Malaysia — saviour of democracy?

Posted: May 17th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: elections, kuala lumpur, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

We have seen it many times: a weak democracy is headed by an corrupt authoritarian ruler who manipulates with electoral rules, staffs state institutions with cronies, restricts the autonomy of the courts, brings the press under his control by intimidation or takeovers, attacks civil society and jails political opponents. When an election comes, it is quite certain that the ruler is voted back to office with a substantial majority. We have seen this happening with variations in Russia, Turkey, Hungary and other countries. This is also what the scenario was going to be for Malaysia’s elections that took place on 9 May 2018.

The ruler in question, Prime Minister Najib had done all the above. There are multiple corruption allegations and investigations against him in various countries. 700 million US dollars were discovered in his personal bank account, his friends and acquaintances had spent lavishly on real estate and yachts in the West, and funded several Hollywood movies, including “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

His party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) spearheading the political coalition Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) had been in power continuously for 60 years, since the independence of Malaysia. During this time, the institutions and the party were in many ways one. The power was highly concentrated to the Prime Minister, that also fulfilled the role of the Finance Minister. No surprises, that the corruption investigations against him led nowhere.

The majority of the press were pro-government, although a number of independent publications remained. The business newspaper The Edge was forced to suspend publication for three months following its coverage of the Prime Minister’s corruption scandal under Malaysia’s tough anti-sedition laws. The popular head of the largest opposition party Anwar Ibrahim had been jailed for years for sodomy charges, which rarely get applied otherwise.

Before last week’s election, electoral gerrymandering had taken place to ensure more support for BN, the electoral commission had put in place many restrictions on campaigning that made it much more difficult for the opposition to reach people. 

Nevertheless, the election result was an unexpected win for the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH, Alliance for Hope). How did it that happen? I try to flesh out some ideas for reasons.

  1. Malaysia’s opposition was united and consistent. The opposition parties had been gaining power already in the previous elections and were the ruling party in a few of the states (Malaysia is a federal state), such as Selangor, which surrounds Kuala Lumpur and the capital Putrajaya. The opposition had a strong moral leader figure in the jailed Anwar Ibrahim and, more importantly, his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail who founded the People’s Justice Party (PKR) that is one of the four constituent parties of PH and the one with the most seats in the new Dewan Rakyat.
  2. The civil society kept up the pressure. The Bersih movement advocating clean and fair elections and other civil society groups had played an important role in voicing the concerns of the people and challenging the government. The yellowshirt Bersih rallies attracted enormous crowds not only everywhere in Malaysia, but also other countries (I went to one of the big rallies in Kuala Lumpur in 2015).
  3. Women took a leading role in the opposition. The opposition had key roles for women, Wan Azizah now takes the important Deputy Prime Minister role, a first for Muslim-majority Malaysia. The Bersih movement was also lead by a woman, Maria Chin Abdullah, who ran as an independent in elections and won the parliamentary seat for the Petaling Jaya constituency. In addition to them, prominent women in Malaysia include feminist activist Marina Mahathir and human rights activist Ambiga Sreenevasan, opposition politicians Teresa Kok and Nurul Izzah Anwar (Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter).
  4. The fight was not pitting one ethnicity against others. Malaysia is a multiracial country, and even the key was the fact that the opposition had been able to get significant votes from the Malay majority in addition to the minorities.
  5. The opposition was willing to compromise to achieve its goals. It brought back the 92-year old former Prime Minister Mahathir to lead the opposition and be the candidate for PM. Mahathir was responsible for the economic success of Malaysia during the 80s and 90s, but also became increasingly autocratic, creating the system he now helped to topple. A popular figure, Mahathir provided key support among the ethnic Malays and brought credibility for the opposition. He has promised to rule for a few years and then hand the power over to Anwar Ibrahim, whom he had jailed in the past while PM.
  6. The corruption of the toppled PM Najib was too ostentatious for even many of his supporters to bear. In addition to the huge amounts of money, the shopping habits of PM’s wife Rosmah Mansor were extraordinary, comparable to Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines.

It is too early to tell whether the election result will bring about real change. However, those elected have indicated their strong support for rule of law, democratic institutions and human rights. Although this is just the beginning, perhaps one day Malaysia will be the example of democracy and human rights delivering. As Nurul Izzah Anwar wrote:

“A new politics of hope has been awakened, not just for Malaysians reclaiming their nation, but for people the world over. Truth, justice, human rights and the rule of law can be restored in place of darkness, and it can be done through peaceful democratic means.”


