Question Time: The BBC’s Obsession with Nigel Farage

I’ve begun down that slippery path of complaining to the BBC.  Don’t worry, it won’t become a habit, but yesterday’s Question Time was rather irritating.  The three topics discussed were state surveillance, Scottish independence and intervention in Syria.  However the Scottish independence issue was clearly at the forefront, the debate being held in Edinburgh with an audience of 16 and 17 year olds (due to the voting age for the referendum being reduced to 16).  If we accept this, can we agree that a panel consisting of four unionists, one advocate and one middle-ground is pretty uneven?  Scottish National Party MP Angus Robertson pointed this out but was dismissed by David Dimbleby, who argued that the audience was split 50-50 on the issue.  But if that’s the case then surely it should apply to the panel as well?

Yesterday, Scottish Green Party co-convener Patrick Harvie tweeted his irritation at the composition of the panel, which included no representatives from the Green Party nor the Liberal Democrats.  Despite the Greens being among the loudest voices in favour of independence, this wouldn’t need to be an issue if the other panelists represented a range of views relevant to the debate.  Instead, we get Nigel Farage and George Galloway.  I don’t wish to add my voice to the chorus of cries at “BBC Bias”, as I don’t think there’s anything malicious in their decisions of panelists.  What I do think is a problem is that entertainment seems to have become a greater priority than providing a good debate.  Farage was clearly chosen because of his recent misadventures in Scotland and Galloway because, well, he’s loud.  No doubt it was hoped that Galloway and Farage, sitting on opposing ends of the political spectrum, would go head-to-head in a ‘highly amusing’ shouting match.  What actually happened was something of an unholy alliance where they agreed on most issues.

This isn’t the first time Farage has been on Question Time.  In fact, according to this article  he has appeared more frequently than any other individual since the last general election -closely tailed by George Galloway.  Why is this?  Both UKIP and Respect do have representation (well, in England) so I don’t object to their inclusion from time to time, but I don’t think either figure is popular or relevant enough to warrant this sort of exposure.  I’m convinced that they only get invited on because they’re controversial enough to be entertaining but not so extreme as to draw immediate criticism and complaint.  But if they’re giving minor parties this level of exposure then it’s only fair it be divided equally to other parties with similar popularity – to the Greens also and, indeed, the BNP.

I guess the ultimate question is: What do we want from the BBC’s main show for political debate?  Entertaining pantomime or reasoned arguments?  It scares me that the answer isn’t clear.

(As an aside, I’m astonished at the level of condescension and scorn towards young people I saw on Twitter last night.  With a couple of exceptions, I thought the audience had very good points and expressed them well.  Should we not be allowed opinions?)

2013 Iranian Presidential Election Predictions

The first round of Iran’s presidential election will be held on Friday.  Outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had a controversial time in office, particularly after his re-election in 2009 which I shall discuss in a moment.  His presidency has raised some questions over the extent of Iran’s president’s power.  He has precided over a period of increasing isolation for Iran as pressure, largely in the form of sanctions, mounts over the country’s nuclear program – it is also now more unpopular than ever.  A regional cold war has developed between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, against the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the USA + its allies.  These tensions are now factoring in the Syrian Civil War, which has developed into something of a proxy war between competing interests.  Ahmadinejad is forbidden from serving more than two terms and so a new President shall be chosen.  Whoever this will be certainly has a lot on their plate.

In order to discuss the presidential election, it’s important to look at how Iran’s political system actually works.  The Western image of Iran is this bizarre, antiquated dictatorship and, while it often acts in this way, does have constitutional democratic elements.  Unlike Communist or dictatorial governments, which use elections to create the illusion of public legitimacy, I believe Iran’s system is designed to have a fairly elected president and parliament.  I haven’t studied Iran in detail, but that’s how it comes across.  The trouble is, as a theocracy, the ultimate authority in Iran is God.  Because consulting God poses a challenge, it is necessary to base laws on religious scriptures – the Quran, generally – and also the traditions of Shia Islam.  Interpreting these rules is the role of the Supreme Leader and his Guardian Council and Assembly of Experts.  As the name suggests, the Supreme Leader (currently Ali Khamenei) has supreme power over the judiciary, the armed forces, foreign policy, etc.  This leaves the role of the president unclear.  It’s incredibly complicated, but this BBC page helps make it a bit simpler.

In theory, the system should allow the population of Iran to democratically elect leaders to govern day-to-day issues that are not the concern of the Supreme Leader.  Yet, clearly, this is often not the case.  In 2009 Ahmadinejad was elected president in favour of the more reformist candidate Mousavi.  Many people believe Mousavi to have been the rightful winner and accuse the government of rigging the vote.  There were mass protests across Iran in response, and it did momentarily look as though the regime was in danger.  Yet, the government survived – mostly through using brute force to suppress the protests. It is clear that while there may be an element of democracy in Iran’s political system, it is in a manner tightly controlled by the Supreme Leader who will manipulate results if he does not believe them to be in the country’s interests.

