Diagnosis elections

Presidential health problems must be taken seriously as soon as they are uncovered

On 1 September, the president of Guinea-Bissau, Malam Bacai Sanha, was flown to neighbouring Senegal for a ‘medical check-up’, according to the government. He has had numerous hospital trips recently, normally to next-door Dakar. In December 2009, Sanha postponed a visit to Portugal ‘for health reasons’. He was hospitalised in Paris for ten days. When asked about his health, Sanha said: “It’s true that I also suffer from diabetes but that is not as serious as people want to make out.”

Popping in and out of the country over health concerns can make the people worry. Unsurprisingly, as a small West African state, Guinea-Bissau has suffered political turmoil and in March 2009 the then president Joao Bernardo Vieira was assassinated. Mr Sanha has provided some welcome stability to the tiny nation after a peaceful transition followed Vieira’s killing. But the balance could easily swing back a violent way if Sanha can no longer go on or dies.

If you look 1,600 miles to the east, a similar situation arose last year when Nigerian president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua died. He had suffered from a chronic kidney condition for at least 10 years. One health trip to Saudi Arabia, in November 2009, lasted three months. This left a power vacuum and Nigeria began to rock. Replacing him with the vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner, was far from a simple step: Mr Yar’Adua was a Muslim northerner. The Abuja presidency, on a regional and religious rotation schedule, was on its Muslim spin, though in subsequent elections, Mr Jonathan won a majority fairly.

The most well-known poorly president at the moment is Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has cancer and completed his third round of chemotherapy on 2 September. He has been undergoing treatment in Cuba and the opposition has claimed that this has been putting national security at risk. However, Mr Chavez underwent his latest batch of treatment back home in Caracas. This was surely a move designed to prove his recuperating fitness and to warn both his deputies and the opposition that his full recovery is approaching. Chavez has been defiant so far, saying on Friday that he “feels better than ever”. He has warned his older brother and other ministers off eyeing up his office, saying he will contest and win next year’s elections.

The manoeuvring and electioneering that inevitably occurs as soon as the main man whizzes off to some overseas clinic is destabilising to a country. Fragile situations, such as those in West Africa, can be left on a knife-edge. In Venezuela’s case, there are worries over to what extent Mr Chavez really can run the country from his hospital bed, despite the president’s phone-ins to state TV. As enticing as triumphant returns from the brink of death can be for presidents lured by possible electoral boosts, the best health policy must surely be honesty from the start over the seriousness of the condition and clear planning for elections and successions if things get worse. And, of course, some of that fresh foreign air.

Getting rough in the South China Sea

Tensions are rising across the region and politicians must keep their heads

On Saturday 30 April seven Thai soldiers were killed in a double bombing by suspected rebels. A day later insurgents shot dead two Buddhists in a drive-by in the southern region of Yala. In total, more than 4,500 people have died in the last seven years in the south of Thailand, as suspected Malay Muslim militants fight for greater autonomy. It is a number that has gone unnoticed across much of the world, in a region quietly infamous for violent but sporadic insurgency and politico-religious strains. Also calling for more devolution are Vietnam’s Hmong ethnic minority, from a mostly Christian area up in the far north-west of the country and very close to the border with Laos. A recent protest was fiercely quashed by soldiers.

Another worrying situation that has been brewing for decades between Thailand and Cambodia had its most recent twist in the story at a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Sunday 8 May. The area up for debate was the Preah Vihear temple which stands in the Dangrek mountain range that straddles the Thai-Cambodia border. In 1954, Thai troops stormed the temple but withdrew eight years later. The ancient Hindu complex then fell into the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. And this year forces from both sides have exchanged fire, with reports suggesting that two Thai soldiers died in the incidents.

An unhelpful sideshow to the event is the fact that Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister who is wanted back in Bangkok on corruption charges, has been appointed as an economic adviser to the Cambodian government. Because of their reluctance to tell member-states how to run domestic affairs, the ASEAN leaders failed to come to an agreement on what to do about the temple issue. This is not surprising, however, seeing as the matter has been simmering away since France left as colonial power at the turn of the last century.

There are some positives. The ASEAN hopes to form a single economic community by 2015 and already has lots of free trade agreements in place. Indonesia is growing in stature and is taking up the role of the region’s mover and shaker on the world stage. Late last year Burma held its first national elections for 20 years.

But the Philippines is wobbling: corruption is rife and political assassinations continue. Malaysia has to take the lead on the other Indo-China nations’ religious shoot-outs. A regional stand-off would heavily affect the commercial arrangements the ASEAN has fought hard to secure. India and China stand quietly in the background and the region must be careful not to split along superpower allegiance lines. But for now, the tourists still have faith in the Thai beaches and the Indonesian surf and they must not be dissuaded from visiting the temples in the mountains as well.

