A pope to defend human rights and democracy?

Pope Francis has left behind an Argentina in which he was a stern critic of the Cristina Kirchner government’s deepening of that beautiful country’s democracy deficit,” writes George Weigel, the Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. 

He called on the new pope to promote a morally rigorous conception of democracy.

“At a moment when the momentum of the democratic project in Latin America is flagging (while new opportunities are opening up in places like post-Chávez Venezuela and the inevitable post-Castro-brothers Cuba), the new pope should be able to rally Catholic forces in defense of religious freedom and other civil liberties in a continent where they are now under assault,” says Weigel, author of Evangelical Catholicism and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.                                            

“And if he can do that at home, he can do it throughout the world.”

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Free Arabs – Democracy, Secularism, Fun?

Free Arabs, a new Web site run by a group of Arabs – some in the Middle East, others in the West – is causing a stir,”  Foreign Policy magazine reports: 

Gathered under the slogan “Democracy, Secularism, Fun,” it laments the fact that “millions of Arabs have internalized the notion that secularism is tantamount to faithlessness, and is all about demonizing Islam and promoting a dissolute way of life. Not only can secularism coexist with religion, Free Arabs argues, but it protects the free exercise of religion and can help promote other civil liberties, like gay rights.

Some don’t want to be dragged into culture wars, a favorite ground for Islamists who bank on the fact that many Arab societies are still socially conservative. ….Still, the controversy triggered by Free Arabs is just the kind of debate Islamists and secularists in the Arab world should be having, if only because they couldn’t have had it under the old regimes. Also, there’s plenty of room for debate: In this part of the world, the term “secular” means very different things to different people.”

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South Sudan journalist arrested in civil society crackdown

(VOA/Mugume Davis)

A veteran journalist has been detained in South Sudan less than a month after the government “agreed to be a pilot country for a UN program to create a free and safe environment for media workers,” VOA reports.

Alfred Taban (right), chief editor of The Juba Monitor, says he was held in ‘very difficult conditions’ after publishing an opinion piece claiming that a former state governor misappropriated public funds.

“I was… served with an arrest warrant and then placed in very difficult conditions… [in] a room about three yards by five yards,” he said. “It was not really for human beings.”

Taban’s detention came after the US Special Envoy to South Sudan and Sudan expressed concern that the neighboring government in Khartoum has been “increasingly engaged in a ‘crackdown’ on civil society organizations and leaders.”

“In addition to the recent arrests and closures of NGOs, the government of Sudan has launched a campaign of censorship and reprisal against newspapers critical of the government,” said Ambassador Princeton N Lyman, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“This crackdown on civil society, the media and opposition parties worsened last month after the signing of the so-called ‘New Dawn Charter’ between the movements making up the Sudan Revolutionary Front and the non-violent opposition political parties gathered in the National Consensus Forces.,” he wrote.

The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemned Taban’s arrest, and complained that the journalist was treated like a criminal and held in “very inhumane conditions.” “Citizens must be allowed to express their views in the public interest as this is what guarantees good governance, accountability and probity,” the IFJ statement said.

At least 10 journalists have been detained without charge in the world’s youngest state in the last two months, says the Union for Journalists in South Sudan.

“We urge parliamentarians to pass the laws to protect journalists, media actors and the public. The delay of passing the media laws is a challenge for the administration of justice for journalists, media houses and the public in South Sudan,” said Oliver Modi Philip, the union’s leader.

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Five reasons why China is more democratic than Russia

Over the last two decades, when China was busy with capacity building, Russia seems to have been pre-occupied with incapacity hiding, writes Ivan Krastev. “When Western commentators try to make sense of the different performance of the new authoritarians, they would well advised to look beyond formal institutional design.”

