Thursday, 31 October 2019

Time for Evo to Go?

Evo Morales has done great things for Bolivia. Perhaps his most important contribution has been giving Brazil's indigenous people their country back. For centuries after the conquest, as has been too often the case in Latin America, the country was dominated by its European-descended people, the heirs of the conquistadors. Indeed, in a country with an indigenous majority, he is the first indigenous president.

Morales has accomplished many of the goals he set for his presidency. The country has prospered with an annual economic growth rate of 4.6 percent, over twice that of all Latin America. He instituted social programs that helped lift over two million people out of poverty. The poverty rate has dropped from 60 percent to 36 percent. In a show of diversity familiar to Canadians, he included women, indigenous people and labor leaders in his cabinet. Working with leaders of Andean, lowland and Amazon tribes, he drafted a new constitution, approved by 60 percent of Bolivians in a 2009 referendum. He even changed the name of the country from the Republic of Bolivia to the Plurinational State of Bolivia to reflect the diverse ethnicities that had, for centuries, felt like second-class citizens. His success has been an inspiration to first nations’ movements worldwide.

He was lionized as a result, his name gracing schools, stadiums and cultural centers. He was re-elected three times and in 2019 for a controversial fourth. But recently his star has begun to fade. Tensions with indigenous people first emerged in 2011 when he proposed a road through the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory, enraging native groups and environmentalists. Protesters marched for over a month before the project was suspended. Adolfo Chávez, former president of The Confederation of Indigenous People of Bolivia, said “When Evo took office we thought indigenous people would never have to march again.” In 2013, the government announced it would permit hydrocarbon exploration in the country's national parks, seriously affecting Morales' formerly impeccable environmental credentials.

Signs of grandiosity have emerged with the opening of a $7-million museum in his hometown telling Bolivia's recent history through his achievements and a $34-million presidential palace in La Paz. The civil service has become politicized with its members dragooned into demonstrations of support for Morales, and there is suspicion of corruption in the awarding of state contracts. A cooling economy has not helped.

But of greatest concern from a democratic perspective is his reluctance to give up power. Despite his own constitution setting a limit of two five-year terms, Morales asked voters in a referendum to let him run again in 2019. When they said no, he convinced the Constitutional Court, consisting of judges nominated by his allies in Congress, to let him run anyway. The ruling on term limits has fueled continuing demonstrations, and questions have arisen about the recent election.

Morales is accused of using state resources to promote his campaign and packing the electoral tribunal with his supporters. The election result is suspect. With over 80 percent of the votes counted, it looked like a runoff with the second candidate would be required, then the tribunal went dark for 23 hours, after which it announced Morales had won a clear victory. While Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and Argentina have supported Morales, the EU (Bolivia's biggest funder), the U.S., Canada and a number of Latin American countries have refused to recognize the result and are demanding a runoff. An Organization of American States observer mission, backed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, will audit the election. Morales has said he will go to a second round if fraud is found. In the meantime, violent protests rage across the country.

Regardless of the outcome, Evo may have simply outstayed his welcome, as politicians all too often attempt to do. Latin America in particular has seen a host of politicians who rose to power as men of the people and did good things, but eventually were overtaken by their egos and slipped into the role of strongmen. It would be a great tragedy if Morales' historic contributions were undermined by his country descending into another Venezuela.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Eastern Europe happy (mostly) with democracy and free markets

In November, 1989, the world's most infamous wall came down and the "Evil Empire" crumbled away. The communist regimes of Eastern Europe collapsed like dominoes and by 1990 free elections were held, the free market was adopted throughout, and Germany was whole again.

And how do the citizens of these former totalitarian states feel about the transition now? The Pew Research Center has attempted to answer that question with a comprehensive survey of nine Eastern European states. The answer is general approval with some reservations.

For example, in all the countries surveyed, except Russia, more people approved than disapproved of multiparty elections and free market systems, most strongly. Most agreed that education, standard of living, and pride of country have benefited; law and order is about the same; while health care has slipped. Those in nations that joined the European Union generally believe membership has been good for their countries.

Poles, Czechs and Lithuanians, and more than four-in-ten Hungarians and Slovaks, believe their economic situation is better than it was under communism; however most Russians, Ukrainians and Bulgarians believe things are worse. People in the two nations that have not joined the EU, Russia and Ukraine, are less supportive of democracy and capitalism, and less satisfied with their lives than those in nations that are now members.

Perhaps the survey’s most positive finding is people's increase in life satisfaction. Asked if they would rate their lives 7 to 10 on a scale where 10 represents the best possible life, the citizens of all countries showed a dramatic increase over their response to the same question in 1991. In East Germany, for example, the per cent answering yes jumped from 15 per cent to 59 per cent, close to that of West Germany.

On the negative side, there is apparently a widespread perception that politicians, and to a lesser extent business people, have benefited much more than ordinary people. In addition to a certain pessimism about the functioning of the political system, there is worry about economic issues such as the future of well-paying jobs and inequality.

Nonetheless, in every country half or more agreed with the statement “Voting gives people like me some say about how the government runs things.” And young people generally hold a stronger belief that shifting to a market economy has been good for their country, are more satisfied with the current direction of their countries, have more favorable opinions of the EU, and are more optimistic about their economic future.

