2014 Predictions

New Year is rapidly becoming my favourite ‘holiday’ celebration.  Why?  Unlike Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and most of the others, it actually seems to have a purpose that’s neither religious nor consumerist.  Although not the greatest fan of fireworks, I do enjoy using New Year as an opportunity for reflection on the year past, and to take a look at the year ahead.  I do this for my own life – though that would be dreadfully boring to put on this blog – but I’m also increasingly trying to do it for the world at large.  The rushed predictions I made for this year turned out to be 65% correct; next year I hope to beat that record!  I’m going to split the predictions into categories rather than just focusing on exciting/dull political developments as I did for this year.  So, without further ado, here are my 2014 predictions:

UK Politics

  • The Coalition will survive to the end of the year, but the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will really start ramping up the rhetoric to differentiate themselves from one another.  The Liberal Democrats will focus on the social liberal policies while remaining economically right-wing.
  • European elections: The Conservatives will lose out massively, perhaps dropping to 15-20%, while I expect Labour to lead at maybe 25% or so.  UKIP will, of course, dominate the news, and I expect them to come a close second to Labour but they won’t have a massive breakthrough.  The Liberal Democrat vote will collapse, falling below 10%.  The Greens will (hopefully!) keep at least one seat, while I think the SNP will make some gains in Scotland.  There won’t, however, be a clear leader in the election.
  • The Scottish electorate will reject independence in the upcoming referendum, but it’ll be closer than most are currently predicting.  The share voting Yes will be above 35%.
  • We might finally get some decent policy announcements from Labour.  Maybe.

Elections Worldwide

  • The constitutional referendum in Egypt will go ahead and provide a Yes vote, resulting in parliamentary and presidential elections later in the year.  I expect Sisi will run for president, or push a figure from the military.  These elections might not be completely rigged but I don’t expect their results to be universally accepted.
  • Libya will finally end up with a government by the end of the year, which will be more liberal-leaning than many other post-revolutionary governments in the region.
  • North Korea’s ruling party candidates will be returned to parliament with 100% of the vote.
  • Iraq will struggle to hold parliamentary elections within an increasingly violent atmosphere; Shia candidates will narrowly achieve a majority over Sunni and secular alternatives – Nour al-Maliki will probably continue as Prime Minister.
  • The European Parliament as a whole will see a massive rise of national eurosceptic parties – like UKIP – gaining seats in the legislature.  Otherwise, perhaps a small shift towards the left?
  • The Bharatiya Janata Party will defeat the ruling Indian National Congress in India.
  • The Fidesz Party in Hungary will consolidate its rule, leading to increasing concerns of authoritarianism in the country.
  • The ANC will be re-elected in South Africa, although with a smaller majority than in any other post-Apartheid election.  President Zuma’s popularity will continue to decline nonetheless.
  • In Sweden the Social Democratic Party, in alliance with the Greens, shall sweep to power.
  • Despite mass protests against her government earlier this year, I expect President Rousseff shall cling onto power in Brazil.
  • The Democrats shall take control of the United States Congress, finally ending the gridlock upon American politics. (I can dream)

Other World Developments

  • The Syrian conflict will become so depressing I’ll probably stop writing and talking about it.  The death toll shall pass 200,000, the government and Islamic radicals will become increasing winners at the expense of the population, and the international community will twiddle its thumbs while Russia, Iran and Hezbollah more and more start to call the shots.
  • The Sochi Winter Olympics will pass without too many more terrorist incidents.  There will be heightened international criticism of Russia’s human rights record, which will then be largely forgotten once the media coverage dies down.
  • We’ll be seeing a lot more about the travesty of oil-drilling in the Arctic.
  • There will be another coup, either in Africa or Asia.
  • Something big will happen to a South American country.
  • At least two countries will become more democratic.
  • Keep an eye on Ukraine – I expect certain elements of the country to increasingly resist Russian influence.
  • China’s economic growth rate will recede although still stay above the majority of countries in the world.
  • The dictator whose political demise I’ll predict this time is Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria.