Power Rotation

Russia clearly has elections, but no rotation of power. In the two post-communist decades, the president has not lost a single election: the role of the elections are not to secure the rotation of power, but to avoid it. In the case of China, clearly, the opposition doesn’t have a chance of winning either. Yet on the other hand, Chinese leaders do not stay in power for any more than ten years, after which a new party leader and president are automatically elected. In other words, in the Russian system elections are used as the way to legitimise the lack of rotation, while the Chinese Communist institutional structure has developed to allow an element of power rotation.

Of course, we are still talking about two non-competitive regimes. But the Chinese understand that you need to change leadership, or you have a problem. The Chinese system, based on the principle of collective leadership, prevents the emergence of personalised authoritarianism and provides much more checks and balances.

Listening to the People

By definition, non-democratic regimes have in-built hearing problems. Surveillance and polling can never replace the information that comes from people regularly taking place in free and competitive elections. Democratic elections are not only an option to elect leaders, but also a direct way to gauge where people stand.

When it comes to ‘hearing the people’, however, there is an important difference between China and Russia. This comes down to the fact that the Chinese government has not criminalised labour protest. Labour conflicts, ordinarily directed against regional leaders or company directors, are not considered dangerous for the party. So every year there are hundreds of thousands of strikes, and these have become an important source of reliable information. When people go on a direct protest, it is much better than pure polls – valuable not only because they are visible, but because they also offer an opportunity to contest the ability of the local leaders to settle conflicts. In Russia, the supposedly more democratic system, you don’t see strikes, because the price for protesting on labour issues is very high. Russia’s rigged elections are a much weaker test to judge the mood of the people and the ability of the regional leaders to deal with them.

Tolerance of opposition, tolerance of dissent

Democratic decision-making depends upon both diversity of views and the acceptability of disagreement, and here is where we uncover another point of divergence. If you compare Russia and China, you will see that in Russia there is certainly much more tolerance for organised opposition. The process is completely screwed up, but you can register a party, you can go on the street to protest, you can even ask Putin to resign. The Chinese regime is certainly much harsher and intolerant in this respect. But while the Kremlin broadly tolerates the opposition, it does not listen to it. It does not allow for dissent on policy matters and Government officials are careful not to advocate policies favored by the opposition.

Though the Chinese system is much more classically authoritarian and communist, its decision-making process is of a much better quality, more inclusive than the Russian one.

Recruitment of elites

Where do people come from to occupy the most important positions in the state and leading industry? A study conducted by Russkiy Reporter in the end of 2011 revealed a number of interesting facts on this front. First, the great majority of the Russian elites went to one of just two Universities. Second, none of those occupying the top 300 positions came from the Russian Far East. And, third, the most important factor influencing membership of this elite circle is to have known Mr Putin before he became president. In short, Russia is governed by a circle of friends. This is not a meritocratic system in any sense…..

This is not the way in which the Chinese Communist party works. It is doing its best to create different layers of society, and does try to make the system reasonably meritocratic…… The Communist party serves as a vehicle to recruit and socialise the elites, and the Chinese leadership invests a lot in ensuring regional representation and providing its cadres with opportunity to get diverse experience.


Bottom of Form

The Chinese and Russians totally differ in their view of the experimental nature of politics. Chinese political and economic reforms are organised around the experimentation of different models in the different regions and try to figure out what works from the point of view of the leadership. This is emphatically not the case in Russia: experiment is, basically, a dirty word there.

What does it all mean?

In summary, while there was once a time that you measured democracy looking at institutions, now you need to also ask questions about how the institutions function. Do they look like democracies? Is it possible that the democracy is faked? Russia is a brilliant example that should force us to think. It has fashioned a democratic surface, but under this surface all types of non-democratic practices are flourishing. China is another country – authoritarian and severe undoubtedly. But because of the pressure of the system, the different ideas underlying its transformation, and the country’s involvement on the world stage, its political practices are much more open than its formal institutions may lead us to believe.

Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (IWM).He is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Democracy, an initiative of the National Endowment for Democracy.

This is an extract from a longer article published on openDemocracy. RTWT. Republished under a Creative Commons license.

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