2012–The year for Democracy?

Here’s an example of a good post for the POLI 1100 blog assignment for this week. This took about 20-25 minutes to complete.

As noted in Chapter 2 of the Dyck textbook, the number of democracies worldwide has risen dramatically over the last couple of decades, to the point that currently a majority of the world’s population lives in more-or-less democratic states. More-or-less since democracies vary in character from one to the next. Some democracies fully respect human rights, whereas others are less stringent in this regard.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, Christian Caryl claims that “2012 could be a great year for democracy.” In all, almost 1/3 of the world’s countries will be heading to the polls this year to elect leaders at the national, regional, and local levels.* As for whether this is a sign of deepening democratization, Caryl is more equivocal:

That may be true. But it hardly means that the triumph of democracy is ensured. If history has taught us anything, it is that nothing in human affairs is inevitable. Most people undoubtedly yearn for freedom. In our imperfect world, however, the political choices actually facing most citizens are messy, risky, or morally fraught. There is no straight line to an open society.

Egypt is illustrative. What happens there, in the largest Arab country, is likely to have broad repercussions for the other countries of the Middle East. Yet Egyptians face many obstacles as they strive to assert their political rights. The military stubbornly refuses to yield power. The weakness of the economy, if allowed to continue, could easily sow doubt about the desirability of representative government. Then there is the possibility of sectarian or factional conflict. Already the two Islamist parties that have emerged victorious from the country’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections have begun feuding among themselves. And that’s not even to mention the lingering disquiet among Egypt’s large Christian population after last year’s pogroms.

Elections are a vital prerequisite of democracy. Yet, as many examples this year will remind us, elections alone do not a democracy make.

I think that the bolded part  above (my emphasis) is the key part of the story here. We can think about this in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. While having elections is necessary for a political system to be considered a democracy, elections are not sufficient for democracy. Other institutions, such as a free press, respect for human and civil rights, the freedom of assembly, etc., are needed as well.

For a list of countries that will be holding elections this year, this page is maintained by the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening. We see that Finland will be the first to have elections this year–Sunday, January 22–with the first round of Presidential elections. (is Sami Salo running?)

Here is an interview with Croatia’s new Foreign Affairs Minister, Vesna Pusic, with EUObserver.com about the upcoming referendum in Croatia on whether to join the European Union. (In the interview, which was held in early December 2011, Minister Pusic speculates that the referendum would take place in February 2012. In fact, the elections will be held this Sunday, 22 January 2012.

*N.B.: Just as an aside. Is it really striking (statistically, that is) that in any given year 1/3 of the world’s countries will have citizens go to election polls to elect representatives?

Economic Growth and Pollution in Budapest

In intro to comparative, in a few weeks time, we’ll cover developments in the post-communist world of Eastern Europe. Here is an interesting report from one of my home towns (I lived and studied in Budapest for a year in the late 1990s) that looks at the effects of economic growth on first lowering and now raising levels of pollution in the majestic Hungarian capital.

budapest.jpg Climb into the Buda Hills and look back at the flatlands of Pest and the pollution is obvious: a yellow-gray cloud that blankets the Hungarian capital much of the time.

Indeed, 19 years after the collapse of communism, Budapest’s air quality has become a problem again. Pollution exceeded recommended levels 115 days last year, 80 days more than permitted under European Union (EU) guidelines. [of which Hungary is a member.] In late December and early January, the capital experienced one of its most prolonged smog events in a decade.

When communism imploded in 1989, Budapest’s air was atrocious. With their two-cycle engines, fleets of Trabant automobiles spewed black clouds of lead-laden exhaust, while city busses and industrial facilities pumped eye-stinging emissions into the air. During the 1990s the air cleared as factories installed pollution controls, leaded gasoline was banned, and newer, cleaner Western cars replaced dirty Soviet ones.

But in recent years, those gains have been reversed as many Hungarians now drive to work from increasingly far-flung suburban areas. Lead and sulfur dioxide have been replaced by dangerous concentrations of tiny exhaust particles.

“We’ve exchanged [Victorian-era] London-type smog for Los Angles-type smog,” laments Janos Zlinszky of the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe. “The nature of our environmental problems is shifting.”

Across east-central Europe, a region once blighted by Communist-era pollution, economic development is bringing on a new set of environmental problems and, in some cases, bringing back old ones.

Italians and Europeans–The Two Solitudes?

Here is an animated short film by Bruno Bozzetto, which shows the putative differences between Italians and Europeans (notice the not-so-subtle “othering” that is implicit in the title). Have you ever been to Italy? Are these differences real, and if so, can political culture account for them? What underlying differences in political attitudes would help explain the divergence in behaviors demonstrated in the video? It’s interesting that Italy was one of the original six members of the European Union (which was then called the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). This was quite monumental as the other five members were on the other side of the Alps. Have a look at Bozzetto’s animated short:

P.S. This could easily be titled “Europe and Croatia!”

China 2007 Trade Surplus Record $262bn

China’s rising economic and military power has caused some concern in the United States and in Europe. Just like China in the 1980s, China’s economic policies–particularly as it relates to the values of its currency and the effect that has had on China’s foreign trade and current accounts–have irked politicians and pundits (hello, Lou Dobbs) here in the US. They will not be heartened by the news that China’s trade surplus has reached a record $262 billion. Interestingly, however, the EU replaced the US as China’s largest export market.

China’s trade surplus rose by nearly 50 per cent to a record $262bn in 2007, but import growth exceeded export growth in each of the final three months of the year, suggesting that the country’s controversial trade imbalance may be peaking.

In another first, the European Union also replaced the US as China’s largest export market. Sales to the expanded EU grew by 29.2 per cent in 2007, compared to just 14 per cent to the US.