Monday, 12 May 2008

Honour amongst Backward Camel-fucking Wastes of Semen

This article raises a number of interesting questions, about Iraqi Shi'ite society, about women's rights in Arab countries, about cultural relativity and about how news becomes news.

But most of all, it raises an atavistic anger in me. It makes me want to tie Abdel-Qadir Ali's genitals to a truck and to floor the accelerator. It makes me want to use a barbed wire rope.

I suspect I'm not alone in this. If you believe in free love, if you believe in unconditional love of child, if you reject a parent's ownership of a child, even if you reject private justice, then there's no way you can feel that Abdel-Qadir is a sympathetic character. This is an act so self-evidently and disgustingly wrong that it's hard not to feel a violent revulsion for it.

Yet the Iraqi police felt he'd done the right thing and apparently congratulated him. His employers haven't fired him. There's no indication that he's done anything wrong.

To remind you, this is a man who choked, suffocated and stabbed his seventeen-year old daughter to death. Because she'd fallen in love - just fallen in love, she hadn't even become involved in a physical relationship - with a British soldier.

What kind of society accepts this? Sad to say, and without wanting to come over all Christopher Hitchens on you, it's an Islamic society.

I haven't read the Koran and am in no particular hurry to do so. I don't consider it particularly relevant what exactly it says about honour killings. What's relevant is that Abdel-Qadir Ali thinks it legitimises him murdering his daughter for having emotions he doesn't like.

Worse, he's proud.

'I have only two boys from now on. That girl was a mistake in my life. I know God is blessing me for what I did,' he said, his voice swelling with pride. 'My sons are by my side, and they were men enough to help me finish the life of someone who just brought shame to ours.'

I don't know about you, but I don't consider it to be a manly act to kill a defenceless woman because she embarassed you. I'd tend to consider that a sign that you have an emotional age of around six. And I tend to think that if your imaginary bearded figure in the sky approves of this, then it's probably a good job he doesn't exist.

Of course, it's unfair to blame Allah for this. Deities aren't real - you're welcome to disagree, but unless you produce proof of the existence of one or a rational reason to suppose that one exists, I'm just going to look at you pityingly just long enough to irritate you, then I'm going to ignore you - and they don't kill people. But they certainly provide an easy excuse for people to kill people.

And of course, it's not like Islam is supremely bad in this respect. Christianity has a significant amount of blood on its hands, Hindus have killed their fair share, Sikhs have killed significantly more than their fair share, the Shinto faith isn't exactly blameless (kamikazes etc.) and whilst neo-paganism hasn't killed many people, it is supremely retarded and the belief systems it thinks it is based upon didn't condemn brutal sprees of violence in any noticeable way.

Right, now I've established my credentials as an atheist dickhead and equal-opportunity hater, let's talk about the Islamic attitude to the rights of women.

Or rather, let's talk about the absence of such rights. Let's hear from Abdel-Qadir again:

'People from western countries might be shocked, but our girls are not like their daughters that can sleep with any man they want and sometimes even get pregnant without marrying. Our girls should respect their religion, their family and their bodies.'

Notice the pride in not being like the decadent west. I'm going to take a brief pause to take pride in my decadent morality, which rejects the idea of killing women because one can't cope with people who don't subject themselves entirely to one's will. You may want to do the same.

Now let's look at exactly what he says. "their religion", "their family" and "their bodies". Notice how Abdel-Qadir Ali is full of shit and incorrect pronoun use. He doesn't for a minute believe that a daughter of his has the right to do what she wishes with her body. If he did, he'd still have a daughter.

All this outrage may be cathartic, but sadly it doesn't accomplish much. The question is what can be done about it. And unfortunately, I suspect the answer is not much. We're talking about a deeply misogynistic society, perhaps only rivalled in the Horn of Africa. We're also talking about a fundamentally anti-western society. We can't tell them to stop being dicks on this, because being a dick on this is part of their culture and they aren't about to change because a group of people they don't like tell them to.

Perhaps we could have some impact in a stable Iraq, where armed militias propagating reactionary social norms didn't control the streets, but even then there wouldn't be much change. And plenty would still yearn for the old days. Hell, there's a substantial body of opinion that still yearns for outdated gender roles here in Britain. The only difference is that our Overton window isn't stuck in the seventh century. And besides, a stable Iraq is a pipe dream for at least a decade.

