Venezuela: post-election ‘power grab’ seeks to entrench Chavismo

The re-election of Hugo Chávez “represents a serious challenge to what remains of Venezuela’s weakened institutional framework, and to the further erosion of political plurality,” says a prominent analyst.

Alternatively, chastised by a newly resurgent opposition and reportedly recovering from cancer, is Venezuela’s re-elected populist president likely to adopt more moderate policies?

“The answer is a resounding no, for some of Mr. Chávez’s electoral promises and past experience suggest that the president is likely to take an even more radical stance,” writes Federico Barriga, a Latin America analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Most importantly, Venezuela might see the emergence of a “sub-system” of political and economic organizations that will grant the executive even greater power at the expense of institutional stability and political plurality,” he suggests.

Chávez is likely to target his critics and opponents “with various tactics and degrees of radicalism,” Barriga writes for the Huffington Post:

The local private sector is particularly vulnerable, as it already suffers from price and exchange controls and overregulation. Although a move to a fully state-controlled economic model is highly unlikely, expropriation would remain a constant threat…..

 More challenging will be to reduce the influence of groups such as autonomous universities, student groups, NGOs and the church. In contrast to Venezuela’s traditional political parties, they have operated as an effective counterweight to chavista hegemony in the public sphere. To move definitively against any or all of them would be to take a more open authoritarian style, and it is uncertain whether Mr Chávez would be willing to risk making that step. Moreover, despite its recent withdrawal from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, Venezuela is still bound by constitutional and treaty commitments that are not so easy to evade, including those derived from its recent entry to the Mercosur trading bloc. That said, the government is still likely to use judicial intimidation and financial repression to reduce the sphere of influence of these groups.

Other observers agree that the regime is likely to become more authoritarian.

“Every time he’s won elections he’s tried to use it to claim a mandate,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas. “It’s quite conceivable that he’ll try to implement his vision even quicker now because he’s not sure how long he’ll be around.”

Chavez, who has seized more than 1,000 companies or their assets since taking office, will probably now pursue more expropriations and extend state control over the economy, he said.

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles was defeated despite running what analyst Moses Naim called a “perfect” campaign.

The democratic opposition was also unable to contend with Chávez’s abuse of state resources, observers suggest.

“I think he just cranked up the patronage machine and unleashed a spending orgy,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

Chávez’s win will be a boost to Latin America’s illiberal forces, say observers.

“Raul Castro will be relieved that the approximately $4bn worth of subsidized oil that Cuba gets from Venezuela each year will continue,” while Argentina’s Cristina Fernández “will meanwhile be relieved to see that a populist president can prevail, despite a thwacked private sector,” writes the FT’s John Paul Rathbone.

“The first of the two big questions now facing Chávez is the Venezuelan economy,” he contends:

The vote-winning 30 per cent ramp up in government spending this year has opened up a fiscal deficit. Many expect a devaluation soon; the black market exchange rate is already four times the official fixed rate. It is Mr Chávez, the socialist, rather than the “neoliberal” opposition that will have to preside over any adjustment. Ouch.

The second big question is his health. After three operations to remove two tumours, has Mr Chávez really recovered from cancer as he claims? 

Probably not, as “several foreign ministries …. believe that Chávez’s disease is a terminal condition,” says Naim, a former Venezuelan oil minister and a board member at the National Endowment for Democracy.

The regime is likely to implement “constitutional reforms and faster implementation of controversial laws that have already been approved, [including] reforms to increase the power of the executive (or of organisations dependent on the president)” because the president’s ambition “to establish Chavismo as a viable long-term political option would depend on the ability to control those who remain in opposition,” writes the EIU’s Barriga:

Enter the communes. Although originally based on ideological precepts, Mr. Chávez’s increased interest in communal entities stems in large part from political calculations, specifically in trying to erode the power of the opposition at the state and local levels. Thus far, the president has sought to tame regional and local authorities by denying them the share of the national budget to which they are entitled under the constitution — mainly by understating oil revenue. A next stage could potentially involve the transfer the existing political responsibilities (as well as economic resources) that local authorities still enjoy to the communes.

