Venezuela: UN calls for López’s release as new opposition leader ‘sharpens tone’

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The United Nations has urged Venezuelan authorities to immediately release Leopoldo López (above), the jailed opposition leader and founder of the Voluntad Popular party, who was arrested in February. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention described López as the victim of an “arbitrary detention”.

The group rejected the contention of the Venezuelan Attorney General’s Office that it is legitimately holding the opposition leader to account for street violence that occurred after he called for protest against the government following the disputed presidential election. The UN states that neither the Attorney General’s Office nor the government “clearly states what phrases in his speech could have motivated those serious incidents or incited their perpetration.”

López has been detained in the Ramo Verde military prison “on grounds of political affiliation and opinions,” the working group asserts, adding that the authorities are acting illegally by keeping López isolated and imposing obstacles to communication with his legal representatives.

Venezuela’s fractured opposition has turned to a surprising new leader: a burly, tough-talking former communist who says his first order of business is to rekindle street protests, Ezequiel Minaya writes for the Wall Street Journal:

Jesús “Chuo” Torrealba’s recent appointment to head a coalition of political parties known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable [Mesa de la Unidad Democrática ] is a sharp break from past leaders more at ease behind desks than in the country’s hard-bitten slums.

vzla torrealbaOn Wednesday, Mr. Torrealba (right) said his group would stage 22 town hall meetings nationwide on Saturday to discuss rampant crime in the wake of an 8-hour-long downtown standoff in Caracas this week that left five people dead, including a paramilitary leader once close to government officials.

Torrealba has targeted Venezuela’s 2015 parliamentary elections as the opposition’s next strategic opportunity to end chavista rule, notes Americas Quarterly:

After narrowly losing the presidential election to President Nicolás Maduro in 2013, the opposition coalition is now looking to win a majority in the National Assembly next year in order to put pressure on the president and potentially force a recall referendum in 2016.

Venezuela risks imploding

A dissident faction of the ruling Socialist Party says the country risks imploding if corruption, inefficiency and the economic crisis are not tamed, Reuters reports:.

“The revolutionary process is in danger, it’s falling apart,” warned Gonzalo Gomez Freire, a leader of Marea Socialista, or “Socialist Tide”, a small but vocal group of leftist intellectuals critical of President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

Maduro is under intense pressure with an economy in recession, shortages of basic goods and medicines, annual inflation above 60 percent and sky-high crime. Maduro lacks Chavez’s charisma and his approval rating has dropped to around 35 percent.

The opposition’s Torrealba worked as an adviser for both the statistics and education ministries beforehugo Chávez took office in 1999, by which time he had grown disillusioned with far leftist ideology, Minaya adds:

“I broke with communism because of its controls on the individual,” he said. “I left party politics because it wasn’t striving to help people; it was the struggle for power.”

Torrealba launched a radio show called Radar of the Barrios. Mr. Torrealba would help get potholes and streetlamps mended, while giving slum dwellers a forum to vent their frustrations with the government….The radio broadcast morphed into a nonprofit organization and eventually a popular program on the television network, Globovision that was canceled after the station was sold last year to investors with government ties. That paved the way for the opposition coalition to choose Mr. Torrealba for its leadership slot.

Mr. Torrealba said that his strategy will mean “more person-to-person contact, face-to-face, house-to-house.”

“That kind of contact allows for the exchange of information and ideas,” he said. “That kind of activity is what we are going to develop.”

López’s family released Opinion No. 26/2014 of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, finding that he is being held illegally and in violation of international law:

The Working Group is of the opinion that the detention of Mr. Leopoldo López is an arbitrary detention . . . Accordingly, it recommends to the Government of . . . Venezuela that [it] immediately frees [him], and grants comprehensive reparation, including the compensation of his moral and compensatory character, as well as measures of satisfaction, which could be a public statement of apology in his favor.

vzla LilianTintori“I am so incredibly grateful that the United Nations has called for Leopoldo’s release,” said Lilian Tintori, Leopoldo’s wife (left).  “Its strong stand in solidarity with my husband and the Venezuelan people sends a clear and unequivocal message to President Maduro,” she added.

