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France: Sarkozy, une stratégie électorale a la Bush 2004

October 27, 2011 7 comments

Sarkozy channeling G. W. Bush and taking a page from his 2004 playbook

The campaign for the 2012 French presidential election will be officially launched this evening during the hour-long interview of Nicolas Sarkozy on France2 and TF1.  During this intervention, the incumbent president will present the main theme of his campaign, which will be articulated as follows: “I am the president; I brought Europe back from the edge of the cliff; don’t you gamble with the future of France by changing an experienced and tough leader for a novice and inexperienced socialist candidate like François Hollande.”  Yes, you read it right. That’s Sarkozy’s strategy. It is actually the only strategy that might give an edge to Sarkozy to win his reelection bid.

Of course, the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy, will not say this word for word, but this will be the base upon which he will build his reelection campaign. However, this theme is hardly new. It reminds me of the 2004 successful reelection campaign of G.W. Bush, which limited the choice before the voters to a binary one: a safe choice versus a risky one. During that campaign, Bush’s strategy was to run as the experienced, battle-hardened, steady-handed leader and the captain who navigated the treacherous waters and brought Ship America to a safe harbor in these dire times. More importantly, he  attacked mercilessly and painted emphatically his opponent, Senator John Kerry (D), as an undecided, flip-flopper man who cannot be trusted to lead America in these trouble times.  In one sentence, Bush’s campaign reelection strategy was: we don’t change a rider in the middle of the race and we don’t change a leader in the middle of a war. For this strategy to work, one needs and must destroy the credibility and the strongest assets of his opponent and run as far as away possible from his own record.

So, why was Bush successful in using this strategy? Could it have been beaten? And what can François Hollande learn from Bush v. Kerry 2004 to counter-attack Sarkozy’s reelection strategy successfully?

It is useless to recount the entire 2004 presidential campaign, but it is useful to highlight a few strategic and fatal errors that Kerry’s camp made during that campaign. First, Kerry ran a very successful primary campaign, in which he presented himself as a powerful trustworthy center-left candidate. However, after the primaries were over and during the doldrums of summer 2004, the Kerry campaign was caught flat-footed. It lacked a strategy for the general election; it lacked a powerful spokesman; it lacked a clear and concise message, and was basically absent from the air during the whole summer. From the time of the last primary election to the time of the democratic convention, the field was wide open for the Bush campaign. It is during that time that the Bush team decided to work on candidate Kerry. Body punch after body punch, they effectively left him for dead by August.

They painted and depicted Kerry as weak on national security, untrustworthy, a liar, and a flip-flopper. The Bush campaign attacked Kerry’s strongest assets. After all, Kerry volunteered to go to Vietnam and did two tours, earned several medals for his courage and bravery on the battlefield, was injured, and so forth. How can they attack him on that front while Bush is a draft-dodger you may ask? This is exactly why this strategy was successful. By destroying your opponent’s strongest assets, you basically destroy him entirely. Moreover, all of Kerry’s assets of bravery, war record and senatorial leadership were not really well-known by most Americans. Kerry was still the Democratic candidate and known only to the base of his party. For most, he was an obscure senator from Massachusetts. He had not yet been introduced to most voters at the time. That was supposed to be done during the summer, reinforced during the convention, and amplified during the general election. Nevertheless, before Kerry even opened his mouth, he had already been negatively framed by the Bush campaign. Moreover, at a very critical time of the campaign when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth folks attacked Kerry’s war record, he did not respond in a timely manner. His campaign for some reasons (that I still don’t understand) rolled-over and played dead for a couple of weeks during which the Swift Boat folks called Kerry a liar and a coward and ran negative ad after negative ad in key battleground states. They attacked the candidate’s credibility and manhood without any answer from the candidate himself. That image of a weak liar not-so credible and untrustworthy man dominated any other frame presented by the Kerry campaign.  When the democratic candidate campaign decided to react and counter-attach, it was already too late, and the more Kerry fought that frame, the more he appeared to reinforce it. The harm was done and Kerry was dead in the water.

By destroying Kerry’s strongest assets, Bush was able to have a fairly empty field and frame his candidacy in the terms that suited him the most. Since Bush couldn’t run on any domestic economic or social accomplishments (anemic economic growth, poor job creation record, controversial education reforms, and so on), he chose to run on foreign policy, strong leadership, national unity, and security. He was successful in doing so because he almost ran unopposed on these themes since his opponent’s credibility had been rendered questionable to say the least.