Republic of Estonia 100

Posted: February 24th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Estonia, thoughts | No Comments »

Today it will be 100 years since the Republic of Estonia was officially proclaimed, which is a cause for celebration. Here is a newsblurb from the NYT:

This is an important event for several reasons. While it was an important expression of self-determination for the Estonian nation, it was as important also because it established a modern democratic state in the territory of Estonia for the first time. This meant a focus on individual freedom and equality, which did not exist during the previous rule over Estonia. It was the replacement of autocratic monarchy with democratic rule.

Later on, this republic was lost, first partially in 1934 with the soft-authoritarian coup by the then president Päts and afterwards the republic was fully destroyed by the totalitarian Nazi and Soviet regimes that installed their respective puppet governments that lead to long-term Soviet authoritarian rule. The return to democracy only took place in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The 1918 proclamation of independence and the later first Constitution were among the closest in the world to the Enlightenment ideals. The manifesto was entitled “to all the peoples of Estonia” and it proclaimed Estonia to be an “independent democratic republic”. Here are the seven principles stated in the manifesto:

“1. All citizens of the Republic of Estonia, irrespective of their religion, ethnic origin, and political views, are going to enjoy equal protection under the law and courts of justice of the Republic.

2. All ethnic minorities, the Russians, Germans, Swedes, Jews, and others residing within the borders of the republic, are going to be guaranteed the right to their cultural autonomy.

3. All civic freedoms, the freedom of expression, of the press, of religion, of assembly, of association, and the freedom to strike as well as the inviolability of the individual and the home, shall be irrefutably effective within the territory of the Estonian Republic and based on laws, which the Government must immediately work out.

4. The Provisional Government is given the task of immediately organizing courts of justice to protect the security of the citizens. All political prisoners shall be released immediately.

5. The city, county, and township local governments are called upon to immediately continue their work, which has been violently interrupted.

6. For maintenance of public order, people’s militia, subordinated to local governments, shall be immediately organized and citizens’ self-defence organizations established in the cities and rural areas.

7. The Provisional Government is instructed to work out, without delay, on a broad democratic basis, bills for the solution of the agrarian problem, and the problems of labor, of food supply, and of finances.”

It should be obvious today that equality and freedom for all, the rights of national minorities and guarantees for political and civil rights were something that the founders of the Republic of Estonia valued highly. The centenary is thus also a celebration of democratic rule, equal human rights for all and Rechtstaat.

Read more:

1918 Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia 


2017 local government elections in Estonia

Posted: September 23rd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Estonia, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

There will be local government elections in Estonia on 15 October 2017 (with advance and internet-voting taking place already from 5 to 11 October). Local government elections are more democratic than parliamentary elections in Estonia, because the large Russian-speaking population (most of whom is either stateless or Russian citizens) can only vote during these elections. It is also the first time that 16 and 17-year olds can vote after voting age in local elections was decreased from 18 to 16. The local government elections are also a political precursor to the parliamentary elections which will take place in March 2019, so in about a year and a half.

As more than a third of Estonia’s population lives in the wealthy capital city of Tallinn, the outcome of the election there is going to have the most impact politically, which means that national media coverage and the focus of politicians is on that city. Tallinn is currently governed solely by the left-leaning centre-populist Centre Party, which has been subject to an internal divide. Thus the main strategies of all the other parties aim to break their dominance.

The incumbent Centre Party has suffered and internal divide after Edgar Savisaar, its founder and longtime head was deposed by Jüri Ratas, a less divisive figure, in a step which opened the door for them to form the new national government last year. Ratas became the Prime Minister, whereas Savisaar is currently being tried for corruption charges, which resulted also in his removal from the position of the Mayor of Tallinn. The replacement, de facto mayor Taavi Aas is now running as the candidate of the Centre Party for the mayor.

Even though tainted by various corruption charges and convictions, the Centre Party has overseen a quickly developing city, which has recently upgraded many of the trams and tram lines, including extending one of the tram line to Tallinn Airport. It has also introduced free public transport for registered inhabitants, a first in the world for a city of this size. Traffic has been tackled somewhat by decreasing space for cars and increasing bus-lanes, although Tallinn still remains a city dominated by cars, with not many cycle lanes in the city centre. It has also build social housing and opened renovated markets and a city-run convenience store, which aims to provide groceries at a cheaper cost to low-income persons.