Some might ask if it is right to try to intervene. Aren't all cultures of equal worth? The answer is simple: no. If your culture oppresses the powerless, if it makes some people second-class citizens due to circumstances of their birth, then on that your culture is wrong. That's not to say we should all have the same monoculture, that's just to say that those who indulge in cultural relativism over these issues are moral cowards legitimising abhorrent behaviour. I'm sorry if you find this attitude dismissive, but that's because I'm sorry that you think such a principle shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. There is right and there is wrong and if you aren't prepared to argue for your definition of right and wrong, then you don't really believe in it. And if Abdel-Qadir is going to argue for his morality, we damn well have to argue for ours and against his.

To return to my previous question, what can we do? We can't eliminate gender-bias in thinking or any other kind of discrimination, but we have to marginalise it. I could live with a separation of church and state, as in Turkey and the USA, but that's not enough. A more progressive form of Islam is needed, one that accepts that the world has changed since Heraclius was the Roman Emperor and that the morality within the Koran is not absolute.

Unfortunately, what I'm essentially arguing for is Islamic Anglicanism, and Anglicanism is the ideal religion for an atheist, since it doesn't really matter what you believe. So I'm at something of an impasse. Progress has been made in some areas - the Hudood Ordinance is no more - but not enough. When a sign of advance is the Saudi government considering allowing women to drive, you know the situation is bad.

In the end, I just find myself throwing up my arms in the air and praying that I'm wrong and there is a god, or at least a devil, and that Abdel-Qadir Ali will face a wailing and a gnashing of teeth. There's no obvious solution to this that I know of, only a feeling that there ought to be vengeance for this.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Tibet, the Death of Ideology and the Spectre of Nationalism

The violence in Tibet and the neighbouring provinces appears to have largely come to a halt. Its repercussions are not likely to be great for the outside world. There will be scuffles over the Olympic torch as it makes its way around the world and a succession of political leaders will hint that they might avoid the opening ceremony, although most will later decide to turn up and those who do not will strenuously deny that it has anything to do with China's human rights record.

Meanwhile, dissidents are no doubt being rounded up and imprisoned, joining the untold thousands (the Home Office records over a million sentenced prisoners, but there are many more who've never seen a trial and never will.) Movement of reporters will continue to be restricted, news which reflects negatively on the government will be suppressed, reporters who cross the line will find themselves incarcerated and international companies will continue to show contempt for the concept of freedom of the press.

It's fair to say that the Chinese government is a shit-stain upon the metaphorical sheets of the world's pretence to give a damn about justice. It's not a very pleasant image, nor a particularly informative one, but one can only really be either disgusted by their policies or apolitical to the point of immorality.

In the past forty years China has transformed itself from a Communist dictatorship which had degenerated into insanity in the Cultural Revolution into an economic juggernaut. It's economy is still fragile and it faces new challenges to do with a rapidly urbanising society and the influx of new technology, but at heart it still remains as a state capitalist behemoth, a demonstration that Bukharinism ia no more morally laudable than Stalinism, merely more economically realistic. [Yes, I will accept that there's no clear ideological link between Deng Xiaoping and the Right Opposition, but there are similarities and I'd like to pretend my A-level in History was slightly useful. Indulge me.]

Divorced from any ideological connection and committed only to remaining in power, China has become a force in the Third World. Whereas Western nations have to at least pretend to feel guilty when they deal with appalling despots before continuing their deals and shutting down bribery investigations the Chinese simply don't give a fuck whether or not you chuck water over your political prisoners before you attach electrodes to their genitals. Their foreign policy is realist, in that if you're willing to pay they'd overlook you skull-fucking a baby to death.

So yeah, I have to say that China's probably the nation to whose government I am most totally opposed. They're powerful, aggressively immoral and perhaps most worryingly, they appear to be relatively competent. North Korea, though run by a devastatingly unpleasant and bat-fuck insane clique, is at least run by a bat-fuck insane clique. It isn't comforting that they have nukes, but at least there's the chance that when they get drunk and try to use them they'll just immolate themselves rather than their neighbours. China, on the other hand, appears to work. It understands how the modern world works. It doesn't have to shut out companies like Yahoo! and Google. It just makes sure that they help the state security apparatus to suppress unpleasant and unChinese notions like democracy.

I hope I've managed to express how pleased I would be if the entire National Leadership of the PRC were consumed by Cthulhu. Now that that's out of the way, I'd like to discuss my concerns about the actions of the rioters in what Wikipedia is calling, in its wonderfully vague and weaselly manner, the 2008 Tibetan unrest.

