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Friday, 26 June 2009

26 June 2009

Suppose you could choose: which would you prefer? Money scandals, or sex scandals?

You can have both, of course, and if you put money and sex together, you can create an exceedingly potent brew.

Which brings me to Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister of Italy and shortly to be the host of a G8 summit. He is a man determined to make the most of his moment in the global media spotlight, but who finds himself currently embroiled in lurid tales of, yes, you guessed, sex and money.

There are snatched pictures of parties in his private villa, attended by half-dressed young women and an apparently totally undressed former Czech Prime Minister. There are allegations that someone paid young women to attend his parties. And, most damaging, there is a specific allegation that he spent a night with one of those women, who is now happy to tell all.

She apparently has video recordings made in his bedroom, which she has described in some detail. Mr Berlusconi himself denies any impropriety, says he has never had to pay for sex, and alleges that the young woman at the centre of the allegations has been paid to create trouble for him.

In Britain, we’ve been obsessed with MPs’ duck houses, moat cleaners and house flipping. (Oh yes, and now, there are the curtailed family holidays, gifts of Krug champagne and celebration dinners claimed by top BBC executives.) In Italy, the talk is of a 72-year-old Prime Minister, whose wife is divorcing him, and who’s at the centre of a steamy story that makes him sound like an Italian version of Hugh “Playboy” Hefner.

I lived in Italy for a time, and I like to think of it as my second home (not literally, I don’t actually have a second home). I reported on Silvio Berlusconi’s first election victory in 1994, and again on his most recent victory last year. I admire a great deal about the country, yet I confess I am puzzled both by him and by Italian voters’ reaction to him.

He is hugely rich, controls a vast media empire, has seen off countless attempts to prosecute him for corruption, and is the most successful politician Italy has known in modern times. He is brash, unapologetic, and treats women as if he had never heard of the word “equality”. So why is he apparently still so popular?

A friend who has lived in Italy for much longer than she cares to remember wrote recently: “Most Italians wouldn't recognise an ethical principle if they tripped over it.” Another commentator, Edmondo Berselli, talks of the country’s “moral amnesia”.

But suppose, just for the sake of argument, that Mr Berlusconi did have sex with a prostitute. Would that automatically make him unfit for office? Would it make a difference if he didn’t pay? Or if she wasn’t a prostitute?

Would his moral culpability be greater or less than that of a politician who avoided taxes or fraudulently inflated his expenses claims? Or of a head of state who had consensual extra-marital sex in his place of work? Or of a Prime Minister (British) who earlier in his career had a four-year extra-marital affair with another MP who went on to become a government minister?

The Italian equivalent of the chattering classes are horrified by Mr Berlusconi, but he still seems to do well enough at election times. Many Italian voters seem to take a similar attitude to the one I found when I asked American voters what they thought of President Clinton at the height of the Monica Lewinsky saga. “He’s a man, ain’t he?”

But Mr Berlusconi does need to keep an eye on what his political allies are saying. The Catholic church does not like this kind of thing being widely written about in public, and there are signs that some of his coalition allies are also beginning to feel queasy.

The Prime Minister has never hidden his love of money, or of attractive young women. What he is now discovering is that in politics, when you put them together, you risk an explosion.

I shall be in Mexico next week, to report from a country hit by a triple whammy of economic crisis, spiralling drug-war violence and swine flu. Listen out for my reports on Thursday and Friday.

Friday, 19 June 2009

19 June 2009

You’ve seen the vast crowds, you’ve heard the angry chants. But do you have any idea what Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is up to?

Iran’s political crisis remains on a knife-edge, a week after a presidential election that plunged the country into its deepest turmoil since the revolution 30 years ago. And a great deal depends on how it all ends.

Which is why I would so dearly like to know what Mr Rafsanjani is up to. (You’d easily recognise him: he’s the one major Iranian political leader who doesn’t have a beard. And if you’ve ever seen the picture of me at the top of our website or my blog, you’ll understand why I notice these things.)

