Hollande on track

Francois Hollande is taking a first-round lead into the May 6 run-off against Nicolas Sarkozy

Are the French Socialists headed for a victory lap around the Arc du Triomphe next month? Going by the first-round presidential election results, it may seem that way. Should Francois Hollande win the next battle – this time a simple one-on-one with the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy – then the mainstream leftish party would have a man back in the Republic’s hot-seat for the first time since 1988.

There were ten candidates standing in the preliminary showdown and Mr Hollande came out on top, landing 29% of the votes to the conservative president’s 27%. In a strong third place was the National Front (NF) belle, Marine Le Pen, who outscored her father’s placing in 2002 to gather 18% of the ballots cast. There was also a substantial turnout for the far-left candidate; Jean-Luc Melenchon, of the Left Front, polled 11%.

However, it is no surprise that Francois Hollande has recently being trying to reach out to those French who marked their sheets in favour of Le Pen because some simple maths shows that Nicolas Sarkozy is certainly far from dead and buried in the race for the Elysee Palace. If you were to add Hollande’s first-round score to that of his similar-minded friend way out on the left, you reach 40%. But Sarkozy slots back into the lead with 45% if you combine his and Marine Le Pen’s votes. Those deals are not assured and Sarkozy has ruled out an official accord with the NF. However, the president has also called for their unofficial support and pleaded with the electorate not ‘to demonise’ them.

There has been a very odd feel to this election.  There is anxiety over the economy – the eurozone crisis has hit France hard and its repercussions continue. There was uncertainty and scandal surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s possible candidacy for the Socialist Party. In fact, Francois Hollande himself has been labelled ‘Mr Bland’ and ‘Mr Boring’ in the press. There has been great debate over each other’s policies, from the incumbent’s clampdown on immigrants to far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon’s proposal for 100% income tax on those people earning more than €300,000. Nicolas Sarkozy himself has been accused of being un-Gallic on a personal level with his teetotal and fitness-related rejection of vins et fromages.

Finally, there were the events in and around Toulouse last month. Mohamed Merah shot dead one soldier on 11 March, two more forces personnel four days later and finally three children and a rabbi at their school on 19 March. The country was stunned by the events. Campaigning was put on hold but it has been hard to see if the utter condemnation of the shootings by the nation and the controversial handling of the affair by the Interior Ministry has had any political effect.

In the account below, Richard Faul, a British translator working in Toulouse, describes the feeling after the initial shootings, before the gunman was identified and killed:

“I think everyone has been in total disbelief, saying it doesn’t happen in France, it’s far more common in USA or England. Toulouse is generally one of the most open and friendly cities in France where strangers talk to each other all the time and it’s easy to meet people. So it’s a shock. Everyone I know has gone about their daily stuff but they are all aware of it and have one eye on the news.

I was slightly annoyed that all the electoral candidates came riding in like the cavalry, obviously looking at how to turn it to their advantage, but then on the other hand if they don’t they would be seen to be absent in a time of crisis. The carnaval has been postponed, it’s not a time for partying just yet.”

It seems unlikely that Merah was trying to influence the outcome of the election with his murderous actions. But the deaths opened France up to questions from within about each other, about political process and policy, about foreign wars and domestic attitudes, about radicalisation, about ‘home-grown terror’, about global problems on a national level. It has been just one of the hurdles that this year’s candidates have had to deal with. Mr Hollande says he is “best-placed to become next president” and, according to the opinion polls, that may be so. But there is a lot playing on citizens’ minds at the moment and it cannot be denied that this time around, party politics are taking a back seat and it is a pure test of character that is on the cards.

Exorcising the past

Joyce Banda has been formally sworn in as the President of Malawi. What can she bring to an unsteady table?

Her ascent to the top job follows the death of Bingu wa Mutharika on 5 April after the president suffered a heart attack. As the vice-president – and in line with normal democratic procedure – Banda stepped up and assumed the presidential office.

However, there have been a few calls for the new woman to step down from politics, abandon the People’s Party she founded in 2011 and call fresh elections. Wa Mutharika’s chosen successor (his brother Peter) has been sidelined. The (just replaced) Minister of Information, Patricia Kiliati, has claimed that the 61-year-old Banda is ‘incapable of running the country’. And there are many MPs who were close to wa Mutharika and may not stand back so willingly as Banda moves behind the leader’s desk.

Banda has dealt with many of the old guard already by clearing them out and forming her own, refreshed cabinet. This is always a tricky game to play and she has kept in a few wa Mutharika ministers. (But you could argue that they got to stay on only because they had questioned the late president’s economic mismanagement.)

But Malawi has bigger fish to fry than the search for a perfect ministerial mix. There has been a worrying economic mirroring of neighbouring Zimbabwe, with the healthy agricultural policies and surpluses of a few years ago turning into hyperinflation and fuel and food shortages. Homosexuality is illegal and sexual discrimination laws, which are coming into force on the other side of the continent in Angola, are far from appearing in Malawi. The country receives an average of £93m annually in aid from London, which goes some way towards trying to combat the high rates of maternal mortality and the fact that 12% of the working-age population is HIV-positive.