It'd be nice if this was a simple black and white situation, with clearly defined good guys and bad guys. Then again, it'd be nice if I regularly updated this blog, or if it was regularly read by people who aren't my friends or family. None of these propositions are in the slightest bit feasible.

You see, I'm not squeamish about resistance movements or rebel groups. Driving out an occupying force, or even bringing it to the negotiating table, is not easy and it's never going to happen without blood being spilt. In fact, it generally takes a lot of blood and unfortunately as the quantity of blood rises, the likelihood that some of it belongs to individuals who are, for want of a better word, innocent rapidly approaches 100%. Unless one wishes to condemn absolutely every uprising ever, one has to be sanguine about the deaths of members of occupying forces or their collaborators.

It's not hard to view the PLA as a foreign occupying force. Chinese sovereignty over Tibetan areas was established by military force and it's a fair guess (although obviously an impossible proof) that most of the population in these areas do not wish to be part of the PRC.

My problem is that it's hard for me to see the rioters as a resistance movement per se. Violence broke out because of the dispersal of a peaceful protest by the police. But the ensuing chaos soon lost connection to that event. It degenerated into an orgy of looting. That wouldn't be a particular problem, except for the reasoning behind the violence - Tibetan-owned businesses were spared, whilst those owned by Han Chinese were ruthlessly looted, Han and Hui Chinese were brutally attacked and the rioting culminated in an attempt to burn down a mosque.

To put this in context, recent years have seen an influx of middle-class Han Chinese to the province and they know own numerous small businesses in the area. One can certainly understand the resentment of Tibetans in economically marginal positions, but it seems clear to me that this has to be seen as an outpouring of misdirected rage.

It's not an organised attack on an occupying force. It's not an attack on the entity that holds them in an economically marginal position - the Chinese economic system and the government that oversees them. It is, and I hope you will forgive me for the charged nature of the term I am about to use, but it seems to fit the circumstances particularly well, a pogrom.

In principle, I have no objection to the idea of an independent Tibetan state (although I don't expect one to appear within my lifetime.) But I do have an objection to a Tibetan state in which only ethnic Tibetans are considered to be full citizens. That kind of nationalism is something I'd hoped we had left behind in the twentieth century.

Particularly since this isn't one province of China. Tibetan autonomous administrative divisions cover most of the province of Qinghai as well as western Sichuan and northern Yunnan and Tibetan enclaves can be found in plenty of other provinces. If the Chinese Communist Party loses power, I will be dancing in the street along with everybody else, but I don't want to see a successor state that represents the values of the rioters in Lhasa and elsewhere.

A Tibetan resistance group with a commitment to ethnic and religious tolerance (and a rejection of the theocracy which the Dalai Lama somewhat sheepishly represents) is something I can get behind without any qualms. But a putative state that believes in Tibet for the Tibetans gives me the shivers. It's very nearly as bad an idea as the People's Republic of China, which believes in staying in power whatever happens.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Crisis in Kurdistan - How a Parliamentary Resolution Could Harm Turkey and Iraq

This is very definitely a bad sign.

Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is reportedly planning to introduce legislation in parliament granting the Turkish military authority to launch sustained military operations into Iraqi Kurdistan against PKK training camps, in response to a series of attacks from that group, which amongst other things killed 13 Turkish soldiers in an ambush in Sirnak province.

Whether or not Erdogan uses this authorisation (and reports are that he may not, being less than sanguine about the chances of such operations succeeding) it would nevertheless do much to destabilise the only region of Iraq where a degree of stability is to be found, poison Turkish-U.S. and Turkish-Iraqi relations, complicate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, present the Turkish military with the opportunity to start a war on their own initiative and endanger the (already somewhat threatened) democratic regime in Turkey.

Before we go any further, some background.

Turkey, unlike the other Muslim-majority states in the Middle East, is a secular democracy. It is also one of the few states in the area whose borders were not determined by early 20th century imperial power-politics.

Credit for this can largely be laid at the door of one Mustafa Kemal, better known to the world as Ataturk, who in the aftermath of World War I defeated enemies on all sides to create a new and resurgent nation, Turkey, from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, 'the sick man of Europe'.

Ataturk was very much of his time, fiercely nationalistic but also envious of western modernisation and contemptous of what he viewed as Muslim backwardness. His ideology, Kemalism, continues to be the basis of modern day Turkey.

