Back to Brussels…

I’ve already told one or two people about this, but I might as well make it official: my company has decided to transfer me to Brussels, and I accepted and will be leaving in a couple of weeks. I’ve loved my time in London, and I’ll be terribly sad to leave, but I’ll be just as happy to be going back to what is something of a spiritual homeland for me. I only spent a couple of years in Belgium – from 2003 to 2005, towards the end of my teenage years – but I’ve kept close ties to the place ever since. I still have many friends there. I still read the Belgian papers every day. The company that employs me (Aspect Consulting) is headquartered there, and I actually got my current job thanks to a 2008 internship at the Brussels office. I go back every couple of months – mainly for professional reasons these days, as my dad left a year or so ago to move down to Botswana – and so it won’t be a huge shock, but it will be nice to be back for longer than a day or two. Plus, Belgians are awesome.

This past year or so has been kind of an odd one, as most of you know. I started 2010 as a Parisian, in the final year of my Master’s degree programme at Sciences Po. I moved to Washington in February of that year for a six-month internship with Congressman Sestak, who sadly is no longer a member of Congress, but whom I hope to see returning to the political arena soon enough. I then relocated again, to London, in August of 2010. And, just over twelve months after leaving Paris, I’m now on the move again, back to Brussels… it’s been an interesting time for me, but I’m hoping to stick around in Belgium long enough to take full advantage of the place.

I thought about ending this short and perhaps pointless post with Brel’s Le Plat Pays, but instead, I decided to pay homage to the city that I’ll soon be leaving, and to which I’ll no doubt return many times hence:

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Unexpected: Jon Huntsman, former Utah Gov and current US Ambassador to China, now expected to run in 2012

I hadn’t seen this one coming, I must admit. Over the past few weeks, there have been rumours that John Huntsman Jr., former governor of Utah, current US Ambassador to China and moderate republican, will jump into the 2012 presidential field. I hadn’t believed any of the speculation for a second. Huntsman may be a republican, and a young, charismatic, intelligent one at that, but he’s a key member of the sitting president’s foreign policy team. What is more, he’s an environmentalist who supports civil unions for gay couples.

Yet it would seem that I was wrong to scoff at Huntsman’s chances and his intentions for 2012, because it seems, according to the entire twittersphere and blogosphere, that he’s planning to resign from his post in the spring and make steps towards a presidential run:

The White House expects Jon Huntsman, the U.S. Ambassador to China, to resign his post this spring to explore a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, top Democrats said. GOP allies of Huntsman have already begun laying plans for a quick-start campaign should the former Utah governor decide to enter the ill-defined Republican field.

While Huntsman has no direct involvement in it, a group of operatives that could eventually comprise his strategy team has set up an entity called “Horizon PAC” to serve as a placeholder for his political apparatus. The PAC will be run by Susie Wiles, a Florida-based Republican strategist who recently managed the campaign of newly-inaugurated Gov. Rick Scott.

Huntsman has avoided publicly discussing the possibility of a bid against the president who appointed him, but he’s sending signals that make clear he’s serious about a run now – not in 2016, when many top officials in both the GOP and the White House assumed he’d run. (See: Huntsman keeps his options open)

Over the holidays, the ex-governor met with Sen. John McCain, whose 2008 presidential run Huntsman backed early on. In a discussion with the senator, who is the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, about a variety of issues, Huntsman made plain that he was eyeing a White House campaign in the near term, according to a source close to the senator.

I can see a narrow path to victory for Huntsman. While his moderation is generally seen today as dooming him in the republican primaries – President Obama joking “I’m sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary” – that could change in the next six to twelve months. We seem to be moving towards a more bipartisan, conciliatory political climate, with Speaker Boehner cooperating well with the president thus far. Since the shooting in Arizona, people on both sides of the aisle have made efforts to sound less angry and brashly partisan. There is an increasing realisation that the Tea Party is at least as much of a liability as it is an asset to the GOP.