Cultural Predictions

  • Doctor Who: Steven Moffat will announce plans to resign within the next year, potentially followed by an announcement of a successor.  The return of an undivided series structure, alongside the return of multiple-episode stories (not yet announced) will improve series 8’s standing in my reviews.
  • Radiohead will release their ninth album, and it shall be amazing.
  • J.K. Rowling will publish her sequel to The Cuckoo’s Calling, which will become an instant best-seller.

 

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August 2013: Course of the Syrian Civil War

I’ve been planning since June this year to write a piece summarising developments in and the overall course of the Syrian Civil War.   However, as the conflict seems ever more hopeless and it becomes clearer that I have no authority at all to comment on it, I’ve been putting off writing anything.  Now though, as this shameful failure of international cooperation has returned dramatically to the news, I feel compelled to write something.

Because other journalists and bloggers have discussed the pros and cons of Western military intervention in Syria, I shan’t go into too much detail here but instead will link to these articles at the end.  To summarise: last Wednesday, 21st July, evidence emerged of a horrific massacre in the East of Damascus in which hundreds of civilians were killed, seemingly by chemical weapons.  This led to a flurry of accusations: the Syrian government and rebels blamed each other, of course, while international powers took predictable stances – The USA, UK, France, Israel, Turkey and the Gulf States have accused the government of carrying out the massacre, while Russia and Iran have suggested the rebels might be responsible.  I clearly couldn’t comment, but the government being behind the chemical attack initially seems more likely; while the rebels had the motive of causing a backlash against the government while UN chemical weapon investigators had just entered the country, they very probably lacked the capability to do so.  They occurred during the context of a government offensive into rebel-held areas, which you can make of what you will.  That the rebels were behind it can’t be ruled out either.

The weapons inspectors have since Monday been investigating the site of the attacks – the rebels, it should be noted, agreed far sooner than the government.  US Secretary of State John Kerry accused the government of:

“Refus[ing] to allow the UN investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them. Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence. That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide”

Since the attacks, there has been a clamour from among certain Western governments to act.  The USA has moved warships into the Mediterranean, while Kerry’s speech appeared to be setting the stage for military intervention of some form.  UK Prime Minister David Cameron appears to share the USA’s view that military action should be taken.  The most likely option will be remote missile strikes against Syrian military targets, as a ‘punishment’ of sorts for the use of chemical weapons, aimed at deterring the Assad regime of using them any further as well as sending a signal to the tyrants of the future that their use will not be tolerated.  Looking at it this way, I hesitantly agree with this strategy – although it seems strange that chemical weapons, as horrific as they are, appear worse to the international community than the shooting of children on streets, bombardment of civilian districts, the imprisoning, torturing and executing of anyone suspected of supporting the opposing side; the list of crimes go on and on.  That said, I’m glad a ‘red line’ can be drawn somewhere.

There certainly isn’t an appetite for military intervention.  The ghost of Iraq is still present in the UK and USA, and while a full military invasion is thankfully not on the table even something as seemingly non-committal as missile strikes are very unpopular, with the UK population twice as likely to oppose them.  There’s a similar hesitancy within parliament.  Parliament has been recalled early from recess for the fourth time this government.  While Cameron has the final word on deploying the British armed forces, it would be seen as very politically dangerous to do so without parliament’s consent.  Labour has said it will not support military action until the UN inspectors have published their report, and it seems the Liberal Democrats could be hesitant also.  Events have been moving and it’s all quite confusing, but I think there will be two votes: one tomorrow on a motion calling for a ‘strong humanitarian response’, and one next week once the report is available on the possibility of military action.  This could have the effect of slowing down momentum for a response but I agree with Labour that we should wait for the UN report before making any decisions.

It’s also worth noting that military action would probably be illegal without UN Security Council backing – almost certain to be blocked by Russia and China.  This is just another example of how flawed and outdated an institution it is, in need of heavy reform.

