Turks are going to the polls today in what are probably the most important parliamentary elections the country has seen in a generation. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while not a candidate himself, is hoping his AKParty will obtain a two- thirds majority, which would enable a constitutional change bringing in a powerful executive presidency, in which he would have sweeping new powers. Given the way Mr Erdoğan has already exceeded normal authority, first during his decade as Prime Minister and lately as President, this possibility is viewed by most foreign onservers, including friends of Turkey such as myself, with alarm. Curbs on political dissent, reduced media freedom and the flagrant misuse of courts to harass or punish the president’s critics have grown exponentially. Mr Erdoğan still enjoys a lot of support, notably from the rural poor, as he has presided over a period of unprecedented economic growth, though some of the new infrastructure projects (including his enormous new presidential palace) are grotesquely grandiose. The problem is that the main opposition party has been unable to offer a leader or a package of policies that offer a persuasive alternative. Instead, oddly, the best hope for a brake on Mr Erdoğan’s ambitions comes from the predominantly Kurdish HDP and its attractive leader, Selahattin Demirtas. It is touch and go whether the HDP will manage to cross the 10% threshold now needed to win representation in the Turkish parliament, but many Turkish liberals will be voting HDP in the hope that they do. Otherwise I fear Mr Erdoğan will get his mandate as Turkey’s Sultan, ever more remote from reality and European political norms.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th June, 2015
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 6th June, 2015
Technology is driving the European recovery, but if the EU is to remain globally competitive it needs to educate more of its labour force in relevant skills or allow in talent from elsewhere. A million jobs in Europe are unfilled because of a lack of people with the necessary IT skills, or so a seminar organised by the European Liberal ALDE Party in Brussels was informed yesterday. One of a series of ALDE events under the title Reclaiming Liberalism the seminar heard presentations from representatives of Microsoft (our hosts in their Brussels office), Deloitte and AT&T as well as comments from the German FDP politician Markus Loening. A useful case study of e-governance in Estonia — which I witnessed for myself on a Press trip to Tallinn a few years ago — was also included. Markus in particular focused on some of the politico-moral challenges, such as finding the balance between risks and opportunities offered by the digital revolution and it was agreed that care needs to be taken to ensure that we do not have a situation in which a privileged few gain great wealth from technological development whereas the masses remain poor, accentuating the already serious levels of inequality in the post-modern world. The sheer scale and speed of new technology development are mind-blowing, especially as we enter an era of computers and robots with cognitive abilities. While welcoming many of the new possibilities it is essential that there is a degree of regulation, as well as adequate controls over their use and misuse by governments, intelligence services and commercial companies.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 2nd June, 2015
Few politicians inspire as much warmth as Charles Kennedy generated during his time as leader of the Liberal Democrats. But then few politicians are as engaging, witty and profoundly human — in their strengths and their weaknesses — as Charles was. He was a joy to work with, even if you couldn’t always rely on him turning up on time, and although he came to the Alliance from the SDP he was Liberal to his core. He inspired huge loyalty among people he worked with — the main reason people tried to cover up his drinking problem — and he also connected with the general public to a remarkable degree. Political opponents sometimes derided him as Chatshow Charlie, but in reality they usually fell under his spell as well, as witnessed by the tributes that have been pouring in all morning from across the political spectrum. Charles Kennedy was also a brave politician, as shown when he stood his ground in opposition to the Iraq War, despite odious vilification from both Labour and Conservative MPs in the House of Commons. The abuse and the heckling deeply upset him, as he was in many ways a sensitive man, but he never wavered. I have never felt so proud of a party leader as when he joined a million of us on the London march against the War and spoke so passionately about it. His inevitable fall from the leadership and the breakdown of his marriage were twin tragedies that wounded him deeply; losing his parliamentary seat in last month’s SNP tsunami was a final cruel blow. It was obvious from his last appearance on Question Time that he was a diminished man, yet he was someone we continued to love. I considered it a privilege to work with him when I was on the party’s Federal Policy Committee and later through our involvement with the European Movement, of which he was President. When I received an SMS early this morning telling me Charles had been found dead it was if I had been punched in the gut. We have lost a great Liberal Democrat, a great Scotsman, a British politician of unique talents, a true European and above all a wonderful human being.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 31st May, 2015