In that kind of political atmosphere, rather than the one that reigned in 2010, a moderate technocrat with executive and foreign policy experience, who speaks fluent Mandarin to boot, could actually have a shot at the republican nomination. It’s a long shot, granted, but he’s more authentic than Romney and more competent and presidential than Huckabee, and he could potentially prevail if the conservative base is divided. And, honestly, he’d frighten the pants off President Obama, because he could actually win in November 2012.

Update: Huntsman has just resigned from his ambassadorship and is now likely to explore a presidential bid.

Cyprus recognises Palestine as a state: a first for an EU member

The Jerusalem Post brings us the news that, for the first time, a member state of the European Union has recognised the Palestinian state along 1967 lines:

President Mahmoud Abbas received a letter from the president of Cyprus Dimitris Christofias in which he recognized a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, reported Palestinian news agency WAFA on Sunday.

On Friday Paraguay recognized a Palestinian state with pre-1967 borders, ahead of a mid-February summit in Peru of South American and Arab leaders.

Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Ecuador all made similar proclamations in recent weeks… Earlier in the week, Ireland upgraded its relations with the Palestinian Authority, but did not go so far as to recognize a Palestinian state. The move was slammed by Israeli officials.

It has been widely reported that Israel fears Spain, Belgium, Ireland and Scandinavian countries are next in line to join the South American countries in recognizing an independent Palestinian state unilaterally.

While Cyprus is a minnow as states go, with under a million inhabitants, it’s a very close diplomatic ally of Greece, a major shipping power, and an important trading partner of Israel. Plus, it happens to be one of the 27 members of the European Union. And if it’s the first in a series of European countries to recognise the Palestinian state, then the Middle East peace process might just take a turn for the better.

Right now, talks are essentially stalled. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is a hardliner, leading a very right-wing and anti-peace coalition (which recently took a further turn rightwards when most of the members of the Labour Party walked out). Netanyahu has shown little appetite for negotiation. The current Palestinian government lacks legitimacy – remember, Hamas won the last parliamentary elections, yet President Abbas dismissed the Hamas government in 2007 and appointed Salam Fayyad as Prime Minister without the approval of Parliament, provoking the civil war of 2007 and the effective splitting of Palestine.

An increasing number of states recognising Palestine as a state with the right to its 1967 borders could potentially change that. While some would suggest that such a move would enrage Israel, what is certain is that giving greater legitimacy to Palestinian claims of statehood would eventually force the Israeli government to return to the table and deal with a strengthened Palestinian government – maybe with the end result being a better settlement for Palestine.

It’s a long shot, of course. But it seems that the Middle Eastern conflict has been forgotten of late. American public opinion is far too pro-Israeli to allow President Obama to make concessions to the Palestinians. Europe is too divided, and too unwilling to take any risks, to have a major impact. So anything that reminds people of the almost four million Palestinians still living under Israeli military occupation, forced to cross checkpoints and endure military searches every day, and without a recognised state fighting for them on the world stage, has to be a good thing. Bravo Cyprus.

Electoral reform in the UK: moving towards a fairer system

Anyone who has lived in Britain or who follows British politics will know that, following the 2010 general election in the UK that ended in a hung parliament and resulted in a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, it was announced that there would be a referendum on changing the electoral system. Specifically, if the British people so wished it, the country would move from a first past the post system to what is known in Britain as the alternative vote (known in the USA as instant run-off voting). With the referendum scheduled for May 5th, to coincide with local elections, the campaign seems to be heating up on both sides.

I’ve lived in countries with different voting systems – the UK and the US, with one-round majority voting; Ireland, with its single transferable vote; Belgium and the Czech Republic, with party-list proportional representation; and France, with a two-round majoritarian system. As a result, electoral systems are something that people would probably tell me I’m a little too obsessed about. I think, however, that they fundamentally define how people view politics.

I believe that democracy matters, and that people should have the right to choose from a full range of political ideologies, philosophies and approaches. That means that I tend to lean towards proportional representation. I think that coalitions and compromise are good and healthy for the body politic, because they teach people that we can disagree on many issues and still find a middle ground. At the same time, my time in Belgium (and, to a lesser extent, in the Czech Republic) has taught me that the fragility of coalition politics, with months of negotiations to form a government after every single election, can damage people’s trust in politicians, leaving the door wide open to populism and extremism.