This is exactly what Sarkozy will do during the up coming months. This is exactly what Sarkozy’s reelection campaign strategy will look like. He cannot run on domestic issues. He has one of the worst record in job creation of the fifth republic; he has introduced highly controversial reforms that have not yielded any results (social security reform, retirement reform, education and so forth); he has a poor record on immigration control; he has a poor record on the economy and economic growth; and he has a poor record on security. During his tenure, deficit spending went through the roof and the overall charge of the national debt has tremendously increased. So what else out there is left to run on? In two words: Leadership, and national unity.

Tonight on France2 and TF1, Sarkozy will “re-introduce” himself to the French voters as the “decider”. He will paint himself as this strong leader who does not shy away form or hesitate in making tough decisions to protect France even if he has to put his political capital in jeopardy. He will try to put himself above the day-to-day petty politics and partisan squabbling because he is looking for the interest of the nation. He will probably claim that he saved the euro from a total collapse and resolved the crisis of the European debt by himself. Basically, he is the French Superman. In doing so, the subliminal message is that his opponent, François  Hollande, is not tough, does not have what it takes to be a leader in these very trouble times, and cannot be trusted with the future of France.

Can Sarkozy get away with it? Can this strategy be successful? Yes, absolutely it can be successful if the Socialist Party and François Hollande roll-over and play dead. This is the time for the PS and for Hollande to go on the offensive. He cannot afford to play defense on the theme of leadership. As the old saying goes, offense is the best defense; this saying is truer in politics than in sports. If Hollande allowed Sarkozy to capture the debate and dictate the tempo and the themes upon which the campaign would be fought, the socialist candidate would lose. Period. There is no doubt about this.  Moreover, if Hollande let’s Sarkozy frame him as a weak, divisive, and an untrustworthy leader, Hollande would lose. Electoral politics is mostly a game of perception and expectation, and if you let the voters see you as weak, you might as well pack up and go home.

So, the ball now is in the PS’ and François Hollande’s court. They need to sharpen their attacks, raise doubt and poke holes in Sarkozy’s presentation/argument as the savor of the euro and as the figure that units France in these dire times. Hollande needs and must remind the French voters that Sarkozy is extremely liberal who favors banks and financial lobbies above people’s job security and welfare, and attack his leadership qualities as chaotic and divisive. The French voters already think that Sarkozy has a catastrophic leadership style. He is extremely unpopular already. For the last 3 years, every poll confirmed that a majority of French voters disapprove of Sarkozy’s leadership style, his policies, and even dislike him as a person. So, as the psychologists would say, the voters have been primed and all they need is a frame. That is Hollande’s job–i.e., to frame Sarkozy for the voters.

Basically, Sarkozy has nothing to lose here. He will attack like a mad dog on crack. Therefore, Hollande needs  to attack first and harmer the theme of failed policies and poor leadership skills repeatedly until he negates any gains that Sarkozy might make over the next two weeks.  The strategy for Hollande is very simple really: force Sarkozy to run on his record and not away from it. If he does that successfully, the presidency is his. Otherwise, 5 more years of Sarkozy.

Les Elections en Tunisie: Un petit pas pour le pays, mais un bond de géant pour le monde arabe/musulman

October 25, 2011 17 comments

TUNISIA: One small step for Tunisia, one giant leap for the Arab/Muslim world

Tunisians went to the polls this last Sunday, and voted massively in the first free and fair democratic election in the history of the country. The participation in the election of a constituent assembly was beyond everyone’s expectation. In a country of about 10.6 million inhabitants and 4.5 million registered voters, the turnout flirted with the high 80%, low 90%.  Approximately, 8 out of 10 registered voters cast a ballot on Sunday. This tendency was observed in almost every region and in every socio-economic class. In spite of this large number of voters, there were no major incidents worth mentioning, and the campaign was declared clean, fair and lively by the 7472 election observers (among them 533 foreigners and 15 international organizations). Briefly stated, Tunisia’s first democratic election was a stunning success.

The early results also confirm the tendencies that we observed during the campaign. The moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, is positioned to win a little more than 40% of the seats in the constituent assembly, followed by the Congress for the Republic Party (CPR) and The Justice and Development Party (JDP) with about 15% of the seats respectively, and Ettakatol Party in the fourth position with about 7% of the seats (for more results, check the electoral commission website, and the website of Tunis-etudes).

