April 16 - April 22
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for April 16 - 22!
The first round of voting in the French presidential elections took place on Sunday. Nicolas Sarkozy, the current president, has been running a tough race against Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate. Hollande beat Sarkozy in the first round, with 28.5 percent of the vote to Sarkozy’s 27.1. Most surprising, though, was far-right candidate Marine Le Pen’s strong showing, garnering 18% of the vote.
Le Pen’s surprising outcome may not be the boon for Sarkozy commentators are suggesting. Sarkozy’s deep unpopularity is largely due to the economy and the Eurozone crisis: like those in many other countries, the French are none to happy over continued austerity measures, slow growth, and what many see as overreaching by the IMF and Germany. Le Pen’s National Front party is an ultra-nationalist populist party which endorses leaving the eurozone and starkly limiting immigration. Their recent popularity reflects the growing anti-Euro sentiment in France more than any particular conservative turns. Sarkozy is the face of the Eurozone in France, and it’s questionable how many of Le Pen’s voters would turn out for him. In that, Le Pen’s turnout may be more promising for Hollande than Sarkozy: it’s a sign of just how deep the resentment towards Sarkozy’s embrace of the Eurozone runs in France today.
The recent Burmese elections are paying dividends: The EU announced a 1-year suspension of the sanctions against the country, Japan announced it would forgive more than $3.7Bn in debt, and the US Treasury Department said it would allow financial transactions in support of aid and development projects in the country. The celebration may be premature, though: The NLD is protesting the oath of office, which currently obliges members to “safeguard” the Burmese constitution, saying unless the phrase is changed, they cannot take the pledge.
On the surface, the conflict looks needlessly semantic, and my immediate instinct is that this may be a test to see just how far the military’s newfound appreciation for democracy goes. There’s plenty of reason for the NLD to be cautious, though. It’s not at all clear there’s unanimity among the military, who make up most of parliament, in favor of the recent liberalization moves - should the NLD take an oath to safeguard the constitution and then attempt to rewrite it, they may wind up imprisoned, or worse.
That said, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD, has spent almost 15 years under house arrest as a democratic activist, so it’s certainly believable the NLD is making a stand on principle.
Though it has been nearly 10 days since Traoré, the head of the National Assembly, was sworn in as interim president, the leaders of the coup have not given up power yet, as evidenced early this week by the arrests of at least 5 leading political figures. The military made no statement about the arrests.
The coup leaders have pledged to restore democracy, but midnight arrests of senior political figures is not a reassuring sign. Traoré may be the Interim President, but the men with the guns are still making the rules. The longer they stay in power, the bigger the temptation to try to sway the outcome of the eventual transition back to civilian leadership.
After a campaign of bombings from Sudan, the South Sudanese army pulled back from Heglig, an oil-rich region along the disputed border. The conflict continued over the week, with the Sudanese military striking several areas in South Sudan amid increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir.
The Sudanese cease-fire in 2005 and the referendum for independence in 2011 were monumentally important to resolving relations between two fundamentally different nations, but they left several issues undecided. The border was loosely defined at best, and substantial areas (including Heglig) are legitimately claimed by both sides. The oil revenue sharing remains a contentious point, with the majority of production in South Sudan but the only pipelines running through Sudan. The citizenship of Southerners in Sudan was never resolved, and South Sudan has been slow to issue passports to its citizens. Until these issues are resolved, either by internal negotiations or with the help of outside mediation, the two countries will continue to come to conflict. Even then, historic prejudices may spark conflicts from time to time, but at least then neither side will be able to claim legitimacy while invading their neighbor.
Amid scattered violence, UN observers began arriving in Syria on Monday, and by Saturday, the Security Council had agreed to increase the number of observers to 300 (the original limit of 30 was widely criticized as inadequate to patrol a country slightly larger than North Dakota). To the shock of the Syrian opposition, though, Col. Himmiche, the leader of the UN’s advance team, announced the observers wouldn’t patrol on Fridays, the traditional day of protest in Syria.
The shared sentiment in Syria is, “If you’re not going to patrol on Fridays, why the Hell are you even here?” Fridays are the days of protest, both in Syria and across the region - skipping Friday patrols is like skipping DUI checks on St. Patrick’s day.
Also, note that the continuing violence in Syria is coming from both sides: the government hasn’t stopped cracking down on protestors, but a spate of bombings and other attacks have hit government troops as well. Neither side is sticking to the cease-fire agreement.
While Mitt Romney has begun merging his campaign staff in with the RNC, there are still deep divisions within the GOP. Senator Dick Luger, a six-term senator from Indiana, became the latest prominent Republican to face a Tea Party primary challenge. He was joined later in the week by Orin Hatch, who narrowly missed a supermajority in Utah’s primary and will now face a primary challenge in that state.
The action in this year’s election is in the Senate races: enough seats are up for grabs to shift the balance of power in Congress towards the GOP, a change which would hamstring Obama’s second term even more than his first has been. It will be interesting to see the interplay between the Senate races, where many of the candidates have strong Tea Party ties and are likely to run on a more conservative platform, and the presidential race, which will be fought on much more centrist lines.
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!