The fact that Sepp Blatter’s re-election as President of FIFA failed to get a winning two-thirds plurality on the first round goes to show that a growing number of countries’ football bodies are unhappy at the way the pugnacious Swiss has presided over years of corruption and shady dealings. Though he is not one of the senior FIFA officials currently under investigation by the US Attorney General and the FBI, he should have accepted that the buck stopped with him, meriting his resignation. Instead, his challenger, Prince Ali bin Hussein of Jordan, withdrew instead of pushing the vote to a second round. The margin was too great to overcome, as so many countries around the world that have benefitted from FIFA’s largesse (including, allegedly, bribes and kickbacks to their soccer officials) were bound to give Blatter their support, as did France, shamefully. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a warm congratulatory message to Blatter on his getting a fifth five-year term. Two of a kind, I can’t help thinking. I was pleased to see the UK Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale, come out very strongly against Blatter’s FIFA reign in the Sunday Times today, and that newspaper’s long investigation into FIFA’s dodgy side deserves applause. Blatter himself observed snidely that Britain has sour grapes because it did not win either of the two forthcoming World Cup slots, but this only goes to show how out of tune he is with universal morality. Qatar did get one of those fixtures, in a still controversial decision.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 29th May, 2015
I took a break from writing this morning to go to see the huge and imposing exhibition of back-and-white photographs by the Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado, which is running at the Galleria Municipal Torreao Nascente in Lisbon until 2 August. I had often seen Salgado’s work in the minimised format of magazine reproductions, but the sheer scale of some of the images full-size is arresting, whether it is a whale surfacing in the ocean to “blow” or a barren landscape populated with thousands of seabirds. The photographer obviously have a soft spot for penguins, but few of his shots could be called cute or even life-affirming. The overwhelming effect (not just because his photographic palate is limited to greys) is one of gloom, even doom. This is of course deliberate, as a major reason for this exhibition, which is touring the world, is to alert people to the dangers threatening the planet. Having earned quite a lot of money from his work, he has ploughed some of it back into reforestation in South America. But at times the exhibition does seem over-didactic. The photographs of people are particularly unsettling, not just because almost none of them smile but because the photographer seems distanced from them, a remote observer, which makes the viewer feel estranged too. There are some particularly fine portraits of tribesmen in Papua New Guinea, but others have treated such subjects with something that seems curiously lacking in Salgado’s technically brilliant work: human bonding, even love.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th May, 2015
The self-styled Islamic State shot to global prominence largely by its highly effective use of social media and video streaming to trumpet its egregious human riots abuses in Iraq, Syria and Libya, from the graphic beheadings of “unbelievers” and aid workers to the sale and rape of female slaves and pushing homosexuals off the top of high buildings. Until now, not much attention has been given to the ways that IS exploited social media platforms, but that lacuna has been admirably filled by Abdel Bari Atwan’s new book Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate (Saqi Books, £16.99). A veteran writer, broadcaster and editor on the Middle East, the author makes good use of his contacts both within territory controlled by IS and those outside. He understands why thousands of disaffected young Muslims (including converts) from around the world have rallied to the black IS flag, inspired by the notion of a new Islamic Caliphate. He analyses well the origins of IS ideology in the Wahhabi school of thought that developed in what is now Saudi Arabia in the late eighteenth century. He also, correctly, lays much of the blame for the spread of salafist extremism at the door of the Saudis, who have spent billions exporting their narrow prejudices. But in a sobering conclusion, Abdel Bari Atwan warns that IS extremism is likely to blow up in Saudi Arabia’s face one day. Just as Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida condemned the Saudi Royal family for its decadence and departure from the “true” path of Islam so Islamic State has the House do Saud in its sites. It is only a matter of time. And if Saudi blows, the aftermath will be felt globally. So, among all the confetti of recent publications on Islamic State choose this one, to be informed, even enlightened, but also alarmed.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th May, 2015