However, it also increased spending on media channels for the city, including a local television channel, news portal and city and district newspapers. Those outlets and other city resources have been used for Centre Party propaganda purposes during not only local government elections but also other elections.

All in all, the Centre Party rule has been not the disaster that some people claim, but also not successful in developing the city. The focus on low income persons has been welcome, because of the increasing rift between very well to do and less well to do inhabitants. However, this has not been driven by a coherent strategy to reduce inequality and ethnic and social segregation, but rather as a vote-buying effort. The pervasive corruption and at times opaque decision-making have hampered the development of the city, as well.

Overall, everyone expects Centre Party to win elections in Tallinn, as they rely on the Russian-speaking voters, who tend to be loyal voters and with whom other parties have not been willing or able to engage. However, it remains to be seen whether they will be able to dominate the results similarly to last elections, in which they took more than 50% of all votes, in order to rule the city alone.

The conservative IRL won the distant second place in 2013, mostly thanks to the guerilla-style campaign run by their former mayoral candidate Eerik-Niiles Kross, who departed IRL already several years ago to the Reform Party. The moribund IRL has been losing voters and prominent politicians throughout the past years, getting squeezed by the far-right EKRE and the centre-right Reform Party. They have run an uninspiring, dull campaign this time in Tallinn, with a similarly dull and uninspiring mayoral candidate Raivo Aeg, who is a former head of the internal security police (which might be slightly weird in some countries, but apparently not in Estonia). However, IRL cannot be discounted, because even though their actual support among voters is minuscule, they still enjoy support among the Estonian-speaking economic and political elite as well as the mainstream media.

The centre-right, market-liberal Reform Party has been attempting to use the ethnic divisions as a campaign tool in Tallinn in order to win the votes of Estonian-speakers. They want to close Russian-language schools and kindergartens, at the same time promoting a vision of building a tunnel to Helsinki, which would lead to Tallinn and Helsinki forming a twin-city of sorts. Sadly for the Reform Party, their and the Finnish approaches to minorities, including the space and opportunities given for minority languages is a much wider gap to overcome than the 80 kms of sea that divides the two capitals. This, together with their flirtations with the extreme-right and a mayoral candidate who was himself implicated in a scandal involving illegal party financing, makes their messages somewhat confusing to more moderate Estonian-speaking voters. The Reform Party has never been too successful in local government elections, but now they need to be seen winning elections again after losing power nationally.

The left-liberal Social Democratic Party has seen a revival under young leader Jevgeni Ossinovski, which has lead them to play a larger than usual role in Estonian politics. From the three “new generation” leaders of former coalition partners IRL, Reform and Social Democrats, he is the only one still leading his party. They have been vocal about social issues, including same-sex partnerships, and opposing the far-right. In Tallinn and other places they offer a comprehensive programme, which aims to appease the hipster crowd as well as offer low income persons support. Building a funicular-railway to Toompea hill is for example among their promises in the city centre where I live, something that seems to be needed by no-one. The Social Democrats seem to aim with the local elections to get enough support to share power with the Centre Party in Tallinn, but also get a good enough result to give them a boost nationally ahead of the parliamentary elections.

The rising force of Estonian political scene is the far-right EKRE. They have adopted a nativist, populist and totalitarian platform, with which they have been able to get a lot of media coverage. Failing to denounce nazi-sympathisers among their midst, opposing vocally immigration of not only refugees and openly inciting homo- and transphobia makes them among the most extreme of Europe’s far right parties. For local government elections, they released the Ten Commandments which include islamophobic pledges such as not allowing Mosques to be built (even though no such plans exist), oppose “homosexual, gender-neutral and tolerance propaganda and other extreme ideologies” in schools and kindergartens (even though no such propaganda exists). Like the Reform Party, they want to end Russian language pre-school and primary education in Tallinn, but also offer a number of pledges to low-income persons. They did received less than 3% of the vote in Tallinn in 2013, but will probably win more votes this time.