Hashemi Rafsanjani is widely regarded as the second most powerful man in the country, after the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And to many analysts, the titanic struggle now under way on the streets of Tehran and many other major cities is not so much between supporters of the two rival presidential candidates, but a much more significant battle between Khamenei and Rafsanjani.

Here’s what you need to know about him. He was President from 1989 to 1997, ran again in 2005, but was defeated by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ayatollah Khamenei made no secret of his preference for Rafsanjani’s rival, so there’s what you might call a history between them.

Now, however, Rafsanjani holds two immensely powerful positions at the heart of Iranian politics: he’s chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to appoint and dismiss the Supreme Leader, and he’s chairman of the Expediency Council, which arbitrates between the parliament and the Council of Guardians, which approves all political candidates and is meant to ensure that the country’s constitution is respected. (He’s also very rich, with extensive business interests, which has led many critics to accuse him of corruption.)

He has a reputation as a consummate wheeler-dealer, and was a key influence behind the scenes during the campaign of the reformist presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi. For years, whenever a political crisis has loomed, Iranians have asked: What is Rafsanjani up to now?

Well, whatever he’s been up to over the past week, he’s been keeping very quiet about it. As far as I know, there hasn’t been a single public word from him since the election results were declared.

If the hope of the conservative elite was that the protests would die down after a few days, it looks as if they may have been wrong. I’m told that during yesterday’s silent protests, it took the marchers two hours walking 15-abreast to pass by … one estimate was that there were 750,000 people out on the streets of Tehran alone.

With every passing day, the pro-Mousavi protesters seem to be gaining in confidence. They know from the pictures they pass on to each other on the internet and on their mobile phones that they are far from alone. And they know from the uncertain response from the authorities that the power structure is confused.

Take a look at a map: on one side of Iran is Iraq, and on the other is Afghanistan. In both those countries, as well as in Lebanon, Syria and Israel, and further afield, governments are waiting anxiously to see what happens next in Tehran.

The irony is that the presidential challenger, Mr Mousavi, is no radical – far from it, in fact: he was until very recently a fully paid-up member of the ruling conservative elite. But now he has been cast into the role of opposition leader, a role he seems to have adopted, to the surprise of many, with some alacrity.

Nevertheless, I’m still waiting for the next move by the man they call “the shark”, Hashemi Rafsanjani. If he decides openly to challenge Ayatollah Khamenei, then, to use a phrase quite unfitting for a Muslim nation, all bets are off. And many Iranian analysts fear that this crisis could become a lot more serious before it’s over.

Friday, 12 June 2009

12 June 2009

Do you think it might be time to start being nice to Zimbabwe again?

Yes, President Mugabe is still in power. And yes, as you’ll know if you’ve heard any of Mike Thomson’s reports on the Today programme this week, the place is still in an appalling mess.

But Morgan Tsvangirai, opposition leader turned Prime Minister, is currently on a six-nation tour trying to drum up some financial support for a government which, on paper at least, he now leads. He’s meeting President Obama today; he’ll be in London next week – and his message is simple enough: if you don’t help out my government now, it’ll collapse, and the alternative, in his words, “is too ghastly to contemplate”.

But here’s the problem: Western governments aren’t yet convinced that Mr Tsvangirai is really the man in charge. President Mugabe retains control of security, his cronies are still where they were – and crucially, the much-criticised governor of the central bank, Gideon Gono, is still in place.

Western governments want to make sure that if they do start handing over cash again, it won’t be siphoned off into sundry off-shore bank accounts. It might be possible to transfer money directly to, for example, the Health Ministry, which is controlled by Mr Tsvangirai’s MDC – but the risk is that that would free up other cash to be misused elsewhere.