These are, of course, early results, and the electoral commission has not yet validated them since the tallying of all the votes has not finished yet.

However, even with these partial results, what do we usually look for? Well, there are a few things: 1) early political, cultural and social-economic cleavages; 2) assessment of the political power of each political formation;  and 3) the beginning of the bargaining process between the different parties, which would set a powerful example for the next election in Egypt and all the Arab/Muslim world.

When we observe the electoral map and crosscheck it with the partial results, we can deduct (though this is a very early deduction) that Ennahda party won a plurality of the votes in urban and rural centers. It is a party whose political base is widespread across the Tunisian territory. The same observation could be made about the CPR, though it is not as strongly implanted in the rural areas as in the urban ones. As for the Ettakatol and JDP, these are mainly urban parties. It is worth mentioning that these are early partial results and it is likely that the electoral map could evolve and show another pattern when tallying is finished.

The second observation is that a somehow clear political cleavage seems to be taking shape. On one side of the ideological political spectrum, we have a moderate Islamist party, and on the other we have two center-left parties (Ettakatol and CPR). The development of this cleavage is very interesting. It is almost the same ideological makeup that was approximately observed in the 1992 Algerian’s legislative elections. Would this cleavage last and endure? Nobody can now for sure affirm that. However, what we can say now is because no political party has obtained a majority of the seats in the constituents assembly, Ennahda will have to bargain and negotiate with CPR and Ettakatol to form a coalition government. Of course, Ennahda could always seek to form a coalition government with smaller political formations (promising them large governmental portfolios for example), which would be a harbinger of a costly and destabilizing political struggle between the Islamists and everyone else. However, we can rest assured that that scenario will not happen. How do we know that? Well, already the leaders of the Ennahda party have strongly signaled that they would favor a coalition government with the center-left parties citing Marzouki’s party, and the leftwing secularist Ettakatol party as possible coalition partners. Moreover, Abdelhamid Jlazzi, Ennahda campaign manager and spokesman, aiming at reassuring Tunisians and foreign observers, declared to Reuters News that “there will be no rupture. There will be continuity because we came to power via democracy, not through tanks… We suffered from dictatorship and repression and now is an historic opportunity to savor the taste of freedom and democracy.” What he meant to say is, “don’t panic. Don’t freak out. We are not going to force women to wear al-hijab and men to pray or ban alcohol tomorrow morning.” Ennahda is signaling that they will not be a drastically reshaping of the Tunisian social fabric.

In sum, it looks like Tunisia is headed for a broad coalition government composed of the Islamists and center-left parties. The presence of center-left parties would have a moderating effect on the already moderate Islamist party. It would also set an example for the rest of the Arab world (Egypt and probably Libya) on how the post-electoral bargaining game is necessary and beneficial for everyone if it is played right. Moreover, during the campaign, the leaders of Ennahda stated, several times, that the Turkish model is the most appropriate model for Tunisia—i.e., the Ennahda would probably be a pro-market economy party with a light touch of Islamic conservatism. It is unlikely that the Ennahda would enforce a morality code or use a Shar’ia as the main source of law. From what we have seen during the campaign and the multiple declarations post-election, the Ennahda is a vote-maximizing party, which seeks to reinforce and enlarge its political base. To do that, the Islamists would probably focus on economic prosperity first and foremost. Of course, every political strategy has its negative side—i.e., if Ennahda focuses mostly on economic issues and downplays morality issues, it would turnoff its hardcore constituents. This is the calculus that the Ennahda seems to favor since it seems to be moving to occupy the middle of the political spectrum, to capture more voters, and position itself for a bigger win in the next election.

Furthermore, the leaders of Ennahda are not stupid. They know very well that leading the country after a revolution is a risky business. The likelihood of failure—economic failure with high inflation and anemic growth, social unrest, shifting coalition and allegiances, electoral volatility, huge and unrealistic expectations, and so forth—is extremely high and very real. Thus, the leaders of Ennahda purposely chose to share the likelihood of failure with the second and third winner of the election, which would minimize a future electoral backlash.

