Burmese support democracy, country’s trajectory but US optimism ebbs over reforms

burmabuddhistterrorTwo years after the United States announced the normalization of diplomatic relations with Myanmar [aka Burma], optimism in Washington over the nation’s embrace of democracy is waning and concern over the plight of minority Muslims is growing, Associated Press reports:

What has been viewed as a foreign policy success story for the Obama administration, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, faces a rocky road ahead as the pace of political reform slows and U.S. congressional criticism intensifies.

While the United States says it remains hopeful the constitution can be amended so Suu Kyi can run, congressional aides say the administration is pessimistic about that happening before the national elections at the end of 2015, a key staging post in Myanmar’s transition from five decades of repressive army rule. Constitutional reforms would also be required to dilute the political power of the military and meet ethnic minority demands for autonomy. The aides weren’t authorized to discuss that matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

burma IRIWhether Burma will become a democracy after parliamentary elections late next year rests not only on the integrity of that vote, Stanford University’s Larry Diamond writes for The Atlantic. “It also depends on what parliament does—or fails to do—to amend blatantly undemocratic provisions in the country’s current constitution,’ he adds.

”But the most pressing concern for the U.S., and the one on which the Obama administration and lawmakers have been most outspoken, is communal violence between majority Buddhists and Muslims, and the rising tide of Buddhist nationalism that many expect to intensify in the run-up to the election,” AP’s Matthew Pennington reports:

The House Foreign Affairs Committee called last week for an end to persecution of stateless Rohingya Muslims in one of the strongest congressional criticisms yet of Myanmar’s reformist government. The committee’s Republican chairman, Rep. Ed Royce of California, questioned whether the U.S. should embrace diplomatic reconciliation with Myanmar while human rights deteriorate.

A U.S.-funded poll released Thursday by the International Republican Institute [one of the four core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy] found that 88 percent of respondents sampled across Myanmar thought things in the country were heading in the right direction, and 57 percent thought their economic situation was going to improve in the coming year. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Afghanistan: grounds for optimism?

Civil society has begun to blossom in many parts of Afghanistan after decades of repression and near-constant war, Reuters reports:

Bearded men pump their fists in the air during election rallies, others dance in dusty fields at political gatherings while volunteers serve lunch and tea. Millions of Afghans watch the candidates’ heated debates on television.

One key accelerator of civic participation has been the National Solidarity Program. To get funding for village projects under the program, tens of thousands of villages were required to elect local councils to decide how the money would be spent, and many women now serve as leaders of these councils. The flawed parliamentary and presidential elections in 2009 also showed many young Afghans what can happen if they are not engaged — and they seem grittily determined to flaunt Taliban violence and vote.

“From the western perspective, it’s a gloomy picture: 12 years of investment of blood and treasure has not produced the corresponding result,” says Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. “But the other perspective, held by many Afghans, is that...by every single indicator our achievement is unparalleled with any part of our history,” he tells The Financial Times:

At Kabul University, Abdul Waheed Wafa, who heads the institution’s Afghanistan Centre, shows off the smart new electronic document archiving facility at the heart of a campus where young men and women mix in a way impossible under the Taliban. Mr Wafa, a former journalist, is a realist who has reported on the country’s extreme violence but also feels there have been positive changes that have made Afghanistan a “different nation” socially. “It used to take me 10 hours to travel to my village, with a lot of dust,” he says. “Now my cousin there is sending me Facebook updates every two minutes.” 

Although the Taliban have threatened to derail this election, the Afghan government, security forces, electoral officials—and, most important, the Afghan people—are showing themselves determined not to let that happen, analyst James Dobbins writes for The Wall Street Journal (HT:FPI). “The U.S. will stand with them on April 5, as they determine their country’s future course, and we will continue to stand with a sovereign and united Afghanistan.”

Still, the departure of key observers such as the National Democratic Institute election following recent Taliban attacks is a worrying development, Al-Jazeera reports:

Hassan Wafaey, a political analyst and researcher, said the role of international observers is crucial as it can make or break the legitimacy of the next government in the eyes of Afghan people. This is, after all, a population that almost expects corruption and fraud as a matter of course.

The Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, a civil society organisation promoting democracy, found that 25 percent of those surveyed think these elections will be fair. And that poll was done before the current eruption of anti-election violence.

“The role of international observers will be very important in the upcoming elections because of the experience with corruption in previous elections,” said Wafaey, who works with several civil society groups.

Some analysts also fear Karzai’s strong patronage system may corrupt the outcome, VOA reports.

“The commission is appointed by Karzai, so not only is he appointing the Independent Election Commission that runs the elections, and therefore is responsible to him, he is appointing the people who will determine if there’s any irregularities, and as a result it’s hard to have a lot of confidence in the electoral system,” noted Peter Galbraith, former UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan.

Andrew Wilder of the Unites States Institute of Peace says some of the leading candidates have already been talking about post-vote consensus building. “I think they understand better anyone what’s at stake here, and that there is probably going to be a need for some kind of government of national unity where some of the candidates who lost are accommodated by the winners.”

Over the years, outgoing President Hamid Karzai has been criticized for his failure to fight corruption and stem the Taliban insurgency, but he also is seen as a leader who could bring unity to the country’s many ethnic groups and factions, VOA reports.

khalilzad“He has not put people in jail because they disagreed with him,” said former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. “Freedom of expression has been respected.”

“In my judgment, he inherited a very difficult situation,” said Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, “and Afghanistan has come a long way during his period.”

“But there have been weaknesses,” he said. “Rule of law remains relatively weak, and security institutions are not as strong as they should be, although they have made enormous progress every day in the way they respond.”

Afghans over the past thirty years have seen monarchy, communism, anarchy, and theocracy, and in the past decade they have embraced democracy as a system of governance, note Hamid Arsalan, a Program Officer for the Middle East and North Africa Program at the National Endowment for Democracy, and Scott Smith, the director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

A peaceful and democratic transfer of power-which has never happened in Afghanistan-would be a huge boost to the confidence of this young democracy, they write for Foreign Policy:

A campaign among candidates that highlights differences without being overly divisive would demonstrate a cohesive political class eager to solve Afghanistan’s problems. A decently-run election would provide a new government in Kabul with the legitimacy it needs to sign the BSA, reset its relationship with its international partners, particularly the United States, and get down to the business of governing. 

Jandad Spinghar, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) says it’s essential that the losing candidates accept defeat.

“Politically, the international community and Afghan civil society together should play a kind of role to try and convince these candidates that they should reach an agreement on some general principle where they accept the final result.”

If the experience in Iraq offers any single, unambiguous lesson, it is the folly of just walking away, analyst Kimberly Kagan writes for the Hoover Institution’s Strategika. “The U.S. must not repeat this mistake in Afghanistan. Isolation and disengagement have severely damaged American credibility and security, as can be seen most dramatically in Ukraine today.”

Burma’s troubled transition – democratization or liberalization?

Transitions blogger Min Zin addresses an analysis of one of his recent articles on Burma’s troubled transition by political scientist Jay Ulfelder in Foreign Policy.

Ulfelder argues that it’s premature to say that the current political transition in Burma is “on the wrong track” unless we’ve figured out precisely what the nature of that transition is. He cites O’Donnell and Schmitter’s classic distinction between “liberalization” and “democratization.” Ulfelder believes that what’s happening in Burma more readily fits the liberalization template, and he correspondingly cautions against imposing a wishful democratization narrative on a reality that doesn’t bear the weight of such an assumption.

While Ulfelder insists on the importance of drawing a conceptual and analytical distinction between liberalization, which “involves the expansion of freedoms from arbitrary acts of the state and others,” and democratization, which “entails the expansion of popular consultation and accountability,” I’ve found myself scrutinizing a possible relationship between liberalization and democratization, noting that democracy is one of many possible destinations as a society sets off on the journey away from an authoritarian regime.

