Irish election: Fianna Fáil slumps to historic defeat

It looks almost certain that Fianna Fáil, the party that has dominated Irish politics since independence, is not just going to lose power – it will be well and truly crushed, with exit polls putting it at 15%, in third place behind Fine Gael (the right-wing opposition party) at 36% and Labour (the main party of the left in Ireland, which has never come better than third in a national election) at over 20%. That would leave it on under 30 seats, and possibly even under 20, its worst result ever and an absolute catastrophe for the traditional party of power, which won 77 seats out of the 166 in Ireland’s lower house (officially known as Dáil Éireann) in 2007, which has never held less than 60 seats since 1932, and has been the largest political grouping in the country in every single election since 1932. It is fairly certain that Enda Kenny, current Fine Gael leader, will soon become Taoiseach (Prime Minister), probably in a coalition with Labour.

It’s a political tsunami, in the words of former government minister Batt O’Keefe, and one in which I’m revelling, if I’m honest. As I’ve said in previous posts, Fianna Fáil is a corrupt, soul-less, populist party that’s never actually stood for anything except winning elections. It’s a classic dominant ‘centrist’ party, similar to Italy’s Democrazia Cristiana (which dominated Italy’s politics until the early 1990s), which can be socialist and liberal, conservative and progressive, depending on how the political winds blow and which minor party it needs to ally with to hang onto power. It’s an anachronism, a symbol of the parish pump politics that involves short-term pandering to local concerns while completely ignoring the broader, longer-term issues and challenges that the country faces. And while the economic catastrophe that Ireland is currently experiencing was provoked by events overseas, that it was as bad, as deep and as painful as it has turned out to be is entirely the fault of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, current head of government Brian Cowen, and their party’s approach to politics and governing. So, as I’ve said before, their political destruction is entirely deserved.

Anyway, RTE has live updates that are definitely worth following if you can’t get to a TV that has Irish channels, and you can also listen to coverage on RTE Radio 1 and Newstalk to get a sense of what’s going on.

Only 52% of Americans know the health care bill is law

It’s things like this that make you wonder what kind of a world half of Americans live in:

In a new Kaiser Health poll, just 52% of Americans knew that the health care reform bill signed into law by President Obama is still in place. Meanwhile, one fifth — 22% — of all Americans believe that the law has been overturned, while another 26% aren’t sure what’s up with the law.

At least those 22% of people who think healthcare reform is now off the books seem to be aware enough of events to have kind of figured out that republicans were against the legislation, and that maybe something happened in November that gave more power to the people who opposed ‘Obamacare’. As for the 26% who don’t know…

Look, the thing about any kind of poll like this one is that what it really shows is just how little attention the average American pays to news, and specifically news about politics. Fox News is the most popular news channel in the country, followed by MSNBC and CNN. Yet even ‘popular’ shows like The O’Reilly Factor, Hannity or Glenn Beck get surprisingly few viewers (781 thousand, 585 thousand and 572 thousand respectively, according to Nielsen). Compare those statistics to, say, the almost 30 million people who watch American Idol on a regular basis. Now, granted, more people watch network and local cable news. But their coverage of politics beyond the odd election or truly ground-breaking piece of legislation is minimal. As a result, most people in America have little to no idea what’s going on in their own country. It’s not because they’re stupid – it’s just that they’d rather watch something else than political coverage.

Baby steps towards marriage equality in the United States

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know that I’m a huge supporter of marriage rights for LGBT couples. It’s a question of basic equality and justice. That’s why I’m so happy about this particular piece of news:

In a major policy reversal, the Obama administration said Wednesday it will no longer defend the constitutionality of a federal law banning recognition of same-sex marriage.

Attorney General Eric Holder said President Barack Obama has concluded that the administration cannot defend the federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. He noted that the congressional debate during passage of the Defense of Marriage Act “contains numerous expressions reflecting moral disapproval of gays and lesbians and their intimate and family relationships – precisely the kind of stereotype-based thinking and animus the (Constitution’s) Equal Protection Clause is designed to guard against.”

The Justice Department had defended the act in court until now.

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law by Bill Clinton – and it, alongside Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), was one of the worst decisions of Clinton’s presidency. Agreeing to republican legislation banning gay marriage nationwide was based purely on the crass political calculation that more voters were homophobes than LGBT activists.