The elections also include a number of newcomers, in the form of lists formed by electoral unions and smaller, fringe parties. The main contenders are:

  • Electoral unions Savisaar’s Union and Active Tallinn: a combination list of two electoral unions, one lead by the deposed mayor of Tallinn and former head of Centre Party and a number of his supporters from the Centre Party (whom the Centre Party has now expelled), the other organised by a powerful Estonian businessman seemingly to protect his business-interests that include another businessman and a number of their dependents and hangers-on;
  • Electoral union Free Citizen of Tallinn: a smallish list of mostly Estonian-speaking conservatives, related to the parliamentary right-centre Free Party.
  • Estonian Green Party: after recent leadership change, which saw them adopt similar positions as their western counterparts, they might attract a part of the youth vote.
  • There are also five more smaller lists as well as a number of single candidates.

The outcome of the elections are quite unpredictable. Things to watch in Tallinn:

  • whether Centre Party retains their majority even without Savisaar;
  • whether Savisaar attracts significant votes even without the Centre Party;
  • whether Reform Party’s divisive strategy helps or hurts them;
  • whether IRL ends up below or above the threshold.

Overall it will also be interesting to see what the youth vote share will be, including the 16 and 17-year-olds. As Estonia is the only country in the world that still uses internet voting, it will also be interesting what impact the recently discovered vulnerability in Estonian ID-cards will have on the use of internet voting and whether any further hacking attempts will be made. The latter might not have a real impact on local government elections themselves, but to trust in (digital) democracy in general.


Regulating technologies for the future

Posted: June 4th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: education, governance, human rights, politics, privacy, technology, thoughts | No Comments »
There is going to be some sort of regulation of the new technologies, sooner or later. Governments are getting involved and it is not necessarily a bad thing. Libertarian-minded people might not agree with this, but in the deployment phase of any techno-economic paradigm (as illustrated by Carlota Perez) governments are going to have to step in to guarantee the success of the deployment for all.
In the previous TEP, this was “The New Deal”, Marshall Plan and the development of global institutions. This resulted in the post-War Golden Age in the US and Western Europe, with the social safety net and a strong middle class. The one before (The Belle Epoque) was more of a Gilded Age, which benefited only a few.
The ICT TEP, which we are in the middle of, is going to be the greatest of those so far, because for the first time to paradigm shift is more or less global, impacting billions of people at once.
  • We need regulation to ensure that new technologies reach all people of the world and not benefit just the few (enacting strong net neutrality rules for example).
  • We need smart regulation to prevent tech monopolies from abusing their position.
  • We need rules that provide public oversight and participation.
  • We need to make sure that new technologies are not going to be used for unethical and immoral ends.
  • We need to make sure that there are strong privacy rules protect the individual, their freedom and autonomy.
  • We need to make sure that technology does not allow totalitarian and extremist propaganda to isolate individuals and destroy solidarity, trust and social cohesion that is more necessary that ever in an interconnected and interdependent world.
  • We also need to change our existing regulations to fit with the new world, in all levels of governance. Otherwise we are sailing the oceans with outdated maps (as Seyla Benhabib so well compared the lack of guidance that international law gives us in a new era of cosmopolitanism). This requires creativity and imagination, an open mind.
However, there are also those that want to step in and regulate in ways that work against those goals. There are those who want regulation to go the other way: expanding and legalising mass-surveillance, ban strong encryption, protect monopolistic technologies, prevent or limit access to technologies by poorer countries or help to deny the voice and participation for minorities and women.
The fight is not for or against regulation: not having rules is not a sustainable option. The fight is about what kind of rules we will have; whether there will be those that protect human dignity, freedom and rights, advance solidarity and mutual respect and understanding; or those that divide and threaten, limit freedoms and rights.

On human rights and Turkey

Posted: April 18th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: governance, human rights, thoughts | No Comments »
It is very easy to succumb in light of the Turkish referendum in public discussions to the idea that with the distancing from Western-style democracy, Turkey is going to follow the path to a similar autocratic quasi-totalitarianism as Russia with its ignorance of human rights. However, when considering the historical experience of the Ottoman Empire, Islam as a distinguishing factor might help not hurt to protect human rights.
 
It should be noted that the Ottoman Empire did protect human rights quite extensively within its long existence (comparatively to the same time period in Europe). Although the rights were less individualistic, it was based on the Sunni application Sharia law, which gave both Muslims and non-Muslims extensive rights. These included rights for women and non-discrimination or at least non-persecution of followers of other religions (the segregation-based millet system). Indeed, it was the Ottoman Empire where the Sephardic Jews escaped to from Catholic persecution in the Iberian peninsula.
 
