Why Capriles ‘has a chance’ in Venezuela’s election

Venezuela’s authoritarian president has promised to launch the “second stage” of 21st century socialism if he is returned to office in Sunday’s presidential election. But reports suggest that growing numbers of the country’s voters have had enough of the populist’s quixotic and self-indulgent concept of socialism:

Several years ago, not quite halfway through his 14-year presidency, Hugo Chávez bought a new presidential jet. The $65m Airbus A319 had extravagant white leather interiors, paintings of national heroes hung on the cabin walls and folding seat-back trays with gold hinges.

Critics of the Venezuelan president immediately dubbed it “the plane of shame”. Chávez used it anyway.

In stark contrast to such profligacy, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has attracted growing support in the run-up to Sunday’s poll by emphasizing the daily hardships that afflict most Venezuelans, observers suggest.

“Capriles is very different from other opposition politicians. He realized that he could not connect with people by talking about abstract things like democracy,” analyst Manuel Malaver told Univision/ABC:

During Sunday’s speech Capriles also attempted to counter Chávez campaign discourse, in which the elections are sometimes described as a battle to save the government’s socialist revolution, and the country itself, from right wing extremists backed by foreign powers.

“This is not about being from one ideology or another,” Capriles told his supporters, who packed Caracas’ Bolivar Avenue. “You know that the ideology here is progress, overcoming poverty, and investing the resources of Venezuelans right here, so that we can generate opportunities.”

Chávez is ‘crazed with power,’ Capriles says (above), and the killing of two opposition supporters in Venezuela has inflamed tensions ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.

Capriles may be the underdog, but he enjoys growing momentum – and Chávez “increasingly recognizes that” – because the economy has become a contestable issue, writes analyst John Paul Rathbone:

Take the World Economic Forum’s annual competitiveness rankings. In 2012, Venezuela slipped two places to 126th out of 144 and is now the region’s worst performer, bar Haiti. On some issues – such as judicial security, trust of politicians, red tape, quality of education and labor rigidities – Venezuela comes last, or nearly last. Not all of this, though, is Mr Chávez’s fault. In the WEF’s 1998 report, Venezuela also came last, or nearly last (although among a smaller sample of 58 countries).

This goes to the heart of the difficulties that the opposition has had before when trying to take-on Chávez. Indeed, Mr Chávez often uses the threat of a “return to the past” as one reason why voters should chose him. But now, with the passage of time, the terms of the debate have shifted. Because rather than compare Venezuela today to the Venezuela of yesterday, the opposition are now tacitly comparing it to what Venezuela could have been. Such “what if” comparisons are natural and easy to make; everyone, everywhere, does it with their own country, all the time. In this case, two neighbours – Brazil and Colombia – provide the counterfactual, and the result is damming. Back in 1998, Colombia and Brazil were, like Venezuela, at the bottom of the WEF’s rankings. But today they have climbed into the top third while Venezuela has remained stuck at the back.

“Increasingly, the opposition is using Brazil as the counterfactual; indeed, Mr Capriles often pointedly says how much he admires Brazil,” says Arturo Franco, a fellow at Harvard’s Centre for International Development. “For the first time, economics has found itself at the centre of the campaign, and it is actually providing a compelling argument.”

If Capriles wins, “the world will look to the Venezuelan army and the rest of Latin America to recognise and uphold the result,” writes the FT’s Rathbone.

“Yet even assuming Mr Chávez recognises defeat, it will still be a difficult transition for Mr Capriles. The Congress, Supreme Court and state-oil company PdVSA all remain in “Chávista” hands.”

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Salafists likely to ‘delay, disrupt and destabilize’ Arab transitions

The Salafists emerging as key political stakeholders across the Middle East are likely to complicate political transitions and undermine regional stability and security, writes STRATFOR’s Kamran Bokhari

The outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 brought significant attention to groups — known as Islamists — seeking to establish Islamic states in countries once ruled by secular autocrats. Much less attention was paid to the Brotherhood’s principal Islamist competitors, members of the ultraconservative Salafist movement, despite their second-place finish in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. This changed in late September when certain Salafists played a key role in the unrest in reaction to an anti-Islamic video posted on the Internet.

