Weekly briefing

Critical Mass

The first anniversary of Barack Obama's election was a dark day for US Democrats. A day earlier, the Senate seat for Massachusetts, held by Ted Kennedy for 47 years, passed into Republican hands. Breaking the Democrats' 60-seat Senate majority, the loss is a serious blow: health-care reform, as well as efforts to tackle global warming and deal with the budget deficit, may suffer.

In "the bluest state", three times as many Democrats are registered as Republicans and Scott Brown's victory seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago. But anxiety over federal spending and opposition to the health-care bill, which Brown has pledged to vote against, seem to have swung the vote against Martha Coakley (who has been criticised for her line on health care and failure to use the Kennedy campaign "machine").

All may not be lost: health-care reform can still happen if the Democrats pass the bill as it stands, then a later "reconciliation bill" to iron out the details. Yet Coakley's failure does not augur well for the Democrats, who have 18 more seats to defend before Obama's next anniversary.

Climate cramp

By the end of January, more than 190 countries must decide whether to accept the Copenhagen climate change accord and detail their emissions pledges. The grand total to have made a decision so far is ten, one of whom, Cuba, rejected the deal.

The non-binding accord has been pilloried for its weakness, but nations are not rushing to sign up. Australia, France and the Maldives are among the few to commit so far. With any luck, there will shortly be a flurry of world leaders rushing to hand in their homework to the UN. But EU nations are divided among themselves and a recent report suggests that Australia, the biggest polluter to have signed up, has little hope of making even
5 per cent reductions. Before there is any hope of a legally binding agreement at the next round of talks in November, this accord's problems must be addressed.

Self-defence

Le Cong Dinh is a Vietnamese lawyer who represents some of the country's leading human rights and democracy activists. Now, he is accused of trying to overthrow the state. He may face the death penalty if found guilty of links to the banned Democratic Party of Vietnam and drafting a new constitution.

Vietnam claims to support free speech. Days before Dinh's arrest last June, President Nguyen Minh Triet spoke of Vietnam's support for progressive lawyers, criticising those who "trample democracy and human rights". The scores of dissidents imprisoned in 2009, however, suggest otherwise.

Changing Ukraine

Five years after the Orange Revolution, the front-runner in Ukraine's presidential race is the man whose fraudulent victory in 2004 triggered the unrest in the first place, Viktor Yanukovich. Facing a run-off in February, he is 10 points ahead of the prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Ideologically, the candidates are close: both call for closer ties with Russia as well as the EU. But the disastrous state of the country politically and economically has tainted Tymoshenko. Without a finance minister since February 2009, Ukraine's economy contracted by 15 per cent last year. It remains the most corrupt state in the region and Transparency International say only 10 per cent of Ukrainians feel enough is being done about the problem.

Now, less than a third of the population see democracy as a positive change. But in one way at least, they seem less disillusioned than British voters: turnout for the first round was 67 per cent.

Team players

Ghana's much-loved football team, the Black Stars, played their first game at the Africa Cup of Nations on 15 January. But the country's civil servants won't have been watching, or so the law decrees. In a productivity drive, President John Atta Mills has forbidden government staff from watching TV in working hours - which affects times when Ghana is playing. "An unfortunate coincidence," says the deputy information minister, Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, who points out: "Within working hours, we are supposed to be working." He insists the large TV in his office is never on during working hours