Weekly Briefing

Pakistan: coalition
Increasing corruption and inflation are behind the latest party withdrawals from Pakistan's coalition government. The Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) is the second-largest party in the alliance; the departure of its two ministers from the federal cabinet follows the complete withdrawal of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam a few weeks earlier. If MQM left the coalition entirely it would destroy the government's majority.

As the Taliban continue to make their presence felt in the north-west, killing 43 in a recent suicide bombing, the government is struggling to keep Pakistan's economy afloat. An IMF loan of £7bn was approved last May, but with reforms demanded in return for the next tranche of money, the government must find a solution to its political woes if it is to overcome its economic difficulties.

Côte d'Ivoire: violence
“Did the Ivorians elect me or not? That's the only question," insisted Laurent Gbagbo. Numerous international bodies would no doubt agree. The consensus is that Ivorians did not, and the refusal of the incumbent president to step down has led to violent tension. Nearly 200 people have been killed, 14,000 have fled to Liberia and thousands more are expected to become refugees, too.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga of Kenya has been asked to act as mediator, and has said he will try to convince Gbagbo - who has often spoken out in support of democracy - that "the time has come to lead by example". But Gbagbo's claims that he is the victim of a western plot suggest trouble will continue to escalate.

Switzerland: bonuses
In 2008 - not generally considered the global banking industry's finest year - US banks awarded nearly 5,000 $1m-plus bonuses. New rules proposed by the Swiss-based Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, a regulatory panel representing the US, UK and 25 other countries, might not bring that figure down, but are intended at least to "allow market participants to assess the quality of . . . compensation practices and the incentives towards risk-taking they support". Banks would have to disclose the number and sizes of bonuses, and how these relate to performance.
Sceptics doubt that the increased demands for transparency will make the slightest difference; in addition, new EU regulations capping bonuses are already stricter. But the committee insists that "greater specificity" will help guard against longer-term risk.

Bolivia: strikes
“The government and the president will never ignore the workers," announced Evo Morales on 27 December - not an unusual sentiment for the president, but one not often associated with huge commodity price hikes. The state is ending its petrol and diesel subsidies - which cost £250m in 2010 - arguing that, as profits from Bolivian oil are mostly made abroad, the subsidies are "an open vein of Bolivians that nourishes foreign interests". The change will cause domestic petrol prices to rise by 70 per cent.

Transport workers have started an indefinite strike and economists warn that rising transport prices will push up the cost of other goods.

US: bigger genes
If after the festive season you're feeling a little better insulated than usual, don't worry. Thanks to researchers at the University of Massachusetts, we can now shift yet more blame on to biological inheritance. Scientists have found that mice whose fathers had low-protein diets metabolised some foods more slowly than their counterparts - in effect hoarding the calories that their parents were starved of.

“There are many ways our parents can 'tell' us things," mused one of the researchers. As Philip Larkin might have put it: they fatten you up, your mum and dad . . .

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza

The Alternative
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"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.