I don’t believe the protests of 2009 will be repeated this year.  Another challenge to the regime would be nice, and the conditions of economic frustration which is common in most uprisings does certainly exist (though the anger quite successfully deflected towards the West, it would seem), I think careful planning will have gone into the election to ensure it produces the desired result.  The majority of accepted candidates are Conservatives, with the exception of the moderate Rouhani and reformist Aref, who dropped out yesterday to improve the chances of Rouhani.  Six candidates remain: five Conservatives and Rouhani.  Naturally, I am hoping Rouhani will win but I don’t think it would make much difference if he did.  If a candidate posed a serious threat to the status quo I don’t think they would not be allowed to stand after the events of 2009 – that Mousavi is currently under house arrest makes this clear.  Perhaps the results have already been decided.  It is impossible to say.

These are difficult times for Iran.  Anything could happen.  Even an unlikely reformist could be convinced that reform is necessary; look at Gorbachev in the Soviet Union or de Klerk in South Africa.  But, of course, the ultimate authority rests with the Supreme Leader, who currently seems determined for things to remain the way they are.

For an alternative look at Iran’s election, check out this unofficial candidate.

Economic Depression and Authoritarianism (Musing)

Just been musing, as one does, on the current trend in the world towards authoritarianism.  Of instability and the rise of the far-right in Europe, of defeats for freedom in Russia, Egypt, Syria, Mali, Iran, and increasing authoritarianism in countries like Venezuela, Ukraine, Turkey. I don’t know, perhaps reading this article* has just left me particularly gloomy, but there seems a tough fight ahead for democracy around the country.  I vaguely wrote about this earlier this year.  And I was wondering – this is just me musing – how much of a link there could be between economic depression and increasing authoritarianism in countries. I think there is an undeniable link between economic problems and a growth in right-wing movements, as cultural tensions increase and immigration becomes more unpopular.  But is there a link with the behaviour of the governments which are actually in power?

If we look at history, the best example would be the Great Depression in the early 1930s.  I’ve only studied Germany in great detail, but I know that the economic crisis Germany faced was a significant, if not the major reason the Nazis came into power.  They were able to exploit distrust in official establishments, offer a solution, offer hope.  Of course other factors were also important, and perhaps crucial, such as the aftermath of the First World War, Germany’s newness to democracy, etc.  However, I would presume that the growth of fascism elsewhere was also at least partly linked to the Great Depression.

If we assume that there is a link between economic depression and authoritarianism – or even just say that democracy struggles in these conditions – then we can at least agree that the impact now is less than in the 1930s.  I often remind myself of this if the world ever seems particularly hopeless – it was even worse back then, but we got through it.

Another significant reason there’s been an increase of authoritarianism that’s worth noting, in my view, is the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  Dictatorships around the world have released how real and present a threat their own people pose to them and have consequently taken action to further oppress their people.  Davies’ J Curve suggest that the most stable states are either democratic or totalitarian, so these dictatorships have taken the route of further oppression to stay in power.  This does not mean that democracy is weakening but that it is growing strong enough to absolutely terrify the few remaining dictators.  Of course, the Arab Spring was arguably a result of economic stagnation across the Middle East and North Africa, so there could be another link with economic depression.

As I said, these are just musings – I’m sure there are probably quite a few flaws in my arguments.

*That article really makes you loath Putin, doesn’t it?

Turkey Protests

Over the past five days, Turkey has been taken aback by mass protests in most of its major cities.  They were sparked by plans to redevelop Gezi Park in Istanbul, but considering protests have since erupted in Ankara, Antakya, and other cities, it is clear that this has developed into something larger.  Tens of thousands of protesters have been out on the streets, day and night, in what appears to have become general anti-government protests against Prime Minister Erdoğan, who has been in power since 2003.  Unions have also called for strikes in solidarity with the movement.

I was rather surprised when I first heard the news of this – I’d always thought Turkey to be a fairly democratic country.  Sure, mass protests do happen in democracies – just look at Greece, or Italy, or Spain – but they never seem to have quite this level of intensity, or when they do the government usually swiftly resigns.  Democratic countries also tend not to react so violently – tear gas and water cannons have been deployed, resulting in many clashes between protesters and the police in which several people have been injured and even, I think, a couple of deaths.  That said, Turkey appears to be showing some restraint – they have allowed protesters to gather inside Gezi Square, who have set up a barricade around it and now effectively govern themselves, and also the Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc has apologised for the use of excessive force.