As a result, I’m conflicted – between democracy and stability. I’ve gone back and forth on this many times. But the system proposed by the current coalition (one which is already used in Australia), is a wonderful compromise.

Britain, like the United States, currently has a system known as first-past-the-post. What this means is that the voter has a list of candidates, and gets to put a cross or a tick next to the one he wants to fill the seat up for election, making a filled ballot look a bit like this:

It’s the simplest way of voting – pick the guy you want. It works perfectly in an election with just two candidates. Yet as soon as one introduces a third, let alone a fourth, fifth or sixth, the system no longer works. Consider, for a second, that there are two left-wing candidates and one right-winger in an election. The left holds a clear majority (let’s say 60%), but is divided more or less evenly between the two candidates. The right, on the other hand, only has the support of 40% of the population, but is united behind one candidate. If the result is 40-30-30, the right-winger beats the two leftists and gets elected. Yet a majority of the population wanted a leftist – they just couldn’t decide on which one they wanted.

Voters know this, though – which means that they vote tactically. Assuming a more or less bipolar (left-right, conservative-socialist, or whatever other political cleavage you want) electorate, each side will coalesce around the most viable candidate or party broadly sharing its political views. Over time, you get a political duopoly, which is what you see now in the USA. This is bad for democracy. While one could argue that parties themselves become coalitions as a result – centrists and more rabid partisans within the same party – it is wrong that the electorate assumes a vote for a third or fourth option is a wasted vote. And yet it is – consider what would have happened if all of the people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 had instead voted for Al Gore.

Supporters of the first-past-the-post system would argue that, despite these flaws, their way of voting is both the simplest and the one which ensures the greatest stability. This is only partly true. Majoritarian systems tend to produce stable, one-party governments with strong, one-party oppositions, ensuring a stark contrast between two opposing political philosophies in elections. One could argue, on the other hand, that while third parties with uniform national support gain few seats, if any, strong regional parties actually benefit from majority systems. Canada is the best example of this: the Bloc Québécois generally wins most of the seats in Quebec, meaning that forming a majority government has become more and more difficult of late; proportional representation would actually weaken it.

But I digress. Majority systems almost always produce stable governments in relatively culturally homogenous countries with no major regionalist movements (the 2010 election in the UK was a major exception). While coalition and compromise can be wonderful things, Belgium, Holland, Italy and many other European countries have suffered from major political instability as a result of their proportional electoral systems. It could be argued that this is the price of true democracy – but what if there were a third way?

France and Australia both have the answer – though Australia is closer to the mark than the French. There is an easy way to ensure stability while giving the electorate a greater choice. How? Have more than one round of elections.

France is well-known for its two-round electoral system (though it is not the only country to have such a system – I’m just using it as an example). What happens, concretely, is that voters are asked to pick twice – first, from the full list of candidates, and then from the top two. That allows voters on the left and right to vote with their hearts in the first round (communist, green, socialist or whatever else on the left; market liberal, gaullist or nationalist on the right) and with their heads in the second. That makes the ballot look a little like this:

What that means is that voters aren’t forced to pick the lesser of two evils right away – they can pick whomever they want in the first round, and then whichever candidate is closer to their political ideology in the second. That means more choice, and more democracy as a result, but with a clear left-right cleavage, and stable, coherent majorities, in the end.

This system works perfectly with three candidates. Let’s take our two left-wingers and one right-winger from the previous example, but with one of the two left-wing candidates getting 35% and the other 25% (the right-wing candidate still gets 40%). Under the French system, the top-placed left-wing politico gets to face off in a second round against the right-wing man or woman. The left will coalesce around the guy with 35%, and give him a clear majority in the run-off.

Yet it starts to break down when more than three candidates are introduced into the mix. France’s 2002 presidential election is a perfect example. With sixteen people running for the presidency, of which eight were from the left, the left-wing electorate was divided. The then Prime Minister and socialist nominee Lionel Jospin only received 16.18% of the vote, while three trotskyists received a sum total of over 10%; Noël Mamère of the greens, as well as left-wing eurosceptic Jean-Pierre Chevènement, both got over 5% each. As a result, Jospin didn’t even make it into the top two, losing out to far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.