The trouble is that not everyone in Turkey supports Kemalism. Foremost amongst its opponents are the Kurds. The Kurds are a distinct ethnic group historically concentrated in south-eastern Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia. Nowadays, that are covers parts of Iran and Syria, the northern regions of Iraq and several provinces in south-eastern Turkey. The Kurds got a raw deal from Kemalism which, with its inherent emphasis on Turkish national identity, repressed them as a dissident group. Not unnaturally, they tended to respond to this in a dissident manner.

The most recent manifestation of this is the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party. Founded in the late 1970s, since then it has waged a campaign of terrorism and guerilla warfare against the Turkish state, largely from bases in Syria, Iraq and Iran. It has declared ceasefires on several occasions, but as the Turkish government has always refused to negotiate with it or recognise that its aim of secession has any legitimacy whatsoever they have never lasted.

In 1999 its erstwhile leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was arrested and sentenced to death (the sentence was later commuted to life without parole when Turkey abolished the death penalty). In captivity he renounced violence, just as he had largely abandoned communism when the Soviet Union fell. Without the support of Ocalan, their charismatic figurehead, for their violent campaign, the PKK soon found itself branded a terrorist organisation by those western governments that did not already consider it to be such already.

So far, so standard. Hopeless and violent secessionist movements by oppressed minorities denied their right to self-determination are not rare on this planet. The invasion of Iraq, however, threw a whole new element into the mix.

Since the end of the Gulf War, the No-Fly Zone in northern Iraq had effectively been an independent Kurdish state. This, combined with increasing Turkish pressure on the Assad government, led to a greater reliance on Iraq rather than Syria as a safe haven for the PKK. For this reason, as well as the potential trouble an independent Kurdish state could cause them, led Turkey to be unenthusiastic about the Iraq War and to seriously consider invading from the north as the regime collapsed in the south.

Calmer heads prevailed, but the situation has never been less than tense. Although there have been back-channel communications with Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish region in Iraq, relations are not good and even a threat to invade could lead to further deterioration of relations. It would also place the U.S. in a quandary - either publically force Turkey to back down, alienating a regional power that is one of the few countries in the Middle East that should be a strategic ally, or let it intervene in Iraq, potentially starting a regional conflict (and certainly precipitating an influx of Islamic fighters to combat any Turkish presence) and giving Iran free rein to intervene, on the grounds that Turkey would already be doing the same without repercussions.

I think we can all agree that would be a bad thing. Add to that the fact that most withdrawal plans from Iraq involve either leaving a force in the Kurdish areas or withdrawal to bases in Turkey and you have an added complication. But the problem goes wider than that. It threatens the long-term future of democracy in Turkey.

Turkey is currently governed by the AKP, the Truth and Justice Party. This is a party with Islamist roots which it claims it has renounced. It is pro-European, culturally conservative, denies it has any desire to remove Turkey's status as a secular state and draws much of its support from the poorer eastern regions of the country. Perhaps the best way of thinking of it is as an Islamic variant on the Christian Democrats. Following in its footsteps, similar parties have been gaining ground in other Muslim democracies, most recently in Algeria.

The Turkish establishment, however, remains sceptical of the party. Partly this is due to suspicions that it is really more radical than it lets on, partly this is because the establishment is much more urban and prosperous than the AKP's base voters, who have traditionally had their interests ignored by the Turkish state.

Tensions came to a head most recently with the presidential elections. In April the AKP, who held slightly fewer than the two thirds of MPs needed to elect the president, put forward Abdullah Gul as their candidate to replace the outgoing Ahmet Necdet Sezer. Opposition parties refused to vote, however, making it impossible for a quorum to be reached. Meanwhile, a statement appeared on the website of the Turkish Armed Forces which many viewed as a not very veiled threat of a coup. When no resolution could be found, a new general election was called.

Although the AKP ended up losing seats, it substantially increased its share of the vote and its primary opponent, the CHP, lost considerably more seats. This time a sufficiently large number of MPs participated, allowing Gul to be elected in the third round of voting.

The military was not terribly happy with this. Though it has remained silent, the Chief of the General Staff did not attend Gul's swearing in and there is a palpable tension in the air. The PKK's attack has strengthened the hand of the military, which is rigidly Kemalist and wants action against the PKK, whereas the AKP has suggested that Kemalism may need to be modified to take into account changed conditions in Turkey and is more inclined to attempt to find a peaceful settlement to the Kurdish issue.