If I understand it correctly – and I know very little about Turkey – the protestors are mainly young, liberal, secularists who oppose the creeping Islamisation of Turkey under Erdoğan, which they argue is against the principles established in the 1923 constitution when the country gained independence.  An example of this is his crackdown upon alcohol consumption.  The protests are also against his increasing authoritarian nature.  There are fears that he seeks to change the constitution to a Presidential system in order to increase his own powers, and he has also been criticised for his power over the media.  It’s no wonder he hates Twitter so much.

I’ve seen a few comparisons between Turkey and the Egypt Revolution in 2011 since the protests began, but I’m not sure how comparable the countries are.  Egypt certainly was far more authoritarian than Turkey is now, with Mubarak having led the country for three times the amount of years Erdoğan has led Turkey.  FreedomHouse gave Egypt a freedom rating of 5.5/10 in 2011, whereas Turkey in 2013 has 3.5/10 (with 7 being ‘not free’).  There may be similarities, but my guess would be that Turkey’s future will not be as dramatic as Egypt’s.

Incidentally, one of the most ironic points to come out of this is the advice Syria has given Turkey over the issue, urging Erdoğan to resign.  Turkey doesn’t seem to have taken Syria’s advice (which I can’t blame them for; Syria’s not exactly who I’d ask for advice to successfully stop protests).

It is impossible for anyone to predict how this situation will end, particularly not someone as misinformed as I.  But I think the protests will result in concessions from the government, and perhaps even Erdoğan’s resignation, though that’s not hugely likely.  He is still believed to have the majority of the country behind him.  The protests could fizzle out, but I think they will have some lasting impact upon the country.

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Arms Trade Treaty

Today, the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour on a resolution adopting a draft for an International Arms Trade Treaty.  The result of over a decade of campaigning, at last there will be some control over one of the world’s least regulated trades.  It shall apply to small arms, tanks, attack helicopters, warships and missiles, among other weapons.  This is the first ever global treaty of its kind and there is, understandably, much jubilation and optimism among the treaty’s supporters.  Here’s a map of how the countries voted:

Arms Trade Treaty UNGA Vote
(blue = ‘yes’, red = ‘no’, grey = abstention and white = didn’t vote)

Unsurprisingly, Syria, Iran and North Korea voted against the resolution, no doubt fearing a threat to their ability to use such weapons upon their own uncooperative citizens.  What is surprising is that countries such as China, Russia and, most of all, the USA, did not vote against it.  The majority of the abstentions cited a lack of provisions for arming non-state entities as a reason for not voting in favour.  With such comments voiced by more, shall we say, ‘respectable countries’ like Indonesia or India, it’s clear that there are flaws in the treaty.  However, rights groups including Amnesty International appear mostly happy with the treaty, and  I’m happy to go along with their judgments.

Clearly, there will not be changes overnight.  The treaty still needs to be ratified by UN member states, due to happen sometime in June, I believe, and once 50 states have done so it will enter into practice after another period of time.  Bureaucratic reasons will halt its effectively but also, inevitably, the lack of will among certain countries.  Russia and China, two of the world’s largest arms exporters, abstained on the vote and therefore may not immediately ratify the treaty.  The world’s largest arms exporter, the USA, still must get the treaty through Congress which may prove a challenge as the National Rifle Association will put up fierce opposition, believing the treaty to be a contravention of the country’s 2nd constitutional amendment.  North Korea, Syria and Iran will have no obligation to curb their arms sales.

Despite these limitations, today is a landmark day.  In the long run, most commentators are agreed that it will have a beneficial effect in reducing arms-related violence around the world and prevent the fueling of wars.

Arms Contradiction

Just a thought: as a member of Amnesty International, I am of course very eager to see an International Arms Trade Treaty, currently being debated, adopted by the United Nations.  Thousands upon thousands of soldiers, civilians and children are killed every year by arms-related violence, which could so easily be reduced by limiting the supply of such weapons.  This would also have the effect of stabilising many countries in the world which regularly become torn apart by rebellions, as well as limiting the ability of rogue dictatorships to violently repress their citizens.

And yet, at the same time, I think I tentatively support the supplying of arms to the Syrian Opposition.  Is this a contradiction?  It’s my belief, from the limited knowledge available to me, that to do so would in the long run reduce lives lost in the conflict.  If it’s inevitable that the Assad regime will fall, which I believe to be so, then doing nothing will continue to drag out the stalemate which sees over 100 people killed every day.  If we were to alter the balance and allow the opposition to gain the upper hand, the conflict might be slightly closer to a conclusion.  It would be naive to think that the regime ending would end all fighting, and there is the very real possibility of the civil war continuing on ethnic grounds afterwards.  There is also the high possibility of arms falling into the hands of Islamic extremists.  Thing is, both of these negative outcomes will happen even if we do nothing.  By allowing arms to flow to the more moderate sections of the opposition, chances are they will have more influence in a post-Assad Syria than the extremists.  The longer the conflict goes on, the more sectarian it will become.