The Government of Venezuela vigorously disputed López’s claims, and lost, according to a media release from López’s lawyers:

The Working Group’s detailed deliberations and conclusions are presented in a 10-page written opinion.  When the Government of Venezuela withdrew from the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights on September 6, 2012, it said it “remains committed to increasing its cooperation with the Human Rights Council.”  That cooperation must include the immediate release López.

López is a 43-year-old Venezuelan opposition leader being held in Ramo Verde military prison facing charges of inciting violence, arson, damage to property, and conspiracy.  He is the founder and National Coordinator of the political party Voluntad Popular (“Popular Will”) and former mayor of the Chacao District of Caracas.  He López has been imprisoned on the basis of four speeches he gave in January February 2014, where he advocated changing the Government of Venezuela through democratic, constitutional, and non-violent means.  Nevertheless, the Government claimed in its indictment that he persuaded his supporters to engage in violence through “subliminal messaging.” He is facing 12-years imprisonment. So far in his trial, the judge has approved the Government to introduce more than 100 witnesses, a dozen reports, and numerous videos against him but has rejected 58 of 60 proposed witnesses and all documentary evidence proposed by López.

In recent weeks, OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza, U.S. President Barack Obama, and the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post, among others, have all called for López’s immediate release from prison.

Stage set for battle over Indonesia’s democracy


A supporter holds a campaign poster of Indonesian presidential candidate Jokowi and his running mate Kalla during a rally at Gelora Bung Karno stadium in JakartaThe Indonesian Parliament, under the control of emboldened political forces opposed to President-elect Joko Widodo, convened for a new five-year term on Wednesday, setting the stage for a long-term battle over the future of democracy in Southeast Asia’s most populous country, the New York Times reports:

The opposition bloc is led by Prabowo Subianto — a former army general who lost a bitterly contested presidential election to Mr. Joko in July — and controls 68 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives, the main legislative body……Despite Mr. Prabowo’s election loss three months ago, his “Red and White Coalition” — a reference to the colors of the Indonesian flag — continues to exert its influence, including orchestrating the passage last Friday of 11th-hour legislation in the previous Parliament that eliminated direct elections for mayors, district chiefs and provincial governors.

This week, incoming opposition lawmakers raised the notion of amending the Indonesian Constitution to eliminate direct presidential elections and giving the power to appoint the country’s president back to a legislative body that Suharto had firmly controlled and used to perpetuate his hold on power.

Philips J. Vermonte, head of the politics and international relations department at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, said Mr. Prabowo and his supporters were determined to “recentralize” power back into the hands of the political elite in the capital.

“All these achievements we’ve had, including with fighting corruption, were all part of the reform movement after Suharto,” he said. “These changes that Prabowo is trying to do, people feel they are trying to bring us back to square one.”


Beijing losing hearts and minds in Hong Kong

Hong Kong democracy protesters defied volleys of tear gas and police baton charges to stand firm in the centre of the global financial hub on Monday, one of the biggest political challenges for China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown 25 years ago, Reuters reports:

The Communist government in Beijing made clear it would not tolerate dissent, and warned against any foreign interference as thousands of protesters massed for a fourth night in the free-wheeling, capitalist city of more than 7 million people…..The “one country, two systems” formula guarantees Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, with universal suffrage set as an eventual goal.

However, Beijing last month rejected demands for people to freely choose the city’s next leader, prompting threats from activists to shut down the Central business district.

China wants to limit 2017 elections to a handful of candidates loyal to Beijing. Communist Party leaders worry that calls for democracy could spread to the mainland.

Given Beijing’s intransigent stance, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters are unlikely to get what they want — but many probably also knew that when they organized boycotts or took to the streets, writes Foreign Policy’s Rachel Lu:

The real battle, still very much ongoing, is for Hong Kong’s people’s hearts and minds. After watching protesters facing down the riot police, C.Y. apparently doing Beijing’s bidding, and students being arrested, even moderate Hong Kongers are likely to become even more distrustful of the Hong Kong government’s willingness to look out for their interests.