Given that the Turkish military has a record of taking independent action and of toppling those governments it disapproves of, the fear has to be that they may attempt to use the coming parliamentary resolution to exacerbate the conflict with the PKK, either by launching an invasion off their own bat or by abusing the rules of 'hot pursuit'. Should Erdogan and Gul try to prevent this, then the army's stance suggests that the government in Ankara might find itself forcibly removed from power. And it's hard to see who that benefits aside from Islamists opposed to even trying to take a parliamentary route.

Be afraid. Things could get much worse.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Congo: The Biggest Tragedy You've Never Heard of: Part I

What do you know about the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Maybe you know of it from the casually racist Tintin in the Congo. It's possible that you have some knowledge of its history from reading Jospeh Conrad's best known novel, Heart of Darkness. Perhaps you may have heard of Mobutu Sese Seko or, in the context of CIA lunacy and incompetence, Patrice Lumumba. If you pay a lot of attention to foreign affairs you might even have heard of the civil wars of recent years and the elections last year. Maybe you can even tell the difference between it and the Republic of Congo.

If you know about all these things, congratulations. You know a lot more than most westerners. But don't be too proud. Tell me, without looking at that Wikipedia article, how large the DRC is. Tell me what its economy is based on. Tell me the languages they speak there. Tell me the approximate population. Tell me what the civil wars were about and who the major participants were.

I'm betting you can't. I certainly couldn't before I looked the answers this afternoon. In fact, one of the questions can't even be answered, except by a rough estimate.

For the record, these are the answers: The DRC is around the same size as Western Europe, making it the world's twelfth largest nation by area. It's economy, to the extent that it still exists, is primarily based upon agriculture, although mining is also important due to large quantities of copper, cobalt, tantalum, uranium and diamonds on its soil. The lingua franca is French, whilst the four other recognised languages are Swahili, Lingala, Tshiluba and Kongo/Kituba and over 200 other languages or dialects are spoken. The population is probably around 60 million, although this is the unanswerable one, as the last census was in 1984 and there's been far too much upheaval and killing since then for that number to be much more than a guess. As for my last question, that's going to take the rest of this article to answer.

Congo's borders aren't as full of straight lines as are those of some other African countries, such as Mali. But don't let that fool you into making you think that it's a natural territorial unit. It's far too large and its internal connections are far too weak for that to be the case. It's just as artificial as most African states, the only differences being size and the fact that the Congo Free State (as it was then called - the area has had almost as many names as Imelda Marcos has had shoes) was not just the product of the Berlin Conference, but one of the primary causes of such.

I'll spare you a detailed background here, both because I'm frankly too ignorant to pull it off and because we'd get appallingly sidetracked. All you really need to know for our purposes is that in 1885 the Congo Free State was established as the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium. Yes, you read that right. Personal property. An area of nearly a million square miles was made the personal property of one man, living thousands of miles away. Sadly I can neither remember nor find the quote from one of the British participants about the division being a wondrous thing, with the only problem being that none of the negotiators really knew where the areas they were arguing about were located, but it was never more appropriate than with this provision.

Leopold promptly set about instituting robber capitalism on an industrial scale. Under the principle of effectivity, he needed to make economic use of the area to maintain his claim and his claim was large enough that even he, one of Europe's richest men, could not afford to do that at a loss. Luckily for him, the Congo was rich not just in mineral deposits but in rubber, and he was an amoral shitfucker who, whether or not there is a God, is hopefully burning in a lake of eternal fire right now. Strong words, I know, but Leopold deserves them.

He divided the Congo Free State into two regions, the Free Trade Zone and the Private Zone. In the Free Trade Zone monopoly leases on export goods were sold to white entrepreneurs, whereas in the Private Zone Leopold claimed personal ownership of literally everything. These acts appear to have made him many tens of millions, vastly more than he could ever hope to spend, so his subsequent actions only strengthen the impression that Leopold was one of the most fundamentally unpleasant humans ever to walk this earth. If Mao or Stalin can be said to represent a leftist authoritarian mass-murderer and Hitler a nationalist mass-murderer, then Leopold is their ultra-capitalist equivalent.

