japan’s pacifist constitution, specifically Article 9, which provides for only a token ‘self defence force’ with no standing army, air force or navy. Mr Abe despite being personally popular has alienated half his people with this constitutional tinkering. Asahi Shimbun, the Japanese daily newspaper, conducted a poll which found 49% oppose the Premier’s plans and some protesters have set themselves on fire outside government offices to show their concerns.

With no serious domestic rivals in the Japanese Diet (Parliament), PM Abe has set a deadline of 2018 to have an amended constitution in place and he argues that with threats to Japan from ISIL, a USA which is less keen to keep the peace in Asia and a resurgent China, the current restrictions in combat are outdated. Accordingly, last year saw a record increase in defence spending to $42 billion to be invested in drones, submarines, F35 fighter jets and sonar development. The Stockholm Institute for Peace and Research Institute (SIPRI) already notes that Asia has seen a sabre rattling 3.6% upswing in military spending, bucking a global trend towards reduction in expenditure.

Conclusion

Winning critical upper house elections in July will help cement the Prime Minister’s agenda, he is forecast to sweep the board as the opposition is divided and in disarray, and bring him one step closer to awakening the slumbering giant, whether those abroad like it or not. Addressing his domestic and international critics is not something Mr Abe has been used to but he must if he is to address the trio of economic, demographic and diplomatic problems which is preying on the Japanese psyche right now.

Germany: Merkel’s elections not so bad after all?

Guten Tag dear reader, wilkommen!

So let’s get down to business. This is the day after the night before and the states of Baden Wurttemberg, Rhienland Pfalz and Sachsen Anhalt have all voted.

Reading through the results it was a not as straightforward as at first it might appear. Whilst the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Chancellor Angela Merkel did have a rough night I am not sure it was altogether a bad night for the long serving Chancellor. I shall explain dear reader but it is important to frame the elections in the context of the dominant political issue of the refugee crisis which broke last summer and the German ‘Wilkommenskultur’ of helping out those fleeing war, persecution and poverty:

The biggest story of the night was the foothold the new, Eurosceptic and staunchly anti-refugee, right wing Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party secured in all three states. If we look at the results according to Infratest-dimap polling analysis organisation, they secured 15.1% of the vote in Baden Wurrtemberg, 12.6% in Rhienland Pfalz, and 24.2% in Sachsen Anhalt. The have been building support among working class, less educated white men who have felt left behind by Germany’s success, especially in the eastern part of the country. Interestingly they secured many first time voters’ support as well as drawing some voters away from the other mainstream parties.

Menawhile, two of Mrs Merkel’s biggest critics within the CDU, Guido Wolf and Julia Klockner, had been touted as potential successors to Frau Merkel, and had distanced themselves from her position over the refugee crisis, namely by promising to push for caps on the number of refugees coming into Germany. Ms Klockner in particular became something of a ‘media darling’ and up until the last couple of weeks had looked like she was heading for an easy victory. In the end they were both punished by the voters and each denied their prize.

To analyse this further I will give a brief overview of the three states separately and what we can, as they say in American parlance, take away from the results.

Baden Wurrtemberg

Since 2011, the prosperous south western state, (which had hitherto been held by the CDU since the 1940s) voted the Greens into office. Winfried Kretschmann, the Minister President (Chief Minister) is not a typical Green. Pro-business and a practising Catholic, he had been more supportive of Mrs Merkel’s policies than her regional CDU and admitted to the ARD TV broadcaster, that he was ‘praying’ for Angela Merkel’s success every day.

The CDU took a historic low in the Lander of just 27% and the Social Democrats 12.7%. It will now be Mr Kretschmann’s responsibility to form a more diverse coalition, now that his Social Democrat partners have fallen behind the necessary numbers to form a straightforward coalition with the Greens. The centrist Free Democrats, who made 8.3%, a resurgence for a party that had been given a kicking in the 2013 federal elections, may now be called in to help govern. This fragmented political landscape mirrors what could be a much more diverse political field in next year’s 2017 general election.

Rheinland Pfalz

Here the winner was the Social Democrats, who have struggled nationally since 2005 with carving out a distinctive identity for themselves. It offered some good news for a party which had a bad night in Baden Wurrtemberg and Sachsen Anhalt. The always smiling and tenacious incumbent Minister President, Malu Drayer, who also supported the Chancellor over the refugee crisis, stormed to victory with 36.2% of support. A grand coalition is likely here with her CDU opponents, on 31.8%, but for the moment Ms Drayer stated to Der Speigel newspaper, that she ‘just wants to celebrate.’

For the FDP and Greens they just got into the Lander Parliament, crossing the 5% threshold, but combined they would form only a slender majority and could be beset by squabbling given their divergent views on a broad range of issues.

Sachsen Anhalt

For the AfD, this represented a big success where they came in second place with 24.2%, leaving the Social Democrats and leftists on 10.6% and 16.3% respectively. Unfortunately for them, the Free Democrats failed to get into the regional Lander and the Greens just squeaked in.

The CDU, led by serving Minister President Reinher Haselhof, has the mandate to lead with nearly 30% but he presciently acknowledged the electorates concerns about the refugees and the economy and was quoted by the Frankfurter Allegmeine Zeitung  newspaper as saying ‘we need to deal with the issue as mainstream parties and find a solution.’