Chávez’s post-election power grab is likely to generate considerable institutional instability, Barriga contends:

The health of Venezuela’s democracy would depend on society’s capacity to maintain a counterweight to the executive, and to a lesser extent on international pressure. While the economy, and in particular movements in the international price of oil, will continue to play a role, Mr Chávez has proved that he can withstand periods of austerity and economic contraction, suggesting that political considerations — and in particular the push to advance his radical agenda — would take precedence over all else.

RTWT

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Bahrain: rights groups protest as court rejects Rajab appeal

A Bahraini court today denied a request to release leading human rights activist Nabeel Rajab who is currently serving a three-year prison sentence for organizing and participating in peaceful protests in support of democratic reform.

The court “rejected a request to release Nabeel Rajab and suspend” his sentence, Rajab’s lawyer Mohammed al-Jishi said on his Twitter account.

Rajab began a hunger strike on October 6 after Bahraini officials initially granted and then denied his request to attend a three-day condolences gathering for his recently-deceased mother, AFP reports:

The government did release him temporarily for her funeral on October 4, where he allegedly “violated” the terms of his release by urging Shiites to continue anti-government protests…..The courts have merged Rajab’s three separate cases of “incitement and illegal assembly” into one single appeal, with the next hearing set for October 16.

Separately, the attorney general announced in a statement on Monday that charges against a police officer accused of shooting dead a Shiite protester on August 17 have been dropped. The policeman had acted in “self-defense” after the man who was killed “attempted to throw a Molotov cocktail at him,” the statement said.

International human rights groups, including the Gulf Center for Human Rights, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the World Movement for Democracy are calling for letters of appeal and protest to be addressed to the authorities (contact details below).

The Gulf Center for Human Rights and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights have issued a statement of concern over Rajab, who is president of the BCHR, director of the GCHR and deputy secretary general of the Paris-based Federation for International Human Rights:

Prison authorities today refused to release Rajab and fellow activist Mohamed Jawad Parweez to allow them to attend a condolence gathering for Rajab’s mother – who is also Parweez’s sister. The Public Prosecutor had earlier granted a temporary release allowing both Rajab and Parweez to attend the gathering which lasts for a few hours each day. But when their families went to the prison this morning, they were told that the temporary release had been cancelled.

Earlier on 4 Oct 2012, Rajab was allowed to attend his mother’s funeral of his mother along with Parweez who appeared in a wheelchair due to injuries sustained as a result of severe torture to which he was subjected following his arrest in March 2011.

The official Bahrain news agency published a statement in which the Chief Prosecutor alleged that Rajab violated the conditions of his release by giving a provocative speech after the funeral in which he called on people to continue the struggle for rights and democracy. The speech – available online here with English subtitles – is clearly a peaceful expression of opinion.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), is “highly concerned about [Rajab’s] physical and psychological integrity,” “deplores” his arbitrary detention and “reiterates its call to the Bahraini authorities to immediately and unconditionally release him and to put an end to all acts of judicial harassment against him.”

The Observatory urges the Bahraini authorities to guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of Mr. Rajab, as well as of all human rights defenders in Bahrain…. and urges the Bahraini authorities to ensure that international observers will be able to attend Mr. Rajab’s next appeal hearing on October 16 without any hindrances.

For more information, please contact:

·       FIDH: Arthur Manet/Audrey Couprie: + 33 (0) 1 43 55 25 18

·       OMCT: Delphine Reculeau: +41 (0) 22 809 49 39

Letters of appeal and protest should be faxed to the authorities via the following addresses:

King Shaikh Hamad bin ‘Issa Al Khalifa

Office of His Majesty the King

P.O. Box 555

Rifa’a Palace, al-Manama, Bahrain

Fax: +973 17664587

 

Prime Minister

Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa

Prime Minister

Office of the Prime Minister

P.O. Box 1000, al-Manama, Bahrain

Fax: +973 17533033

 

Minister of Interior

Shaikh Rashid bin ‘Abdullah bin Ahmad Al Khalifa

Minister of Interior

Ministry of Interior

P.O. Box 13, al-Manama, Bahrain

Fax: +973 17232661

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Transitions: from Georgia to…..Venezuela?