Hong Kong’s fight for self-government is significant far beyond the territory of 7.2 million that for decades has been a beacon of freedom, the Wall Street Journal reports:

CHINA HK CDTThe hope of many in 1997 was that Hong Kong’s success would be a model that the mainland might emulate. Instead Beijing’s Communists fear any show of self-government, even in an autonomous region, as a threat to their own rule. Hong Kong’s democracy advocates deserve the world’s support, not least from a U.S. government that seems not to be paying attention.

Hong Kong’s central bank took emergency measures on Monday as the three-day battle between democracy activists – many of whom spent Sunday night camped on the streets – and police started to hurt the territory’s businesses and markets, the FT reports:

“This is a sad day for Hong Kong,” said Anson Chan, the former head of the civil service. “Pictures of our police force firing pepper spray and tear gas into the faces of unarmed protesters will shame our government in front of the whole world.”

Earlier on Monday, the Mandarin Oriental used security shutters to prevent tear gas from the nearby protest area from entering the hotel. Several banks, including HSBC and Standard Chartered, later shuttered a total of 36 branches.

“What is going on now, in addition to any immediate public order issues, is a battle for the hearts and minds of the Hong Kong public,” said Michael C. Davis, a professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, who has closely followed the debate over election reform. “Beijing may be indifferent to protest or at least not inclined to give in. The Hong Kong government needs public support.”

Some Chinese news organizations reported on the Hong Kong protests, but strictly from the Communist Party perspective, according to the New York Times’ Sinosphere blog:

China Daily, an official English-language newspaper, had a front-page article on the events, with a photograph of protesters carrying open umbrellas confronting lines of police officers. There was no explanation of why people had the umbrellas (they were used to protect against pepper spray). The headline and article focused on condemnation of the protesters by the authorities. The English-language print edition of Global Times published a similar front-page photograph and article.

China Digital Times reports that while Occupy Central organizers initially planned a protest for October 1, China’s National Day, movement leader Benny Tai announced they would officially join the student protests on Sunday:

“I’ve got a long-awaited message. Occupy Central will start now,” Tai declared to thousands gathered in Admiralty.

The first step of the movement was to occupy the government headquarters, he said: “Students and people who support democracy has begun a new era of civil disobedience.”

The news of the long-awaited protest sparked friction in some quarters, with some students simply packing up and going home, despite the fact the two movements share the same aims in urging Beijing to loosen its strict package of political reforms and give Hongkongers the power to elect their own chief executive. [Source]

Michael Davis, a professor at Hong Kong University who was present during the clashes, said: “If there’s violence out of Occupy Central, it will be because the government is heavy-handed. We are talking about a society that has lived under freedom, a free press, and free markets for as long as they can remember. Now they are told they are going to have some kind of ‘mainland style’ democracy,” he told the Guardian

Indonesia: third-largest democracy votes to become less democratic


Credit: NDI

Credit: NDI

Lawmakers in the world’s third-largest democracy voted Friday to make their country less democratic, the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Otto reports:

Indonesia’s legislature passed a bill ending direct elections for regional leaders, dealing an early setback for incoming President Joko Widodo, who opposed the measure.

Lawmakers squared off for hours Thursday night and into Friday morning, finally voting 226-135 to end the direct election of hundreds of regional leaders such as governors and mayors in the Southeast Asian nation. The measure would empower elected regional councils to appoint them instead. Indonesia’s presidency would still be chosen in direct elections by voters every five years.

The bill will become law within 30 days, unless current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono moved to bring it into effect more quickly.

The move by the House of Representatives at nearly 2 a.m. Friday, in the waning hours of its five-year term, was viewed by analysts as political payback after the recent presidential election victory of Joko Widodo, the popular governor of Jakarta and a two-time provincial mayor, the New York Times adds:

Afghanistan: failed transformation, death of democracy or hope for reform?