This meant that the 2007 election brought with it calls from the left (largely heeded) to vote for socialist Ségolène Royal in the first round – meaning that other left-wing candidates were largely ignored and marginalised. While it allowed France to avoid another 2002 scenario, it meant that voters were pressured into voting for frontrunners instead of being able to listen to their conscience.

That’s why the alternative vote – the system being proposed in the UK, and which Australia already uses in national elections – is so attractive. Instead of turning up twice to vote in two rounds of elections, voters have one ballot, where they list candidates in order of preference. That would look something like this:

If you’re a left-wing voter and you really like the greens, but know they won’t win, you can still vote for them under this system. It’s very simple. You put a one against the guy you’d really love to win, a two against your second choice, a three against your third, and so on, giving your last preference to the bloke you’d really hate to see elected. Ballots are then counted, and the candidate with the lowest number of first-preference votes is eliminated. His second preferences are then distributed among the candidates left in the race. This process of elimination continues until someone ends up with 50% of the vote.

What this means is that voters can both vote their conscience and still pick the lesser of two evils. Taking our previous example, if we have four left-wing candidates and two right-wingers, there’s a good possibility that under a two-round system there won’t be a single leftist in the second round. With the alternative vote, as candidates are eliminated, their preferences are redistributed, meaning that the guy with the most broad-based support ends up getting elected.

Looking at Australia, apart from the 2010 election (which produced the same kind of hung parliament as we saw in Britain), stable majorities have always been formed, yet people are allowed to pick their favourite candidate without fearing that their vote will be wasted or that their choice of a third-party candidate will mean their least-favourite politician will wind up getting elected. That means more choice, stronger third parties, more competition in elections, and a more informed and intelligent electorate.

It’s a simple yet elegant way of balancing stability with democracy. If British voters have any sense, they’ll go for it.

The rent is too damn high! (presidential edition)

Jimmy McMillan, founder and leader of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party, also known as Jimmy Mack, The Black Hulk Hogan, Papa Smurf, Santa Claus and Rambo, is one of my favourite politicians and all-round awesome people in the whole wide world. And New Yorkers now know him well from his magnificently surreal performance in the 2010 New York gubernatorial debates (watch the whole 2-minute clip – it gets better and better):

Recently, McMillan has been making my day by suggesting that he’ll run for president in 2012, possibly as a republican. David Goodman interviewed him, with the results that one would expect from someone as awesome as Jimmy McMillan:

If you run for president, you’re going to need a vice president. Who are you looking at?

Mitt Romney. Or Newt Gingrich.

Really? So, it’s going to be a bipartisan ticket. What do you like about Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich?

Newt Gingrich has been there before. He is a good liar. People look at him and laugh. That’s why they’re going to vote for him. People look at me now and laugh. But, still, they can laugh. The issues are serious and strong. So, I need someone to take that away from me. I thought about John Edwards. But …

He’s unavailable right now.

Yeah, he’s unavailable. Because he can’t defend his own rights. [He cheated] on his wife and all this stuff. We know everybody does that anyway. I thought about Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. I like them. I like what they bring to the table. Mitt Romney — good looking guy. It’ll keep the ladies from looking at me with Mitt Romney…

You’ve said that by running for president you’re telling Obama that you’re “coming after his black ass.” Can you explain that?

Because Barack Obama used the word that he was going to get somebody’s ass. You probably heard him say that because they did something that I guess they shouldn’t have done. Now, I like to use quotes and phrases to open up those vessels in your mind that you haven’t used in a long time. Barack Obama is the head of the Democratic Party. He’s black, African-American, whatever you call him. He’s black. The logo for the Democratic Party is a donkey. You call him a donkey or an ass. So, it makes sense for me to say, as a karate expert, I hope you can use the portion of your mind you don’t use. I’m coming after Barack Obama’s black ass. That’s the donkey! I’m coming after the Democratic Party!