Since then, Salafism has become the subject of much public discourse — though as is often the case with unfamiliar subjects, questions are vastly more numerous than answers. This is compounded by the rapidity of its rise from a relatively minor, apolitical movement to an influential Islamist phenomenon.  Bottom of Form

Modern Salafism is based on an austere reinterpretation of Islam, calling for Muslims to return to the original teachings outlined in the Koran and the practices of the Prophet Mohammed as understood by the earliest generation, i.e., the Companions of the Prophet. From the Salafist perspective, non-Islamic thought has contaminated the message of “true” Islam for centuries, and this excess must be jettisoned from the Islamic way of life.

Salafism can be seen as a rejection of the political ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. For most of the movement’s existence, it shunned politics — and thus Islamism — in favor of a focus on personal morality and individual piety, arguing that an Islamic state could not exist without Muslims first returning to the tenets of “true” Islam.

The Salafist movement could also afford to stay away from political activism in large part because it had a political backer in the government of Saudi Arabia. While many Salafists didn’t agree with some of Riyadh’s policies, its historical role as the birthplace of Salafism and role as the patron underwriting the global spread of Salafist thought kept the movement within the Saudi orbit.

The Arab Spring

By the end of the 2000s, Salafism had spread across the Arab world, most notably to Egypt and Tunisia, expanding both the number of its adherents and its institutional scope, which now included social organizations engaged in charity, relief and community work. They stopped short of formal political groups, largely because of the autocratic regimes under which they lived, but they quietly developed the infrastructure for such groups. It was under these circumstances that the Salafists found themselves at the beginning of the Arab Spring.

The case of Egypt’s Salafists is the most telling. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, they were caught unprepared when the popular agitation largely led by liberal youth groups broke out and began to consume decades-old secular autocratic regimes. While they eventually were able to overshadow the largely non-Islamist forces that played a key role in forcing the ouster of then-President Hosni Mubarak, they lacked the political machine that the Brotherhood had developed over the course of some 80 years. The result was the rise of various Salafist forces haphazardly trying to assert themselves in a post-authoritarian Egypt.

What was most important about these Salafists participating in mainstream politics is that they embraced the electoral process after decades of having denounced democracy as un-Islamic. In other words, they ultimately adopted the approach of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they had hitherto vehemently rejected. This transformation has been more a rushed affair stemming from expediency rather than a natural ideological evolution.

There is an expectation that radical forces joining the political mainstream could, over time, lead to their de-radicalization. That may be true in the case of states with strong democratic systems, but in most Arab countries — which are just now beginning their journey away from authoritarianism — the Salafist embrace of electoral politics is likely to delay and perhaps even disrupt the democratization process and destabilize Egypt and by extension the region.

What Lies Ahead

Clearly, the Salafists are bereft of any tradition of civil dissent. That said, they have exhibited a strong sense of urgency to exercise their nascent freedom and engage in political activism. The outcome of this was the rioting that took place in reaction to the anti-Islamic film.

The Salafists are not just suffering from arrested political development; they face an intellectual discrepancy. On one hand, they wish to be part of the new democratic order and a mainstream player. On the other, they subscribe to a radical agenda that dictates the imposition of their stern interpretation of Islamic law across the Arab and Muslim world.

Their envisioned order is not just a problem for secularists, Christians, Jews and other minorities but also for more moderate Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood lost its monopoly on Islamism close to four decades ago but back then it didn’t matter because the Brotherhood was an opposition movement. Now that the group has won political power in Egypt, the Salafists represent a threat to its political interests.

Some of the more politically savvy Salafists, especially the political parties, are willing to work with the Muslim Brotherhood toward the common goals of furthering the democratic transition and containing radical and militant tendencies. Ultimately, however, they seek to exploit the Brotherhood’s pragmatism in order to undermine the mainstream Islamist movement’s support among religious voters. Additionally, the Salafists are also trying to make use of their role as mediators between the Brotherhood-led government and the jihadists active in the Sinai region to enhance their bargaining power and lessen the Brotherhood’s.

Salafists of various stripes are slowly emerging as political stakeholders across the region, especially in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Democratization by its very nature is a messy affair in any context, but in the case of the Arab spring, Salafist entities can be expected to complicate political transitions and undermine stability and security in the Middle East.

The major challenge to stability in the Arab world thus lies only partially in the transition to democracy from autocracy. Greater than that is the challenge mainstream Islamists face from a complex and divided Salafist movement.

This extract is taken from Salafism and Arab Democratization, initially published by Stratfor and reproduced on RealClearWorld.