In a state which is still coming to terms with its post-industrial Communist past he knows the challenges the poorer areas of Germany face and they also reflect concerns held by some Germans in the western part of the country too.

Conclusion

Angela Merkel didn’t have a devastating night, although as reported in Handelsblatt newspaper she said it had been ‘a difficult night for the CDU’, but funnily enough election night also slayed some of her rivals. She has vowed to continue as Chancellor and keep the government’s direction on track, and as I have mentioned in previous blog articles before, my prediction is she is still favourite to carry on leading Germany, Europe and the CDU into 2017 and possibly beyond.

This is good news but if she is to successfully drain the pool of support of the xenophobic right wingers she needs to address valid concerns over security and integration. Many voted for the AfD and their ilk to send a warning to the Chancellor rather than endorsing what is still a policy lite and internally ego ridden party! Sunday’s votes have shown that Germany is now a 50/50 split nation on refugees and the continuation of the noble ‘Wilkommenkultur’ that has defined it since 1945. Given that Mrs Merkel has been in office for 11 years now and over 1 million refugees arrived in Germany in 2015, she is still needed by her country and Europe to lead. Her experience is invaluable and for such a long serving leader she still remains comparatively speaking, very strong support. ARD Deutschland Trend poll tracker notes that 64% of Germans believe their leader is doing a good job (a new high since last summer) and 83% have said they are ashamed of the violent demonstrators against the refugees. This shows the ‘Wilkommenskultur’ remains intact, despite evident challenges, and Mrs Merkel is under pressure but not on her way out yet.

As I have said before, the rest of Europe needs to actually help Germany much more proactively, especially the recalcitrant Eastern Europeans and British governments.

Right now, Europe needs Frau Merkel and Germany to succeed and for that together we need to take the rising threat of the populist right seriously indeed.

 

 

 

USA and Europe. How much hate is out there?

Hello and welcome dear readers! It’s wonderful to have you here and I hope you are all well.

Today, I would like to focus my attention on what is perceived to be a growing intolerance and climate of fear which is being whipped up on both sides of the Atlantic. As you all know we have seen the rise of demagogues like Donald Trump in the USA and Marine Le Pen in France, as just prominent examples of this ‘new politics of rage.’ For me personally it troubles me deeply, but in this article I want to do some scratching beneath the surface and see just how bad things are in Europe and the USA.

For this investigation I aim to look at anti-minority hatred and hate speech which are both apparently at record highs. This is by no means comprehensive I wish to emphasise and only provides a snapshot of where we are today.

I will aim to briefly look at the USA, Belgium and Italy in this article, and look at their individual issues from different angles.

P.S. Germany is due to go to the polls in regional elections tomorrow where the right wing AfD is set to do well, the analysts say. Please check out my earlier articles on them and the Neo-Nazi, NDP, for my view on the far right in Germany as well.

USA

Now let us start in the USA. You do not have to look far to see how bad things are. I have one name for you: Donald Trump. If you  don’t know who I’m talking about then in a way I envy you dear reader but you have clearly been living under a rock since last year!

As I write, CNN, the US TV network, says he has already had to cancel a rally in Chicago, one of America’s biggest cities, because of protestors vocally demonstrating their concerns about his incendiary rhetoric of saying ‘Islam hates us’ and ‘we have to ban Muslims until we figure out what is going on.’  I could go on about him but I want to look at a poll which came out in response to his proclamations, in particular the latter comment. YouGov, the polling agency, found that 45% of Americans agreed with the idea of a ban on Muslims entering US territory and 69% of Republican Party supporters concur. This shows that whilst he garners significant support during the Republican primary contests he may struggle when his policies come up for extra scrutiny with the wider American public in the November general election.

What will be crucial though, as it is in every election, is turnout. Those who are angry generally come out to vote, sadly. If we look at a report compiled by the University of California into voting turnout records we can see a general decline in turnout from 63% in 1960’s US Presidential Election between Kennedy and Nixon, to 55% in 2012 between Obama and Romney. Also, it is an old political mantra that ‘the young just do not vote.’ This is also true in American politics, where the Voter Participation Center recorded a 72.5% turnout in 2012 by the 65-74 year old bracket. In contrast only 48.5% of 18-25 year olds voted.

This indicates that while on paper a general election may lean favourably towards the voices of moderation the stakes are high and if Donald Trump can get his supporters, made up largely of older Republicans, out in droves on November 4th then he could win. Turnout may be upset if we have a scenario which resembles the 2002 French Presidential Election, where the voters in France were told ‘vote for the crook, not the fascist’ when faced with conservative, Jacques Chirac, the alleged crook, or Jean Marie Le Pen, the far right xenophobe. In the end, Chirac won with a handsome victory of 82% as socialists, conservatives, and centrists rallied to him to keep the far right out.

It all makes this November’s Presidential Elections one of the most unpredictable and defining polls in quite a while.

Belgium

In this Benelux country of French speakers and Dutch speakers, often called one of the most divided in Europe, the far right is still alive and well unfortunately. During the Nazi occupation, some apologists, such as Leon Degrelle, actively courted and welcomed the occupying forces. Their legacy lives on and despite Belgium now being a modern, multicultural country at the heart of Europe, with key European Union institutions based in the state, the Vlaams Belang (formerly Vlaams Blok) continues to exercise pernicious support at some levels.