Not a big risk, according to Teddy Brett of the Institute of Development Studies at the LSE, whom we spoke to on Wednsday’s programme – simply because nothing is currently being spent on health. Another option would be for donor governments to channel more cash through the international relief agencies. But Mr Tsvangirai isn’t keen on that because he wants to be able to show Zimbabwean voters that the MDC in government can make a difference.

The scale of suffering in Zimbabwe defies the imagination. It was once a model for sub-Saharan Africa; it is now a basket case. Millions of Zimbabweans have fled into neighbouring countries, mainly South Africa, to find work and food. No one denies that its people desperately need to be helped.

But the current position in Washington and the EU is that the unity government must do more to convince the outside world that it isn’t just a fig-leaf to cover the continuing brutality of President Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. Mike Thomson’s interview with a senior MDC minister who says she and her colleagues still get daily phone calls threatening assassination is a stark reminder of political reality.

Bolstering just one party in a fragile coalition government is tricky, but that’s what donor nations seem to want to do. If Mr Tsvangirai can go back to Harare and tell his colleagues: “We’ll get more help, but only if ZANU-PF backs off”, then maybe there’s a chance of progress.

But if he goes home with the message: “I failed; I’ve come back empty-handed”, the MDC will look to its supporters as if it has failed in the one thing it promised them … the chance of a better life.

Friday, 5 June 2009

5 June 2009

GDANSK, POLAND -- There are some weeks when I’m not sure what to write to you about, because nothing very interesting seems to have happened.

This is not one of those weeks.

President Obama’s speech in Cairo about relations between the US and the Muslim world? Fascinating and significant, certainly worth a newsletter.

Events in Westminster, the apparent public disintegration of the government? Not without interest.

The 20th anniversary of the beginning of the end of Communism in Europe, the reason I’m here in Poland? Definitely worth reflecting upon.

As, of course, is the 20th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, when Communist leaders in Beijing refused to do what their Polish counterparts were doing: accept that it was time to look for a new political model.

I’ll leave the Obama speech for another day ... but it did seem to me, having read the text of it, that there was plenty there to encourage the hope that Washington is ready to try a new approach.

As for Westminster, events are now moving so fast that between the time I write these words in my Gdansk hotel room and they reach your inbox, who knows what’ll have happened? (If you heard the programme last night, you’ll appreciate how quickly we sometimes have to adapt to new developments.)

So here are just a couple of thoughts about Poland and China. Why did 4 June 1989 mark the end of Communism here in Poland but not in China? Well, for one thing, the Polish democracy movement had been fighting for nearly a decade by the time the end finally came … remember, the Solidarity independent trade union movement had been established back in 1980, and had survived both the imposition of martial law and the imprisonment of its leaders.

In China, on the other hand, the protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere lasted barely seven weeks. True, there had been a fledgling pro-democracy movement, but with nothing like the depth of support that Solidarity had been able to build on in Poland.

And if you believe in the power of individuals to change history, reflect on the roles of two men: Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope, Karol Wojtyla, and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov. Here in Poland, the influence of both was enormous. (Even today, in a survey asking Poles who was the most influential man of recent times, the Pope came top.) The Pope came to Poland in 1979 and told Poles they need not be afraid and that they had the power to change their homeland.

Mikhail Gorbachov told them that it was up to them how they chose to be governed, in other words that there would be no Soviet tanks rolling through their streets, as there had been in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. And in China too, his pro-reform stance encouraged pro-democracy campaigners to believe that, as in the Soviet Union, it was possible for a Communist party to adapt.

In some ways, it already seems a long time ago. Walk through the streets of Warsaw or Gdansk, and it’s hard to imagine that just two decades ago, this country was “behind the Iron Curtain” (what a strange sound those words have now!).

But I remember those days so clearly, going on air night after night, reporting the end of Communist rule first here in Poland, then in Hungary, and East Germany, and Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria and Romania. No more Iron Curtain, no more Berlin Wall.

I’ll write about Gordon Brown another day.