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On the front lines of the fight against strongman politics – CBC.ca

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In the summer of 2013, groups of Turkish citizens gathered in Istanbul’s Gezi Park to protest the government’s development plan for the park which included a new mall and luxury apartments.

The plan came at a time when Turkey’s economy was struggling, unemployment was high, the war across the border in Syria was raging, and Turkey’s longtime ruling party, the AKP, was governing with an increasingly heavier hand.

Turkish citizens were seeing a growing authoritarianism in their country: greater restrictions on public behaviour, a clamping down on free expression especially anti-state or anti-religious views, and a growing sense that only a supporter of the ruling party was a good citizen.

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It seemed like the kind of restrictions and surveillance historically felt by Turkey’s minorities — especially Kurds — was now pervasive and normalized.

Those protests grew to an estimated 3.5 million people across the country. The state’s response to the Gezi Park protests was swift and brutal. Turkish citizens say Gezi Park felt like a moment of shift.

Hundreds of people in New York City, including many Turkish Americans, protested in solidarity with demonstrators in Istanbul, June 1, 2013. Protests grew in other countries, along with the number of issues at the core that included freedom of speech and the erosion of secular norms. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images )

Strongman meets the rich west

Turkey is hardly the only country facing what experts call “democratic backsliding.”

Looking at a map of the world, it’s clear in the last 30 years the presence, demise, and return of authoritarian governments has contracted and expanded like an accordion.

Despite this decades-long turn, the rise of Donald Trump in the United States came as a shock and signalled that even the longest-standing democracy of modern times was not safe.

The strongman, long associated with the dictators and tyrants of the postcolonial world, had now found his way to the rich west.

Strongman politics are nothing new but its embrace among democracies — new and old — feels confusing and overwhelming. There are similarities among these leaders in the use of a muscular, exclusionary rhetoric, strident nationalism, the invocation of a more glorious but mythical past, and the abandonment of the long-held liberal ideal of equal rights for all.

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance — International IDEA — authoritarianism is expanding not just in terms of the presence of autocratic government but also in terms of democratic governments engaging in similar repressive tactics including restricting free speech and weakening both the rule of law and democratic institutions.

Hungarian President Katalin Novak (L) and her Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro at a meeting, in Brasilia, July 11, 2022. According to an International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance report, Brazil and Hungary are two of several countries listed that govern under autocratic leadership. (Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images)

The institute points out that “over a quarter of the world’s population now live under democratically backsliding governments, including some of the world’s largest democracies, such as Brazil, India and three EU members — Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia. Together with those living in non-democratic regimes, they make up more than two-thirds of the world’s population.”

Rising authoritarianism 

The world’s largest democracy, India, has seen its relatively stable democratic freedoms decline with the rise of Narendra Modi.

The suspension of historical autonomy and further restrictions on political freedoms in Jammu and Kashmir; the marginalizing of religious minorities — especially Muslims — as Modi’s political rhetoric enfolds a Hindu-first narrative; and the implementation of a national register of citizens which has critics fearing generation-long residents of India will be stripped of their citizenship, are all examples cited by critics as examples of Modi’s shift toward authoritarian governance. 

The only way forward for any society to remain free is to treat its citizens equally.– Arfa Khanum Sherwani, broadcaster journalist 

Arfa Khanum Sherwani is an Indian broadcast journalist whose work has a human rights focus. She says the current moment in India is both one of joy and fear. Joy because India has just celebrated the 75th anniversary of its independence — something that felt improbable at the outset. But at the same time, Indians are grappling with the question of whether the current state of India is what its “nation builders” envisioned.

“We are going through perhaps an existential crisis for Indian democracy where the biggest threat to Indian democracy is coming from the people who are ruling us.”

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves during a ceremony in New Delhi, Aug. 15, 2019, to celebrate the country’s 73rd Independence Day, which marks the end of British colonial rule. (Prakash Singh/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s a sentiment echoed by Cihan Tekay Liu, the Turkey page editor at Jadiliyya.com, a publication focused on the Middle East. She grew up in Turkey during some of its most volatile times in the 80s and 90s but, she says, political and social life improved as Turkey transitioned into a multiparty democracy.

Tekay Liu adds the latest twist in the story began shortly after 2010 when the government “began acting more like a regime.” The ruling AKP under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan began purging members and silencing dissent. These were followed by the jailing of opposition leaders and growing restrictions on the press.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkey currently ranks 149th out of 180 countries on its press freedom index, just above India and just below Hong Kong. 

