Tag Archives: Elections

Hong Kong’s Defiant Youth

Student rally at the Chinese University of Hong Kong

For more than a week, tens of thousands of pro-democracy activists have engaged in civil disobedience to call for constitutional reform in the special administrative region of Hong Kong.The demonstrators, primarily students and other well-educated youth, are sounding off against creeping Beijing control and have called for the head of government in Hong Kong, Chief Executive CY Leung, to resign. Through the occupation demonstrations beginning in late September, protestors forced the shutdown of many businesses and government institutions. The latest round of demonstrations have seen diminished numbers, but the implications of the standoff are tremendous. The masses of students taking a stand for democratic reform have highlighted a younger generation at odds with the central government in Beijing. The conflict is reflective of Hong Kong’s unique and often strained relationship with the People’s Republic of China (hereafter China), as well as the tension within the country and its political systems.

Hong Kong2

Clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators

A regional economic powerhouse home to over 7 million people, Hong Kong was previously a British colony for most of the 20th century. Hong Kong was officially restored to Chinese control in 1997 under the Sino-British Joint Declaration established in the 1980s. The agreement allows for Hong Kong to operate under a high degree of autonomy, retaining its own domestic affairs and giving an exception to pursue free-market capitalism in contrast to mainland China’s single-party socialism. Beijing maintains the authority and responsibility of managing defense and foreign affairs. The other Special Administrative Region of Macau, a former Portuguese colony that was returned to China in 1999, shares a similar relationship with Beijing. This policy referred to as ‘one country, two systems’ is set to remain in force for Hong Kong until 2047, and Macau until 2049.

The current confrontation was sparked by the passage of a recent law that eliminated civil nominations for the post of Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Per the new rule, the next leader of Hong Kong may be voted through universal democratic process, but only from a list of candidates selected and vetted by Beijing. In response, Occupy Central along with the student-led Hong Kong Federation of Students and the Scholarism student activist group, vowed mass action to counter the decision. After days of peaceful protest, pro-government groups staged counter-protests. Before negotiations were set to begin, student leaders called off talks with the government due to violence carried out against peaceful demonstrators by pro-government individuals in Mong Kok. Police announced that several of the arrested attackers have links to Triad gang syndicates, and pro-democracy activists have accused the government of paying thugs to provoke fear. After the cancelled talks, the protests have continued with lower numbers though group leaders have voiced their commitment to persist.

Protestor holding sign denouncing Chief Executive CY Leung

Protestor holding sign denouncing Chief Executive CY Leung

The key crux of the ongoing debate is to what extent will Beijing allow Hong Kong to govern itself and decide its future within the ‘one country, two system’ model. At present, the system is designed so that the people of Hong Kong will only be able to choose between pro-regime loyalists. Revealing this facade of universal democracy is an accomplishment in itself for the pro-democracy camp, but in order to actually revamp the process they must win concessions from Beijing, which is unlikely. What will come next will likely be talks that ultimately deflate the waning energy of the protests for a less than ideal compromise.

The most important takeaway from the wave of civil disobedience can be found in its composition. The young and the educated of Hong Kong have overwhelmingly shown their contempt for Beijing’s interference in their front yard. This level of activism is likely to continue to play a part in the ongoing political story of Hong Kong regardless of the outcome of today’s movement.

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Thailand Quietly Slipping Back into Military Rule

Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk demonstrating in opposition to the May 22nd military coup

Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk demonstrating in opposition to the May 22nd military coup

Thailand has once again fallen victim to a military coup with the ouster of democratically elected Yingluck Shinawatra on May 22nd. This is the latest of well over a dozen coups the country has experienced since the abolishment of its absolute Monarchy in 1932, and the ruling interim authority set up by the military, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has already taken harsh steps to preventing any dissent. Hundreds of political figures and activists have been arrested, martial law has been instituted, and a gathering of as few as five people can be sentenced to at least a year in prison for illegal assembly. Human Rights Watch has called for an end to civilians facing military trials and arbitrary arrests, warning that the sweeping measures adopted by the interim NPCO authority are setting the groundwork for a military dictatorship.

Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt protests in Bangkok in February

Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt protests in Bangkok in February

The coup has come after over seven months of ongoing political crisis that so far has claimed the lives of over two dozen people due to interspersed faction violence. The political divide in Thailand falls largely between the ‘yellow shirts,’ (the People’s Alliance for Democracy) who are primarily urban upper class and pro-Monarchist, and the mostly rural and urban lower class ‘red shirts’ (the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship). The conflict between these two sides of society has only been worsened by the intervention of the military and their actions which have included the suspension of the constitution. Additionally, the NCPO has closed border crossings to Laos and Cambodia, imposed curfews, and General Prayuth Chan-ocha has declared himself acting Prime Minister of the country.

In supporting ex-Prime Minister Yingluck, the red shirts have protested against the rampant interference in the political process after opposition yellow shirts blocked enough polling stations for the courts to declare the preliminary general elections invalid earlier this year. The yellow shirts opposed Yingluck and her brother and predecessor as Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, for alleged corruption. Thaksin has lived outside of the country in exile since he was removed in a military coup in 2006. The yellow shirts thus sought reform and the immediate removal of Prime Minister Yingluck rather than scheduled elections. Now that the military junta has stepped in, the yellow shirts have won in regards to Yingluck’s ouster while the red shirts have further been marginalized and have vowed to continue to fight for their right to vote.

The King of Thailand, the longest ruling Monarch still in power today, still holds some important powers including his position as the leader of the armed forces and the head of state. The King’s official recognition of the NCPO and its leader General Prayuth, lent legitimacy to the coup and further complicated the process towards a representative government. Revered especially by the yellow shirts, King Adulyadej at age 86 is the symbol of consistency that many fear cause a chasm if his ailing health continues to worsen. Without the King, as encroaching military authority will have little trouble in solidifying its own interests at the expense of both political groups as has been seen by their actions so far. While the red shirts have been directly disenfranchised, the yellow shirts who are tacitly supporting this military takeover are assuredly feeling much less threatened. Nonetheless, the relationship between the yellow shirts and military will be very interesting to follow as it develops over time.

General Prayuth, acting Prime Minister of Thailand

General Prayuth, acting Prime Minister of Thailand

The actions of the armed forces and the protesters who both sides that took up violence or intimidation tactics to push their agendas has culminated in a government in the hands of a few highly connected military officers. If flashing the ‘Hunger Games’ salute can put you in jeopardy of going to prison, the outlook for the future for Thailand is not bright at the moment. The NPCO says it is acting in the interest of Thailand’s stability, and while creeping violence was previously an issue the ironfisted approach of removing Yingluck and clamping down on dissent has spun the country backwards. Curfews in key tourist locales have since been lifted by the military after tourism crashed in the country following the coup, but the authoritarian laws on the opposition groups are likely to stay for much longer.

Thailand as noted above is no stranger to military takeovers. While in the past the military has stepped back after time to allow governments to form again, all signs indicate that as soon as the elected leadership crosses a line with the armed forces or begins to threaten their authority, they jump back to take charge again. The denial of fair elections for the people of Thailand, notably the red shirts, underscores the difficulty the country will have in moving forward. Opposing authoritarian measures such as the limits on assembly and peaceful protest must continue to delegitimize the ruling military authority. Internationally support of the Thai people who seek democratic reform, regardless of their political affiliation, can expose the nature of the military junta and facilitate further pressure to reform more quickly. The red shirts demanded the right to vote and were denied, so now it is time to see if the reform the yellow shirts pressed for will actually take place.

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President Sisi, Egypt’s Next Autocrat?

