Thursday, January 21, 2010

Was 2009 really an 'Obamanation'?

Launch of the Transatlantic programme’s first year report on Obama and US foreign policy and some insightful observations from the panellists last night. Chatham House’s Robin Niblet’s said that any US president would find engagement difficult. Even American allies are not as willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. Rob Singh pointed out that Obama has struggled between being more consultative and engaged on the one side and not strong enough on the other. Justin Webb of the BBC highlighted Obama’s failure to connect with the American public (noting a couple of public occasions where he said the wrong thing).

To the first three’s pessimism and gloom was LSE’s Mike Cox who brought up precisely the question I would have raised: what would have been the alternative? We’re perhaps too quick to forget that the Republicans had run out of steam by late 2008 and that we were on the precipice of a financial disaster. Would John McCain and Sarah Palin really been able to offer anything different?

Also interesting were the observations made by the panel about Hilary Clinton, having turned defeat into partial victory both in her end-of-primary recovery and making it as Secretary of State. Perhaps she’s biding her time as Obama’s successor if his presidency doesn’t work out?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Joined-up thinking, comparatively speaking

Launch of the Institute for Government’s report on achieving more joined-up and effective government this morning. It does provide a useful contribution with new material and research, including cases from other countries (of particular interest to me as a comparativist), even if though its conclusions and recommendations reflect common wisdom.

That we face the question of how to get from A to B was highlighted in the discussion and the importance of politics: who is going to take charge for pushing these recommendations through? I would have liked to have heard a comparative answer to this question and how it has been done in other countries, especially in the second and third chapters on departmental boards and cross-departmental collaboration (by contrast the first chapter on the centre dealt with this somewhat on pages 34-38).

There’s also the question of how to get buy-in from beyond government, to include the opposition. One way is to include cross-cutting and joined-up topics in select committees. But is there a way of building cross-party consensus on this as well?
Accounting for Brazilian migration

To a workshop/seminar on Brazilian migration in the UK last night: some interesting statistics, including indications that around 60% of the population is here illegally and that the number entering really began to increase from 2002 on. This would make sense, especially given Brazilians’ greater visibility beginning in that year through the new media and easier availability of Brazilian products in London.

But I had to ask why it’s only been in the last decade that Brazilians began coming to the UK in such greater numbers. Cathy McIlwain of Queen Mary who presented the data said it had much to do with US borders becoming much tighter, especially in the wake of 9/11 on the one hand and London becoming more open to migrants.

Yet I find it odd that this is the case: why wasn’t there a boom after 1994 when the real plan led to a current revaluation – and therefore making it relatively cheaper to buy a plane ticket. Similarly, shouldn’t the economic tightening of the later 1990s and especially the 1998-99 financial crisis have also encouraged migration? (one participant suggested that the devaluation may have made it more difficult for Brazilians to buy a plane ticket). But then I’m also bemused why more middle class Brazilian migrants would choose to leave for the UK and experience (initial) downward mobility (another finding by Cathy), given the boom in the domestic economy after 2002.

So many questions...

Monday, January 18, 2010

A return to 1970?

Sebastian Piñera has been elected as Chile’s next president. For the first time since democracy returned in 1989 the Right has finally managed to win a majority share of the vote. Alongside the expected internal criticism within the centre-left Concertación coalition and demands for the heads of the Christian Democrat and Socialist parties to resign, questions will be asked about the ability of the centre-right Alianza coalition parties to work together in Congress with an ideologically similar president.

Piñera and the Right have been getting closer to electoral victory has been some time coming. Following first round defeats in 1989 and 1993, it was able to push the centre-left into second rounds in 2000, 2006 and 2010.

But what already seems to be overlooked in the Chilean media is the effect that abstentions and electoral registration may have played in the result. Since 1989 both figures have been in decline, with yesterday’s poll the lowest yet with around 87% of voters voting and 67.5% of the voting age population registered respectively. In 1989 the turnout was 94.5% and fell to 91.3% in 1993, 90.6% in 2000 and 87.1% in 2006 while registered voters fell from 88.5% in 1993 to 79.2% in 2000 and 71.9% in 2006.

That voting turnout and registered voters have fallen may well be due in part to growing public disillusion with the Concertación-dominated government of the past two decades. The coalition will therefore no doubt spend the next few months reviewing why that is and how they might reconnect with the public, especially as the education and Trassantiago protests and demonstrations during the last presidency demonstrate.

But while they do that they might also spare a thought for the last time that Chilean politics took such an electoral re-direction – then to the Left. Following the highly turbulent 1960s and deep antipathy between the Left, Centre and Right, Salvador Allende’s election as president in 1970 was achieved with a similarly low turnout of 83.7%. In the years that followed until the 1973 coup, opponents claimed that Allende did not have a sufficient mandate and failed to represent the population sufficiently. One can only wonder whether similar yardstick will be applied to Piñera.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Anticipating a Piñeira victory

By this time next week Sebastian Piñeira could be Chile’s president-elect. If so this would be the first time in 20 years that the country had a right-wing politician in that position.

Piñeira’s leading position for the second round should not be surprising. Although President Michelle Bachelet continues to receive good approval ratings, she has not been able to transfer them to the Concertación candidate, Eduardo Frei. That this is so shows how much Chile has changed since 1990.

