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.

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Indian summer of uncertainty

How will India make use of its month in the presidency of the UN Security Council?

India has a lot of domestic and regional defence and security issues on its plate at the moment. Bearing in mind the added responsibility of chairing the UN Security Council, Delhi has a lot to shoulder. Looking at the international situation first there is one major issue: what to do with Syria. Since the Arab League gave its first official condemnation of the ongoing repression across Syria, the Gulf Nations have been queuing up to denounce the regime and their ambassadors have been jumping on aeroplanes home.

However, India’s caution on the issue has stood out. The excitable Europeans have been at the forefront of the clamour for a condemnatory resolution, with their grouping led by the UK, France and Italy (and also this time Germany, notably ambivalent about the NATO mission in Libya). Then there are Russia and China, two heavyweight permanent members flapping their vetoes in the air as a warning. India has so far aligned itself with the Russians and Chinese, who also count current non-permanent Council member South Africa, (part of the emboldening BRICS global power bloc), amongst their ranks. The Council has so far failed to agree on a resolution and only issued a weak statement. With Arab countries of regional importance both to Syria and to India starting to turn away from Damascus, India should have something a little bit more negative to say about the terrible repression in Syria.

On the home front, a relationship that unnerves Delhi is the Sino-Pakistani one. However, it has soured somewhat with Beijing’s published fears that Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang province have been popping over the border to Pakistan to terrorist training camps. India, the host country of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government, is eyeing China with suspicion. Indo-Pakistani relations recently came under the spotlight after many attributed responsibility for the Mumbai bombings in July to a Pakistani group. However, Islamabad strongly condemned the attacks and many instead looked to India’s homegrown Mujahideen as the possible bombers.

A new ‘Great Game’ seems to be building slowly in India, Pakistan and China. All three have nuclear weapons and very strong armed forces. India has two eyes but must not train them in the same direction. Syria is clearly important but Delhi must deliver calm diplomacy and strong leadership in the sub-continent as well. It has the chance to be a mediator in Indo-Chinese disputes at home and international disputes via the Security Council and must use these opportunities calmly and wisely.

Time for a Latin lesson

Despite the disaster in Japan and the alternative power sources, dozens of countries have an unstoppable thirst for nuclear power. They should have a look at what is going on in Latin America and the Caribbean.

70% of the electricity that Latin America and the Caribbean region use comes from renewable energy sources, according to a report published last week by the Inter-american Development Bank (BID). The BID has ploughed millions of dollars into energy development projects across the regions in the last decade or so, and the results have been admirable.

Arnaldo Vieira de Carvalho, an energy specialist at the BID, said that, after the conferral of the loans:

“The only obligation that they [national governments] have with us is to work in two areas: on the generation of renewable energy and on climate change. These are long-term loans for more than 30 years, and this gives them more freedom for their work.”

After what happened in Japan, Germany, (which has 17 reactors on the go at the moment), announced an immediate review of its nuclear programme. The UK and Indian governments (19 and 20 reactors respectively) both asked for safety reviews. Even China (13 reactors) postponed the approval of any more for the time being. It has plans lined up for an astonishing 160 new reactors.

But the desire for nuclear energy is weak in Latin America and the Caribbean, where there are only six reactors in total (Argentina, Brazil and Mexico have two each). The three major players in the region are leading the way in their renewable ambitions and the BID is excited about what has been achieved so far from its support. According to Vieira de Carvalho, the renewable energy output of Brazil and Costa Rica is more than three times the global average.

What is also pleasing is that others seem keen to follow. Nicaragua, dotted with volcanoes, has just secured a $30.3 million loan to overhaul a geothermal energy plant in the west of the country.

According to the Financial Times, coal and gas make up 62.2% of the annual global energy consumption, whilst nuclear (13.5%) lags behind hydroelectric (15.9). And although more than 20 countries have more than 400 new reactors in the pipeline, none of them are in Latin America or the Caribbean, where nuclear power is used sparingly. There the plans are very much for a greener, cleaner future.

Friday prayers can wait

Is the European Union stalling over policy towards the Islamic world?

Recent events in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt have not gone totally unnoticed in Europe but there was a significant delay in releasing official reaction to the unrest which began in December. These events were occurring just across the sea, indeed the Italian island of Pantelleria lies only 45 miles or so from the Tunisian coast. And the EU is the largest trading partner for the Maghreb. Why was there no coherent policy announcement?

European ministers are dedicated at the moment to sorting out the financial crisis and trying to ensure that neither Spain nor Portugal goes the way of Greece and Ireland. Reacting to the downfall of the government in Tunisia raised confusion over how the bloc feels and eventually no clear response was issued. Whether or not to give Turkey a membership card has been relegated from the to-do list.

David Cameron has let it be known that the UK Government will be batting for the Turks but as Conservative Baroness Warsi, the UK’s first female Muslim Cabinet member, will say in a speech on Thursday 20 January, Britain has to get its national attitude towards Muslims right first before it can think about lecturing others on equality.