By Futuretrillionaire [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

So that’s the situation regarding any potential military not-quite-intervention.  On the ground in Syria, the government appears to have been consolidating its position.  While still besieged and embattled – someone earlier on the BBC made the ridiculous argument that Syria today might be in a stronger military position than Iraq in 2003, seeming to forget that the government can’t even control its own claimed territory, let alone go to war with the most powerful alliance in the history of the world – it has been making gains.  Most significantly, Hezbollah entered the fray earlier this year and helped the Syrian army capture the town of al-Qusayr and nearby villages along the Lebanese border, assuring a strategic route for the government between Damascus and its strongholds along the coast.

Small exchanges of territory have since occured, largely in the government’s favour although this week the rebels captured the town of Khanasir to the south of Aleppo which has effectively cut off government forces in and around Aleppo from the rest of the country.  In Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, the rebels roughly control the east while the government controls the west.  Losing Aleppo would be a major blow to the Assad regime and perhaps even put the war onto even footing.  Meanwhile, a disturbing ‘civil war within a civil war’ seems to be occurring, as moderate and radical elements of the rebellion turn against each another.  This began when a Free Syrian Army leader was assassinated by rebels linked to al-Qaeda.  Radical Islamist elements – including the expanding al-Nusra Front – appear now to be leading the rebellion and control significant territories to the north and east of the country.  It’s these divisions which have made the West back away from plans to arm the rebels, an option I have also become more wary of.  There have also been clashes between these rebels and Kurdish militias, which has been responsible for a mass exodus of refugees into Iraq.

Gosh, this has been depressing to write.  Again, I really am not qualified to talk about the deteriorating situation in Syria, but I think it’s important we in the West understand what is going on before we make any decisions to involve ourselves.  For the average person, there’s really not a lot we can do to help ease Syria’s suffering.  I’d suggest lobbying MPs and the government but it’s not lack of will holding them back, rather a lack of credible options and divisions within the UN Security Council.  The Red Cross have set up a Syria Appeal for donations to help provide supplies for the growing number of refugees, which seems to be all we can do to improve the situation, unfortunately.

Links:

Pariah States Stick Together

Today, Panama has announced that it stopped a North Korean cargo ship passing through the Panama canal from Cuba which contained materials used in the construction of missiles under the guise of trading sugar.  The ship was suspected to have been carrying drugs when the much more sinister reality was discovered.  The need for secrecy was so imperative that apparently the crew resisted the search and the captain even attempted suicide.  Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli has said that this violates United Nations resolutions on arms trafficking.

This kind of lucrative cooperation between pariah states, hostile to many of their neighbours, is not unusual – particularly not between Communist countries (at least, the few countries which remain Communist in name; in reality all have abandoned the essential principles of Socialism and North Korea no longer even refers to Communism as its official doctrine).  To see similarities between the countries, simply look at their flags!  Both exist in a world which increasingly rejects their economic and political models and face threats from the USA.   I’ve read similar stories in the past regarding Iran and North Korea.  Of course, once you start looking at the Middle East these kinds of secret deals are everywhere: Iran and Russia to Syria; Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Libya to the Syrian opposition; Iran to Hezbollah; probably most of the countries mentioned to Hamas; etc.

Secret agreements between countries has always been a feature of international relations.  In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars there were various understandings that some great powers, most commonly Austria, would step in to prevent revolutionary uprisings and prop up Monarchies in any way possible.  Before the First World War a complex web of alliances spanned the globe.  During the Cold War the tap really opened and weapons flowed to Africa, Asia, South America – everywhere, really – in the many proxy wars between Capitalism and Communism.

However, since the collapse of Communism this business really has begun to dry up.  The fact that an Arms Trade Treaty can pass through the UN is proof of this.  The last 20 or so years has seen this business occur largely between the small number of authoritarian, isolated countries that still remain opposed to the international consensus – usually countries particularly opposed to the USA.  Even during this period the number of such ‘rogue states’ has dwindled – 2003 saw the collapse of Hussein’s Iraq and 2011 saw Gaddafi’s Libya fall, for instance.

I’m sure the vision of many – a vision that I share – is that one day we’ll see a world of democratic, friendly countries working in harmony with one another.  This is unlikely to happen for many reasons – tensions between the mostly democratic South America and the USA is proof of this – but I do believe we can get to a stage where the more ‘rogue’ states are integrated enough with the international consensus that the need for such illicit arms transfers might become a thing of the past.  At the moment, all we can do is work towards preventing these illegal transfers of weapons (and continue cracking down upon those which are are still legal, though that’s a different issue) and edge slowly closer to this dream.