Egypt1Egyptians celebrated a tremendous achievement when the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak was toppled on February 11th, 2011. Unfortunately, that victory was short-lived because the subsequent leader, Mohammed Morsi, fell far short in delivering on the people’s goals of “bread, freedom and social justice.” Now a year after Morsi’s leadership abruptly ended, the military official who announced the coup to depose Morsi, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is going to be elected the next President of Egypt. Sisi is expected to usher in a reversion to many of the same autocratic policies and practices of the Mubarak era that Egyptians fought so hard against in the first place.

A defining hope early on in the Arab Spring was that with the downfall of autocratic leaders like Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, a new and promising future would be on the horizon for the region. However, with perhaps the exception of Tunisia, the aforementioned countries are still facing daily challenges in managing the difficult transitional period toward finding a new and stable government. Egypt as the largest nation in terms of economic size, population, and regional influence is once again facing oppressive military encroachment that will severely limit the potential of its people.

After Mubarak was overthrown, the power vacuum was filled by the most organized institution outside of the formal state apparatus: the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, narrowly defeated the military’s contender in June of 2012. When Morsi became president he consolidated power to his own office until his controversial ouster via military coup on July 3rd, 2013. Morsi’s creeping Islamism in politics divided the country and resulted in sporadic deadly clashes on the streets.  Conflict between the Brotherhood and the military apparatus that has persisted in tensions across the country and led to greater pessimism toward the future.

Although Morsi was elected democratically, he turned his back on the majority of the Egyptian people by failing to implement the reforms expected of a new leader. The Brotherhood was banned by the current interim regime and nearly 700 people were sentenced to death by a court for their role in the violence on behalf of the Brotherhood though the decision is not yet final. The court ruling is shocking both in terms of scale and in terms of brutality, and has served to reduce the Brotherhood to a shell of what it once was. Originally a leader in informal community development and social projects across the country, the jump into the political realm for the Brotherhood backfired incredibly.

Though Mohammed Morsi was responsible for mismanagement during his term as president, the planned execution of hundreds, persecution of hundreds more, and declaration by Sisi that the group would be wiped out are reminiscent of the Mubarak’s brutal repression tactics from when he was in power. Already the United States, which held an ambivalent stance towards the Morsi ouster, has warmed to the prospect of Sisi taking the reins in Egypt. After reducing military exports to Egypt, the US has begun sending Apache attack helicopters again in order to combat extremist violence in the Sinai peninsula.

General Sisi announcing the military coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi

General Sisi announcing the military coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi

On June 5th it is widely expected that Sisi will be announced as the next president of the country. Sisi has manipulated his image to be a symbol of stability and opposition to Morsi, though it is clear that his military allegiances will not disappear once he takes the leadership role. “Sisi-mania” took the country by storm when General Sisi stepped up to declare Morsi as unfit in the military coup, and ever since he has been destined for the top spot and crafted as a reluctant but beloved leader.

After more than four decades in the military, there is little question that Sisi will not deviate from the military interference in institutions and businesses that has kept them so entrenched in Egyptian society and politics. His reaction to the Brotherhood has suggested that opposition to his rule will be met with an iron fist, and the cult of personality that has been created around him marginalizes those who disagree with the direction he will take the country. What Egypt really needs is a more representative government that includes the real revolutionaries and liberals who ousted Mubarak, however those groups have been scattered and disorganized especially in contrast with the hierarchy of the military. Furthermore, eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood only pushes moderate religious Egyptians away from the state and gives the more extreme Islamic groups, such as the Salafis more legitimacy in their grievances.

The reality is that Sisi will be the next leader of Egypt, and the future does not look bright in terms of his promises to moving Egypt forward. The liberal revolutionaries that hoped for a freer, more accountable, and less corrupt Egypt have in many ways been co-opted by the old military elites with a new veneer. The military apparatus in Egypt has successfully capitalized on the disappointment that came with Morsi’s presidency and Sisi’s camp has presented him as the only option left. The United States has already decided to play ball with Sisi, and the majority of the Egyptian people have begrudgingly accepted the reality before them though once he is in the limelight the dissatisfaction with the military may return. Hopefully slowly but surely, the aspirations that led to Mubarak’s fall may once again permeate into Egyptian politics to direct the country through positive development for the people. Sisi has made sweeping promises to alleviate poverty and interestingly says he will step down if the people rise up against him, but I for one wouldn’t bet on it just yet.