Following controversial anti-Semitic comments by a former deputy leader in the movement, the Vlaams Blok was forced to rebrand and distance itself from an overtly anti-Semitic agenda in 2004. Like many similar fascist, far right outfits, it has found anti-Muslim rhetoric more palatable to today’s voters. In its manifesto, it explicitly blames Muslims for drug crimes and calls the hijab an automatic rejection of Western societal values and with that should come their forced deportation. Mercifully, none of the respectable mainstream political parties have let it enter government, leaving it on the margins of politics with only 3 seats in Belgium’s federal parliament. This policy is called the ‘cordon sanitaire.’ The Belgian Parliament has also stripped the Vlaams of federal funding and passed tough legislation against hate speech.

However, whilst the laws have been toughened the European Commission notes that data collection of hate crimes (which includes Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attacks) has been patchy and that for the period 2007-2012 a total of 5,732 cases were filed with the police but then if and when they came to court only 230 resulted in convictions. This indicates there is still work to be done in actually implementing the law, but there has been significant action taken by politicians to do deal with hate crimes, now the onus is on the police.

Italy

Unlike Germany, Italy has yet to have a full expunging of its fascist and neo-fascist elements. After the fall of Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, we still have a Mussolini (his granddaughter Alessandra) expounding his views, although granted it is on the sidelines for now, in modern Italy.  Mussolini Senior’s tomb in Predappio is still a shrine though, where many fascists still make annual visits.

Italy has had troubled, largely isolated incidents of anti-immigrant violence, such as the stabbing of a man from Burkina Faso in Milan, after a petty theft from a café, or the beating of a Chinese national at a bus stop in Rome. Whilst these are tragic and brutal attacks they have been comparatively rare and do not appear to form part of a wider systematic activity. Such incidents are fuelled by the right wing Northern League, led by Matteo Salvini, who has often equated immigrants with crime. The last right wing government in power from 2008-2011 incorporated the Northern League in national government, where its vitriolic rhetoric against minorities was condemned in a report by Human Rights Watch, the global human rights organisation. It stated that Italian statute laws are largely up to international and European norms on combating xenophobia but implementation and data collection is woefully inadequate. It also slammed the then government for inflaming tensions with racially tinged statements.

A shocking statistic I found was that the European Network Against Racism claimed that nearly 60% of reported racist crimes in Italy are not fully investigated or brought to a successful conclusion for the victims.

Like Belgium, more needs to be done to improve the performance of security forces in dealing with this threat. For a country that in Ancient Roman times maintained little racial discrimination this is where it should be looking for guidance, not Fascist Italy which still seems to be living and breathing in some dark corners of the state.

Conclusion

The USA and Europe have political parties which are now looking more and more like extremist organisations. In pandering to populist tendencies they risk isolating themselves from a still strong moderate electorate. However, we need to focus on improving community relations, reducing voter apathy and strengthening  data collection and conviction rates of known racists. The laws are often there to enforce yet there is a strange reluctance to do so. As citizens we should be vigilant and not succumb to easy solutions, building a successful society is hard work, but we must not take for granted the so called ‘politically correct’ views and laws which have made us a great, pluralist civilisation in the USA and Europe.

 

 

Brazil: Dilma’s date with destiny?

Bom dia! A warm Brazilian ‘good day’ to you dear readers. It’s a pleasure to be back in your company.

Today, I want to talk to you about a looming crisis which has been steadily building up steam in the sleek, ultra-modern streets of Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. A deadly trio of challenges to the Brazilian leader is threatening to derail her carefully laid plans. The incumbent President Dilma Rousseff has been doggedly attempting to fend off impeachment proceedings since she was re-elected to her second four year term in office in 2014. She is a member of the leftist Workers’ Party , which was led between 2003-2011 by her charismatic predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Only a few hours ago Brazilian prosecutors announced that they would charge Former President Lula for his alleged involvement in the widening corruption and bribery scandal centred on the Brazilian state oil company, Petrobras. For ‘Lula’ this could well end his hopes of making a triumphal return back to the Presidency at the next federal elections in 2018. According to the English language Latin Correspondent online news site, the police investigation quixotically named ‘Operation Car Wash’ has netted a network of high profile politicians, businessmen, public servants and middlemen. For President Roussef this scandal has got uncomfortably close as she was personally handpicked by Lula to succeed him at the Presidency and was formerly his chief of staff and Energy Minister. Not only that but several close Ministers, advisors and campaign staffers from the 2014 election are now languishing in jail as prosecutors investigate this complex affair. Mrs Roussef’s ability to appear above the fray and aloof from these accusations are looking increasingly shaky. In essence the net is tightening, whether she is guilty or not.

If it were just the corruption scandal, which would undermine any leader, then that would almost be a blessing for her. However, Brazil faces what can only be described as a ‘perfect storm.’ Coupled with that has been the collapse in the Brazilian economy and the Zika Virus outbreak, which is threatening the success of August’s Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro.

First the economy. For many years under President Lula, the economy boomed, with a voracious  global appetite for commodities such as oil and timber (fuelled by a growing China), underpinning Brazilian success.