To his credit, Bingu wa Mutharika did seem spend much of his first term in office, from 2004-2008, trying to sort out the national nourishment situation and using government subsidies wisely to feed more of the poorer Malawians. But sadly, in recent years, the good governance of the mid-2000s had been eroded by wa Mutharika himself. Some of his comments and methods of running the nation edged on dictatorial, others have been plain odd. He threw out the British High Commissioner for criticising him and tried unsuccessfully to get parliament to amend the constitution to allow him to emulate his “brother” next-door, Robert Mugabe, and continue as president indefinitely. He moved out of the presidential palace in 2005 because he felt it was haunted by invisible animals and summoned exorcists to cleanse the building.

With Joyce Banda taking over in the hot-seat in Lilongwe, the lake-side nation has become the first country in the region to have a female president. This is welcome progress and there has been warm encouragement from the global community for her to seize this opportunity to drive Malawi forward. She has been an ardent defender of women’s rights and is a powerful voice for her country. The death of the president is unfortunate but does provide a chance for the small nation to focus efforts once more on development and important domestic issues such as advancements in education, health and governance. Exorcisms can wait for now.

MYANMAR ELECTION X – ‘I would die for Aung San Suu Kyi’

The NLD has won by a landslide in the by-election in Myanmar, securing 43 of the 44 seats it contested. This blog has been covering the election live from Yangon.

After the mania surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech died down and The Lady went home to rest, what were the feelings of party officials and members inside the National League for Democracy’s Yangon HQ?

1. Ye Naung

The 23-year-old member of the NLD’s Youth Generation reveals a scar on the right-side of his head. It is a permanent reminder of the violent treatment he suffered at the hands of the police when he was just 18 and taking part in pro-democracy protests. Amongst mouthfuls of rice and green pepper curry he went on to speak movingly of his love for his ‘Mother Suu’.

“I fully believe in Aung San Suu Kyi. I would give everything for her. I would die for her”

2. Daw Lai Lai

For party official Daw Lai Lai, 64, the possible hurdles the NLD may face in parliament from the government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party are dismissed with a laugh and a swish of hand. She confirms that the NLD policy of hoping to change the constitution will be pursued in parliament but underlines the momentum that comes with the landslide win “this is no time to stop and party”. Daw Lai Lai also reiterates that “the people do not want a military government and points out how she feels the country should be restructured in two upheavals:

“The military under the government. And the government under the people.”

3. Dr Myo Aung

Former physician Myo Aung is one of the new MPs who will be representing the NLD in parliament. The doctor had been jailed for twelve-month sentences on two separate occasions for speaking out against the government.

He cited five main concerns in his Seik Kan township, 25 miles outside Yangon, that he wanted to raise in the capital, Naypyidaw. They were, firstly: lack of infrastructure; access to running water; and efficient electricity supply. And also the problems of water-borne diseases prevalent in the rainy season when open sewers spill out onto the streets and the issue of compensation for local farmers who had been subjected to compulsory purchase yet had not been rewarded for the move.

MYANMAR ELECTION IX – ‘We are with you, Mother’

The NLD has won by a landslide in the by-election in Myanmar, securing 43 of the 44 seats it contested. This blog is covering the election live from Yangon.

As we approached the city headquarters of the National League for Democracy this morning, traffic slowed to a standstill. People had massed on a hill opposite the office, climbed nearby trees and were leaning over roofs. A crowd of this size could only mean one thing: The Lady was in town.

She had returned to Yangon last night after spending most of the election day in her village, Wat Thien Kha. She addressed the thrilled public, made up of ecstatic supporters and journalists jumping about for space. Aung San Suu Kyi is affectionately known as ‘Amay Suu’, or ‘Mother Suu’, amongst her people and the red-clad NLD voters certainly treat her with an untouchable matriarchal reverence.

She made her way from party HQ to her house on the gentle shores of Inya Lake to have some down-time after an exhausting campaign. But the Mother has been elected to the Pyithu Hluttaw (lower house) in an historic vote and will be back on her feet before too long.

MYANMAR ELECTION VII – A chance for freedom

The people of Myanmar are going to the polls to vote in a by-election for 45 parliamentary seats. This blog is covering the vote live from Yangon

Millions of people across the country are heading to the ballot boxes to cast their votes in this historic election. Some people have been turning up in family groups, others on their own, clutching their pink registration cards.

Feelings of excitement have been running through the city since polls opened at 0600 local time. In Mingalar Thaung Nyaunt township, in downtown Yangon, 64-year-old U Dan Suu said he was “very happy for this opportunity”. A young woman who voted shortly after him was also pleased to have had “a chance for freedom”.

A 72-year-old man, who wished to remain anonymous, said “I want to be [living] under a democracy. We had democracy here, before 1962. I want it again.” He believed that Pyu Pyu Din, the local NLD candidate, would win easily, although he himself was not voting because his township is not holding a by-election.

The elation has been tempered elsewhere by reports of fraud and intimidation by the ruling, government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Last night, in Aung San Suu Kyi’s Kawmhu constituency, government party campaigners turned up in 15-20 vehicles to speak to the residents. One local woman told Burmese media that the USDP were trying to trick the pro-NLD villagers into putting a tick next to Suu Kyi’s name on the ballot paper if they liked her and a cross next to USDP if they were against the ruling party. Such a move would spoil the sheet. There were also reports that people were being bribed to turn up to a USDP open-air campaigning event.

The international observers have a real job on their hands and there are simply too many polling stations in each township to be able to attend them all. Local officials are trying to monitor the voting but some members of the NLD have already been running around totting up the votes they have received hour-by-hour. Some results should be out within a few hours of the vote; the scores from other townships may take up to a week to verify and release.