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The Biggest Election in World History

Narendra Modi, leading opposition candidate for the prime minister of India

Narendra Modi, leading opposition candidate for the prime minister of India

The largest democratic election to ever take place is currently underway, but there’s a fair chance you have heard little about it. The Indian general elections to determine the next prime minister of the country as well as the composition of the lower house of parliament (called the Lok Sabha) began on April 7th, will continue until the 12th of May, and the winners will be announced on May 16th. In total there are more than 814 million eligible voters, which is over three times the amount of people eligible to vote in the United States’ 2012 presidential elections. Yet despite the scale and significance of these elections, they have attracted little attention outside of India itself.

Opposition candidate for prime minister Narendra Modi of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) may very well topple Rahul Gandhi, the candidate of the ruling Indian National Congress (commonly referred to as the Congress) which has been in power for the majority of India’s democratic history. Regardless of the results, huge changes are expected for the second most populous country in the world because of the swift rise of the BJP and Modi in contrast to the drop in popularity of the ruling coalition and Rahul Gandhi. The next prime minister’s term of five years will undoubtedly have a tremendous impact outside of India, though it has been largely overlooked thus far by Western media with the exception of the possible impact on financial markets.

The BJP is a Hindu-nationalist party and the more conservative of the two competing factions, contrasted with the liberal nationalist Congress which has been the largest and leading party of the ruling coalition since 2009. In fact, the Nehru-Gandhi family to which Rahul Gandhi belongs has dominated India’s political scene since independence in 1947, though popular discontent with the status quo and the lack of the party’s ability to improve their ruling image has eroded some of their support. Rahul Gandhi, referred to as ‘the reluctant prince,’ until recently played a back seat in politics and has been overshadowed by his family’s image and history.

Modi on the other hand, is a dynamic and controversial figure who has been praised for his economic growth as Chief Minister of the Gujarat state, but criticized for his handling of key events and lack of human rights development. During the 2002 riots in his home state of Gujarat that led to the deaths of hundreds via communal violence, Modi was lambasted for failing to curb the conflict and subsequently faced a special investigation. Though Modi was not convicted of any willful wrongdoing he was condemned internationally by countries like the US, UK and Pakistan. Despite these issues, Pakistan surprisingly endorsed him in the current election because they consider him a ‘strong leader,’ and Western countries have showed a willingness to work with Modi if he does indeed win.

Rahul Gandhi, Congress candidate for prime minister of India

Rahul Gandhi, Indian National Congress candidate for prime minister

Thus, the elections have been framed as being between a status quo and party line follower in Rahul Gandhi, or the riskier but economically savvy Narendra Modi. Modi on the world stage will almost assuredly be a more divisive figure in comparison to Gandhi or the outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Nonetheless, perhaps a greater foray onto the world stage could positively pay off for the country set to be the world’s most populous by 2028.

This election should not be forgotten as soon as the winner is announced. Indian politicians spent approximately $5 billion total on their campaigns, making it the second most expensive election of all time after the 2012 US presidential elections. The volatile relationship between India and Pakistan is a critical issue the next Indian leader in power must grapple with, as is managing the growth of one of the top ten largest economies in the world. India pursues a non-aligned and self-focused agenda, but its worldwide impact will continue to grow regardless of these goals.

There will be a new prime minister for 1.2 billion people on May 16th, though the US and West should not wait until then to start planning future cooperation with India. Preemptively strengthening  ties and adapting to the new leadership early on are much more favorable actions that should be taken in order to avoid being caught flat-footed when issues may arise. India may not be the most active in terms of foreign affairs, but there are huge benefits to greater economic collaboration and human rights development possible in the years ahead.

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