Finally, it is very important for the Arab/Muslim world that Tunisia’s first election succeeds. Tunisia was the first Arab country to topple its autocrat and show the way to salvation to the rest of the Arabs/Muslims. Everyone else in Egypt, Libya, Algeria and many other countries of the region is carefully observing how Tunisia is negotiating this transition. Don’t get me wrong, transitions are extremely hard and failure is more likely than success. But Tunisia cannot fail and must succeed for the sake of every Arab/Muslim. The Tunisian example of how Ennhada behaves itself, engages in post-electoral bargaining with other political parties, sets its political priorities, and leads and governs collectively would surely be followed and very influential in Egypt and in all Arab/Muslim countries. To borrow from Neil Armstrong, what Tunisia did this last Sunday was to take one small step for itself, but one giant leap for the Arab/Muslim world.

Kadhafi est mort! Maintenant, que faisons-nous?

October 20, 2011 15 comments

Kadhafi is Dead! Now, what do we do?

Kadhafi is dead. He was killed this morning. The condition(s) and the manner(s) of his death are not important to me. What is important, however, is that he is no longer a rallying figure to the most extreme fringes and elements that chose to fight and squash the will of the Libyan people to live without tyranny.  His real capacity for nuisance was relatively low since the overwhelming majority of the Libyan territory was under the control of the TNC. His violent counter-revolution was finished the day Tripoli rose up and liberated itself from his sadistic grip. We noticed that day that the “dear leader” wasn’t even in control of his own backyard. The good people of the capital, his political base for decades, had only contempt and hatred for him. I go even further and argue that Kadhafi was finished politically and his faith was sealed the day he chose to ignore the legitimate grievances of his people for greater freedoms and decent living. Instead, he let his egomaniac personality dictate his actions. In one rambling speech after the other, he called the Libyan people who dared to challenge the psychopathic rule  of “A-Za’iime” rats, terrorists, drug addicts, Zionists, and traitors.  “Let us exterminate them; chase them and hunt them house by house, street by street,” said the defunct “Za’iime.”  With speeches like these, the Libyan people didn’t have the choice anymore. They had to unit; they had to fight to the bitter end; they had to kill or get killed. Briefly, they had to remove him from power with whatever means necessary; and removing him, they did.

So what now? Kadhafi is dead, and he left behind him a divided country; a country that is economically very fragile (a classic rentier state); a country that is poorly institutionalized because Kadhafi feared that institutionalization would lead to his removal from power. So the dear leader never bothered to build or reinforce any institution. Everything was done informally, through clientelistic and patronage networks. Even the military was not institutionalized with a clear chain of command and an esprit de corps. Those who didn’t know the political structure of the Libyan regime (by the way, read Dirk Vanwalle’s excellent book Libya Since Independence: Oil and State-Building) were surprised by how disorganized, ineffective and divided the Libyan army was. Well, that is one of the symptoms of a poorly institutionalized country. The dear leader distributed or redistributed oil windfalls between the different Libyan tribes to keep them divided, weak, and in a perpetual paranoid state of conflict. Libya, for all intents and purposes, does not meet the definition of a modern, rational state (as Weber defines it, if you wish to use that definition). Therefore, the task before the TNC and the future leaders of Libya is pharaonic, but it is not an impossible one. There are clear steps (and i agree with Juan Cole’s assessment here) that must be taken to set good foundations for the future state of Libya.

  1. Disarmament and rehabilitation of all the rebels (those who wish to join the military could do so);
  2. Restructuring and rebuilding the military (to avoid possible disbandment of the military) as well as law enforcement organizations such as the police and court officials as fast as possible;
  3. One months of a martial law to guarantee a minimum of law and order and avoid anarchy;
  4. Setting up ad-hoc tribunals supervised by the ICC to bring to justice the family/entourage of the defunct leader as well as dealing with and minimizing all extra-legal attempts for vengeance and personal vendetta;
  5. A well-thought out amnesty law whose aim is to forge a sense of national unity and identity, and chart a clear path for the future;
  6. International financial aid—the new interim Libya government needs to have access to substantial funds to avoid high inflation, and provide a minimum welfare for the citizens (reopening schools, universities, government institutions and bureaucracy, paying state workers and so forth);
  7. Organizing elections (in 6 or 9 months from now) for a constituent assembly whose main job is to craft a constitution for the country (a constitution that guarantees basic freedoms, and sets up the broad features of the state such as separation of powers, multiparty democracy and so forth), organize the first legislative elections, and oversee the activities of the interim government.