The shift from communism to freedom in Eastern Europe has been one of the most momentous revolutions in the history of the continent, and an almost entirely peaceful one. It is early days, barely three decades old, nonetheless it appears that in the eyes of the great majority of the people affected so far it has been a success. Score one for democracy.

A bad night for politicians, but not so bad for the country

It was not a good night for political parties. Clearly, the voters were not about to commend the Liberals for their four years in power. And just as clearly, they weren't about to replace them with the Conservatives. The only party that came out laughing was the Bloc.

Personally, I am quite content with a Liberal minority government. I am tired of being governed by political parties that only have the support of 40 per cent of us, as has become the habit lately. When 60 per cent of the citizens don't want the party in power governing them, you may have an electoral system but you don't have a democratic system. Now we can look forward to a government that more accurately represents the will of the people.

I wouldn't have minded a majority Liberal government. After all, they did a lot of good stuff: appointed a gender-balanced cabinet, legalized pot and assisted suicide, negotiated an improved NAFTA, introduced a new child benefit, reinstated the long-form census, unmuzzled government scientists, signed the Paris climate agreement and instituted a carbon tax—a long list. However, despite the latter two items, I was disappointed overall with their global warming efforts and, of particular interest to me, they betrayed their promise of voting reform. So now they are stuck with a minority government anyway—poetic justice.

Most importantly they will need the support of the NDP, my party, to pass legislation. The combined seats for the two parties total 181 (53 per cent) with 49 per cent of the popular vote, not perfect but a big improvement. Add the Greens and it's 184 seats (54 per cent) with 55 per cent of the popular vote—even better. Or they could enlist the Bloc?

Now let's hope the progressive parties behave like adults, recognize the will of the people, and work together. I will now dash off a letter to Mr. Singh with exactly that message.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

War Rooms, Secrecy and a Little Patronage—Democracy in Alberta

Former journalist and conservative lobbyist Tom Olsen was the UCP candidate in my riding of Calgary-Buffalo in this spring's Alberta election. Tom lost to Joe Ceci of the NDP, but his loss was only temporary. Recently it turned into a handsome reward. He was named by Energy Minister Sonya Savage to the position of managing director of the newly-created Canadian Energy Centre, otherwise known as the "war room." Olsen will be paid $195,000 a year in his new job, a cut above the $120,931 he would have got as an MLA. For some people it's all horseshoes.

The war room will have a $30-million budget and work to counter what the government considers to be misinformation about Alberta's resource industry. One suspects it will apply a broad definition for "misinformation."

The new centre was set up as a private corporation which means much of what it does will not be subject to freedom-of-information legislation. This lack of transparency was explained by Christine Myatt, Premier Kenney's press secretary, as necessary to avoid providing "a tactical and/or strategic advantage to the very foreign-funded special interests the CEC is looking to counter. For example, we would not let those foreign-funded special interests seeking to attack our province see our detailed defence plans."

Strategic advantage? Attack our province? Defense plans? Is our new government paranoid or have the premier and his energy minister simply been playing too many war games on their PCs? In any case, this secrecy when they are spending taxpayer dollars is offensive. As Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch put it, "Exempting any government public organization from the access to information law is a recipe for waste and corruption and abuse of the public and the public interest." Amen, Duff.

And then there is a very real question about what this war room will actually be used for. After all, you don't need an annual budget of $30-million and secret strategies to counter misinformation. You only need one, very open strategy: tell the truth. What the UCP has set up sounds very like a propaganda centre, and indeed concerns have arisen that it will be used to stifle free speech and demonize those who express views critical of the industry and its contribution to global warming.

Paranoia has a history in Alberta. In 1937, Premier William "Bible Bill" Aberhart's Social Credit government introduced a bill that would have forced newspapers to print government rebuttals to stories the provincial cabinet deemed "inaccurate." The bill was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. This would be a fitting future for Kenney's war room nonsense.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

One Gem in the LIberal Package

With promises flying about right and left as the election approaches, one gem emerged from the Liberal package: "We will establish the Canadian Centre for Peace, Order, and Good Government, which will lend expertise and help to people seeking to build peace, advance justice, promote human rights and democracy, and deliver good governance."

With Canada's contribution to creating a more peaceful, just and democratic world order having faded to a shadow of what it was in Lester Pearson's day, it's encouraging to see a promise to re-establish a centre for peace. We have done this sort of thing before but it didn't last. The Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security, established in 1984, was shuttered in 1992 by the Mulroney government. The Pearson Centre, established in 1994, was abandoned by the Harper government in 2013.

In addition to our fading diplomatic influence in world affairs, our once formidable contribution to international peacekeeping with boots on the ground has also dwindled. From the late '50s through the early '90s, we were often the single largest contributor to UN peacekeeping missions. According to iPolitics, in 1992 we had 3,285 peacekeepers abroad. By mid 2018 we had 41. In 1995 we ranked 6th among nations contributing to missions. We now rank 78th. In 2016, the Liberals promised up to 600 troops and 150 police officers for UN peace support operations. Another promise unfulfilled.

Perhaps the new centre will help put us back in the game. According to the Rideau Institute, a non-profit dedicated to revitalizing Canada’s peace-building role in the world, the centre is "the most interesting new proposal—and one which could yield long term results in strengthening Canadian foreign policy development." And it could indeed use some strengthening.