Having murdered or co-opted the local rulers (themselves, it has to be said, fairly unsalubrious characters who often based their power on the slave trade), Leopold set about squeezing the region for every penny he could get. Colonial officials had their wages cut and a performance-related pay scheme instituted, forcing them to exploit their areas to the greatest extent possible. The local population was forbidden to trade with anyone but Leopold's officials, obliged to provide large quotas of rubber and ivory at a fixed price and forced into what was slavery in all but name.

The quotes were so high that they had a severe negative impact on the extent of the vines that provided the rubber, but this did not move Leopold to compassion. Rather, his security forces, the Force Publique, was called in to secure the necessary tribute. This they accomplished by a campaign of widespread terror. Perhaps most horrifying of all, this militia was accustomed to take human hands as trophies, because of the bureaucratic fear of their superiors that bullets might be wasted hunting wild animals. Many of the FP's members, who themselves were often little more than slaves, also mutilated the innocent, since delivery of a sufficiently numerous crop of hands could lead to an early discharge. This, I think, can very definitely be classed as a classic example of that 'banality of evil' that Hannah Arendt talked of.

Exactly how many people died for Leopold's bank accounts is unclear. Livingstone's exploration of the Congo Basin led him to suggest that region held around 30 million people, but some estimates have been significantly lower. No census was undertaken in what was by then the Belgian Congo until 1924. Casement's study suggested that three million people were killed in twelve years, whilst Adam Hochschild suggests the figure may have been closer to ten million and other estimates have been still higher.

For all this, it wasn't until the early twentieth century that the news began to leak out. It took four years from Casement's damning report before the Belgian Parliament finally removed the lunatic from the board of the asylum and nationalised the Congo Free State as the colony of the Belgian Congo, by which time a fall in rubber prices had already made the Free State a much less profitable enterprise. Leopold died the next year at the ripe old age of 74. Perhaps the only consolation is that he was hated to such a degree by his Belgian subjects that he was booed during his funeral parade.

It's frankly shocking that this kind of story isn't better known, and there are fewer better retorts than this instance to those morons who claim that colonialism was ultimately a beneficial thing. Yet what is even more shocking is that a slaughter on the same order of magnitude has happened within the past decade in the same region, and yet the largest death toll since the Second World War is as little known as Leopold's reign of terror.

Come back for part II: the last hundred years in the DRC

'Democracy' in action - Pakistan

Pervez Musharraf has been re-elected. He won an overwhelming victory, which would point to a truly massive level of popular support, if it wasn't for the fact that the election had slightly less legitimacy than Joshua Norton's claim to be Emperor of the United States.

The President of Pakistan is, in line with the Presidential Election Rules, 1988, elected indirectly. The people of Pakistan do not get to vote for the president they desire. The electorate is instead made up of the Senators, National Assembly Members and members of the four Provincial Assemblies. Elections to the Provincial Assemblies are direct (with some seats reserved for women and religious minorities and distributed through a system of proportional representation) and this is also the case with the National Assembly.

The Senate is somewhat more complicated. Each Provincial Assembly picks 22 Senators, four of whom must be women and another four of whom must be Islamic scholars, whilst the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas select another eight. The final four Senators are elected from Islamabad, of whom one must be a woman and another an Islamic scholar.

In many ways it appears to resemble the U.S. Senate of the late 19th century - no direct election and a massive regional imbalance - Punjab is about eight times as populous as Balochistan, but receives no more representation in this chamber.

This problem is exacerbated in the election of the President. Because even with this electorate of slightly over a thousand voters, it is not one man one vote. Rather there are 702 votes. 442 of these votes come from members of the Senate and National Assembly. The other 260 are divided equally between the four provinces, which benefits the North-West Frontier and Balochistan at the expense of Punjab and Sindh (the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas and the Capital Territory are almost completely marginalised).

Obviously, this is not a fair system. It should clearly be reformed. But that doesn't even rank in the top five reasons why these elections are a "farce, a mockery and a fraud upon the electorate" That quote is from the Electoral Reforms Commission of Pakistan's description of elections in 1956. Read on and I'll tell you why things are no better now.

Let's begin with the most important point: Pervaz Musharraf is a military dictator. As such, his election can never really be free and fair. Dictatorship is the very worst system of government, even worse than monarchy. Whilst monarchs are usually fundamentally unsuited to rule and incapable of relating to their subjects and often stupid and capricious to boot, they do at least have the advantage that they owe their position to inertia as much as to anything else and therefore do not always have to rely on force. The same is not true of dictators. Name me one benevolent dictator and I'll slap you silly, abuse your intelligence and parentage and be forced to brutally disabuse you of your misconceptions.