The past 20 years has seen a generational change in Chilean politics, with the Pinochet era an increasingly distant memory for older voters and a chapter in the history books of the young. Significant in this respect were the mass protests against the education system in 2006, which were led by secondary school students. That moment marked an end to fear of repression. In addition the Concertación government had become increasingly disconnected from the electorate, as the Transsantiago fiasco demonstrated.

But the implications of the Piñeira victory go beyond Chile. 2010 may see the election of other presidents of the Right, including Alvaro Uribe in Colombia in May and José Serra at the head of an increasingly right-wing coalition in Brazil in October. Added to this is the decline of the Left in both Peru and Argentina, which might presage its defeat in 2011.

Indeed, over the past year there has been increasing interest and concern about the Right in Latin America, especially following the coup in Honduras in June 2009. Indeed, the manner of President Zelaya’s departure and the moves against him following his declaration to hold a non-binding public consultation to change the constitution had echoes in Salvador Allende’s own call for a referendum before the 1973 coup.
The rise of the Right in both Chile and Honduras highlight diverging trends in Latin America. On the one hand the Honduran example was similar to events in those states practicing ‘21st century socialism’, through a failed coup in Venezuela in 2002 and a potential one in Bolivia in 2008. On the other hand Chile seems to conform to the ‘loyal’ Right which exists in social democratic states including Brazil and Uruguay, where confrontation is limited to the electoral arena.

The reason for the differences in the Right’s development in Latin America owes much to the so-called ‘pink tide’ that swept the region during the last decade. This was a reaction to the unrepresentativeness of representative democracy and the rising economic uncertainty and vulnerability resulting from structural adjustment and liberalisation. Whereas social democratic governments in Brazil, Uruguay and Chile sought to mitigate those changes through the introduction of targeted social programmes, 21st century socialism in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela coincided amid high levels of social polarisation and pressure by the Left to ‘refound’ the state through constitutional reform on the other.

But even if the Right differs in its political strategy across the region, what are its constituent parts? Regardless of where it is based, it does seem accurate to talk of a Latin American Right. On one hand it shares a commitment to its previous 1980s-90s incarnation through continuing support for liberal economic and socially conservative positions (e.g. being against abortion and freely available contraception). On the other hand it differs from that version by being inclined to maintain many of the social programmes of the Left, particularly the cash conditional transfers paid to families to send their children to school or to feed them. The reasons for doing so not only include the support that governments gain as a result, but that such programmes are cheap, at around 1% of GDP. In addition, their foreign policy, especially in relation to the US, is likely to be similar to that of social democratic governments by being both nationalist and independent. In part this is due to changes in Washington as well, following the more confrontational Bush by the relatively enigmatic Obama.

This then, would seem to the parameters of a Piñeira government: it would not mean a return to the unrestrained capitalism of the 1980s, but rather a development or reimagining of the Concertación model of the 1990s and 2000s. In other words, just as the Concertación inherited the structure of the military regime and adapted it, so would Chile’s first right-wing president since 1989 face a similar situation.

(Posted here since I don't expect anyone to take it up in the Chilean newspapers this week)

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The viva: a year on
In a couple of days' time it will have been a year since my PhD viva.  How much have things changed since then!  My new year goals for 2009 effectively ended after that date (OK, a few days later, when I finished making the revisions that needed doing), since I hadn't made any plans beyond completing the PhD (so really the viva should count as a 2008 holdover...).

In the absence of any other plans, I quickly had to make some new ones (I started 2008 with the aim of finishing my PhD and 2007 with being well on the way to completing the research for it - and 2006 with just getting through the upgrade...).  Consequently, I reoriented myself and for the rest of the year I directed myself to applying for jobs (academic and otherwise), initially in the full glow and flush of a job well done and self-confidence.  Increasingly though, that confidence took a battering, to the point that by mid-2009 I wasn't sure I'd accompolished much.

A few months later, the situation was even more grim.  From September I had entered into the second (academic) year of applying for post-docs and teaching positions.  And as with the period around submitting and finishing my PhD, I had no success.  In fact, even less than last year: at least I was asked for additional materials and managed one or two phone interviews last January.  This year I've heard nothing or had rejections, including from post-docs.

This should be a source for concern, but I'm becoming increasingly reconciled to my fate.  Getting an academic job - even a post-doc - at the best of times is difficult.  And in the current climate even more so.  I've mentioned to a few people that I'm contemplating pulling out of the process altogether and benn told to give it time, that things will pick up.  Be that as it may, this was before the government's announcement before Christmas that it would be reducing funding for higher education.  This won't mean job losses but there will probably be a hold on hiring into the future - by which time I'll be several years down the line and competing with other new PhDs.

And the situation in the US isn't any better, as this article shows (it's about humanities I think it's as relevant for social sciences as well).  Couldn't have said it better, although he's clearly got many more years' experience of the market than I do.

Which explains my thinking for this year: last year I was caught out by finishing my goals in the first week of January.  This year I have a few ideas in the pipeline - and they do not involve academia.  I therefore hope in 12 months' time to be feeling a lot more satisfied - and have achieved something - than I did a few days ago.
New Year resolutions

Ok, so I'm a few days late, but things haven't changed that much!  So here goes:

1. stop worrying about finding a job (that was 2009)

2. do things that I want to do, even if they're not going to lead directly to anything (I have a couple of things lined up for the first half of the year)

3. come up with some resolutions for the second half of the year (some time over the next few months would be useful - we'll revisit this topic in the future)

4. give up on any hang-ups from last year, like...

5. stop worrying about finding a job (!)