Check out Democracy Lab’s Weekly Brief:

Reporting from Caracas, Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez explores scenarios after this Sunday’s presidential vote in Venezuela. The main question: Will Hugo Chávez give up power if he loses?

Christian Caryl tells the story of an elementary school teacher in Sudan who faces execution because she had the courage to stand up to the regime. And Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch presents a gallery of similarly courageous but little-known activists from around the world.

On the scene in Tbilisi, James Kirchick reports on the surprising aftermath of Georgia’s parliamentary election — especially President Mikheil Saakashvili’s remarkable acceptance of his own defeat. And Kirchick’s dispatch from election day provides a vivid account of the tensions and hopes leading up to the vote.

In an excerpt from his new book, economist Justin Yifu Lin compares the experiences of transition economies and offers a few useful rules of thumb for reformers.

Christopher Stephen, on the scene in Benghazi, describes a local backlash against the militants who killed a popular U.S. ambassador.

In the run-up to Venezuela’s epochal election, Juan Nagel reports on the shifting balance of forces, while Francisco Toro takes a closer look at whether Hugo Chávez has improved the life of the country’s poor.

Reflecting on Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to the United States, Min Zin takes her to task for neglecting to mention the country’s continuing civil war.

Endy Bayuni reports on the Indonesian Anti-Corruption Commission’s effort to take on one of the country’s most graft-ridden institutions: the police.

Mohamed El Dahshan investigates the absurdities of Egypt’s campaign against blasphemy.

And Jackee Batanda recounts the curious tale of a run-in between U.S. diplomats and a Ugandan general.

And now for this week’s recommended reads:

Democracy Digest explains why Georgia’s election offers a hopeful precedent for the surrounding region. Georgia-watcher Mark Mullen muses about Mikheil Saakashvili’s triumphs and mistakes.

A paper from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance provides an in-depth look at Venezuela’s presidential election.

In a provocative op-ed, MIT scholar Brian Haggerty argues that those who argue for a “limited” intervention in Syria are likely to be proven wrong by conditions on the ground.

The International Crisis Group offers a handy backgrounder on Malaysia, where a long-anticipated general election may soon shake up the political landscape.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Sadanand Dhume explains why he expects little from the new anti-corruption party just launched in India.

The Jamestown Foundation’s Igor Rotar worries that the explosive situation in Central Asia’s restive Ferghana Valley is likely to aggravate instability throughout the region.

A new book from Democracy Lab contributor Francisco Martin-Rayo tells of his travels through the terrorist recruiting grounds of Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia.

And finally, Jadaliyya offers a withering review of The Daily Show appearance of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who, they say, is incorrectly portrayed as a reformist “constitutional monarch.” You be the judge: You can find Part I of the interview here.

Democracy Lab is a special project with the Legatum Institute and Foreign Policy magazine.

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Urgent appeal for Nabeel Rajab, Bahrain’s leading human rights defender

Human rights and democracy activists are calling for urgent action over the case of Nabeel Rajab, who began a hunger strike today, insisting that he will abstain from food, water and medication in protest at his unjust treatment.

Rajab is currently serving a three-year prison sentence for organizing and participating in peaceful protests in support of democratic reform.

The Gulf Center for Human Rights and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights have issued a statement of concern over Rajab, who is president of the BCHR, director of the GCHR and deputy secretary general of the Paris-based Federation for International Human Rights:

Prison authorities today refused to release Rajab and fellow activist Mohamed Jawad Parweez to allow them to attend a condolence gathering for Rajab’s mother – who is also Parweez’s sister. The Public Prosecutor had earlier granted a temporary release allowing both Rajab and Parweez to attend the gathering which lasts for a few hours each day. But when their families went to the prison this morning, they were told that the temporary release had been canceled.

Earlier on 4 Oct 2012, Rajab was allowed to attend his mother’s funeral of his mother along with Parweez who appeared in a wheelchair due to injuries sustained as a result of severe torture to which he was subjected following his arrest in March 2011.

The official Bahrain news agency published a statement in which the Chief Prosecutor alleged that Rajab violated the conditions of his release by giving a provocative speech after the funeral in which he called on people to continue the struggle for rights and democracy. The speech – available online here with English subtitles – is clearly a peaceful expression of opinion.