The Ottoman Empire existed for more than half of the millennium partly because of tolerance and rights. The treatment of non-Muslims only began to change in the decline period with the transition to a more European style nation state. Here is description of the situation for minorities under Ottoman rule:
“The fact that under Ottoman rule human rights were not perceived with the individual in mind should not lead us to the conclusion that minorities were generally oppressed by the state. Such an allegation could easily be refuted by evidence that, right from the beginning, a significant proportion of the Balkan Christians freely chose to live under the sovereignty of the Ottomans. Until the arrival of “the wind of nationalism” in the early nineteenth century, the Balkan subjects of the empire were generally content with Ottoman rule. This is the most reasonable explanation for the speedy expansion and consolidation of the Ottoman rule in the Balkans from the fourteenth century onwards. To give an example, in Hungary, which the Ottomans called Budin, the Ottoman Empire did not interfere with religious freedom, but instead protected the Christian subjects against local fiefs. Therefore, the claim that non-Muslims began to enjoy human rights and liberties only after the Tanzimat reforms of the nineteenth century is patently false. Except for the limitations imposed by the Shariah law and the deliberate policy of keeping the religious communities apart, Christians, Jews, and Muslims were treated equally under Ottoman rule. Among the rights they enjoyed were: civil rights; freedom of travel; freedom of religion and conscience; the right to education; and the right to privacy. It can be asserted with confidence that the Ottomans generally implemented the rights and liberties which the Quran grants the People of the Book (ehl-il kitab). The registers of the court of records of Islamic canonical law amply prove that the Ottoman courts generally observed and respected the rights of non-Muslim subjects.”
 
Read more: Aral, Berdal. “The idea of human rights as perceived in the Ottoman Empire.” Human Rights Quarterly 26.2 (2004): 454-482.

Looking back to 2016

Posted: December 31st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: personal, thoughts | No Comments »
2016 started off at Kota Kinabalu, for the last few days of my sabbatical in Malaysia. It took me to the Paris at the time of Pride and Nice at the time of the terror attack. I visited some great museums for the first time like the Versailles. But I had also great moments visiting Suure-Jaani and Oti Manor in Saaremaa.
 
We did a lot at the human rights centre: celebrated the Diversity Day for the second time and had a non-event for Human Rights Day. We helped several refugees and two same-sex couples to defend their rights in court. The Diversity Charter is doing well and we are slowly building the human rights movement in Estonia.
 
A total of 419 students were enrolled in my courses at TUT in 2016 and it was mostly a great pleasure to teach them. My greatest and proudest achievement this year was the report on the integration of refugees in Estonia I did for UNHCR. However, I stalled with my PhD, which needs extra focus in 2017.

Here are my bests of 2016 from Estonia and the wider world:

Politics (European and global/western)

Politician of the year: Justin Trudeau, for giving hope when there was not much
Runners-up: Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn

Political event of the year: US election result
Runner-up: Brexit

Politics (Estonian)

Political event of the year: Elections of the Chairman of the Centre Party, which brought the change in government
Runner-up: Presidential elections

Law

Court judgment of the year: Joined Cases C-203/15 and C-698/15 Tele2 by the European Court of Justice, which ruled that data retention and mass surveillance is illegal

Movies

Best movie: Arrival, Sully
Runners-up: Deadpool, Midnight Special, Nocturnal Animals

TV

Best TV series: Black Mirror
Runners-up: O.J. Made in America, Stranger Things, American Crime Story, Veep, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee

Games

Game of the year: Watch Dogs 2
Runners-up: Transport Fever, Uncharted 4, Mafia 3, Final Fantasy XV, No Man’s Sky, Super Mario Run

Music

Artist of the year: The Weeknd
Runners-up: Frank Ocean, Justin Bieber


On self-driving cars: the biggest challenge is not technological

Posted: October 24th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: privacy, technology, thoughts | No Comments »

For self-driving cars (or any new technology) to be a success you basically need three things: technological feasibility, social acceptability and economic profitability. So even if something is technologically possible, it might not get adapted because of the two other factors. Self-driving cars offer huge, transformational benefits for individuals and the society so it makes sense to look into how this could happen.