These few steps would minimize the chaotic environment, which accompany every violent revolution and drastic change of power.  If implemented, the future of Libya as a democratic state would be a bit more certain.

The Libyans need to know and must be aware that while removing Kadhafi was a hard task and a great achievement, rebuilding the country will be a tremendously tougher task.

In many ways, the Libyans have won the battle for the liberation of the country; they have won the smaller revolution. Now, it is only through hard work and dedication that the greater revolution can be won, the revolution for the rebuilding of Libya. This effort will be long and frustrating. There will be many setbacks and even serious regressions. Nevertheless, just know, that democracy isn’t easy; it is a constant struggle for self-betterment. And every step taken in the right direction is a step taken for the betterment of Libya.

Steve Jobs, a genius.

October 6, 2011 5 comments

Today, at the age of 56, the co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, died. In these moments, we are tempted to try to summarize the work and the life of a guy like Steve Jobs with clever phrases and a few paragraphs to condense and highlight his impact on his field of predilection. This is an impossible task when it comes to eulogize Steve Jobs. The man was a genius whose vision literally impacted our lives on a daily basis. And not only did his vision change technology, it also changed profoundly our culture.

Yes, Steve Jobs ushered in the era of personal computers. Yes, Steve Jobs had a great financial success with the Macintosh line; the first computer to move from text-only commands to a graphical user interface. That, by itself, is a revolution.

Yes, Steve Jobs had also a great technological success with the Apple operating systems.

But the man is bigger, tremendously bigger, than these tangible and maybe forgettable accomplishments.

Steve Jobs changed our lives and our culture forever.

Steve Jobs changed forever how we buy, store, and listen to music. If you love music and listening to it, you probably use iTunes to buy it, store it, and listen to it. You probably use an iPod to carry it with you and listen to it. You probably plug your iPod or iPhone in  your car and enjoy your ride listening to your favorite musicians. Before Steve Jobs envisioned this dream-like state of  music fully integrated into our lives and permanently surrounding our senses and taking it with us everywhere we go, this was just a dream, something unachievable, something out of a science fiction movie. Steve Jobs took that dream and with the force of a visionary genius rendered it real.

The guy also radically changed how we use a cellular phone. He actually redefined the word cellular phone. Suddenly, we are no longer holding in our hands a cold lifeless piece of plastic and metals. A phone in Steve Jobs’ vision does more than dialing numbers. It becomes a mini interactive computer in which you plan your days, listen, buy and transport music, buy and watch movies, read newspapers and books, keep track of your favorite sports and teams, schedule your meetings, find your way around an unknown city, plan your diet and meals, buy a gift or flowers for your loved one even though you are stuck in an airport miles away from your home,  take pictures, make and edit movies, and on and on. By creating the platform of the iPhone, Jobs unleashed an unbelievably untapped reservoir of creativity. Literally, hundreds of small business were created in college dorms, teenagers’ bedrooms, and garages to write small and interactive software and feed the iPhone with highly useful and sometimes silly application.

A dozen of years before the iPhone, Steve Jobs did the same thing with the personal computer. As a friend of mine who bought an Apple computer (a MacBook) and used it for the first time after being for years on a steady diet of PCs told me, “I now see the light. Why have i not bought an Apple computer before?” It was like a religious conversion. You actually smile when you use an Apple computer. That by itself is therapeutic. Not only the MacBook line is cool, sexy, stylish, and user-friendly, it is also incredibly powerful and sturdy. You literally need to take  a hammer to the damn thing to break it. But that was not enough for Steve. His vision was to take that computer and make it as malleable as possible by introducing the iPad line. You don’t need to sit at a desk to use a computer anymore. You just have to have hands with opposable tums.

All of these creations (and many others that i am going to list) have changed our lives; they have changed our culture, worldwide.

The biological son of Abdulfattah Jandali, an Arab Muslim from Syrian, and a young American woman, Joanne Simpson, Steve Jobs was later on adopted by an American woman of Armenian heritage, Clara Hagopian and Paul Jobs. He grew up in the 60s in the Bay area, experimented with psychedelic drugs, embraced Buddhism, traveled the world, and let its cultures shape his persona and vision, which he used to reshape our culture and the world.  He was the best of what the 60s gave us, and he made sure to give it back to us.

Rest in peace Steve Jobs. You were really a true genius. 56 years of pure pleasure. It was an honor to have known you.

.…and also fuck Microsoft.

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