Human rights and democracy advocates expressed shock and indignation at Rajab’s three-year sentence for anti-government activities.

“Even those of us who have followed Bahrain’s violent crackdown on human rights are shocked by today’s move,” said Brian Dooley of Human Rights First. “It’s a breathtakingly bad decision, showing that the regime’s rhetoric about reform and reconciliation is a sham. The charges are patently politically-motivated, and designed to silence him. He has consistently called for protests to be peaceful, and there is no justification for his jailing.”

The “unexpectedly stiff sentence will raise questions about the Western-backed Sunni monarchy’s commitment to reform,” AP reported.

“You can jail me for 3 years or 30 years, but I will not back down or retreat (from my human rights work),” Rajab said after his sentence was read out.

The GCHR and BCHR today urged the US administration as well as other governments that have influence in Bahrain including the UK government, the EU, and the leading human rights organizations to:

1. Call for the immediate release of human rights defender Nabeel Rajab as well as all other detained human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience in Bahrain; 2. Put pressure on the government of Bahrain to drop all charges against detained human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience; 3. Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Bahrain are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals, and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.

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Liberal-Islamist ‘civil war’ over Egypt’s constitution

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi today visited the Sinai Peninsula to reassure Coptic families who fled from the town of Rafah after receiving death threats from radical Islamists.

The episode has alarmed the Coptic church and rights groups, and Morsi’s visit appears designed to assuage growing concern at the illiberal trajectory of Egypt’s transition after two Coptic boys were arrested for blasphemy earlier this week, while a Muslim Brotherhood imam called for ‘infidel’ liberals and secularists to be prosecuted for abandoning Islam.

“If they do not repent, the judge must apply the penalty for apostasy,” said Wagdy Ghoneim. “If anyone tells you that he is liberal, tell him directly that he is infidel.”

Ghoneim issued a fatwa prohibiting membership of the Constitution Party, led by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.

The Brotherhood-led government has also granted pardons to dozens of violent jihadists, including Mustafa Hamza, a leading member of Gamaa Islamiya implicated in the 1997 Luxor massacre when 60 foreign tourists were massacred and mutilated.

Secular and liberal politicians are alarmed at provisions of the new constitution currently being drafted by an Islamist-dominated panel. They are calling on Morsi to ensure a “balanced” constitution, but some observers doubt that he will respond to their concerns.    

“It is not clear right now whether he has the willingness or the ability to govern through a national consensus rather than ruling as a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University. “The real test will be the coming constitution.”

While Egypt’s former constitution recognized the “principles” of sharia as the main source of legislation, Salafists are pushing for a provision identifying “the rules of sharia”, or simply sharia, as the main source of legislation and for Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, a 1,000-year-old font of Sunni Muslim doctrine, to have exclusive authority for interpreting sharia.

“Secular critics fear that al-Azhar’s current, relatively liberal tendency could change, and see this push as a dangerous step towards creating an Iranian-style theocracy,” says The Economist, which notes that Al-Azhar itself opposes the move.

“The ‘principles’ of Islamic sharia is an inclusive term that reflects the consensus of Muslim clerics,” says a university scholars on the constitution-drafting body. “Scholars differ over the text for ‘rules of Islamic sharia’ because these change all the time, while the constitution should express fixed principles.”

A spokesman for the constitution-drafting body told Ahram Online that the assembly chairman had demanded that rival factions meet to settle their differences, fearing that the “the assembly will be paralyzed or will explode from within.”

The issue of the new religious articles proposed by the ultraconservative Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood was the primary focus of the meeting.

“These include Article 2 dealing with Islamic Sharia law, laws to be applied to non-Muslims, the formation of Zakat (alms-giving) and Waqf (religious endowment) institutions, the role of the Sunni Islam institution of Al-Azhar and blasphemy laws,” the spokesman explained.

During Wednesday’s conference, the secular camp asserted that as many as nine articles of the draft constitution should be re-written in order to ensure that Egypt remains a modern civil state.