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In the former Soviet space, fear the taxman

Anti-democratic regimes of the past employed a variety of nefarious means to silence and cow their opponents, writes Joanna Rohozinska. Now midnight visits by shadowy men and Black Marias have given way to less dramatic, but certainly no less effective means of ensuring social control. Contemporary would-be dictators have replaced Big Brother with the Taxman.

The trend towards pursuing and punishing economic cases is visible throughout the post-Soviet space. There are several high profile ones that have drawn international attention and condemnation, including the cases of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia and Ales Bialatski (right) in Belarus. Khodorkovsky was first arrested in October 2003 on charges of tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement. Initially sentenced to eight years in 2005, he was re-tried in 2009, together with his business partner Platon Lebedev, on further charges of embezzlement and money laundering and sentenced to 14 years, to run concurrently with the earlier sentence. Bialatski, head of the Belarusian Human Rights Center Viasna (Spring), and vice-president of the Paris-based International Human Rights Federation (FIDH), was arrested by the Belarusian authorities on tax evasion charges. He was sentenced in November 2011 to 4 ½ years’ imprisonment for ‘concealment of income on a large scale,’ based on financial documents provided by prosecutors in Lithuania and Poland. He has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, while Human Rights Watch said that his “arrest is a clear case of retaliation against him and Viasna for their human rights work….the latest in a long series of efforts by the government to crush Belarus’s civil society.”

In Ukraine, which heads to the polls in parliamentary elections on 28 October, raids by tax police on TVi, the sole remaining independent national TV broadcaster, in July caused enough of an international outcry that a moratorium on tax inspections of media outlets was announced for the entire election period. However, in the wake of the raid prosecutors opened a criminal investigation against Mykola Knyazhitsky, the head of the station, on charges of “tax evasion.” In September, the station had its foreign currency accounts frozen and lost an appeal against paying a 9 million Hryvna (around $1 million) tax debt. While the moratorium leaves media outlets theoretically free from undue attention until November, this does not prevent tax authorities from carrying random inspections of advertisers. 

Aside from cutting off potential sources of financial support to opposition forces, SMEs have become increasingly vocal proponents of reform and active in social protests in several countries of the former Soviet Union. Strikes of small entrepreneurs in Belarus have flared periodically, the largest gathering over 30,000 people and shutting down outdoor markets in several cities. In 2010 in Ukraine small business owners rallied in Kyiv protesting the introduction of a new tax code, while in Russia, small business made a strong showing at protests following the presidential elections. While motivating factors include some pro-democratic sentiments, disgust with endemic corruption and selective justice likely figure more prominently. Put simply – lack of rule of law is bad for business. In Ukraine, SME’s employ some 6 million people, out of a population of 46 million. Unfortunately, a common trait among post-Soviet states is the lack of interest among ruling circles in supporting the development of an independent middle class. The state’s unwillingness to carry out reforms has even become an impediment.

SMEs and democratic forces have common cause in pushing for pro-democratic reforms and have begun cooperating in some instances. But these relationships are as fragile as the livelihoods of small independent businessmen who ultimately stand to lose everything if they are perceived as falling afoul of the authorities. While death and taxes are unavoidable, in the post-Soviet space, the tax inspector does double duty.

Joanna Rohozinska is a Senior Program Officer for Europe and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy.

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A ‘discreet element’ of Burma’s transformation

Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi will need to engage in some “hard bargaining” over constitutional reform if the current reform process is to produce a genuinely democratic transition, says a prominent analyst.

“Both peace and democracy require broad negotiations with the country’s ethnic minority groups to establish a federal system in which different groups will have real political autonomy while surrendering any right to secede,” Stanford University’s Larry Diamond  writes for Atlantic.com.

“If federalism and self-government for all people of Burma are to be viable, the country needs to construct effective structures of local government,” he contends. “This will require massive training and institution building, a task that Suu Kyi regards as a priority for international assistance.”

Such assistance has been a vital but little-appreciated factor in Burma’s reform process, says a leading observer.

“One of the more discreet elements of Myanmar’s transformation is the enduring role of the National Endowment for Democracy, the US taxpayer-funded body that for years has bankrolled and fostered human rights efforts, non-violent resistance movements and media activism inside the country,” writes Greg Torode, South-east Asia correspondent for the South China Morning Post (subscription):

The Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma broadcaster and the prominent Thailand-based Irrawaddy news website are among the institutions that have benefited, along with many smaller operations inside the country. It has sponsored extensive projects to document human rights abuses and train Buddhist monks and other groups in the up-to-date tactics and techniques of non-violent protest, something seen in the widespread protests – later smashed with force – of late 2007.