I do not at all dispute the important contribution that O’Donnell and Schmitter have made to the transition literature. It’s worth noting that I’ve sometimes characterized Burma’s transition as a liberalization process in some of my previous posts for FP. ….. Although doing my best to avoid political science jargon, what I’ve tried to argue consistently in my articles is that we really do need to take a closer look at the relationship between liberalization and democratization. The empirical evidence that I’ve observed in Burma’s recent political and economic development strongly supports the conclusion that there is no linear or teleological process from liberalization to democratization.


After Ennahda: Tunisia’s Struggle for Political Pluralism

tunisia_ugtt(1)Tunisians have every right to be proud that their country’s political transition remains on track. But major security, economic, and political challenges remain, according to a new analysis.

Tunisia will need substantial international assistance to solve these problems, and there is an appetite among Tunisian political actors for greater U.S. engagement since ensuring a successful transition will advance U.S. interests and values in the region, according to Tunisia’s Struggle for Political Pluralism After Ennahda, a new report from the Center for American Progress:

Tunisia’s leading political forces have so far managed to avoid direct confrontation, but deep distrust and substantial disagreements over its future persist between Ennahda and the country’s non-Islamists, say Hardin Lang, Mokhtar Awad, Peter Juul, and Brian Katulis, the report’s authors.

The Salafi community, which has a small but active wing of young extremist men, poses a challenge not just to Ennahda but to Tunisia as a whole. To better assess these divisions, the Center for American Progress conducted field research in Tunisia through in-depth interviews with the leadership of Ennahda; members of the Salafi community; representatives of country’s main umbrella non-Islamist party, Nidaa Tunis; and several independent political analysts.

This report provides a snapshot of Tunisia’s political transition around the time of the third anniversary of Tunisia’s 2011 Jasmine Revolution. It examines the main Islamist and non-Islamist forces, the tensions between them, and the implications for Tunisia’s continued transition, with a focus on Ennahda as the pivotal actor of the past two years. The report takes stock of the main obstacles confronting Tunisia’s democratic transition, identifies the major trends in the Salafi community, assesses the state of Ennahda-Salafi relations, and analyzes the non-Islamist opposition. It concludes with suggested recommendations for U.S. policymakers. In brief, the report’s key findings include:

