A Deep Italian Vomit?

“I don’t know what other name I could give it. It’s a thing that looks dangerously like a human, a thing that throws parties, that organises orgies and rules a country called Italy. This thing, this illness, this virus threatens to become the cause of the moral death of Verdi’s country.” In his then published English version of the Notebook, the celebrated Portuguese Novelist José Saramago was on the onset of his reflections on the present day Italy.

Today, the country of Verdi, while going to polls, sports those colorful political acrobatics, which are perhaps reserved for the South Asian electoral politics. Elections in European countries are dull affairs; Italy is an exciting exception. The Economist magazine, which is conservative yet influential, has termed the coming Italian elections, on Feb 24-25, as a heart-stopper.

Apparently, the excitement and colorfulness lingers on as Silvio Berlusconi is still very much part of the heart-stopping show. In his lifestyle, Berlusconi is not afraid of exhibiting a dionysian streak, and so his rivals make fun of him when Berlusconi talks of family values. He owns an ace European football club, and given the sensibilities of educated & middle class Italian youth – an important voting chunk in the coming election – he assumes an anti-racism posture. Yet, in the recent past, Berlusconi was criticized for making jokes at the expense of US President Barack Obama’s race.

But there is more to the excitement around coming Italian elections. As some of the entertainment stars of India have also made to the local political stardom, Italy in Europe has its own personalities that synthesize entertainment & politics.Think of Indian chief ministers like M.G. Ramachandran & M. Karunanidhi – both effortlessly transcending the cinematic & political as well as religious illusions; in a somewhat similar vein, Italy presents us with Beppe Grillo.  

But, it appears that Beppe Grillo, though coming from the Italian entertainment sector, has more to offer, politically, than just being a mere MGR or Karunanidhi of Italy. He is a comic actor, but he has also technologized the Italian politics by anchoring his five star movement on the internet as opposed to making use of the Italian television. In this change of possibly important consequences for the Italian politics, Beppe Grillo is being aided by his web-guru associate Roberto Casaleggio.

Casaleggio describing Silvio Berlusconi’s control of six of Italy’s seven main television channels tells, “it was like living inside the Matrix.” He says, Grillo has offered information and comments that are free of self-censorship. He adds, “And when people saw that what he said was true, they began to doubt the other information they were getting.”

The five star political movement of Beppe Grillo is aspiring for a unique objective in Europe – the erosion by the internet of all other forms of political mediation. Technologist Casaleggio asserts that as newspapers, according to him, are doomed to extinction because they stand between journalists and readers, so political parties are heading for annihilation because they stand between the electorate and the authorities. Thus, he is confident that their internet based popular movement, with entertainer Grillo as its figurehead, is pioneering “a new, direct democracy that will see the elimination of all barriers between the citizen and the state.”

The coming Italian elections are certainly not a drab affair. However, it would be an oversight to not to mention that Italian economy is in serious recession, and that the Italian youth faces severe unemployment. Reverting back to José Saramago’s notebook, he had cautioned while referring to the Italian political malaise, “If a deep vomit doesn’t succeed in ejecting it from the consciousness of Italians, the poison will end up corroding the veins and destroying the heart of one of Europe’s richest cultures.”

Would the dates of February 24 & 25 be providing cathartic release to the Italian politics? In the land of Verdi, the coming weeks keep a secret.

Asimov Arifov is a political scientist/researcher with The École des hautes études en sciences sociales, (EHESS) Paris, France. Follow him on twitter @asimovarifov for all the latest analysis from him.

Afghans Talk Politics In France

Chantilly retains an elegant charm of a bygone French aristocratic era town. The place is situated at an hour’s drive from the heart of the French capital, and I have vivid memories of strolling in its cobbled alleys and well kept forest paths with colleagues and friends. Today, the town in French Picardie is in news for hosting the intra-Afghan dialogues, especially for providing the talk-venue between the Afghan administration and the Taliban spokesmen. Chantilly parlays are the result of a flurry of informal contacts between the Afghan government and insurgent representatives that have spanned over the preceding six months. The fact that this Afghan meeting is taking place in less than a week after France brought back the last of its combat troops from Afghanistan underscores tacit yet firm French diplomatic facilitation for the talks.