Dubai has become synonymous with extravagant shopping malls and high-rise buildings, not least the current tallest edifice in the world, the Burj Khalifa. But when I have had free time in the city I have always gravitated towards the Creek, in the old city centre, which is one of the few places that hasn’t changed much in the 30-odd years that I have been coming here. The little passenger boats that shuttle people back and forth across the waterway are still there, and only charge 1 dirham (20p) for the ride — by far the best value attraction for any visitor. The area on the Bur Dubai shoreline has been smartened up, with several of the beautiful nobility’s houses with their wind towers tastefully restored, not least Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum’s house, which also doubles as a museum, with several rooms of fascinating black-and-white photographs of Dubai before modernisation and the oil boom. When I first came to the city, the airport (now very much downtown) was surrounded by desert and development along the Creek petered out very quickly. Lovely wooden dhows from Iran used to moor alongside the Deira waterfront, spilling their cargoes onto the walkway, while their crews, mainly from the Arabic-speaking areas of the Abadan coast, stared in a mixture of wonder and apprehension at the comparative sophistication of Dubai. These days they are fewer and have to tie up further up the Creek, somewhat out of view. I find it extraordinary that most Western tourists and expats working in Dubai prefer the malls and now the new marina to the Creek. It’s their loss, and our gain, for those of us who join the locals and the labourers who keep the area so vibrant.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 14th May, 2015
For me the saddest, and in many ways most unexpected, result last Thursday night was Simon Hughes’s ousting from Bermondsey and Old Southwark after 32 years as the area’s member of parliament. One knew that Labour had been absolutely flooding the place with campaigners for months — including shedloads of Labour MPs who were urged to make the short trip across the Thames when they had a few spare moments — but Simon could have hardly have worked harder for his constituents throughout his long tenure. I am sure that those people in the constituency who voted Labour in the hope of keeping the Tories out will soon realise what a mistake they made. Anyway, this evening, at The Grange in Grange Road, there was an election thank you party for all who helped in Simon’s campaign, as many hundreds did from all over London and beyond. Far from being a wake, the event was quite joyful, not least because of the more than 11,000 new members who have joined the Liberal Democrats this past week, over 100 are in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, bringing useful new blood to an already strong local team, who have already declared that the fight back has started. Simon helped the upbeat mood by quashing the Labour Party rumour that he will accept a peerage. But being Simon he then made a speech that took us all down memory lane, from the very first time he stood for election as a Liberal in the area, as a GLC candidate. I was interested to note that he no longer says “thirteenthly” when he enumerates the points in his speech, and has instead learned that if one starts at three and moves down to one, you can then move back up again to another three without many people noticing. Because he is so widely loved, we all view such tactics with affection. Most of us even agreed to sing a song he had heard on SmoothFM as he was driving out of the House of Commons car park in his signature yellow taxi for the last time earlier today. And it was gratifying to hear from the man who was until last week Minister of Justice that he could not have borne to be in the department with the new incumbent Michael Gove in charge.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 12th May, 2015
Last week’s general election results in Britain were a shock to almost everyone — including the opinion pollsters — but the cruellest blows were for the Liberal Democrats, who lost 48 of their 56 seats. Ministers such as Simon Hughes, Ed Davey and Vince Cable were among the casualties, as well as high flyers like Julian Huppert and Jenny Willott. In London, Labour crowed, though as their party was almost wiped out in Scotland and their leader Ed Miliband fell on his sword for failing to win the election, they had little real reason to do so. I lost count of the number of Labour supporters tweeting how the Liberal Democrats are “finished”, “destroyed”. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Though the eight LibDem MPs are now outnumbered more than tenfold by their counterparts in the House of Lords, the party’s membership base is expanding rapidly. Over 8,000 new members have joined the LibDems so far this month, most of those following last Thursday’s election. That is a remarkable affirmation not only the party’s resilience but also of the need for a strong liberal voice now that we have a purely Conservative government which will start implementing some of the things that LibDems prevented them doing in Coalition. The LibDem bird Libby is indeed like a phoenix, rsing from the ashes of last wek’s defeat. And it is the duty of every local party to engage with the new members and to get them involved, including those who left because of the Coalition deal with the Conservatives but who are now ready to return to the fold.
To join the party go to: http://www.libdems.org.uk/join