I really hope he runs and wins. Obviously, he’s got no shot at actually getting the GOP nomination. He did get the endorsement of the American Moustache Institute in 2010, though, which is certainly enough to convince me to vote for him:

Republicans redefine rape for the 21st (or should that be 19th?) century

Nick Baumann brings us the news that the House Republican Majority is planning to re-define rape. To wit:

For years, federal laws restricting the use of government funds to pay for abortions have included exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. (Another exemption covers pregnancies that could endanger the life of the woman.) But the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” a bill with 173 mostly Republican co-sponsors that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed a top priority in the new Congress, contains a provision that would rewrite the rules to limit drastically the definition of rape and incest in these cases.

With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to “forcible rape.” This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion. (Smith’s spokesman did not respond to a call and an email requesting comment.)…

Laurie Levenson, a former assistant US attorney and expert on criminal law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, notes that the new bill’s authors are “using language that’s not particularly clear, and some people are going to lose protection.” Other types of rapes that would no longer be covered by the exemption include rapes in which the woman was drugged or given excessive amounts of alcohol, rapes of women with limited mental capacity, and many date rapes. “There are a lot of aspects of rape that are not included,” Levenson says.

This is the product of a party that is completely clueless about women’s issues – a party run by men, for men. The democrats may not be perfect on the subject themselves, but the simple fact that a large majority of their electorate is female means that they actually have to try to understand things from a woman’s point of view. The reality is that there are many instances where women are unable to freely consent to sexual relations. It’s not just men physically forcing themselves upon women, though that’s obviously the historical definition of the act. It’s far more complicated than that – something that European countries understand more and more, which is why the definition of rape has grown over the years. It’s a shame that the Republicans’ sophomoric frat-boy world view prevents them from understanding that.

Egypt, Mubarak and the protests

I’ve been quiet thus far about the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and the rest of the Middle East – mainly because it’s not my area of expertise, and other people have far more intelligent things to say about the subject than I ever possibly could. But I realise that it’d be disrespectful of me not to express some kind of hope in the grassroots popular movements in the Arab world given the events of the past few days. Whatever one thinks of the leaders currently in power in North Africa and the Arab Peninsula, the mere idea that the Middle East could express a yearning for democracy and accountability without waving AK-47s and advocating for Muslim theocracy is in itself heartening. Arabs young and old have proven that they can’t be so easily stereotyped.

What Tunisia has shown is that a long-standing, entrenched régime still has to watch its back, and that no leader or dictator is completely safe from his people. That’s the way it should be. Whether the topping of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is the first in a series of popular uprisings and democratic revolutions, or merely the high point of this ongoing series of events, is not for me to judge. But let’s take Hosni Mubarak, the fourth and current president of Egypt, in power since 1981. Mubarak is the target of the current protests in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez (the BBC News website is the best place for coverage), for the very legitimate reason that he’s a corrupt dictator who’s contributed to a decades-long economic stagnation and aided the ruling élites in stealing and pillaging the riches of their nation.

While the rejoicing at Ben Ali’s ousting in Tunisia was almost universal, many have suggested that Mubarak must be helped and protected as an ally and a bulwark against extremism and islamism (Vice-President Joe Biden being one of them) – and that the alternative would be to hand the country over to the Muslim Brotherhood, who would turn what was one of the few friends of Israel in the region into a military threat for the Jewish state. It’s certainly a viable argument, and may well be true.

I’ve met a few Egyptians in my time, though not enough to make generalisations. My impression is that they’re too hedonistic and live-and-let-live to allow an Iranian-style theocracy to take over, and that they’re more likely to turn to someone like pro-democracy campaigner and former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei. But beyond what might or might not happen, Mubarak has held onto power for too long, and the prospect of his son Gamal taking over after his retirement or death is an insult to the Egyptian people. The current régime needs to, at the very least, remove restrictions and pressure on the opposition (and free speech) and move towards truly free elections. And if the end result is an anti-American government that worries Israel, depressing as that idea might be, the people will at least have spoken.