If Myanmar’s transitional politics are raising all manner of questions, at least some of them involve the endowment: does it consider its work a success and will that work continue? What role does it believe it has played in the events of the last year? And have any lessons been learned that could be applied elsewhere?

“It really is a long-term effort, but the key for things to take root and survive is creative and persistent people who are adaptable,” said Brian Joseph, the endowment’s senior director for Asia and global programs.

“What we have done has been to provide an important piece of a broad movement towards significant political change… but it is just one piece in a jigsaw. It must always be remembered that we weren’t the cause of that change and we weren’t the straw that broke the camel’s back. At every level, it is the people of Burma that have to take any credit, and it is the people of Burma that have to figure out the next steps.”

He pointed to the endowment’s long-term funding of the Irrawaddy website, which has built an international reputation. “They were constantly creative and adapted,” he said, adding that the site was now a “key part of the landscape”.

In that regard, endowment officials are quick to distance themselves from policy choices or specific moves on the ground, saying they are involved with efforts to expand and support “democratic space” – activists and institutions – rather than actual decisions about action. They also deny links to US intelligence operations, or a specific “regime change” agenda, saying that regime change doesn’t always mean the rise of democracy.

For the people on the ground – the activists and journalists now enjoying the first taste of relative freedom – there is a sense that the support of the endowment, and the many Western governments running similar programs, has been important, but it is far from the whole story.

“We are grateful and the support has been wonderful,” said an elderly journalist and former political prisoner. “But the outside world must always remember this is our struggle, that we are not some bloody foreign creation or tools in a global power struggle. All the way through this we are the ones taking the risks, making the decisions about what to do, when to do it and what to say.”

The reform process initiated by President Thein Sein has led to the release of political prisoners, economic liberalization, the formation of independent labor unions and an end to media censorship.

“One of the most ambitious media reform plans is to change the nature of the state-run broadcasting service into a public broadcasting entity,” writes Kavi Chongkittavorn, a prominent commentator on Southeast Asian affairs:

Within the Asean context, what Myanmar has done is considered a milestone under the Asean Charter and the Asean Political and Security Community. After the charter was approved, Asean countries have shown different levels of commitment to compliance with the numerous rules. However, in the past 18 months, Myanmar has swiftly and broadly instituted sensitive reforms shunned by other Asean countries.

“If it succeeds, it could become a new template for other developing countries, which emerge from totalitarian systems,” says Chongkittavorn, a member of the World Movement for Democracy’s steering committee.

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Making democracy work

At a time of elevated partisanship in domestic affairs, U.S. political leaders would do well to reflect on a path-breaking bipartisan initiative that helped liberate millions from authoritarian rule, writes Mark R. Kennedy.

“As today’s political leaders seek to overcome the challenge of reaching consensus on economic policy and enhancing U.S. national security, they would benefit by studying the achievements of Chuck Manatt and Frank Fahrenkopf at the “Making Democracy Work” exhibit that the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM) opens this weekend,” he writes for the Huffington Post:

While the comity, respect, and humor enjoyed by Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is often praised, fewer understand the profound and long-lasting impact that resulted from the cooperation of then-Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Charles Manatt and Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf. While both chairmen were tireless advocates for their own party’s platform, they inherently understood their common interest was in laying the foundation for transition from authoritarian governments that controlled so much of the world’s political map in 1983.

It was bipartisan action that gave institutional form to President Reagan’s vision, outlined in his historic Westminster address of June 1982 to defy, of an initiative “…to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”

“President Reagan’s plan was not simply his own invention,” writes Kennedy, professor and director of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management:

It sprang from a major study titled “Project Democracy,” conducted by the American Political Foundation founded in 1979 by Manatt and RNC Chairman Bill Brock. Responding to Reagan’s challenge and conditions around the world, Congress authorized and funded the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the Center for Private Enterprise (CIPE), and the Solidarity Center. Manatt and Fahrenkopf were among the founders of NED and helped guide its first 10 years. Manatt served as Founding Chairman of NDI. Frank Farhrenkopf served as Founding Chairman of IRI and continues to serve on its board.

“The new freedoms many enjoy today resulted from the democracy promotion efforts spawned by Reagan, Rep. Dante Fascell, Manatt, Fahrenkopf, and others,” he concludes. “We owe them a great debt. Their success contributed to the fall of communism without a shot being fired.”


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