Sunday, June 23, 2013

New Owls For Old

Suddenly we appear to be hip deep in owls.  News just in from the Philippines breathlessly announced the discovery of ten new species of owls.  Apparently eight are subspecies of existing, known owls but two are completely brand spanking new.  Before we get too excited contemplating our new owl intensive future experts have pointed out that since the owls apparently live on isolated islands or in forest fragments the likelihood is that they're endangered.

That's one hell of a career trajectory, from non existent to endangered in the course of an afternoon.  By the time I've finished writing this they'll probably be extinct.  At least we won't have to update our books on ornithology.  I should probably also mention that nobody has actually seen these owls yet.  They have been identified (or perhaps, extrapolated would be a better word) from listening to owl hoots and picking out the ones we don't recognise.  Thus there is the very real possibility that these "new" owls are actually existing owls with a chest infection.

I also wonder how long these owls have been around.  One could make an argument for saying that they only came into existence when we heard their hoots.  After all if an owl hoots in the forest and nobody hears it does it really hoot at all?  And since hoots are all we have to go on at this point I think that makes a pretty good argument for assuming they materialised out of thin air when there was somebody around to hear them.  On the other hand simply because scientists haven't heard them before doesn't mean nobody has.  This is the way it goes with most "new" animal discoveries.  The locals have generally been aware of them for centuries.  There could well have been conversations around the campfire along the lines of;
"What are we eating"
So these owls could be very venerable indeed.

Still it is a good thing that the existence of these owls is known to a wider audience.  If nothing else it will give environmentalists and other animal lovers something else to worry about.  We never seem to run out of endangered species to fret over.  In fact collectively "endangered species" seem to be some of the most successful animals on the planet, you can find them pretty much anywhere.  Once you're endangered everybody seems concerned about you, possibly being endangered is simply a rather advanced survival technique.  In fact I sometimes wonder if perfectly unthreatened animals are deliberately reducing their numbers just to generate interest in themselves.  Just think about it, not even Greenpeace is worried about the future of cows, but if you're an inch long toad with only two breeding pairs left in the world that can only survive on the underside of rocks in an environment that is just about to be demolished to make way for a shopping mall then everyone will want a piece of you.  Let's face it, humans have done stupider things to gain attention.  Geordie Shore comes to mind for a start.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Voters, Voters Everywhere. Even in Countries Without Democracy

In light of what, in retrospect, appears to be a rambling and incoherent endorsement of dictatorship in my previous blog entry I decided I should reestablish my democratic credentials with a rambling and incoherent endorsement of democracy in this one.

To this end I thought I would take a quick look at a few of the democratic elections that have happened around the world so far this year.  I have selected four countries, pretty much at random, that have gone to the polls in the last few months.  In chronological order they are Liechtenstein, Djibouti, Kenya and Bulgaria.

First out of the gate with an election at the beginning of February was Liechtenstein, the only country in the world to be named after its owners.  Four political parties were vying for seats in the Liechtenstein Landtag thus making it the only country with more political parties than registered voters.  Counting was completed about twenty seconds after the poll closed and the news was not good for the incumbent Patriotic Union Party.  The Patriotic Union lost five of its thirteen seats.  This left the Progressive Citizens Party with ten seats (a loss of one) holding the whip hand while two minor parties picked up seven seats between them.  That's it; twenty five seats for a national parliament.  One gets the impression Liechtenstein doesn't need a lot of governing.  Or possibly seeing as how the reigning prince has the right to veto legislation, dismiss the government and appoint judges the people of Liechtenstein don't feel the need for any more government.  The prince, incidentally, gained these powers in a 2003 constitutional referendum when 64% of the population voted to give themselves less say in government.

Not much larger but considerably poorer, Djibouti went to the polls on the 22nd of February for their parliamentary elections.  For those of you who don't know Djibouti is a small country in the Horn of Africa which is very unfortunate in its neighbours.  Djibouti is bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia (or whatever the bit of Somalia bordering Djibouti is currently calling itself).  Its coastline is on the Red Sea, pirate central.  Not surprisingly the governments attempts to stimulate the tourist trade have had mixed results.  Pretty much the only return visitors have been the French Foreign Legion and the US Marine Corps.

So to the elections, this years poll promised to be more interesting than most due to the novel presence of opposition parties contesting the ruling Union for the Presidential Majority Party's 100% control of parliament.  To be fair it is difficult to defend a 100% majority when you actually have competition so it will come as no surprise that the UMP took a bit of a hit.  When the dust had settled the UMP kept forty three of sixty five seats, still enough for a majority.  The opposition cried foul, possibly with justification but their revised poll result claims only resulted in the UMP gaining forty seats so one can probably say that the result reflected the will of the people if perhaps not quite in the method the people expected.