When the country’s first truly left wing leader came to office he inherited a successful country, but one with the deepest income inequality in the world. Through the Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero social welfare programmes, which aimed to supplement the incomes of poor families, increase school enrolment and tackle hunger, the poor finally felt they had a leader who delivered and his two terms in office proceeded like charm. The World Economic Forum declared that Brazil overtook the United Kingdom in 2012 and became the seventh largest economic power in the world. The World Bank reported that from 2003-2013 26 million people were lifted out of poverty and the income of the bottom 40% in Brazil grew on average 6.1% in real terms.

Now, the economy has shrivelled. The country’s own national statistics agency, IBGE, has forecast that the economy contracted by 3.8% in 2015 and claimed that the budget deficit has widened to a whopping 10.8% of GDP in the report. Inflation is now at 11% and increasing rapidly as the government cutbacks on expenditure, denting its President’s popularity even further. Worse still Congress is holding up her plans as the backlash from the public over austerity cuts grows ever more vocal.

The success formerly afforded to Lula (during the heyday of Brazil in the early 2000s) gave it a place at the global table of international affairs, with seats at the G20 group of largest economies in the world and a front page profile for its President in the American publication, TIME Magazine, which claimed he was the ‘most successful politician of all time.’  He weighed in on the Iranian nuclear issue, cultivated ties with Africa, attended India’s Republic Day celebrations as chief guest, received the red carpet official government welcome in Germany, accepted the prestigious Prince Asturias Award of Spain, was feted in Beijing and the World Economic Forum annual get together of high fliers in Davos, Switzerland.

Now though, instead of receiving international accolades, his successor spends most of her time in crisis talks at the Planalto Presidential Palace, in Brasilia, with her dwindling number of cabinet ministers and advisors trying to salvage her Presidency and Brazil’s economy. Daily protests and banging of pots outside her residence only add to the misery of Dilma.

An old English adage says that ‘bad luck always come in threes.’I don’t want to add to superstition but this is the case for President Roussef. When she was re-elected she could have imagined that no matter how bad things got for her she was still playing host to the international extravaganza that is the Olympics Games. You may have thought that Brazilians would have welcomed this but the announcement, in what is still a deeply poverty stricken land, was greeted with mass protests over the impending bill that Brazil would have to pick up. Now the Games risk being boycotted by some athletes over concerns about the outbreak of the Zika Virus.

This disease, reports the World Health Organisation, originating in Uganda, is mosquito carried and incubated in contaminated stagnant water supplies. Its results are particularly harmful to pregnant women, who risk giving birth to disfigured babies, if they are bitten by an infected mosquito. Mrs Roussef has personally supervised the spraying and draining of water pools which may pose a risk but it is a tough undertaking. This has added to doubts about whether the Games should go ahead or not, with several female athletes in America, such as Natalie Coughlin, and the UK expressing their misgivings. Brazil has announced sweeping measures, says the country’s Health Ministry, including inspection of Olympic facilities four months in advance of the start of the Olympics and daily sweeps of the facilities. The health services are also banking on a mild August climate to make sure it is not fertile breeding weather for mosquitos.

The International Olympic Committee has not endorsed any mass boycott and recently expressed its full support for the Brazilian authorities. In a press release it also sought to put to bed rumors about Brazilian unhappiness about the Games, and stressed in its release to media outlets that 60% of citizens back the Games coming to Rio. Time will tell us if this is true.

The Rio Times, a respected local newspaper, has already noted a sharp fall in the support of President Roussef. A CNT/MDA poll found almost 70% of her nation blame her for the Petrobas scandal. Speculation mounts as to whether she will be impeached. The chances are that this not will not happen, not least because her arch rivals in Congress are being arrested over the same ‘Operation Car Wash’ affair! The impeachment procedures are also notoriously tortuous and any proceedings would be a long drawn saga, possibly lasting until the elections in 2018. There have been many twists and turns already in this imbroglio so we shall have to see where the next one lands us!

 

 

Italy: Renzi’s troubled year ahead?

Benvenuto! Welcome dear reader as we head to the Eternal City, Rome, to look at the year ahead for Italy’s pugnacious Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi.

Since he came to power in 2014, Mr Renzi has made it his mission to put Italy back on the map. You may ask when was it off the map? Well, under the leadership of the controversial and flamboyant media tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy hit the headlines for all of the wrong reasons. For many years jaded Italians abroad, rather than being remembered for rolling Tuscan hills, the artistry of Michelangelo, languid gondolas or the literary writings of Casanova, found themselves being remembered for the crude and adolescent behaviour of the perma-tanned billionaire. This was the case at the European Union (EU) level in particular and it was the co-ordinated action of the EU which eventually pressured Mr Berlusconi to give up the stage act which his Premiership had descended into.

Italy is no minnow in world affairs (unless it choses to be!), it is the fourth largest economy in Europe, with the eighth largest nominal GDP state in the world. In addition, it is a founding member of the EU and a member of the G7 and G20 forums. In terms of its contribution to the UN’s peacekeeping missions, the ‘Blue Helmets’, the Italian Foreign Ministry states that it provides the largest number of soldiers of any EU state and funds the missions to the tune of €180 million. It currently makes up the largest contingent of UN peacekeeping troops in Lebanon.