Both my beliefs on these issues are founded in the desire to prevent the loss of life through violence, yet they’re in direct conflict with one another.  I’m not sure how to overcome this ideological impasse.

The Syrian Civil War: Two Years On

Arab SpringTwo years ago today, on the 15th March 2011, small-scale protests were held in the southern city of Daraa in Syria in response to the imprisonment and torture of young students for writing anti-government graffiti.  A small event in a small city which in normal circumstances would be insignificant, but, by this point, two Arab dictators had been swept from power by popular protests in Egypt and Tunisia, unrest was brewing in Yemen and Bahrain, and a civil war had broken out in Libya.  This was part of the Arab Spring revolutionary wave, a new generation’s chance to claim freedom in a region infamous for brutal dictatorships and human rights abuses; a revolution which Syria’s government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, was determined to prevent affecting his own country.

He failed.  As any thinking person could have perceived simply from the events of the last few months: oppression does not stop a popular uprising.  Perhaps Assad had hoped for a repeat of the Hama Massacre of 1982, an undocumented brutality by the Syrian regime which quelled an Islamic protest in the city of Hama, estimated to have killed tens of thousands.  In this age of the internet and mass communications truths cannot be hidden, and within days the protests had spread across the country.  The government responded, predictably, with bullets.  The protesters responded, predictably, with bullets of their own.

Syrian War Today

A crude war map of the current situation, taken from Wikipedia. Green represents government-held cities, brown those by the opposition and blue where the situation is unclear.

Two years on, what began as a peaceful protest has erupted into a full scale civil war, estimated to have claimed the lives of over 70,000 people and caused over 1 million Syrians to flee the country, in addition to 2 million who are internally displaced.  The country’s population was no more than 21 million before the war.  Unlike in Libya, where NATO had a UN mandate to intervene which brought about the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi, the international community has not become involved.  This is largely due to divisions: the West would like to see the Assad regime fall, partly because of humanitarian reasons but also due to his alliance with Iran.  However they are reluctant to do anything which could cause the situation to become anymore unstable; the horrific ethnic violence which resulted from the Iraq war is still fresh in recent memory.  A ‘Friends of Syria’ group has given the opposition political support; words and little else.  Only Qatar and Saudi Arabia are openly arming the opposition, and I highly doubt they are doing so in the name of democracy.  Furthermore, Russia and China both have strategic interests in Syria and have thus far refused attempts to take action against the Syrian government.  Their roles as permanent members on the UN Security Council has meant no resolutions against the regime can be adopted.

There is, however, a sign things are changing.  Recently both Prime Minister Cameron of the UK and President Hollande of France have suggested the possibility of arming the Syrian opposition – even if it means going against an EU arms sanction.  I can appreciate the dangers of such action, that it could cause more suffering and deaths, and that the weapons could fall into the arms of Islamic extremists.  My own personal belief is that both these things will happen anyway; the longer the stalemate goes on, the more people will die, and an Islamic group called the Al-Nusra Front has assumed massive influence in opposition-held parts of Syria – the Syrian people, abandoned by the world, have understandably turned to such groups.  The Assad regime is finished – of that there is no doubt.  Arming the rebels will bring the inevitable end to the war closer, in the long run resulting in fewer deaths and preventing Islamist groups from gaining any more influence.

Another interesting, small point to note is that the Syrian opposition, under the umbrella group ‘Syrian National Coalition’ – which has recognition from half of the world – has taken Syria’s seat in the Arab League.  The Arab League has taken a surprisingly anti-tyranny stance during the Arab Revolutions, considering its reputation as a kind of ‘Despots Club’ in the past.

I wrote in my 2013 predictions that the Assad regime would collapse this year.  This is no closer to a reality now than it was back in January and, while I am absolutely certain his government will not survive this war, he has surprised everyone by clinging onto power where others have not.  No one knows when, or how, this conflict will end.  Most analysts agree that the capture or death of Assad and the complete unraveling of his regime would probably not end the violence.  Wartime alliances would collapse – most likely the Free Syrian Army, the largest opposition armed group, would turn against the Al-Nusra Front.  The conflict already has an unsettling ethnic element, as Assad’s government is comprised largely of Alawites, whereas the rebellion has its core within Sunni Muslim groups.  Villages have turned upon each other, resulting in horrific massacres.  This could become far worse.  Syria could even collapse entirely and become a failed state like Somalia or Western Sahara.  It will be a long time before Syria sees stability once again.