“Secular members have indicated many times they will withdraw if they see that they are not able to prevent a constitution being written that is aimed at turning Egypt into a religious state,” Ayman Nour, liberal assembly member and secretary-general of the newly formed Congress Party, admitted to Ahram Online. …Nour agreed that issues of women’s rights and freedoms of expression are “top of the agenda for secular forces”, adding that they will “fight hard to ensure the new constitution reflects that.”

Representatives from civil society groups, secular activists and politicians announced the formation of a popular front to reject the constitution being drafted by the Constituent Assembly. The group will draft an alternative constitution, said Hafez Abu Seada, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

“This group is the fruit of cooperation and coordination between a number of civil and political forces, including the Popular Current and the Constitution, Wafd, Democratic Front, and Labor parties,” he said. “The aim of the front is to besiege the Constituent Assembly so that it will be dissolved and reformed,” he added, stressing that, “the foundations upon which the assembly was formed are unacceptable.”

The new constitution must reflect the international legal norms to which Egypt is a signatory, says a prominent analyst.

“Egypt as a member of the international community has signed conventions and treaties preserving human rights,” said Amr Hamzawy, a founder of the liberal Free Egypt Party. “Hence, we can’t have constitutional articles contradicting those conventions.”

He also opposed Islamist efforts to inject openly religious duties, such as Zakat (alms) into the constitution, and efforts to curb the rights of women and young girls.

“It is embarrassing to think about constitutional articles allowing marriage of young women, instead of focusing on the demanded notions of social equality and citizenship,” said Hamzawy.

Morsi is coming under fire for his failure to deliver a on a five-point plan for improving ordinary citizens’ lives during his first 100 days in office by improving garbage collection and traffic congestion, resolving fuel shortages, restoring security and supplying bread to the poor.

“Morsi’s 100-day plan was an absolute failure,” said Hamzawy.

The president has been preoccupied with foreign policy issues at the expense of domestic concerns, analysts suggest.

“One of the main goals of Morsi is to reshape the image of himself as an independent president, democratically elected by the Egyptians,” said Khalil Al Anani, an expert at Britain’s Durham University.

“He is trying to invest in the historical credentials of Egypt. He is very preoccupied by the nationalistic and patriotic character of Egypt,” Al Anani told AFP.

Egypt’s economic crisis also remains unresolved.

“The economic situation, the public accounts and the legacy of corruption of the Mubarak regime are the major challenges Morsi is facing right now,” Al Anani said.

“The problem is that so far Morsi has no clear economic policy except to borrow money from the outside,” he said.

The Brotherhood is also engaged in fierce political competition with Salafist groups, including elements of the Nour party which this week fractured due to internal factional strife.

“The party is exploding from inside,” said Mohammed Habib, a former Brotherhood leader. “In the street, it has lost its credibility. People see clerics who they used to see as men of God engaging in earthy disputes. They used to trust them. This will have a negative impact not only on Al-Nour or Salafis but on all Islamists in politics.” 

The impact of the split is a subject of speculation among analysts:

If Al-Nour breaks up, the Muslim Brotherhood could benefit as some religious conservatives turn to it as a political vehicle. A longtime Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Morsi, is Egypt’s president. Other Salafis could turn to more radical extremist groups, including former jihadist groups that have now formed political parties.

“This is the end of the religious utopia,” wrote Anani, an expert on Islamic movements, in Al-Hayat. “Mixing … between political and religious activity is a ticking bomb inside the Islamic currents.”

Observers might expect the Islamists’ turmoil “would be the perfect time for the secular parties to push forward and score some political points,” saysMahmoud Salem (aka Sandmonkey). To the contrary: “nothing that is happening on that front can be taken seriously anymore,” he contends:

The secular parties…have created five different coalitions so far and counting. The Social Democratic Party, high on an internal “election” in which no one lost and everybody won, are currently negotiating a merger with the Free Egyptians Party, to create one party that truly doesn’t represent anyone. There are talks with Hamdeen Sabahy’s people to join them in a coalition, as long as the parties agree that Sabahy will be their candidate in the next elections. Completely ignoring the fact that the Sabahy is an accidental candidate, and that his votes were basically the ElBaradei voters who just couldn’t vote for Abul Fotouh, the parties seem to be agreeing to Sabahy’s demand, because, honestly, who do they have that can compete nationally anyway?

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