Kazakh cure

What can we expect from Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation?

Kazakhstan is about to complete its first month in the hotseat of the OIC – one of the most important Islamic blocs along with the Arab League and the World Islamic Economic Forum. The OIC, (the ‘C’ recently changed from ‘Conference’ to ‘Co-operation’), aims to promote common understanding, ambition and to foster goodwill and unity between member-states.

When one calls to mind Islamic countries, Kazakhstan does not often roll off the tongue naturally. It is true that there are bigger voices in the Islamic world, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia and Turkey, and their reach goes beyond the borders of the Muslim world. But other, smaller members are beginning to show a bit more bite to their roles. The African Francophone members of the organisation are starting to grow in confidence but it is probably the Central Asian nations that are set to be the most significant group in the bloc. Kazakhstan embodies the image of a modern, political driver-nation that many countries, both within and outside the OIC, aspire to be.

Kazakhstan has said it wants to advance the OIC’s aim of continuing peaceful development with the rest of the world. It also wants to address the economic imbalances that exist within the organisation: Somalia and Benin are minnows compared to Malaysia and the UAE. The Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, outlined his proposals ‘to switch [the Islamic world] from commodity development to industrial innovation’, to develop a joint plan of actions in the energy sector and to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, an idea which he hopes could kick-start international de-nuclearisation.

Kazakhstan comes into the chairmanship in the right frame of mind and at the right time. From a global point-of-view, it is a nation well-positioned in the main pack chasing the front-runners – it is a forward-looking and forward-thinking country. From an Islamic perspective, it will be a reassuring but not tranquilising influence on a bloc still rocking from recent challenges. Arab uprisings in the Maghreb and Middle East, (notably the ongoing conflict in Libya and violence in Syria), ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan, political violence in Ivory Coast and the war in Afghanistan are some of the issues confronting Astana.

But secularism is written into the constitution and Kazakhstan underlines the right to freedom of religion, although more than 70% of the population is Muslim. It has successfully modelled itself as a bridge-state: between Europe and Asia; between ex-Soviet nations and the West; and now, hopefully, between hardline Islamic nations and more open members of OIC. It is a time for a safe pair of hands. Kazakhstan has the perfect platform to press on with social, industrial and economic ambitions, backed up by a significant but not overbearing Muslim tradition.

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Speaking your mind

Which language should you speak in the US?

Texas is the second largest state and has the second largest number of Spanish speakers in the US. It used to be part of Spain and then was incorporated into Mexico after independence from Madrid in 1810.

Last month, Texan senator Tom Harris blew his top when Antonlin Aguirre, an immigrant, chose to speak in Spanish before him in a state committee.

Antonlin Aguirre appearing on the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security

Source: StandWithAZ, YouTube, 14 July 2011

The man’s interpreter explained that his client felt more comfortable expressing himself in his mother tongue, which was Spanish. English is the de facto language of the US and there have been unsuccessful campaigns to try to instate it as the one official national language. But of the 307 million citizens, about 35 million speak Spanish: the second highest number of speakers after English.

Mr Harris argued that since Mr Aguirre had lived in the US since 1988 he ought to have learnt English confidently enough by now. But it is a less clear-cut situation than that. Spanish has been the traditional language of these parts longer than English. In fact, were it not for the English capture of the New Netherland colony in the 1660s, Mr Harris may well have challenged Mr Aguirre for not speaking Dutch.

The US prides itself on being a free and fair country, but it is also a nation of immigrants. The largest and most important minority are the Spanish-speakers. Earlier in the year, the Cuban academic Humberto Lopez Morales predicted that by 2050, the US will be the world’s largest Hispanophone country, outstripping Mexico, the current leader. It is folly of Mr Harris to pretend that everyone learns, understands or enjoys speaking English in his state. Texas (7 million Spanish-speakers) is not Vermont (5,000); it used to be a Spanish-speaking land (and an Amerindian-speaking one before that). Spanish is an official tongue in Puerto Rico (presently an American territory, but one that has aspirations to statehood) where nearly 95% of the population speak el castellano. Unsurprisingly, 43% of New Mexicans speak Spanish.

There are millions of people who do not speak Spanish in the US and it is the most important Anglophone country in the world. Mr Aguirre did try to speak some English in the meeting but he has probably lived in a Hispanophone community for many years, as many millions of Hispanic-Americans do. English is certainly far-and-away the de facto language of the US and although it could be argued that citizens should try to learn some, many Americans get by without having to do so. It would be foolish to presume that those Americans who blurt out ‘good morning’ are somehow greater citizens than those who say ‘buenos dias’.