Technological feasibility seems to be the easiest to solve. The technology that makes self-driving cars safer than human-driven cars is mostly there already or getting there very soon. All of the big car manufacturers, Tesla, Google/Alphabet and Uber seem to be dedicating a lot of resources into advancing self-driving capabilities so the engineering is there.

Social acceptability (which depends on culture, history, values) for self-driving cars is also being slowly worked on. Uber and other ride-sharing services are changing perceptions of personal transport, but more needs to be done. Expect heavy incentives in the beginning and a global marketing campaign, which makes it cool not to own a car (or to have it drive others while you do not need it), highlighting for example the cost of owning a car to the environment. It could also focus on the convenience not owning a car brings (i.e. no need for finding a parking spot or worry about maintenance). The mindset shift is already happening, for example I am already looking at buying and owning a car as something quaint and old-fashioned (but I am an early adopter for tech anyway).

Those who do drive are slowly conditioned into giving up control. Tesla is getting drivers used to the coming new reality with the autopilot feature, others are also using advanced cruise control technologies. In some cities like Paris you also have car-sharing services, which also serve to detach you from the need of owning a car.

For economic profitability the state has a role on the development by subsidising costs, by regulations, by taxes, by limiting access to the crowded city space. For example, city centres could be made accessible only to self-driving cars. Owning a personal car could be made an expensive luxury by hiking taxes on cars. Liability and insurance needs a proper legal framework.

It also depends on whether there is finance to create the system, and how is it going to be organised. These are going to be the trickiest things to manage, I think. It will come with an overall shift from owning to renting/sharing (from buying goods to buying everything as a service), which is more efficient and environmentally friendly. There needs also to be strong protection on privacy so that you do not feel that your comings and goings can be tracked by the government or by corporations.

The mass-market car was the key product of the cheap oil, mass-production, waste of resources era, which is getting replaced by the information age. I can imagine that there will be perhaps three or four major self-driving car service providers that compete against each other (like mobile phone companies do) on quality, coverage, availability, but also on the strength of privacy protection.

The self-driving car system might be integrated within the business models of car manufacturers, which could be crowdfunded. I am not sure what the Tesla network is going to be like, but it could be that as a self-driving Tesla owner you could allow your car to be used for transporting others and in return you can use other people’s cars. So in a sense you will not buy a car, but a membership of a self-driving car sharing service. Alternatively, it could be that a car manufacturer operates a bunch of self-driving cars centrally.

The organisational models need to be made sensible, and easy and seamless to use so that they could be also operated by people who do not use smartphones or who use cash. Customer service is key so there needs to be support staff available for any issues as well as in order to make sure the system works for everyone.

Initially, people will not give up their personal cars, but will use them less and less for everyday travel, because self-driving cars are cheaper, more convenient and can get to places where other cars cannot. Eventually, the average person will do the math and consider that they might rent a car for that luxury experience of driving your own car somewhere. There might be specialised services for this, so you could for example book a car that you never got to drive before just for fun which will be delivered at your doorstep and which you will return after the ride. After a while this will be an entertainment activity for a minority (like riding a horse, a boat or an airplane) so the majority of people will never learn how to drive a car.

P.S. My first, and so far only, ride in a self-driving car took place nearly four years ago in early 2013 at Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City. Even though it was a short ride, it was quite an amazing feeling to sit into a car, press a button an be driven without any guides or drivers. Here is a photo:

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Estonia has a female president

Posted: October 4th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: diversity, human rights, thoughts | No Comments »

3 October 2016 was a historic day for Estonia, because after lengthy, incredibly convoluted political campaign the Parliament voted to install Kersti Kaljulaid as the country’s first president who is not a man. It is important and significant step for the development of the country.

The prospect of a female president is not so new. Already in 2006 Ene Ergma was almost elected as president, she was just three votes short in the parliament.

So in itself it does not seem such a big deal that the political elite considers women acceptable as leaders until one thinks about the poor situation in Estonia in terms of gender equality. Estonia’s parliament has had the number of women parliamentarians constantly hovering around 20%; in the government it is usual that one or two women make an appearance in an otherwise boys club. The gender pay gap is the largest in the European Union and the rate of gender based violence is remarkably high. The voice of women is constantly underrepresented in the media and even mainstream feminists considered radicals.

Already there have been voices that the gender of the president actually makes no difference. But it does. As a man I cannot really imagine what it must be like living in a society where almost everyone in government, and the vast majority of past political leaders not in your country but everywhere in the world are not the same gender as you are. Kersti Kaljulaid will be a role model and an inspiration to many of those who have been previously left out.