When Mr Renzi took over in 2014, Italy was still recovering from Mr Berlusconi, and the new Premier viewed himself as the vigorous man of action to sort out Italy. First, he made sure he would not exit as swiftly as some of the other merry-go-round governments of past years. He cut deals with the opposition parties to reform the Senate and make it more difficult to bring down an incumbent government. Reforms quickly followed in the sclerotic employment, judicial and education systems. I won’t go into the details of these reforms or their individual success rate (a clue – some of them didn’t quite get off the ground!) but collectively it was a statement of intent which said that Italy was back in business.

In terms of his relationship with Brussels, at first he enjoyed a honeymoon. On the economic front his employment reforms initially at least appeared to bear fruit. According to ISTAT, Italy’s national statistics office, unemployment fell from 13% in 2014 to 11.5% last year and consumer confidence reached a 20 year high in November. However, the job is not yet done, public debt is still ballooning and at 132.6% of GDP says Eurostat (the EU statistics office) it is at Greek levels of danger! Mr Renzi first piqued the European Commission by abolishing a lucrative and easily enforceable property tax in what was a barely disguised attempt to win votes for forthcoming elections. He then went on to criticise German led efforts to resolve the twin troubles of the Eurozone and refugee crisis and in a Bloomberg newspaper interview brazenly accused the EU of behaving like the ‘orchestra on the Titanic’ and suggested it could learn from Italy!

However, Mr Renzi’s presumption in assuming Italy is out of the woods just yet could be tempered if he looked at the state of Italian banks and youth unemployment figures. A looming Italian bank crisis, with bad loans at a reported €360 billion,  continues to frighten investors and it was only in early February that an eventual deal on state guarantees to remedy this was agreed with the European authorities.

As it currently stands, youth unemployment continues to reach new highs, at an eye watering near 45% says Eurostat with the think tank Centre for Economic Policy Research reporting that short term labour contracts are a fundamental flaw for young people seeking job security in Italy, hence they generally head overseas after university – to London or Berlin.

Speaking of overseas, the countdown clock has been set on what could be the biggest foreign policy challenge for PM Renzi. Libya, across the Mediterranean and a former Italian colony, is starting to painstakingly piece itself together after a bloody, five year civil war. The Americans having jointly led the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi quickly retreated behind the Atlantic, leaving the Europeans to pick up the pieces. Early this year a tentative agreement was signed in Rome which brought together the largest warring parties in the Libyan political scene. This presents a more untied front to go after Daesh (or ISIL) which is increasing its control over Libyan territory. The Premier and his government quickly proclaimed that, in the words of Italian Defence Minister, Roberta Pinnoti, “Italy would play a more mature international role…Renzi’s foreign policy is different, it is certainly more assertive” reported ANSA, the Italian news service. Italy may be poised to send peacekeepers in but as Italian Chronicles, the online blogging news site, reports he may be going against the grain of Italian public opinion, where there is still a strong and vocal pacifist constituency.

Mr Renzi has also seized the opportunity to aggressively push Italy’s case over the refugee crisis. The Italians, reports the UNHCR, officially received close to 100,000 asylum seekers (93,715 to be exact) in 2015. Whilst Italy certainly has been dealing with the many tragic drownings of refugees (crossing perilously in rickety boats from Africa and landing off the coast of Lampedusa island), long before the issue hit the headlines last summer the Italian leader appears to have gone out of his way to alienate EU leaders who he was relying on to help him out. He has, for example, been a vocal critic of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the deal with Turkey to regulate numbers crossing into Europe along the ‘Balkan route.’ He insisted on a last minute clause on press freedom be inserted into the agreement, which will not endear him to the Turkish leadership!

Essentially, Mr Renzi, who made the giant leap from small time, provincial mayor of bucolic and affluent Florence to the PM’s seat in Palazzo Chigi, based in rough and tumble Rome, is desperate to prove himself and having secured his throne without an election (he came to power after an internal party coup) he has grand global ambitions for himself and Italy. This is not to be condemned as a principle, indeed Italians have a lot to offer, but the old English adage about running before you can crawl springs to my mind. Upcoming elections in Rome, Milan, Naples and possibly national if his reforms continue to stall (he almost lost a key bill on allowing same-sex civil unions recently but watered down provisions on adoption to get it passed by the Senate) may give the public the chance to judge him.

Given the unfinished business on the economy, his political fortunes depend on whether Italy and the world at large are ready for him and the coming year may prove if this is Renzi’s year or not.

 

Belgium: a land of chocolates and frites but is it a failed state?

Bonjour, Hallo or Guten Tag my dear readers! Phew, that stretched my language skills with a combination of French, Flemish and German! Today, we are off to a country which has all three as official languages – Belgium.

Long associated with the European institutions, which are based in the Belgian capital Brussels, it is actually the Belgian nation I want to concentrate on in this article.