It’s clear that that’s changing. Back in the 1990s, no-one even bothered to poll opinions on same-sex unions. In 2010, for the first time, a CNN poll found that 52% of adult Americans “think gays and lesbians should have a constitutional right to get married and have their marriage recognized by law as valid.” While I remain doubtful that a majority of Americans would vote for marriage equality, attitudes do seem to have changed substantially. Homophobia is becoming less and less ‘okay’. As more and more people dare to come out of the closet, people across the country are coming to the realisation that – surprise, surprise – gay people are just people, like anyone else. That’s brilliant news.

So while today’s decision isn’t anywhere near gay marriage, and should have come two years ago, it’s certainly a positive step, and one that reflects the astonishing progress that the gay rights cause has made in American public opinion over the past couple of decades. It’s why I’m happy to have a democrat in the White House, even if I’d like to see marriage equality right away, and I don’t think President Obama has gone far enough. Just imagine where we’d be if John McCain had won in November 2008. We’d still have DADT, we’d be nowhere close to DOMA repeal, and President McCain might well have announced his support for a federal gay marriage ban.

That’s why elections matter.

Reports that Colonel Gaddafi has ‘fled’ Libya: another dictator falls

Now this is something I really hadn’t anticipated. According to the Telegraph and several other news sources, long-time Libyan leader Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi (also known as Colonel Gaddafi or, to quote his full title, Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya) may have fled the country which he ruled for so many years, possibly heading for Venezuela:

Following an emergency EU meeting of foreign ministers on the situation in Libya, [British Foreign Secretary William] Hague was asked if Britain, or other Western countries, knew if Col. Gaddafi had left Tripoli.

“About whether Col. Gaddafi, is in Venezuela, I have no information that says he is although I have seen some information that suggests he is on his way there,” he said.

British officials stressed that Mr Hague was referring “not to media reports but information from other channels”. “This is credible information,” said a diplomat.

If true, it’d be astonishing news. Gaddafi, who is pretty close to certifiably insane, has been the bane of the West’s existence for many years, though his oil wealth has meant that many leaders have had to stoop to rather excruciatingly embarrassing brown-nosing to win pipeline contracts and the like (Gaddafi’s visit to France in 2007 and his complete humiliation of Nicolas Sarkozy is one example that springs to mind).

He’s ‘led’ his country (if leading it off a cliff counts as leading) since a coup against then-King Idris in 1969. In that time, he’s oscillated between Islamic socialism, pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism. He’s supported terrorists responsible for the deaths of countless people in various corners of the globe. He’s been the worst enemy and the best friend of various European heads of state and government at various times. He’s prone to ridiculous unilateral proclamations, like when he called himself the ‘King of Kings’ at an African Union summit in 2008. He travels around in a tent. He also has some kind of grudge against Switzerland for some reason, and called for it to be split between France, Germany and Italy back in 2009.

He’s basically somewhere between tyrannical, megalomaniacal and just plain nuts. Laughing at the guy might, in ordinary circumstances, be seen as diminishing the tragedy of the people who died because of acts he ordered, funded or encouraged. However, I think that in the case of Gaddafi, ridicule is perhaps the best punishment of all for a man so proud. So: good riddance, you crazy bastard.

The electoral college explained: how America chooses its presidents

I’ve tended to comment on current affairs on this blog, writing relatively few longer, analytical posts about issues. That’s obviously a mistake, but it’s due to the time constraints I’ve had of late, especially with my recent move to Brussels and search for an apartment (and a pretty nasty cold and fever on top of that).

So I thought that I’d finally get around to doing something worthwhile: the first in a series of explanations of the American political system to both foreigners (the majority of my readers, I think) and people more generally who pay little attention to the intricacies of US politics. And what better way to start than the way America elects its presidents?

Unlike most countries with presidential systems, America does not, in fact, directly elect its head of state. What? The appearance of a presidential election every four years in which Americans across the country vote would seem to suggest the contrary. Yet things are in fact far more complicated, as we saw just over ten years ago when Al Gore won half a million more votes than George W. Bush, yet lost the election to his adversary.

The system that actually exists in the United States is one of an electoral college indirectly electing the president, as is set out in Article II, Section I, Clause II of the US Constitution:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

That might sound like nonsense to most people, but it’s actually extremely logical – it just requires a basic understanding of the federal legislature. Like most modern democracies, the United States has three branches of government (legislative, executive and judicial). The legislative branch is represented by a Congress comprised of two houses – the House of Representatives and the Senate. Many other countries have bicameral systems like this one, though the US is one of the rare few to give equal powers to both houses.