Lessons for all nations

Sara Khorshid worked as a journalist in Egypt for more than 15 years and is currently a PhD candidate in history at Western University. She says the hope that came with the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has long passed and that Egyptians are now repressed in an unprecedented way.

“Under [el-] Sisi, we’ve reached the point where the army is actually the state. It’s not just a state within the state anymore. It exercises control over everything in the country, over the economy, over politics.”

Khorshid says the constraints Egyptians feel are made that much worse given the harsh economic situation. 
In Egypt, citizens are now less concerned about democratic backsliding than they are about surviving an authoritarian regime. 

According to Sara Khorshid, under Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, ‘ the magnitude of the army’s control over everything in people’s lives… is reaching an unprecedented level.’ (Khaled Elfiqi/EPA-EFE)

According to Freedom House, a mostly-U.S. government funded think tank, 2021 was the 16th consecutive year the world saw a decline in political rights and civil liberties. But people in repressive regimes still find a way to resist whether it’s using jokes or social media posts in the absence of a free press as Egyptians do or it’s by spilling into the streets to protest specific laws targeting particular communities as Indians have been doing. 

Khanum Sherwani says democratic countries need to pay attention to the human rights conversation in other democratic countries — that the backsliding of one will lead to the backsliding of all.

She adds that despite India being such a diverse nation geographically, linguistically, and religiously, the key reason for its survival has been the reliance on the idea that every citizen was guaranteed certain basic democratic rights. But those rights are no longer guaranteed.

“I think right now that place is threatened. That minimum guarantee is threatened. And that is why I get a sense of insecurity. I feel the only way forward for any society to remain free is to treat its citizens equally.”

She points to the current situation in India is a lesson for all nations.

“Every global citizen is a stakeholder in what happens in the largest democracy of the world. So the world cannot really afford to turn its back towards us and say, ‘look, whatever is happening to you is your internal matter.’

“I do feel when India goes downhill with this whole terrible backsliding of Indian democracy, every global citizen has something to lose.” 

Guests in this episode:

Arfa Khanum Sherwani is a broadcaster and editor with The Wire.in 

Cihan Tekay Liu is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the Graduate Center at City University of New York. She is also co-editor of the Turkey Page at Jadaliyya.com.

Sara Khorshid is a PhD candidate in history at Western University.


*This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa. It is part of our series, The New World Disorder.

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Teams focused on politics performed worse at World Cup – FIFA’s Arsene Wenger

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AL RAYYAN, Qatar – Speaking in his capacity as FIFA’s Chief of Global Football Development, Arsene Wenger insinuated that teams which made political statements early in the World Cup saw their on-field performance suffer as a result.

The comments came at a media briefing for FIFA’s Technical Study Group, in which Wenger and Jurgen Klinsmann shared the group’s findings from the group stage.

 

In response to a question about the impact of the truncated preparation period in advance of the tournament, Klinsmann spoke about the importance of being able to “mentally and physically” adapt to the challenges of playing during a break in the European season and in the Middle East.

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“If you struggled to adapt, to come here and for whatever reason — especially mentally — were not able to adapt yourself to everything you find here and how dynamic this World Cup is, you will struggle,” Klinsmann said. “And you will get a negative surprise like we saw with Germany, we saw with Denmark and other teams.”

Those comments prompted Wenger to jump in.

“I would just add that the teams who were not disappointing with their first game performance — because when you go to the World Cup, you know not to lose the first game — are the teams who have experience,” Wenger said. “They have results in former tournaments like France, like England, like Brazil. They played well in the first game. And the teams, as well, who were mentally ready, like Jurgen said, that [had] the mindset to focus on competition and not on the political demonstrations.”

Though Wenger did not mention Germany by name, it was a clear reference to Klinsmann’s home country, who lost their opening game to Japan, before which the players placed their hands over their mouths during the pregame on-field photo. The gesture came in response to threats from FIFA to seven European teams that they would face sanctions if they wore the “OneLove” armband symbolising diversity and tolerance.

Wenger did not expand upon how he reached that conclusion, nor did he clarify if the comments represented his personal opinion or that of the committee he was on stage representing.

“Of course it’s important for us to do a statement like this,” Germany striker Kai Havertz told ESPN postmatch. “We spoke about the game, what we can do, and I think first it was the right time to do to show the people that — yeah we try to help wherever we can. Of course FIFA makes it not easy for us but we tried to show with that thing.”