2013: Qatari Emir Abdicates Throne

A bit late on this, but it’s a story which will fall under the radar despite being hugely significant so I thought I’d better mention it.  Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani* of Qatar has handed over power to his 33 year old son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.  Knowing little about Qatar, most of my information is what I’ve read from other journalists – but I’ll try to summarise why this is such an important development.

Firstly, you need to examine the context this occurs in.  The region is recovering (well, with some exceptions) from the greatest political and social upheaval since achieving independence from European colonialism.  Since 2011 four Arab dictators have been forced from power – Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Gadaffi and Yemen’s Saleh – in generally violent circumstances.  This is a region in which leaders tend to grip onto power for as long as possible, where virtually every leader leaves office either through their own natural death, a coup or an uprising.  The peaceful transfer or rotation of power is rare.  Which is one reason why this story is so surprising.

Why did he make such a decision?  I’m not sure anyone really knows, yet.  Is it an attempt to quell potential discontent by presenting a younger, more in touch leader – one who it will take time for the populace to become disillusioned with?  Does he feel he could achieve more behind the scenes?  Is he simply tired?  I have no idea.  Marc Lynch discussed the issue well in this article.  But what I think is more significant is the potential impact this could have, not just upon Qatar but the region as a whole.  Qatar has played an outspoken role in supporting uprisings in Libya and Syria – it currently reportedly supplies weapons to Islamists fighting the government in Syria.  Qatar has also played a role in helping Egypt with its continuing economic crises.  The Arab Spring can therefore be seen as having been an opportunity for the small country to become a big player in the region.  While most analysts think foreign policy will remain consistent for the short term, Sheikh Tamim could take Qatar’s influence in many different directions.

Another question is whether the perhaps inevitable political liberalisation might occur under this younger leadership.  Freedomhouse’s Freedom in The World 2013 report awarded Qatar a political rating of 6/7 and a social rating of 5/7, giving it the overall rating of 5.5 and grade of ‘not free’.  While a very bad rating, this does actually make Qatar one of the freer countries in the region; Iraq, Iran the United Arab Emirates and Yemen rate 6/7,  while Saudi Arabia and Syria rate the rock-bottom score of 7/7.  It’s not an impossibility that Qatar’s regime may decide upon a slow process of liberalisation.  Since 2006 there have been plans to hold the country’s first legislative elections and while this hasn’t yet happened – and while this body would have few real legislative powers – it would be a start.

Basically, I know nothing.  Except the fact that anything could happen.

*Still working on memorising that.

Mines Advisory Group

The reason I’ve been quiet over the last couple of days is because I’ve been performing in a short play called Inch by Inch, written and produced by Susan Timmins with Freya Inkster, designed to raise money for the charity Mines Advisory Group (MAG).  It was a fascinating production; I played a trader called Steve who attends an arms convention but enters this limbo world where two Laotian mine-clearers rail against his selfish ignorance.  Steve is unaware of their presence but by the end some of the message gets through.  The outdoor stage was covered in bundles of clothes, each representing a victim from a country with existing mines or other unexploded ordinances, which the characters interacted with throughout the play.   It was a great experience which I highly enjoyed and learned from – even despite the vicious showers we had to perform in!  A local news website wrote about it here.

Photo by Roxane Permar.

If you’re unaware of their work as I was before joining the production, MAG works towards clearing areas of mines and bombs (particularly cluster bombs) left over from conflicts.  There’s generally an assumption that the humanitarian disaster ends with the war, but often it continues long afterwards.  All over the world, from Egypt to Angola to Somalia to Iraq, and particularly in Laos and Vietnam, the problem still persists.  I read a horrifying figure yesterday which stated 1 in 300 people  in Angola are missing a limb due to either the civil war or from the aftermath.  Children are especially at risk because it is difficult to teach them about the dangers and they often run through areas to play, unaware of what could happen.  It’s horrific.  They operate by a humanitarian criteria, conducting missions which will have the greatest benefit for a community rather than concentrating first on the area covered.  They also train and provide employment for locals to make a difference in their own communities.