Enrique on the way

In a year’s time Mexico will have a new president and it seems the race to Los Pinos is one man’s to lose

The state governor elections in the year before the Mexican presidential election are often taken as a barometer of public opinion in the lead-up to the crunch vote. The barometer is showing pressure building in two areas and for two very different reasons.

Firstly, the president, Felipe Calderón, is seen more and more as a lame duck leader. Heads of state in Mexico only get one, six-year turn at the top and on 1 July, 2012 his time will be up. His defiant ‘war on drugs’ has claimed more than 35,000 lives since it was launched when he came into office in 2006, his reforms have stalled (notably his education changes) and he has lost his majority in the lower house. Constitutionally, he himself has to leave office. But notably, after 12 years in the presidential residence of Los Pinos (first with 2000-2006 president Vicente Fox and then with Calderón), the National Action Party (PAN) is also heading for the salida as Mexico’s dominant political force.

And returning to the fray will be the country’s political behemoth: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Their likely presidential candidate is the second man under pressure: Enrique Peña Nieto. He was the outgoing governor of Mexico State who was replaced by Eruviel Avila in a landslide win in the elections on 3 July. Free from state politics, he now has a year in which to ram home his growing advantages over his rivals.

Peña Nieto leaves behind a state with many healthy public works projects and many unhealthy crime and poverty problems. But two years ago, in the middle of his term as state governor, nearly everyone I spoke to had already signalled him out as the main man to take on the PAN at the next presidential elections. They were in awe of his photogenic charm and smooth political operating. He has overcome personal tragedy, losing his first wife to a heart attack associated with epilepsy. He has remarried a soap star. He is younger than Calderón and has the backing of the most populous state in the country (Mexico State; population 15 million) and will now set out to win over the rest of the country.

Mexico is ready to be won over; it is ready for a change. The drugs war is making very slow and very bloody progress. The government is tired. In 2000 Calderón’s PAN managed to boot out Peña Nieto’s PRI from office after more than 70 years in power. After eleven years in opposition the PRI machinery is oiled and ready for its presidential comeback. The PAN is seemingly already beaten, going by the Mexico State election results. The PRI now has to see off its rival opposition challengers, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, whose candidate for the presidency may well be the combative and equally smooth Mayor of Mexico City Marcelo Ebrard. If Peña Nieto can do that, Los Pinos is his for the taking.

Returning to the front line

Although many focus on future policy planning, the way politicians recover from setbacks can define a career

On Friday 1 June, the French president’s office released a statement in which they announced they would “not comment on the course of American justice” and “respect the presumption the innocence”. The innocence being presumed was that of a man who had recently been arrested, forced to pay an enormous bail and surrender his passport for an alleged criminal sexual offence.

Returning to try to rebuild your life after such a setback would be hard enough in itself. If you were Dominique Strauss-Kahn, it would seem near impossible. But, incredibly, the French press are already talking about him manoeuvring back on to the track he was chugging down until he was detained on 15 May: organising a bid to be the Socialist presidential candidate for next year’s election.

It would be a stunning return to action but it is unlikely. Many think it more possible that he become openly involved with one of the current candidates’ campaigns. DSK will not be able to waltz back into the corridors of power; France’s outlook on ‘bedroom politics’ has changed permanently, whatever the final outcome of his case.

Recovering from this setback, (and there is no doubting there was a sexual element to the incident), will be difficult but big political personalities in Paris (especially those who have been seen to belittle the US in some way) hold a lot of strings with which to pull themselves back up.

For Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, the challenges are different. He is now back in Caracas after convalescing in Cuba following surgery to remove a pelvic abscess. Chavez revealed on 30 June that he had also undergone an operation for a cancerous tumour. Speculation has mounted over his position but Chavez himself simply called his health problems “a new battle that life has placed before us” and pledged to defeat them as though they were some irritating Western critics: “Forever onward toward victory! We will be victorious! Until my return!”

But will he be victorious? There are three main scenarios that have evolved from this medical setback:

1) He is too ill ever to come back properly and fulfil his energetic socialist agenda and has to leave power (although there are no similarly charismatic pretenders waiting in the wings)

2) He takes quite a while to improve and has to transfer power temporarily to his brother Adan Chavez or maybe vice-president Elias Jaua or Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro

3) He is fit and well and deliberately delayed his comeback in order to make his return to Caracas all the more triumphant (today, 5 July, is Venezuela’s bicentenary of independence from Spain)

Whatever their nature, it would be folly for politicians always to live in the future. How (if, at all) they overcome setbacks can be critical to their lives in the limelight.