Added Germany coach Hansi Flick: “It was a sign from the team, from us, that FIFA is muzzling us.”

After losing the first match, 2-1, despite outshooting Japan 26-to-12, Germany responded with a 1-1 draw against Spain and a 4-2 win against Costa Rica, but did not advance.

Earlier in the briefing, Klinsmann assigned blame for Germany’s elimination to the lack of a productive No. 9.

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Ministers decline request to testify on Afghan aid blockade as desperation grows

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Three Liberal ministers have declined invitations to testify in the Senate as the upper chamber probes why Canada still won’t allow humanitarian workers to help in Afghanistan.

Aid groups say Ottawa has told them that paying people in Afghanistan or buying goods there could lead them to be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws.

Many of Canada’s allies have found carveouts so that aid workers don’t get charged with supporting the governing Taliban, which is designated as a terrorist group.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has no explanation for why Canada hasn’t fixed the issue.

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The Senate’s human-rights committee will launch hearings into the issue on Monday and invited three ministers to attend, but all of them said they had prior commitments at the time of the planned meetings.

The United Nations says six million Afghans are now categorized as being at risk of famine, while another fourteen million are in critical need of food.

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When politics wasn’t a team sport

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It has all been downhill in America since the first six presidents. Western civilisation was never the same after ancient wisdom gave way to the sentimental Gospel. Roosevelt should have stayed out of that damn fool war in Europe and the Pacific. People are breeding too much. The state must stop them.

I like Gore Vidal so much that I involuntarily smile when I see the spine of his essay collection, United States, in my bookcase. Even before his dotty late phase, though, he was a reactionary kind of liberal. If his 1968 debates with the conservative William Buckley Jr still grip us, it is because of the two men’s underlying oneness, not the superficial Democrat vs Republican framing.

Best of Enemies, James Graham’s otherwise fine play about the duel of the drawlers, might have made more of this. I fear much of the audience leaves with the sweet notion in their heads that Vidal would today have been a woke ally. The play wants to suggest that his showdown with Buckley was a trailer for the culture wars, the partisan spite, of now. I have come around to the opposite view.

The debates marked the end of something good, not the start of something bad. It was the last time being politically hard-to-place was normal.

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Put it this way. If you tell me what you think about, say, the return of the Benin bronzes, I can infer with some confidence your views on public spending, the EU, rail strikes, immigration, working from home, climate change, Meghan Markle and much else. Nothing connects these subjects. It should be possible to be a small-government Remainer who thinks imperial loot is better off in western museums and who loses sleep to visions of a burning planet. But such a person would stand out now. To take a more concentrated example, lots of people should be anti-lockdown and pro-vaccine mandate. How many do you know?

I have aired Ganesh’s First Law of Politics before, but allow me a recapitulation. People do not work out their beliefs and then join the corresponding tribe. They join a tribe and infer their beliefs from it. The sense of belonging, the group membership, is what hooks people, not the thrill of being right or pursuing a thought on its own terms. Politics has become a team sport, goes the line on this. But even that is too kind. Sports fans are sardonic and irreverent about their own team. It isn’t so central to their identity as to require consistent adherence.

We have lost all sense of how weird it is to seek connection with others through politics. And how new. Watching Buckley and Vidal is a reminder of a less needy age. The former had his own credentials as an apostate of the right: his loose line on marijuana, his Catholicism, his Spanish-speaking intellectualism. Nor was the audience at the time much easier to place. Millions of whites were pro-New Deal and anti-Civil Rights in a way that stumps modern notions of “progressive” and “conservative”.

Noting the change since then is simple enough work. Accounting for it is trickier. One theory suggests itself. The rise of politico-cultural blocs more or less tracks the decline of church membership, trade unions and marriages that go the distance. An atomised population began to cast around for other kinds of belonging, didn’t it?

The mid-20th century voter was heterodox, yes, but heterodox in the way that someone with strong roots could afford to be. With such a firm social anchor, there was less need to seek emotional security in a political tribe. As I’ve used two metaphors for the same thing there, let us keep them coming. A rudder, a bedrock, a cornerstone, a north star: people used to find these things in their personal relationships. In their church, family, factory or town. As modernity scrambled those things, mostly for the good, the need to subsume oneself into a group was going to have to be met some other way.

That turned out to be politics. We live with the wicked results all the time now. The perverse consequences of ostensibly desirable change: Buckley would call this a conservative insight. And I, though a Vidalist, always thought he won those debates.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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