Saturday, February 03, 2007

Cabinet formation

It took over ten weeks, but it appears that the two biggest parties of the last parliamentarian elections, and a smaller fringe party, are about to close the deal on a new cabinet.

There was a lot of name-calling, mud slinging and irritated live television debates during the campaigns. The Labour Party (PvdA) leader Wouter Bos explicitly said that he would never sit in the same cabinet as the incumbent Christian Democrats (CDA) leader and prime minister Jan-Peter Balkenende.

But politics is about pragmatism and reality, and given that the PdvA (33 seats) and CDA (41 seats) both got the highest number of votes, they decided to sit down together with the Christian Union (CD, 6 seats) in order to form a safe majority. A combo of two centre-right Christian parties and a centre-left social-democratic party.

Dutch politics is really all about compromise and consensus, and because none of the parties stand to gain a majority of the votes, it’s always inevitably a coalition of parties that go on to form the cabinet government. It’s a delicate process, bringing together at times parties that do not agree and even conflict on a number of issues. You do run the danger of the ‘tail wagging the dog’, whereby the smaller coalition partner causes the downfall of the entire cabinet over some controversial issue (like last time when the coalition partner Democrats-66 broke the formation over the Ayaan Hirsi Ali affair). In the current coalition, there are fears that the small Christian Union will be ‘troublesome’ on moral issues like the same-sex marriage and euthanasia. But supposedly coalitions governments represent the popular will better and more directly than majoritarianism. Hence the Netherlands is famed for its ‘polder model’.

So for the past few weeks they leaders of the parties have been sitting in secret meeting rooms, in an attempt to strike a ‘governing coalition agreement’ [regeerakkoord]. Everything was done in secret, and only the parties involved and mediator [informateur], Herman Wijfels who is responsible for getting the politicians around the table, know what is happening. It’s done in utter secrecy, even the location of the meetings are different every single week to avoid the press chasing after the party leaders for information (though the very table they sit around to discuss at is apparently always the same one). Even the 150 newly-elected parliamentarians have no idea of what kind of discussions and compromises taking place. So basically the future of this country is decided by the ‘wheeling and dealing’ of these four men.

To date, some points from the draft ‘governing coalition agreement’ have been agreed upon:

- General amnesty for asylum seekers who were in the Netherlands before 2001

- State pension plan (AOW) every pensioner is entitled to receive (around €700 per month): an irksome bone of contention when PvdA leader suggested during the election campaign that rich(er) old people should have to finance their own state pension. Compromise seems to be that those who stop working before 65, and have a top-up pension of over €15000 will have to finance their own pensions from 2011; while those who work until 65 do not have to; those who continue working after 65 even get a tax benefit

- Child care: while the CU and PvdA want free child care from the state, the compromise has been to make parents pay part of the costs, and that there will be more money invested in the crèche system.

- Some €800 million will be put aside for the environment, probably because of the recent sudden media attention (and climate changes) that suggest that global warming is taking place: a new ministership position will be installed.

- Mortgage tax refund: the PvdA wants to remove this because it believes rich(er) people who can afford to buy (a) house(s) should not enjoy tax benefits; but the CDA believes this will stunt the economy and hurt business; so current tax refund will remain.

- Economic growth will be capped at around 2% per year, whereby by 2011 there will be a big government surplus.

The wedding is off

You’d think this kind of thing couldn’t possibly happen today, but three couples refused to get married in a Belgian municipality because the alderman for civic affairs is… black.

That’s the only reason why the couples cancelled at the very last minute in the town of Sint-Niklaas. The mayor’s reaction was shock, however does not think it has anything to do with the fact that the right-wing party Vlaams Belang holds a third of the seats in the city council. The alderman, Wouter Van Bellingen, whose name is as Flemish as it can get, was adopted as a child by Flemish parents. He doesn’t seem too bothered by the whole fiasco.

”If people want to refuse me as the alderman of civic affairs at their wedding, there are three options: they could not marry, they could move house, or they could accept me as their alderman”.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

UN Secretary General in The Hague

Ban Ki-Moon was in The Hague today, the first time in his official capacity as the new UN secretary-general. He met with the Queen, Prime Minister Balkenende, and visited the ICC, ICJ and ICTY. He praised the Netherlands “as the fourth largest contributor to the UN and a dedicated member of the Human Rights Council and the Peacebuilding Commission”.