Of course, a female president alone does not automatically make men and women and others in Estonia more equal. But it is a step in the direction of a more representative, inclusive state which can heal the divide between the political elite and people.

The final frontier for a woman in Estonian politics is obviously the position of the Prime Minister, who actually is the Head of Government in Estonia.

In terms of my take on who Kersti Kaljulaid is, I will reserve this for a later date. It is not a good idea to build up one’s expectations too high regarding politicians, because these will be inevitably crushed at some point (see Obama). From the first look she seems a middle-of-the-road classical conservative, a rational and thoughtful person, not too far from my own views in terms of classical Kantian constitutional republicanism. In terms of values of Estonian people, she seems to click better than the previous president did, which makes her a good candidate for reaching out to, listening to and communicating with the Estonian people.

Read also:


Nice

Posted: July 20th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: thoughts, travel, vacation | No Comments »

I have been going to vacation in France every year since 2010 (I skipped last year because I was temporarily living in Malaysia). Every year the annual summer vacation has consisted in going for a two-week holiday, a part of which is spent in Paris and the other part somewhere in Côte d’Azur. It is usually my only holiday outside of Estonia and only non-professional related travel that I undertake. South of France is a cliché and bourgeois thing to do, but I love it nevertheless. The hot sun is usually tempered by the Mistral wind and the Mediterranean create a special kind of atmosphere. I find the food wonderful and people relaxed.

In Côte d’Azur, I usually avoid the big tourist destinations like Nice, Cannes or Saint Tropez, preferring to stay in places frequented mostly by the French themselves, such as Toulon or Saint Raphaël. It is a different, slow and carefree life.

It has also happened that I have timed my stays so that they have included the the events taking place in France, including the Bastille Day celebration. This is always a big celebration, because it goes to the heart of the French Republican and enlightenment values. The storming of the Bastille was the symbol of the French Revolution, which eventually changed the world profoundly, by replacing hereditary absolute monarchy with parliamentary democracy. The main principles of the French Revolution were written into the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, which was, together with the US Bill of Rights, the main inspiration for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the following acceptance of universal global human rights.

The evening of last Thursday when the Bastille day fireworks (feu d’artifice) at the Promenade des Anglais was going to take place was not an unusual one. Even though I had not seen the fireworks in Nice before, it is always a spectacular thing (especially in Paris, involving the Tour Eiffel). It happened so that Nice was the endpoint of the vacation, so I stayed there for a few days and went to see the fireworks and found a place to see it near the La Negresco hotel on the promenade. The fireworks lasted for about 20 minutes and started a few minutes after 10pm. It was a long and a bit nervous wait, as the wind was gathering speed and one could see the thunder and rain some distance away near the Nice airport (a spectacle of its own). Even though the fireworks were to be followed by a number of concerts on the promenade, I retreated to the hotel, fearing to get wet as the wind became stronger.

In the end what happened was that there was no rain, but instead terrible news about a white van hitting people. At first I thought this was a terrible accident of some sorts, but as the death toll rose, it became clear that it had not been. Many people who were among the happy crowd on the promenade had by now died and many were fighting for their life.

The next morning Nice was very quiet. When passing a fire station I saw a man approaching a fireman and starting to cry. Flags were tied with black bows and TV showed a line formed at the blood donation bank. On Saturday, the Promenade des Anglais was filled with dozens of TV camera crew trucks with satellite dishes and some memorials full of flowers, surrounded by mourners. But there were also sunbathers and people going about their daily life.

I had not been so close to terrorist acts before, but this shows how lucky I am. It is something that has been and will be with us sadly.

Fortunately we are not helpless against terrorism and can do things minimise its occurrence. It is a combination of four main factors:

  1. fight radicalisation and provide counter-narratives, fight exclusion and discrimination, engage communities and in this way to reduce the risk that an individual takes violent action;
  2. find out about possible attacks by intelligence analysis, gathering and sharing (without targeting whole populations as this works against the above point);
  3. work to block financing and support channels for terrorism, control access to guns and harmful materials, find ways to protect infrastructure;
  4. plan for what happens when a terrorist act takes place: rapid response, communication, etc.

