ISN Insights: Look Back, Week Ahead

The news ISN Insights week starts today, photo: The NewB/flickr

Last week, ISN Insights looked at:

This week we’ll be looking at: US Department of Defense budget woes, Cuban economic reforms and their social impact, Ireland’s political crisis and much more. Stay tuned.

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Too Many Presidents Spoil the Political Stew

Playing with a stacked deck, photo: Inna Moody/flickr

Two days ago, the leader of the National Union (NU), Gabon‘s main opposition party, Andre Mba Obame, sought refuge at the United Nations compound in the country’s capital Libreville. The move followed the disbanding of the NU party on Tuesday by the Gabonese government after Obame declared himself the only legitimate President of the central African country and named a parallel Cabinet of 19 Ministers.

From the safety of the UN offices, Mba Obame, a man who turned from being Gabon’s former foreign minister to becoming the main challenger of President Ali Bongo, informed the world press that he would not leave until the United Nations recognized his claim to the presidency. Immediately, the Gabonese government reacted by dissolving the NU, accusing Obame and his supporters of high treason, and firing tear gas at anti-government protesters, thereby injuring dozens.

The usually calm central African oil exporter has been in turmoil since a 2009 election won by Ali Bongo Odimba, but which Mba Obame is insisting was rigged. The election was called to replace the late President Omar Bongo Odimba who held power for more than four decades before his death two months before the poll. His son Ali was declared the winner with 41.8 percent of the vote, but the vote was denounced as an “electoral coup” by the opposition and led to rioting in Gabon’s oil capital Port Gentil which left several people dead. Obame and the country’s other three opposition leaders went into hiding after the elections, saying they feared security forces were trying to kill them. » More

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The Price of Political Scandals in India

When business and politics collide, photo: Dinesh Cyanam/flickr

2010 was a year of scandals for India, from the corruption surrounding the Commonwealth Games and the Adarsh Housing Society, to the bribes-for-loan scam affecting the Indian banking industry.  These scandals involved billions of rupees, most of which was public money. One of the biggest scandals uncovered last year, however, was the 2G (second generation) telecom spectrum scam in which the former Telecommunications Minister A Raja is suspected of having sold 2G spectrum phone licenses to telecom companies for a fraction of their value. This is reported to have cost the government $37 billion in lost revenue, equivalent to 14 percent of India’s GDP.

Thousands of scandals take place in India every day, ranging from small to huge, from the local all the way up to the national level.  Such behavior is accepted as a normal part of life, so it mostly goes unreported in the media as it is nothing ‘new’.  Some schemes are just too big to be ignored, however. Scandals that have previously found their way into the national – and international − media because of their magnitude include:

•    Fodder Scam : involved the fabrication of “vast herds of fictitious livestock” for which fodder, medicines and animal husbandry equipment was supposedly procured.

•    Bofors Scandal : the then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and several others were accused of receiving kickbacks from Sweden’s Bofors AB for winning a bid to supply India with 155 mm field howitzers.

•    Bombay Stock Exchange Manipulation and Fraud :  exploiting several loopholes in the banking system, stockbroker Harshad Mehta and his associates siphoned funds from inter-bank transactions. They bought shares at a premium across many segments, triggering a rise in the Sensex, Mumbai’s Stock Exchange.

•    Cash-for-votes scandal : the United Progressive Alliance allegedly bribed Indian MPs with cash or currency-notes to the tune of millions of Rupees in order to survive its very first vote of confidence on 22 July 2008.

•    Madhu Koda: During his tenure as Chief Minister of Jharkahand, Madhu Koda was charged with laundering over Rs.40 billion ($880 million) through his assets. These included hotels and three companies in Mumbai, property in Kolkata, and a coal mine in Liberia. » More

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A Day of Demonstrations in the Middle East

People power in the Middle East- where next? photo: Nasser Nouri/flickr

In the wake of the major upheavals in Tunisia, commentators are pointing to the next flash points in the Middle East, identifying countries where repression, social inequality and food crises have contributed to a simmering, and now increasingly explosive situation.

Demonstrations, strikes and street battles have already started in Cairo and other cities in Egypt (follow them on the Guardian blog), and Lebanon is in the throes of its own political crisis, with the younger Hariri stepping down in favor of what will most likely be a Shiite (and some say Hezbollah) dominated government. Sunnis all over the country have reacted in fury and mass protests are ongoing.

How did it come to this, and can people power triumph elsewhere in the region in the way it did in Tunisia?

To delve deeper into this issue and the spectrum of challenges and deep-seated problems that their populations face, check out our resources on Egypt and Lebanon.

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A New Stage for an Old Drama

Back to Praying; Photo: Steve Punter/flickr

On 31 January 2011, Burma’s parliament will convene in the country’s newly erected capital, Nay Pyi Taw, for the very first time. The opening session will take place 85 days after the nation’s first elections in 20 years, in which the junta’s proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), claims to have won almost 80 percent of the seats. The new National Assembly will come to consist of an Upper House with 168 elected seats and 56 reserved for the military, and a Lower House with 330 elected and 110 military seats. With solid majorities of 129 seats in the Upper House and 259 in the Lower House that the USDP achieved through the rigged November elections, plus the 25 percent of seats reserved for the military, the new system will ensure – in a new and legal way – the continuation of the old military-ruled order.

The Burmese junta is obviously forcefully pressing ahead with its plans to create a “discipline-flourishing democracy”. Parliament’s first task will be to set up an electoral college with representatives from the three chambers in order to nominate a new president. According to the 2008 constitution, the president does not need to be an elected member of parliament but must be familiar with military affairs. According to political observers, Than Shwe, junta chief since 1992 and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is therefore a likely candidate, as are Generals Maung Aye and Shwe Mann, the second and third-highest ranking officers in the ruling military.

On the surface, it thus seems as if little has changed in these three months since the elections and daily life has remained virtually unchanged for the bulk of the Burmese people. There has been no release of prisoners, no relaxation of censorship, and no improvement in the standard of living. Meanwhile, Burma’s partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have hailed the election as progress and called on Western nations to drop their economic and financial sanctions. » More

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