Scramble for Africa

A conference of African leaders in Beijing late last year confirmed China’s ‘clout’ on the continent, whereas the Chinese president Hu Jintao is once again on a whirlwind trip throughout Africa. A cause for concern, echoing warnings by South African president Mbeki who recently suggested China-Africa relations were increasingly becoming ‘colonial’ in nature. Here follows a commentary by Jonathan Hoslag on China’s recent advances in Africa.

Africa as the mine of the world

“The pact that China sealed with the political elites of Africa [does not bring benefit] to the majority of the African population. Even though various countries enjoy higher prices for natural resources and China does invest more than the European countries as a whole, it confirms Africa in its role as the mine of the world, without receiving the chance to develop in other sectors. Around 90% of Chinese imports consists of natural resources. The excessive industrialization of the Asian giant increasingly led to a social bloodbath in hundreds of African factories. It also does not add to the optimis that Chinese companies implement their projects in Africa largely with Chinese workers: own workforce first!

China undermines the chance of democracy

Due to the fact that Beijing strengthens the political elites in their position as guardians of the continent, the chance of democracy and good governance appears to be further undermined. China hinders the existence of an assertive middle class. It breathes new life into the patronage networks of [cronies]. Because Chinese diplomats continuously stand in the way in the Security Council of the United Nations, dishonest [people] can roam unpunished. Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president, can [thank] China that he is still in his seat. Not only did the People’s Republic block international sanctions, it also provided Khartoum with weapons that were employed in the suppression of rebels in the south of the country and in the cleansing operations in the province of Darfur. Even though the Chinese government continuously staunchly denies it, more and more weapons are arriving in all sorts of [conflict zones]: the Congo, Ehtiopia, Zimbabwe, and so on.

Guerrilla fighter in a suit

Chinese diplomacy behaves like a guerrilla fighter in a suit. It realises it is no match against the big players, but it conveniently targets their weak spots. Africa is again at the frontline of an international politics based on bids. The People’s Republic is determined in its plan to strengthen its influence, and is being followed in her ‘scramble’ by countries like India. Europe and the United States do not get out of their way, and hang onto their energy interests and strategic considerations. The result is a downward spiral in which Africa will again end up [as the underdog].

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Saddam and Osama

Has to be one of the greatest satires I’ve seen in a long time.

Monday, January 29, 2007

First case of the ICC

After almost five years of idleness, the International Criminal Court is about to proceed with its first ever case.

The Pre-Trial Chamber today confirmed charges against Thomas Lubanga, who is set to stand trial of war crimes prohibiting the recruitement and enlistment of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Chamber found that there was sufficient evidence to establish substantial grounds to believe that when the FPLC was created in early September 2002, there was an agreement or common plan between Thomas Lubanga Dyilo and other high-ranking FPLC commanders. The purpose of the plan was allegedly to further war effort by voluntarily or forcibly recruiting minors into the ranks of the FPLC, subjecting them to military training and causing them to participate actively in military operations and using them as bodyguards. The Chamber found that there was sufficient evidence to establish substantial grounds to believe that Thomas Lubanga Dyilo assumed an essential general coordinating role in the implementation of the common plan and that he personally exercised other functions in the implementation of the common plan and that he was aware of the importance of his role.

According to Pre-Trial Chamber I, although the agreement or common plan did not specifically target children under the age of fifteen, but young recruits in general, in the normal course of events, its implementation would entail the objective risk that it would involve children under the age of fifteen.

The Chamber found that there was sufficient evidence to establish substantial grounds to believe that Thomas Lubanga Dyilo and other high-ranking FPLC commanders shared knowledge of this and that all of them accepted the result.

Lubanga is also the first and only person who is in the Court's custody, and is being held at the maximum security prison at Scheveningen (where Milosovic was held and died).

CNN interview with President Chen

Love him or hate him, President Chen Shui-bian does have a few things to say:

about the 988 Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan... about the recent embezzlement scandals... and about the denial of Taiwan's 23million people's "collective rights" by the UN.