And this is part of the wider problem – there has never truly been a coherent, union-wide policy on this issue. Take burqas for example: should members be banning them or not? And as this blog noted last month, (‘Snow boots for Islamic fundamentalists’, 31 December 2010′), Islamic terror plots have been on the rise in Scandinavia and earlier this week a Somali man went on trial for the attempted murder of Kurt Westergaard, a cartoonist who published drawings of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb for a turban. Should members be allowing the publication of such pictures?

Switzerland, surrounded by EU member-states, drew gasps of breath in 2009 when its parliament approved a ban on the building of minarets. There is also rising antipathy in Germany towards Muslims and Turkish inclusion in the EU. The majority of the country’s four million Muslims have Turkish ancestry and president Christian Wulff faced a particularly tough time on a state visit to Turkey last year. The EU talks at length about a common agricultural policy, a common defence policy and a common economic policy and 2011 should be the year when major steps are taken to discussing a common policy to all the issues surrounding the place of Islam in Europe.

Europeans having to swallow some tough medicine

On Tuesday 12 October, huge strikes are scheduled to take place across France. On the same day, a right-wing party in Spain called España 2000 is planning a demonstration of Spanish-ness in the face of what it sees as reprehensible attacks on the nation by the present government. And in the UK, there has been widespread condemnation of the Government’s ‘austerity’ measures, such as the recent announcement to cut child benefit for those earning in the top tax bracket.

It seems that the peoples of Europe are muscling up and finding their voice to respond en masse to governments’ differing plans to address budget deficits and economic shortfalls. On Friday 8 October, the French Senate approved a preliminary section of more wide-ranging pension reforms. But rather than being a trivial amendment buried deep within some unimportant preamble – the Upper House has given the thumbs-up to raising the retirement age by two years, from 60 to 62. This has not gone down well in France and unions look set to go ahead with an unlimited walk-out in protest at the changes from this Tuesday. There were well-attended strikes when this bill was first floated but the politicians in Paris have continued with their reforms in the face of popular denouncements. But these changes are needed.

Across the Channel, the Government is four years further on with its retirement age reform plans (from 65 to 66 from 2016) and it has also met with militant unions and a vocal general public. Yet people are living longer and funding their pensions costs more. Providing for them is made even more difficult when, as outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne wrote simply – ‘There’s no money left!’ But alterations to the age from when Europeans can begin withdrawing a state pension are not new – in 2007, Germany passed a law raising the age to 67. Looking further afield, the Australian government plumped for 67 when its proposal got through parliament there last year. There has been criticism that the right-wing government in Paris and the Conservative-led coalition in London are, on one hand, enjoying swinging the axe and concocting a painful dosage for the public (particularly the Roma in France), whilst on the other hand steering clear of having to taste their remedies themselves. David Cameron, the British prime minister, is a fan of saying that ‘we are all in this together’ but critics highlight the personal fortunes that he and his Chancellor, George Osborne, enjoy.

But it is not only conservatism which is cutting public services and tightening the belt. In Spain, the socialist government is having to cut spending as well. It provoked large-scale protests when it announced the proposal to cut public sector salaries by 5% across the board from next year. In addition, like the Conservative plan in the UK, it has approved a drop in MPs’ pay, although the Spanish figure of 15% is more impressive than Cameron’s 5%. There are other similarities. Zapatero has committed to scrapping the ‘Baby Cheque’ policy, which saw mothers able to apply for a €2,500 grant (rising to €3,500 for the ‘numerous families’) and the Coalition has planned to reform the child benefit system in the UK. Although unpopular, both the Conservative-dominated government in the UK and the Socialist leadership in Madrid have realised the unsustainability of such benefit policies.

And just as Labour will want to step into the leftist opposition breech in debating the cuts in the UK, so the right-wing political classes have been venting the fury at what they see as a deliberate debilitation of the power and role of the central Spanish state by Zapatero’s government. Right-wing party España 2000 have complained about the number of immigrants in a Spain where jobs are scarce and they have organised a protest for the coming Tuesday – Columbus Day, or Day of Hispanicity. The members of the party will be celebrating their three key principles: the unity of the country, the Spanish language and the values engendered in the national flag. This will be a thinly-veiled attack on devolution, a key policy of the present government and one which the centrist party believes has contributed to the economic problems of the day, along with an open-door immigration policy.

Protests will be coming from all angles and all sides of the political spectrum to the different governments of Europe this autumn and it will be a measure of their reformist ability as to how well they allay the fears of the masses. The unions in the UK have managed to install Ed Miliband as their preferred successor to Gordon Brown at the head of the Labour Party with an aim to rally the rebellious troops against the necessary cuts being outlined by the Coalition. Their partners in France and Spain are also standing up to the deficit-reduction packages being offered by their respective governments. Over the next few months we will see who blinks first.