2015 is supposed to mark the start of Afghanistan’s “Transformation Decade,” notes a prominent analyst. But if the country is to even get to 2015 in one piece, its new leaders must act fast to correct course after the failed transformation of the last decade, Ahmed Rashid writes for the New York Times:

On Sunday, after months of bitter wrangling, the two leading candidates in Afghanistan’s presidential election agreed to form a national unity government. Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun technocrat, is to be president, and Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister of mixed Tajik and Pashtun descent, is to be chief executive, a newly created post akin to prime minister. …The four-page joint agreement between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah calls for convening a loya jirga, a traditional gathering of tribal representatives and elected district councilors, in the next two years in order to amend the Constitution to reflect the recent creation of the chief executive post.

But a loya jirga should be called as soon as possible, so as to promptly give constitutional cover to the power-sharing agreement between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah. The assembly should also discuss how the present presidential system, which is highly centralized, could be improved and how electoral reforms can be made to prevent future vote-rigging. And the gathering should be convened before the parliamentary elections scheduled for next year: This would allow the legislators who are elected then to have some of the legitimacy that is lacking at present.

NY Times

NY Times

“Death of democracy” is the phrase that has gone viral on social media among young Afghans since the September 21 announcement of a deal between the country’s two presidential election rivals, according to Afghan analyst Helena Malikyar:

Afghans celebrated the end of a deadlock that had plagued their country’s April 5 presidential elections because of the tremendous adverse effects that the impasse had brought onto the nation’s economy, security, and the function of the entire state apparatus.

However, the political deal that entails the formation of a “government of national unity” by rival presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, is widely seen as a setback in the country’s process of democratisation. By brushing aside people’s votes, the political elite’s deal has disenchanted ordinary citizens and has shaken their confidence in the democratic process

Appointments will be key to everything, both in terms of how power is split and wielded and what sort of government Afghanistan is to get, Kate Clark writes for the Afghanistan Analysts Network:

The deal keeps repeating that appointments will be on merit, but that is something that has proved very difficult up until now. In Afghanistan, positions are often considered as ‘spoils’ and a means of rewarding supporters; patronage underpins power and authority. What has enabled the government so far to nevertheless survive has been the large inflows of foreign capital and foreign military support, but both are already tailing off. A united government will already have difficulty coping with all the problems Afghanistan faces. A weak and contested administration could well find those problems overwhelming.

Credit: NDI

Credit: NDI

But the National Democratic Institute (NDI)* welcomed the conclusion of the 2014 presidential electoral process and the political agreement that enables the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history.

“The establishment of the national unity government provides a critical framework for political leaders to work in tandem to address the country’s political, economic and security challenges,” the group said, and it also commended the new government’s plan to form a special commission on electoral reform:

The commission should examine the root causes of serious flaws in the electoral process and offer recommendations for reforms that, if adopted, could promote Afghan confidence in the country’s electoral and political institutions. Such reforms could include constitutional, legislative, operational and institutional aspects as well as accountability mechanisms. Political will must be exercised and adequate resources allocated to implement such reforms. 

The Middle East Institute’s Louis R. Hughes Lecture Series this week hosted a panel discussion exploring the role of democratic governance in both Pakistan and Afghanistan (above). Have the conditions been right within these countries for democracy to take root? Has it been given a fair chance to succeed? Should it be held to different standards than democracy in the West? Experts Hassan Abbas (National Defense University), Sarah Chayes (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), Joshua White (Stimson Center), and Moeed Yusuf (United States Institute for Peace) consider these questions, as well as whether future reforms could improve the efficacy of the existing governments in both countries.

* NDI’s election assessment mission fielded 100 Afghan staff observers in 26 provinces for the April first round elections and the June presidential runoff. The Institute mobilized 25 international and 25 Afghan observers to monitor the presidential runoff audit. The NDI mission was informed by a pre-election assessment the Institute conducted in December 2013. NDI supported the efforts of multiple domestic monitoring groups that mobilized thousands of citizen monitors for the two elections and the comprehensive audit. The Institute will issue a final report on the 2014 elections, including recommendations to strengthen the electoral process, in the near future.