  • Tunisia faces continued challenges in its political transition. Despite the agreement on the constitution, the economic and security challenges facing Tunisia’s new political order are daunting. A caretaker government with limited power and unproven political legitimacy is charged with producing results for a Tunisian public impatient for tangible improvements in daily life. Substantive and deep reconciliation between Islamist and non-Islamist political forces remains elusive.
  • Ennahda is focused on getting its own house in order. The abrupt transition from exile and prison to political office left Ennahda little time to build internal strategic consensus. Historical divisions have become more pronounced as the Ennahda rank and file struggle to understand the party leadership’s decisions over the past year to voluntarily surrender control of the government and support a constitution that makes no reference to Sharia. Bridging these internal divides and building cohesion will be a major focus for Ennahda going forward.
  • Ennahda is leaving office, not power. Ennahda remains the most powerful bloc in the National Constituent Assembly with 90 seats out of 217 seats. Ennahda maintains a relatively robust election infrastructure, which it is mobilizing for the elections later this year. The leadership sees a natural role for the movement in parliamentary opposition. Most observers consider Ennahda well positioned to capture the second-largest block of votes in the next election, and the Islamist movement will likely remain a significant political force.
  • The struggle over the role of religion in Tunisia’s transition continues. Ennahda’s decision to back away from the inclusion of Sharia in the constitution paved the way for a final agreement, but many in Ennahda and the broader Islamist camp are unhappy with the result and are likely to press for a different outcome in the next stages of Tunisia’s transition. Ennahda may now look to pass legislation in parliament on key religious issues that they could not write into the constitution.
  • Salafi frustration is on the rise. Salafis appear unified in their frustration and disdain for the path of conciliation that Ennahda chose regarding Sharia law in the constitution and handing over power to a technocratic government. Nonviolent Salafi activists consider Ennahda weak-willed and are sympathetic to their Salafi jihadi counterparts. If their views are reflective of the wider Salafi community, a more militant Salafi current may be on the rise with Ennahda in its crosshairs.
  • Tunisia’s ascendant non-Islamists are prone to fracturing. Tunisia’s non-Islamist political parties and organizations are unified in opposition to the country’s Islamists under the banner of Nidaa Tunis. However, there is little else holding this coalition together. Constituent parties and individual members are at odds on policy matters and vocal in their suspicion of each other. There are signs that the coalition is already beginning to fracture.
  • The state bureaucracy and civil service remain a potential flashpoint. Ennahda appointments to key government ministries were part of a strategy to gain influence over the civil service. Non-Islamists and some civil servants saw the appointments as an effort to Islamize the state and may seek to purge those who remain. This issue could become the next front in the standoff between non-Islamists and Ennahda.Washington should consider taking the following steps in order to help consolidate Tunisia’s continued democratic transition:
  • Enhance U.S. diplomatic engagement. The United States should recognize the recent accomplishments of Tunisia’s transition through the establishment of a strategic dialogue on the occasion of Tunisian Prime Minister Jomaa’s visit to Washington this month. The United States should continue to build diplomatic momentum by establishing a framework and benchmarks for eventually elevating this dialogue to a strategic partnership. On the ground, U.S. diplomats should seek to broaden and deepen the dialogue through political and civil society outreach and economic statecraft. Support should be provided to ensure that Tunisia can hold the next round of elections before the end of 2014.
  • Mobilize economic assistance from bilateral and multilateral donors. The United States should mobilize donors around a shared plan to shore up the Tunisian economy, building on the $1.7 billion in aid recently unlocked by the international financial institutions, or IFIs. The United States should bolster its own bilateral economic assistance while coordinating with France and the Gulf states to deepen their engagement. The United States should also signal its intent to pursue a free trade agreement with Tunisia, while encouraging the European Union to do the same.
  • Bolster U.S assistance to help combat extremist violence. The United States should review the level of support it provides to the Tunisian military and security services in their efforts to combat extremist violence. Additional U.S. security assistance could include equipment, joint military exercises, activities of the U.S.-Tunisian Joint Military Commission, and resources to better protect and manage Tunisia’s borders.
  • Increase support to security and justice sector reform. The United States, together with its EU partners, should engage the Tunisian government to design and implement a comprehensive program to professionalize the country’s security and justice sectors and to bring these institutions under the control of Tunisia’s elected officials. The United States should increase its financial commitment to this effort beyond the $24 million so far provided to the Tunisian Interior Ministry.RTWT

    Hardin Lang is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Mokhtar Awad is a Research Associate at the Center. Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center. Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center.

Russia as a challenger of the West


Back to the future

Back to the future

Russia’s increasingly uncompromising and confrontational policies towards the West are a manifestation of a consciously anti-Western approach which has its roots in the regime’s weakness, isolation, and insecurity, analyst Jonas Grätz writes for the Center for Security Studies. Despite its frailty, however, the present regime in Moscow, along with its thumb-in-the-eye policies, is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Democratic prospects are diminished by the trauma experienced during the country’s post-Communist transition, Grätz suggests:

In Russia’s collective memory the 1990s became synonymous with instability. Not least because of Putinism’s control over TV, this period is now being remembered solely as a period of chaos and the “deepest downfall” of the country. Analysis of the ills of Soviet power has taken a back seat. To foster the idea that Russia is on the right track, Putin succeeded in discrediting the West as a potential development model as well.

Correspondingly, in his third term Putin began to formulate a more coherent ‘conservative’ ideology to win support among the poorer, traditionally-minded electorate. In Putin’s view, as the West shuns its Christian values, Russia will emerge as their new home.  The idea is mainly backward-oriented and hence has no devices to cope with the reality of the world’s current interconnectedness and its problems. Yet it connects with the longing of society for reduced complexity in times of rapid global change.