Point 1 is the most challenging one as terrorist acts also cause radicalisation of the general public. This means that there is more support for extreme and populist voices and knee-jerk, over-the-top reactions to placate public mood for revenge will create more, rather than less radicalisation. McCauley and Moskalenko call this Jujitsu Politics.

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Brexit and the cosmopolitan world order

Posted: June 27th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: european union, governance, human rights, philosophy, politics, thoughts | No Comments »

There are those who see the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union as a prelude to turning back to the times when the main sovereign actor in the world is the (nation) state. However, resorting to the intergovernmental model is not the only option to analyse Brexit, the other views (cosmopolitan pluralist, minimal world state and cosmopolitan democracy) should be analysed as well.

Intergovernmentalists probably see Brexit as a natural consequence of a political union that has stretched too far. There can be no (democratic) legitimate government above the nation state level and thus any attempts at political unions such as the EU are futile if not harmful, this thinking goes.

The negotiation of national parliamentary sovereignty and binding supranational rules have been unsuccessful in the EU-UK case and thus it is only normal that the state that has delegated powers to the EU can now take those back and leave. In this traditionalist thinking, the citizens of the UK had all the rights to vote for Brexit, because it is they who are ultimately in charge of the fate of their country and whatever they do (even if it harms themselves or others) is right.

The cosmopolitan pluralists believe that (nation) state is over or in decline and no longer the centre of sovereign power. Therefore power has been shifting to multiple other levels of government, global, regional, subnational, corporate multinational etc. The state is just one of the levels of a pluralist, complex, interdependent, networked world which does not have a centre of power.

From this perspective, Brexit as a decision by referendum of the UK citizens was unfair: in a cosmopolitan plural world order everyone who is affected should get a say and stakeholders consulted. In an interdependent world why are the citizens of one entity allowed to screw things up for everyone else? Scottish independence is a neat example of the subnational levels of governance exerting influence beyond the nation state. Even if the UK left, this does not mean that we should not continue to democratise the supranational levels of governance (i.e. the EU) and continue building a strong European polity.

The proponents of the minimal world state model are of the view that there are certain universal core principles that apply to all states and all people, which cannot be derogated from and the breach of which will limit state sovereignty. Universal human rights at their core are as such limiting state sovereignty: humanitarian interventions can be used to prevent mass grave human rights violations, such as genocide, in a sovereign state. Other violations might bring sanctions and trade restrictions. This minimal world state is institutionalised through the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly (and other UN bodies) and includes international NGOs as powerful actors. The deliberations at the global level in other matters than human rights as well (millennium development goals) exerts soft pressure to states to comply.

Brexit does not really have a consequence in terms of the minimal world state model, because both the EU and the UK remain a part of it and will need to comply with the core requirements. The influence of the EU and the UK in the world state level might be decreased because of the weakening of the position of the EU.

Cosmopolitan democracy model requires democratic decision-making in all levels, including global. This model sees the future creation of a world parliament and limits state sovereignty only to those issues that are internal to that state. In this case states are subordinated to a global democratic entity and transnational solidarity is the norm, because most problems are not confined to the borders of any one state.

Brexit is a setback to cosmopolitan democracy if one counts the EU as a precursor to eventual global democracy. In a fully developed cosmopolitan democracy Brexit would not matter because nation states would not matter either. The UK leaving the EU would be similar to a redrafting of the administrative borders of a county or district, which does not have global impact.

In conclusion: none of the models of international political theory offer a complete solution. The world is slowly turning away from the intergovernmental model, but neither the minimal world state and cosmopolitan pluralism models are fully existing yet. And even though cosmopolitan democracy is as an ideal an interesting one, it seems to be a long way to go before it can be realised. Brexit can be read as a countertrend towards intergovernmentalism, but it (and the reactions to it) also reflect the unsuitability of the current international political frameworks to deliver. The confusion and reactions in different countries (and the fact that we in Estonia also care deeply about Brexit) can be seen as supporting the emergence of cosmopolitan pluralism as the main framework, but as it also is vague and confusing it does not offer much help. Minimal world state does not seem to be affected much (even though prevalence of nativism might mean even less interest in responsiblity to protect doctrine and thus weakening of the applicability of the model).

Read more:

Zürn, Michael. “Survey Article: Four Models of a Global Order with Cosmopolitan Intent: An Empirical Assessment.” Journal of Political Philosophy 24.1 (2016): 88-119.