With a dictator, there is always at the very least the veiled threat of force, since they are well aware of the principle that he who lives bhy the sword dies by the sword. And considering that their power was originally based on overruling the democratic decision of the people on the basis of military force, one cannot have an election including a military dictator which is free of intimidation. It just will not happen.

And Musharraf is still a military dictator, have no doubt about that. Knowing from history (twice) and his own personal experience that the role of Chief of the Army Staff was an ideal one from which to launch a coup, he maintained that role, procuring a legal decision to allow him to subvert the eligibility rules for President rather than to give up his nice shiny uniform.

He promised to give up his military office if elected President. But think about that for a minute. That is not the action of a man seeing the value of democracy. That is a fairly simple statement: "Elect me President, or I'll just launch another coup."

Then there's the electorate. Quite aside from the blatantly flawed nature of the college (probably a deliberate decision on the part of the hideously corrupt Pakistani civilian elite, most of whom originate from a small number of semi-feudal Punjabi families), most of the members of that institution were elected in 2002, in elections that were widely condemned for being rigged. New elections to the National Assembly are scheduled for either later this year or early 2008. But Musharraf is doubtful as to whether he'd be able to rig the polls enough this time, so he'sgot himself elected by a wholly unrepresentative and illegitimate lame dog body.

Add to that the fact that Musharraf is perceived by his people as the most corrupt Pakistani politican ever (and how he could possibly manage such an amazing feat, short of sucking off Satan for lottery tickets, is a mystery to me) and that he's utterly failed to drive the Taliban from its bases in NWFP and FATA whilst angering religious parties through his policies and double-dealing and it's clear that General Musharraf is not somebody that it makes any sense to support.

Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and the rest of the Pakistani establishment are all crooks and the descendants of crooks, who really don't represent their supporters. I frankly don't know how you'd get any real democracy for the citizens of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi and doing so would probably unleash the Islamists, who aren't our kind of people at all. Having said that, however, all that Musharraf does is make the almost inevitable breaking of the dam, when elements aligned with political Islam will take power in Pakistan, likely to be that much worse.

I vaguely remember a time when Bush used to talk of the importance of democracy and my own government talked about having an "ethical foreign policy", before it turned out that it was more profitable to be studiously amoral and democracy might mean your candidate would lose. Considering what a liability Musharraf now is, it'd be nice if they went back to those ideals and announced their refusal to recognise his election as legitimate.

Whilst I'm at it, it'd be nice if tomorrow morning a cure for AIDS and cancer was announced, Bin Laden declared he was closing down Al-Qaeda to concentrate on flower arranging, Hu Jintao was run over by half a dozen buses and there were a couple of supermodels in my bed.


The purpose of this blog is to serve as a source of comment and analysis on international events and the reporting thereof, particularly with regard to articles which are unlikely to garner much widespread attention. To try to widen the focus of the progressive blogosphere's international attentions beyond Iraq and, to a much lesser extent, Afghanistan, Darfur, Burma and Europe.

I cannot claim to have any particular expertise in this field. My university studies are not terribly relevant to the subject (I'm a third-year undergraduate studying Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge University), I have never been outside Europe and I have no real contacts with most of the areas I intend to write about. It's quite possible that not only my analyses but even my basic preconceived ideas may frequently be mistaken. I'm resigned to this. When I do this, tell me. If you know more about a particular subject than me, tell me. If you'd like to guest-post and correct my misapprehensions, that can only be a good thing.

Whilst I may not be an expert, I haven't managed to find anything like this project elsewhere on the internet (if it's there, please do link me), so I'm not going to feel too embarrassed about my utterly unqualified assessments. As a news junkie who's been interested in the parts of the world you almost never hear about since the first time I heard the BBC's Correspondent (still to my mind the best radio program ever), I just want to indulge my twin passions of foreign affairs and listening to the sound of my own voice. If anybody wants to read what I write and begin a discussion on it, that's a bonus.

I'm lazy, capricious and ill-motivated and there are other responsibilities that will probably end up taking up a lot of my time. That said, the more feedback I get, the more I'll feel motivated to producing more. So as I've said, if anybody who's not a spambot is reading, speak up. Debate is more fun that declamation.

I think that probably covers everything for now. Welcome to Forgotten Countries.