Following the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris last November, the Belgian nation became a focus of intense discussion. Much like Pakistan and England, which have often come under severe scrutiny for being alleged ‘incubators of terrorism ‘ (the phrase has often been deployed by Fox News and the Daily Mail and various other right wing outlets), the normally overlooked state of Belgium, and its Liberal Prime Minister Charles Michel, were put under the spotlight and tagged with this ignominious label. The think tank, ICSR, which specialises in the study of radicalisation, claimed that for every 1 million people of its population, 40 had gone to fight in Syria and Iraq for Daesh (or ISIL) the highest rate in Europe per capita. Politico Magazine in Europe even asked ‘Is Belgium a failed state?’ When it was suspected that plans for the Paris attacks and three Belgian citizens were implicated in conducting this terrible assault, the focus of investigators zeroed in on the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek.

The questions which were initially posed were how these attackers were able to go undetected for so long and what was going wrong in Belgium? While these are serious questions worthy of answering they are not exclusive to Belgium. It is easy to forget that alongside some of the picturesque, cobbled streets of historic Brussels there exist areas of deprivation and an underclass, which has grown up knowing only unemployment and truancy from school. According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, Brussels may be the third richest region in the European Union but areas like Molenbeek have 30.9% unemployment compared to the affluent Etterbeek district with 19.1%.  If we are asking the above questions it is also worth considering why so many white, working class people in the USA are willing to support a candidate like Donald Trump, the brash scapegoater in chief!? A feeling of missing out on the many benefits of globalisation and isolation is not a Belgian issue it is just a feeling that has many different guises all across the world. However, I am at risk of deviating somewhat from Belgium today, so I will just leave you to ponder over that point dear reader.

Now, Belgium before the attacks in France attracted the headlines for another unwelcome reason. After elections in June 2010 it took Belgian legislators 589 days to form a government, a new world record. The chief tension was between the two main communities in Belgium, the French speaking Walloons and the Dutch speaking Flemish citizens. This need to satisfy both groups has filtered down into the functioning of state institutions. The Belgian Premier, Mr Michel, in a recent interview with the Flemish TV broadcaster, VRT, acknowledged that Molenbeek has ‘big problems.’ The problem is emblematic of the main deficiencies of the Belgian state, a near of labyrinth of red tape and overlapping government agencies (with some reluctant to exchange what could be useful information). For example, the city of Brussels has six police zones and 19 mayors and the boundaries of each suburb are somewhat fuzzy, even to long standing Brussels residents.  This inevitably causes some confusion to the untutored when you go to set up a bank account or file your annual property tax return.

These issues are mirrored up into the inter-state level as Belgium was condemned by the media and some politicians in France for not sharing what could have been vital intelligence in preventing the atrocities. The French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, directed this very accusation quite pointedly France 24 reported at the time.

However, Belgium’s State Security Service (the main national intelligence agency) had prior to the incidents last year, been making efforts to clamp down on extremist outfits by sending several known leaders of these outfits to jail and confiscating forged passports and ID cards, and tackling radicalisation in prison. The European Union’s main security agency, Europol, had for many years been crying out  for better co-ordination amongst Member States and enhanced levels of information exchange. Despite being the ‘Cinderella’ of European organisations and receiving little in the way of funding or pooling of resources, it did have some notable successes in the fight against the criminal networks which underpin the terrorist menace. In 2012, in an Operation codenamed Pakoul, it busted a notorious people smuggling ring centred on Afghanistan and which spread into France, Belgium, the UK and Greece.  So my point here is that with a Europe-wide open border system, which I fully support, it requires a European-style ‘FBI’ and well resourced and strictly enforced external border controls. No half measures will do.

What Belgium can do alone though, is make a greater effort to integrate new arrivals and combat racism. In February, the National Bank of Belgium published its annual report which underlined that Belgium had one of the poorest records out of all EU countries in providing job opportunities for non-EU arrivals. Only 40.5% of these newcomers between the ages of 20-64 have a job compared to 68.6% for Belgian nationals. Besides Sweden, nowhere else in the EU has such a disparity. As the EU absorbs a record number of refugees, Belgium noted a record number of 44,760 asylum seekers (most of them under 40 years of age) in 2015 according to the Belgian Interior Ministry,  this issue is becoming critical. As an example, more language courses and cultural education programmes should be provided to fresh arrivals. In the long term they could become advantageous and boost the economy, as the current generation of workers moves ever closer to retirement age.

The European Commission, stated that the GDP growth rate for 2015 was 1.4%, up from 1.3% in 2014, which shows a positive and promising improvement in the Belgian economy, an opportunity which can be utilised to provide employment for the extra manpower Belgium now has.

In conclusion, I am not saying that there is an easy solution or easy way to integrate asylum seekers but what is needed is collective action at the European level on the security front, and better integration in the labour market particularly, as well as closer attention paid to ethnic minority youngsters in areas like Molenbeek. As a former resident of Brussels I enjoyed the hospitality of its citizens, no matter what their background, and they have a country which cannot be lumped among the tragic list of failed states around the world (besides use of terminology like failed state should not be used loosely in my view!) but there is always room for constructive improvement, and I say that as a candid friend of Belgium.

 

Germany’s NDP gets its day in court…

Guten Abend my dear readers! Once again I am taking you back to Germany, following hot on the heels of my last article about the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party. I wouldn’t normally return so quickly but as we speak there is an interesting court case taking place at the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.

The case before the august judges of the Court concerns the National Democratic Party (NDP), a particularly nasty racist, right wing party which has numerous and well documented connections with the mercifully marginal, but unfortunately still potent, neo-Nazi scene in Germany.