A universal throne

How monarchies cross religious and political boundaries

All you have to do is glance at the guest list for the British royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton on 29 April.

45 different members of foreign royal families were invited; from 25 different countries. There were representatives from absolute monarchies (Swaziland, Saudi Arabia), constitutional monarchies (Sweden, Spain) and excommunicated monarchies (Yugoslavia, Romania). Different European Christian denominations were on show: Lutheran (Queen Margrethe II of Denmark) and Eastern Orthodox (King Simeon II of Bulgaria). From Africa, there were Muslim (Moroccan Princess Lalla Salma) and Christian (Prince Seeiso of Lesotho) royals. And as for Asia, there were the Muslims from absolutist nations (Emir of Qatar) and Muslims from democracies (the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and Raja Permaisuri Agong of Malaysia), along with the Buddhist Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand and Christian King of Tonga.

Far more countries have scrapped their palaces, tiaras and curtseys. But what can we learn from the ones who haven’t?

They span a broad politico-cultural spectrum, showing us that the monarchical system can be applied to differing extents across separate countries (think of the differences between Malaysia’s take on Islam and the Sunni teachings of Saudi Arabia: both Muslim monarchies, but with very different political agendas).

Monarchies can be a stabilising force for good in restive nations but this stability needs to be tempered by a willingness not to tamper with a country’s politics. Despite this, at times they can be wonderful mediators – think of the steady hand Spain’s King Juan Carlos provided during the rocky transition to democracy following the death of Franco in 1975. But sometimes the stability can become an overriding control and this is where the absolutist regimes suffer to maintain international credibility.

More trustworthiness is vested in those families which have taken a constitutional step-back. One area where they generally succeed is on the global stage. They act as patriotic symbols of their nation and can negotiate interests, discuss deals, or, seeing as many countries are more than ready to don rose-tinted glasses and think back to a former age, simply try to whip up attention for the oft-lampooned idea of a monarchy.

European monarchies have survived in more recent times by branching out from their inter-regal and cross-crown breeding. Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby, a single mother, met Norwegian Prince Haako at a rock concert before marrying him in 2001. In 2004 Australian Mary Donaldson married Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik. And last week’s British royal wedding continued a tradition kicked-off in style by Grace Kelly’s marriage to Monaco’s Prince Rainier III in 1956.

Royal families have shown they can cross international political and religious boundaries. They also seem to have realised that they truly need to modernise and to understand and break down the remaining boundaries that still exist at home.

A new nation for Central Africa?

On Sunday 9 January, the Sudanese autonomous region of Southern Sudan will hold a referendum on independence. Millions of voters are expected to approve separation from the North.

But leaving the north and becoming Africa’s newest independent state will be fraught with difficulty. Sudan is split many ways: there is an ongoing civil war in Darfur; the Eastern Front region is making separatist noises; and the division between north and south is clear. Ethnically, the North is majority-Arab, it is Muslim and Arabic-speaking and comparatively well-developed, with a modern capital in Khartoum, a commercial hub in Omurdan and has long enjoyed the riches from oilfields which would straddle the new border with the south.

The South has many independent goals, the main one of which is to be able to reap more of the rewards from the oil which is deposited on its side. But in education, literacy, life expectancy, business skills, infrastructure, national development the newly-independent south would lag behind the north and it is desperate to catch up.

Sudan would no longer be Africa’s largest country with Algeria assuming that position. But the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, has said that he will help the South adjust to independence and aid the nation-building programme that will be started if Sunday’s vote turns out as predicted.

But despite this diplomatic olive-branch from al-Bashir, the South may turn its back on aid from Khartoum and look to employ its oilfields for its own, independent gain by fraternising more with the countries to its south. Animism and Christianity are the prevalent religions in the South,as opposed the the Islam in the North of Sudan, and the politics in the South are more tribal, a similarity with countries like Kenya.  These particular religious affiliations may endear themselves more to the development of political links with nations such as Uganda and Tanzania.

Geopolitically, the South sits on the frontier between the Muslim and Arabic-speaking deserts of North Africa and the Swahili and English-speaking Christian forests and savannahs of Central East Africa. The East African Community (EAC) is a powerful regional bloc consisting of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi and has well-developed trade and business links. There are even ideas to launch a common currency for the area, although the group is split over the proposal. This could be the direction in which Salva Kiir Mayardit, the would-be Southern president, may want to take his new nation and over the coming months, Sudanese, African and international delegates galore will flood the area to help out as Africa’s newest nation takes her first steps as an independent state.