Just while we're in Africa Kenya had a general election for pretty much everybody over the position of local dogcatcher.  So many civil servants resigned to contest seats that it is amazing the country managed to function at all in the lead up to the results.  The presidential candidates seemed to spend as much time begging their supporters not to initiate violence as they did attempting to lay out their vision for Kenya's future.  To be fair if you can't manage an election without violence your future is probably pretty dusty at best anyway.  Despite what was euphemistically referred to as "unrest" in several regions last year the elections themselves were remarkably violence free if we excluded the six police officers murdered by separatists who don't want to be part of Kenya at all and probably don't care who the president is.  Just in case you care the president is Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya's first president, who won 50.51% of the vote just narrowly avoiding the need for a second round of voting.  Mr Kenyatta is now settling down to run Kenya and is confident of clearing himself of those pesky charges of crimes against humanity brought by the International Criminal Court.

The last election on our list is Bulgaria.  Time have been tough on Bulgaria ever since the collapse of the  Soviet Union caused a follow on collapse in the market for Bulgaria's principal export, poisoned umbrellas.  This was reflected in the election itself.  For starters it was held two months early because massive protests against poverty and utility prices prompted the president to dismiss the government and order an early poll.  The election itself was a glorious melange of phony ballot papers, invalid political parties and accusations of electoral fraud from all sides.  Voter turn out was the lowest since the collapse of communism and the result was a hung parliament (from the sounds of it they were lucky it wasn't a lynched parliament).  The until recently ruling GERB party won the most seats but not a majority and none of the other parties would return their phone calls so the president called on the leader of the next largest party to form a government.  Some indication of the difficulties he is currently facing can be determined from the fact that his cabinet appointments generated street protests before they had even been formally announced.

Possibly the most interesting election so far this year took place in a country that isn't even a democracy (sit down Venezuela, I'm talking about Iran).  Iranians went to the polls to determine which of the ruling ayatollah's hand picked placemen was going to take the place of outgoing nutbag Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.  The decision, with over 50% of the primary vote went to Hassan Rouhani.  Already various giddy eyed people in the west have labelled him as a moderate and a possible reformer.  They're almost certainly wrong.  Rouhani, like all the other candidates was the personal selection of Supreme Ruler Ali Khamenei and that guy doesn't do either reform or moderation.  Still the election is significant.  Offered a choice between six hardliners more than fifty percent of the Iranian people selected the one they thought was the least hardline.  As an election its meaningless but as an opinion poll it might be very interesting indeed.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Dictatorship For Fun and Profit

There is an election coming up in this country in a few months.  Fortunately I'll be overseas but still the imminence of the event has turned my mind to things political.  After a manner of speaking.  To be specific I've been wondering what sort of dictator I would make.  You might think "seen one dictator, seen 'em all" but there are quite a few variants out there for the connoisseur to choose from.  There are the traditional military types like Pinochet and Stroesser, uniformed thugs dripping in enough gold braid to make Liberace wince and with more medals per square inch of chest space than seems humanly possible.  Then there are the dull bourgeois dictators like Franco and Metaxas who make you wonder not only how they kept the job but how did they get it in the first place (yes, I know Spain had a brutal civil war but seriously, Franco? When they had a gargling nutcase like Millan Astray just waiting in the wings).  Alternatively you could go with the cynical political manipulators like Stalin and Saddam Hussein or the ridiculously flamboyant posturers like Qaddafi and Mussolini.  Naturally you can just go for bat crazy from the get go like Hitler or Idi Amin.  Finally you can opt for the rarest type of all.  The kind of dictator whose stature actually grows after his death.  I can only think of one person in this category; Ataturk.  There can be very few ruthless dictators (and believe me Ataturk wasn't overly endowed with ruth) who are remembered seventy years later as the father of their country and the founder of democracy.

I suppose the choice of dictator type really depends on whether you're in it for the long haul or not.  If you're just looking for a few years of irresponsible fun before the resistance groups haul you out and shoot you then bat crazy may well be for you.  It isn't sustainable though.  Nobody can be that crazy for that long without fatal consequences.  It is significant that of all the names listed about only three died both in office and without external assistance.  They were Franco and Metaxis (the most boring) and Ataturk (the most exceptional).  All the rest were eased out of power, shoved out of power or dragged out of a sewer pipe, sodomised with a gold plated pistol and shot out of power.  You could make an argument for Stalin but shall we say that the medical help he required was surprisingly slow in coming when you consider that he died at the centre of Soviet power.

In moments of quiet reflection I like to think I could be another Ataturk benevolently ruling with an iron fist (yes, I spend my moments of quiet reflection contemplating being a ruthless leader with the power of life and death, how do you spend them?).  Sadly I have to admit that I would probably be one of the bat crazy ones.  I'm far too paranoid to be anything else.  This much I can guarantee, my rule would be remembered.

Dictatorship is one of those odd jobs where the qualifications required to get it are at almost total variance with the qualifications required to do anything useful with it.  Which is why dictator is ultimately a political job rather than a military or administrative one.  Rule by the gun as much as you like, if you can't balance the various power groups within your country your rule will be brief and messy.  This is probably why if dictators survive their first six months they tend to hang around for a while.  Its essentially party politics without the tedious interruption of elections.

However bad politics gets in this country (and right now its pretty dreadful) we do at least have elections to, if not keep our politicians honest then at least to keep them just this side of bat crazy.  We shall have to take from that what comfort we can.  Anyway, all this talk of dictatorship has prompted me to reread my biography of Ataturk.  Just out of general interest you know.  Not at all because I'm looking for tips.