It’s a wonderful charity – I’m humbled by their dedication and bravery, and by their constant struggle to create a better future.  My contribution has only been very small but I hope it can go some way to helping with their valiant work.

Bradley Manning’s 1000th Day in Detention

Today Bradley Manning has spent 1,000 days in detention.  He has not even been sentenced yet for providing Wikileaks with secret, sensitive information about US military operations.  I was going to write a short post with my thoughts, but this article by The Guardian sums it up very well:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/22/bradley-manning-wikileaks-1000-days-detention

Freedom In The World 2013

Taken from Wikimedia Commons.


Green = Free 
Yellow = Partly Free 
Blue = Not Free

Yesterday, pro-democracy group FreedomHouse published their annual report, ‘Freedom in the World 2013’, which reports on the state of political and social freedom on a country-by-country basis during 2012.  I was very eager to see the results, as their reports have become something of an authority in how I view freedom in the world.  One of many sources, obviously, but by far my favourite.

As you can see from the map, when comparing it to one I wrote about a month ago, not a huge amount has changed.  Europe and the Americas are still almost completely free, Southeast Asia and central Africa not so much, etc.  However the small changes which have occurred are extremely significant.  I made some mental predictions before reading the report, which I can boast were mostly along the right lines although were at times too optimistic or pessimistic.  I’m pleased to see that Ukraine and Venezuela are still perceived to be somewhat free countries, even if only on the fringes, for instance.  Russia and most of the other former Soviet states, particularly in central Asia, have continued their descent into autocracy.  Here are the rest of the countries which made significant changes:

Egypt
For the first time, Egypt is considered a ‘Partly Free’ country, in the wake of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.  Amid fears that the revolution would be hijacked, first by the ruling military and then by the Muslim Brotherhood, it is comforting to know that Egypt has at least made marginal progress, even if its political freedom rating is precarious at best.

Libya
More reassuringly, Libya has made significant gains.  Although also only ‘Partly Free’, considering it was only recently scoring the worst possible scores a country can achieve during Colonel Gadaffi’s totalitarian rule, his ouster in the 2011 Libyan Civil War has paved the way for extraordinary political and social progress.

Tunisia
Tunisia’s rating has not changed from the ‘Partly Free’ it achieved in the 2012 Report.  While it’s comforting to see the gains made after the 2011 Tunisian Revolution have been maintained, I had hoped to see freedom extend further.  But I think I was naive to expect such fast progress.

Mali
Mali always was going to score badly after the 2012 coup and conflict though I never appreciated just how badly.  Falling down all the way from ‘Free’ to ‘Not Free’, one of Africa’s most stable democracies has, in the space of a year, completely collapsed.  Not good.

Burma
Burma has now, for the first time, been reported to be a freer state than neighbouring China.  While still marked as ‘Not Free’, it is now at the top of that range rather than at the very bottom, due to political and social reforms being passed by the ruling military.  A slow, tentative improvement, but very encouraging.

Ivory Coast
With the Second Ivorian Civil War over with and democracy cautiously restored, the country has leapt up to ‘Partly Free’, albeit at the lower end of the category.

Other Positive Changes
Other countries to see positive changes are: Lesotho, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tonga, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Mongolia and Bhutan.

Other Negative Changes
Other countries to see negative changes are: The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Italy, Kenya, Kuwait, the Maldives, Rwanda, Tajikistan and Turkey.

Worst of the Worst
Countries titled ‘Worst of the Worst’, meaning they have achieved the worst possible score in both the political and social categories, are: Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Overall Trend
For the 7th year in a row, FreedomHouse has reported an overall decline in democratic standards across the world.  There is not reason to despair however, as for every decline in one country is, roughly, a gain in another.  The situation is not rapidly deteriorating – many of the declines are in fact a response in authoritarian countries to the rise of pro-democracy movements elsewhere.  Their fear is not without cause.