The upper house of the German Parliament, the Bundesrat, has filed a motion to have the NDP banned. As Deutsche Welle, DW, the German news service, states the move follows similar steps taken by the Bundesrat in 2003 when several Turkish immigrants were murdered and accusations were made that the Police covered them up and blamed the killings on ‘internal Turkish mafia feuds.’ Ultimately, the initial attempt to secure a ban in 2003 failed when it was revealed that most of the members testifying were exposed as police informers.

Now, the NDP has played a cunning and devious game in the modern Germany. It has avoided the strict German sedition and anti-hate laws (which are prominent features on the German statute book since the end of the Second World War) by making its language more subtle (but no less crude!). For example campaign literature wishes Muslims a safe journey home on their magic carpets, or outside the Jewish Museum in Berlin a poster displays their former leader, Udo Voigt, on a motorbike promising to ‘step on the gas.’  It also made a big show of not supporting the German national football team (Die Mannschaft) by claiming the football team contains too many non-white players and is therefore no longer ‘German’ enough for them to support. Thankfully this ludicrous ideology only exacerbates their isolation as the English language Munich Eye newspaper reports that 69% of Germans support home teams, one of the highest rates in Europe alongside the football crazy nations of Spain and England.

Support for the NDP is pretty unpleasant stuff to read but on the plus side it is important to note that even during periods of recession the NDP has failed to win a single seat in the Federal German Parliament (Bundestag). It has one Member of the European Parliament (MEP), the above mentioned Mr Voigt, and a smattering of State (Lander) representatives. Strongest support has come from the more deprived pockets of the former East Germany, in Saxony, Mecklenburg-Pomerania and Thuringia in particular. Checking the Der Spiegel poll tracker it shows that the NDP fails to make the grade as a distinct entity and its numbers appear under the 6% ‘Others’ category. They only secured 1.6% of the national vote in the 2005  general election. As well as the historical and disreputable baggage it carries with it, it is now competing for the low pool of racist votes alongside the more successful AfD and the Pegida protest movement.

Beyond the thin veneer of respectability its leader, Frank Franz, has tried to cultivate in the courtroom, the criminal proceedings have given the NDP a rare opportunity in the national spotlight and the young leader has spared no effort in courting controversy. Just before the hearing started he sent letters out to the chiefs of police and the army claiming that their personnel have the ‘right’ to refuse supposedly ‘immoral orders’ (i.e. the closing down of the toxic NDP outfit) much like the East German border guards did in 1990.  I am confident dear reader that if he received a reply it would have been pretty curt and dismissive!

However, as Euronews (the Europe wide TV station) reports some experts have warned against a ban as they say this may only drive the movement underground, (potentially turning its 5,200 members into martyrs), and the critics also highlight that the state’s priority should be to prevent attacks on refugee shelters in areas where the NDP is strong. Any ban may in turn serve the AfD well, as it has made no secret of its empathy with the anti-immigrant attitudes of NDP voters but a ban could also draw a line in the sand for the AfD and underline the authorities limited tolerance of their views and language, given how close the AfD often sails to downright xenophobia. Interestingly Chancellor Angela Merkel, has refused to comment on the matter, but she has shown in her recent actions and statements that she is far from comfortable with the NDP playing any role in modern German society.

The legal moves against the NDP come at a sensitive time given the dominance of the refugee crisis in German politics since last summer (which I have already written about exhaustively!). Only last night I saw for the first time in several months a non-refugee headline on the nightly ARD Tagesschau TV news bulletin.

The Court hearing is scheduled to last three days this week (today in fact the hearing concludes) and the judges will now consider their response over the next two to three months before issuing a verdict. A two thirds majority of the Bench is required to impose a ban and it would involve the total disbanding of the Party and the seizure of its assets.

It will be interesting to see how this case and the ban plays out but my view is that the NDP is thankfully so irrelevant to modern, tolerant Germany that any ban may be largely symbolic. If you compare the 5,200 members of the NDP to the 450,000 each for the governing Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party, 62,000 for the Greens and 55,000 for the Free Democratic Party, you can see that even if this is still 5,200 too many, Germany has come a long, long way!

Not so ‘Super Tuesday’ for some!

Welcome dear reader back to my blog. From Germany across the Atlantic to the USA now.

I have been itching to write about the American election and I bit my tongue (yes I do have a very fat and swollen tongue by now!) until the chips fell in a more decisive way for either Democrat or Republican candidates. Well the race is still open on either side even after 15 states voted in one day (i.e. yesterday’s Super Tuesday) so I can’t wait any longer (neither can my tongue!)

The Democrats

So, let us start with the Democrats. Here the primary nominating field was always narrower with fewer candidates out of the starting blocks. Lincoln Chafee, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb (I may have missed someone out here but let’s not worry too much about that!) were early starters who rapidly fell by the way side, leaving a two horse race between the well established and impeccably qualified Hillary Clinton  and Bernie Sanders anti-establishment, self declared democratic socialist. Just watching their debates and campaigns unfold showed a comparatively civil and policy heavy discussion more suited to a think tank debate on a university campus. It was certainly easier on my rather sensitive ears!