Under the terms of the Connecticut Compromise, the two houses were designed to represent different constituencies. One, the Senate, would give equal weight to every single state (with two senators per state), while the House would represent the people, with the number of representatives per state determined by population. Since the Reapportionment Act of 1929, there have been 435 members of the House, divided among the 50 states on the basis of the most recent census (held every ten years); since 1959, when Hawaii became a state, there have been 100 members of the Senate (once again, two per state).

What this means, going back to the Constitution, is that every state has a certain number of presidential electors, based on its representation in both houses. In 2008, the most recent presidential election, California had 55 electors, because it is represented by 53 members of the House and 2 senators; Alaska, on the other hand, had 3 electors, corresponding to its sole congressperson and its two senators. These electors, who number 538 in total (435 representatives, 100 senators, and 3 electoral votes for Washington, DC, which lacks congressional representation but which has a vote in presidential elections since the ratification of the 23rd Amendment in 1961), pick the president every four years.

How are these electors chosen? Well, theoretically, a state can choose to pick its electors however it likes. In 1789, the first presidential election, won by George Washington, four states allowed their state legislatures to pick electors, one left it up to the governor, while the others had some form of popular vote, either by district or state-wide. Right up until the Civil War, South Carolina still left it up to its state legislature to pick determine its electoral college vote.

Today, however, every state lets its residents (or, rather, US citizens registered to vote in the state) choose its electors. What does that mean, exactly? Well, let’s take Florida. Florida has 25 representatives and 2 senators, giving it 27 electoral college votes (though that will change in the 2012 election, following the recent census). When a Floridian goes to the polls, he will have in front of him a ballot that looks a bit like this:

Looks simple, right? Just pick the presidential ticket (presidential and vice-presidential candidates) that you’d most like to see running the country for the next four years. What actually happens is somewhat different, however.

When a Floridian picks one of the duos on the ballot above, he actually chooses a list of electors picked by the campaign of the candidates in question. So, for example, Barack Obama picked 27 candidates for elector who would vote for him in the electoral college. Their names are not on the ballot, though they are publicly available. But should Obama win Florida (which he did in 2008), his 27 candidates would be chosen as Florida’s electors in the 2008 presidential election.

What that means is that you effectively have 51 (50 states plus DC) separate elections, with each state choosing a ‘slate’ (list) of electors who will then vote for the president. Almost all states (Maine and Nebraska being the exceptions) attribute these electors on a ‘winner-takes-all’ basis, meaning that the ticket winning the most votes in the state wins all of the state’s electoral votes. Going back to Florida as an example, Barack Obama’s 50.92% of the vote in that state meant that he won all of the state’s 27 electoral votes, while John McCain won Missouri’s 11 electoral votes (to take another example) by beating Obama 49.43% to 49.29%.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Well, let’s forget the electors for a second, and just think of states representing a block of votes in the electoral college. New York is worth 31 votes, while Texas is worth 34. Barack Obama won a majority of the popular vote in New York, meaning that he won that state’s electoral votes, while John McCain won Texas and its 34 electoral college votes. Add up all of the state-wide totals, and you have the Obama-Biden ticket triumphing with 365 votes to McCain-Palin’s 173.

That’s not a big deal, as long as the electoral vote winner and the popular vote winner are the same person – though Obama won nearly 68% of the electoral college votes with only 52.9% of the popular vote (the total of all of the votes cast by US citizens in the 50 states plus DC). However, the system has several inherent flaws. For one thing, because of the way electoral votes are apportioned, small states have disproportionate power compared to their population – Wyoming has roughly 188,000 residents per elector, compared to California’s 677,000. Secondly, since most states clearly favour one party or another (Minnesota last voted for a republican in 1972, while Alaska only gave its electoral college vote to a democrat once, in 1964), a few ‘swing states’ like Ohio, Florida or Colorado essentially make all of the difference. Finally, the national popular vote actually matters surprisingly little – as Al Gore found out in 2000; John Kerry, also, would have won in 2004 with a small swing in Ohio despite trailing substantially in the popular vote nationwide.