But why the talks are wrapped in an extraordinary caution? the story by Time magazine provides some plausible explanations, “One of the main reasons that the talks are unfolding so far from Afghanistan in the first place is to shield participants from harsh stares — and violent passions — of militants back on the ground. One impediment to organizing exploratory exchanges between Afghan opponents thus far has been the risk of leaders being seen meeting with enemies by their own partisans — who’d swiftly denounce them as betrayers and sellouts. The remote and obscured conference rooms of Chantilly would presumably prevent any potentially provocative visuals from reaching the rank and file back in Afghanistan, and provide the room and calm for rivals to start sounding one another out about finding potential areas of common interest.” Then there is an another side to the coin as the Time magazine story goes, “By the same public relations formula, Western powers participating in the NATO operation can ill afford to be seen sitting down with the same groups responsible for deadly violence that has killed countless foreign forces and Afghan civilians since 2011 — often through terrorist attacks. Though most government and independent analysts argue that any stable post-NATO Afghan arrangement would require the cooperation and participation of all the nation’s enemy forces, the notion of directly dealing with groups like the Taliban or Hezb-e-Islami still remains politically risky — and possibly explosive.”

In Pakistan, it appears that there was an initial reluctance in letting the Afghans talk among themselves outside Afghanistan-Pakistan. Pakistani foreign minister, who is considered as taking her script from country’s security establishment, was not convinced in the beginning. She was earlier mentioned as clearly saying that the peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan authorities should be held in Kabul and not on foreign soil. However, a rethink in Islamabad is discernible. First, there are measured steps taken towards releasing the key Taliban figures from the Pakistani prisons, ostensibly to facilitate the nascent dialogue. Second, and in a related fashion, Chairman of the Pakistani Senate’s Standing Committee on Defense and Defense Production, Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed has hailed the Chantilly talks between representatives of the Taliban and Afghan government, by terming them as a welcome step, which in the senator’s words “presents psychological and political breakthrough for finding a lasting peace.” Senator Mushahid is considered close to the military establishment of Rawalpindi.

The recent rethink in the Pakistani military over the Afghan question is not negligible. Pakistani army generals would not intend to pitch the Afghan Taliban against any residual bastions of the US military in post-2014 Afghanistan. The contrary and undesirable scenario brings the US & Pakistan on collision course, in a military sense. Pakistani military commanders also estimate that the Afghan Taliban alone could not control and administer the post-2014 Afghanistan. Thus, there  is a need for Afghan Taliban’s reconciliation with not only the US but also with other important political players of Afghanistan. Finally, the Pakistani military has the increasing awareness and need for disentangling the Afghan Taliban with the Pakistani Taliban. How much progress would be made in this direction? Only the coming months would indicate. Still, there is less doubt now that the Pakistani army chief has made Afghan peace his top priority. On the other side, for salvaging the US strategy in Afghanistan, the last few chances, which are closely related to the Pakistani rethink, are devised neatly by the veteran foreign affairs commentator Jonathan Power. His analysis is here.

CNOOC comes to Canada

The Chinese public enterprise CNOOC has been authorized by the Canadian government to buy the Canadian energy company Nexen Inc. The particular vetting from Stephan Harper’s Ottawa has new limitations on the future takeover bids of the Canadian enterprises by the foreign concerns. The Harper administration specifically desires checking any new takeover bid emanating from foreign public firms. The responses from the two resurgent Asian economies are distinct. There is an optimism in China that the Canadian approval would be of benefit to multiple national & international stakeholders. About the putting of new Canadian breaks to limit certain foreign acquisitions, the Chinese response is carefully measured, devoid of any overt criticism. Apparently, Beijing is, for the time being, mindful of consolidating its gains in Ottawa; at the same time, it is tactfully de-emphasizing the occurrences of related problematic matters from its official discourse. For the moment, it is hard to find a fault with the related Chinese diplomacy.

To the contrary, there is a discernible discomfort in New Delhi.  Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former minister of petroleum and senior figure in the ruling Indian National Congress, adds, “I welcome the current decision to allow the Chinese to purchase the asset [Nexen Inc.] and I hope it wakes Indian companies up to the possibility of going in there – and if they do, and are not permitted, we have to ask on what basis this clearance is being given. I can understand need to preserve assets … but this is against the liberal traditions of Canada to take a position like this.”

Notwithstanding the views in Beijing and in New Delhi, sight should not be lost to the related tightrope political action in Ottawa.