However, after yesterday’s big event and a solid win in South Carolina last week, Mrs Clinton racked up a near 50% margin over Mr Sanders winning big among women and minority voters (her so called ‘firewall’) in the South Carolina primary says the New York Times. Yesterday the same demographics propelled her to victory  in seven states where she took a hefty chunk of delegates, and which will help her formally clinch the Democrat candidacy at the crowning Democratic National Convention in July.

In previous primary contests Former Secretary of State Clinton had struggled with young voters and women, leaving Bernie to take some early voting states in the contest (such as New Hampshire) but now after a leftwards shift towards Senator Sanders views on banks and healthcare, adopting the posture of the ‘heir to the still beloved President Barack Obama’ and a formidable and well funded campaigning machine the Democrats are now settling down to the idea of giving Hillary her chance.

Mrs Clinton, in her victory speech, had an eye on her flamboyant and probable Republican opponent, Donald Trump, by embracing the mantra of hope and spoke of ‘breaking down barriers not building walls’ and promised to bring ‘love’ into the campaign. This may serve as a portend of her future campaign stance as she seeks to build a stateswoman ‘One Nation’ image of her candidacy by November. It is interesting to note she gave her address to the crowds from Florida, which is the next crucial state on the list.

As things stand following Super Tuesday Mrs Clinton has 1,001 delegates compared to Mr Sanders on 371. To win a Democrat competitor needs 2,383 delegates come the Convention to win.  These delegates come from the primary voting states during the year (which kicked off in Iowa) and last until July so Mr Sanders could theoretically catch up but it doesn’t look all that easy for him.

The Republicans

Now this is the more ‘livelier’ contest. Reality TV star and businessman Donald Trump has, after a shaky start in Iowa, found his winning streak and barring major upset it is now looking like he will be the Republican candidate for President in November. This man has offended Mexicans, Muslims, the disabled and plenty more. His candidacy for the President has reduced the race for the White House from what was once a fairly noble and inspirational exercise in democracy to a soap opera on a par with one of his reality shows! The tenor of the Republican debates have been rancorous and at times downright theatrical with scant discussion of policy.

His constituency seems to spread across the political divide and speaks to the less educated, low information white working class who missed out on the opportunities of globalisation and blame the government, political correctness, migrants, lobbyists and assorted others for the lack of opportunity and malaise which seems to exist in swathes of industrial and rural ‘Middle America.’  The fact they have found a voice in a vulgar businessman with a dubious record of commercial success is slightly odd!

Anyhow, Mr Trump is undeniably the man of the moment and his only so far other serious rival for the candidacy is the widely disliked Ted Cruz. Mr Cruz has just won Alaska, Texas and Oklahoma in Super Tuesday and given himself a chunk of delegates to remain competitive at the Republican Convention in the summer.

I just want to talk a little about the overshadowed Ted Cruz as he is dangerous too. He is playing to a similar constituency as Mr Trump but is also hoping to garner the support of evangelical Christians with his membership of various hardline Christian groups who believe the US Constitution provides the basis for building an exclusively Christian based state with little regard for others. He is widely reviled by Congressional colleagues who find him aloof and slippery and in some corners of the Republican Party they would prefer to see Donald Trump in the lead rather than Senator Cruz, that is how bad it is!

According to PoliGu.com, a US website which follows candidate positions on different policy areas, his opposition to the work of the United Nations, refusal to compromise on environmental legislation and gun controls, to name a few, has yet to elicit much attention. This needs to change.

Real Clear Politics, the respected US  news service, has highlighted the alarm amongst the power brokers behind the scenes in the Republican Party as they try to buoy the prospects of the young Florida Senator, Marco Rubio, who has charisma and intelligence but is limping following accusations from rivals that he is too polished and not a serious break from the ‘politics as normal brigade’ in Washington DC. Mr Rubio has picked up one state so far, Minnesota, last night providing his campaign with a fig leaf but he is now pinning his hopes on Florida on March the 15th. It may all be too little, too late now but we shall see.

The most bizarre moment of Super Tuesday had to have been the appearance of Chris Christie, loudmouth Governor of New Jersey, who was in the running but failed spectacularly and has now endorsed Donald Trump. His mechanical speech and awkward body language at Mr Trump’s victory speech led to rumors he had a form of ‘Stockholm Syndrome.’ The article about this episode was in the Washington Post and is worth a read!

In all seriousness, we now have Donald Trump a clear leader right now with 316 delegates, Ted Cruz second on 226 and Marco Rubio on 106. The magic number needed here to clinch the nomination is 1,237.

Conclusion

The Democrat contest is almost over is my prediction, Mr Sanders still has money and issues to raise until July but very little stands between Mrs Clinton and the nomination now.

The Republicans are starting to either resign or embrace Mr Trump as their candidate (Mr Christie being the first ‘establishment’ Republican to side with Mr Trump) and whilst also rans, such as Ben Carson and John Kasich, have indicated they will continue in the race despite winning very little, it makes it an even more divided field, leaving the advance of Donald Trump with little to hinder it.

It is looking like a Clinton vs Trump contest and it could play out like Chirac vs Le Pen in France in 2002. For those of you that don’t know what I mean by that ‘Google’ 2002 French Presidential Election and familiarise yourself with that scenario. If you are an American voter it could be educational!