What is also possible is an electoral college draw or tie, despite a popular vote win for one candidate or another. In order to win the presidency, a candidate must win the votes of a majority of electors (270, under the current rules). If no candidate reaches that number, either because there are more than two candidates winning states, or because both major candidates win 269 votes, then the House of Representatives gets to pick the president, while the Senate picks the vice-president. The Washington Times foresaw a scenario in 2008 where, because the outgoing House was in democratic hands but the Senate was evenly divided between Obama and McCain supporters (Joe Lieberman, an independent democrat, supported McCain over Obama), we could very well have seen a President Obama elected by the House and a Vice-President Palin elected by the Senate.

It’s all quite fun from a political pundit’s point of view. It makes elections more interesting, reducing states to blocks of votes to be attributed en masse to one candidate or another. Election night is more fun when you’re tallying up states on a board, trying to get to the magic 270. It’s fairly nonsensical, however. Every country with a strong executive president elects its head of state by giving each citizen an equal vote. Imagine such a system in France, with each region or département having a certain number of votes in the presidential election to divvy up as it saw fit. One could argue that such a system does exist in the election of the presidency of the European Council, with each member-state given a weighted vote based partly on its population. However, we’re not talking about direct elections for the presidency of a country – picking the person that will have access to the nuclear launch codes for the next four or so years.

Basically, it’s somewhat silly and out-dated, but it’s not going to change any time soon, and it doesn’t make that much of a difference, to be honest. We’ve only seen three scenarios thus far in American history (1876, 1888 and 2000) when the winner of the popular vote didn’t win the electoral college vote and become president. One more such case might be enough to force people to support changes to the system, like the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would give a majority of the electoral college votes to the popular vote winner. But, for now, at least you might have a slightly better understanding of how America elects its president.

More blog love

Daniel Alexander, a good friend from Paris who’s studying to become an interpreter, has just started a blog on politics and language that’s already showing enormous promise. The link is here:  http://deverbalisethis.wordpress.com/.

He’s got a very insightful post up on why the world still needs interpreters, as well as a two part piece on Kosovo that’s definitely worth reading. Daniel’s an interesting guy – originally from England, lived in France for many years, in love with Eastern Europe, speaks Russian, Czech, Romanian and one or two other languages I’ve no doubt forgotten. He’s a proud left-winger and iconoclast, and his blog will no doubt reflect that in the days and weeks to come (he’s already posting at a pretty impressive rate, considering he only started the blog yesterday).

Belarusian President Lukashenko ‘hates fags’

Belarusian President Lukashenko said something nice about gay people and particularly openly homosexual German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle today:

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko declared today that he didn’t like “fags” and said that he had advised German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who is openly gay, to lead a “normal life”.

“Important people with a correct or incorrect [sexual] orientation came here and started to criticise me… But I don’t like fags, so I told them that”, Mr. Lukashenko said, according to his press service. “And, you see, certain foreign ministers resent me… but we live in a democratic society, and I am president. I have every right to state my position”, the Belarusian president, known for his controversial and dramatic statements, added.

“I told [Guido Westerwelle] honestly, eye-to-eye, that he had to lead a normal life”, the Belarusian president went on to say, without saying when exactly he made such a declaration… the German foreign policy chief was in Belarus in November.

It’d be easy to dismiss this as the idle prejudice of one idiot. However, it’s actually symptomatic of a more general ‘homophobia problem’ in Central and Eastern Europe. Former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov banned gay pride parades in his city, calling them “Satanic Act[s]”. The late Lech Kaczynski, former Polish president, banned gay pride marches twice while he was mayor of Warsaw, explaining to the LGBT community that “I respect your right to demonstrate as citizens. But not as homosexuals.” His brother, Jaroslaw, former Prime Minister, stated on more than one occasion his opposition to openly homosexual people teaching in schools.

And anecdotal evidence tells me that homophobia is a deep-seated problem across Central and Eastern Europe (and is generally worse the further one goes eastwards). I’ve met and got to know many people from that part of the world. I majored in Central and Eastern European Studies at an undergraduate level, where most of my classmates were from former communist countries. My girlfriend is Ukrainian. I lived in Prague for a year. And while most of my friends from that region are as tolerant as anyone else, I’ve heard more horrific overt anti-gay bigotry from Eastern Europeans than from any other group (though, granted, I have little first-hand knowledge of, say, the Middle East). It’s gradually changing, as younger people tend to be more tolerant than their parents. But it’s certainly a huge problem, which stems mainly from a complete ignorance of gay rights and the gay community during communist rule, and the inevitable negative reaction that came from the sudden coming out of the shadows of said community after 1989. And while progress has been made, declarations like this lazy expression of homophobia by Lukashenko certainly do not help.