News & Current Affairs

September 8, 2008

Hong Kong democrats keep veto

Hong Kong democrats keep veto

Pro-democracy candidates Emily Lau of The Frontier Party celebrates

Pro-democracy candidate Emily Lau of Frontier Party celebrates

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp has won more than a third of seats in elections in the territory, and so retains a key veto over future major legislation.

The pro-democracy opposition won 23 out of the 30 elected seats in the Legislative Council.

The other 30 seats in the council are not directly elected, but allocated to special interest groups.

The Pro-Beijing camp had expected to make gains at the polls due to a surge of patriotism after the Olympics.

In fact, even some people on the pro-democracy side had been predicting that they would suffer heavy losses.

Some candidates issued statements on Sunday saying the situation was critical. Others were in tears, expecting to lose.

Analysts had believed pro-government parties would make significant gains after the surge in pro-China patriotism sparked by the Beijing Olympics and the Sichuan earthquake.

China had also promised the region some form of universal suffrage by 2017, blunting the democratic camp’s campaign.

Pro-business resignation

Leading figures such as Emily Lau, Audrey Eu and Leung Kwok-hung, also known as Longhair, each fought off stiff competition to keep their seat.

The pro-government party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, or DAB, has also done well, thanks to its strong organization.

And the pro-China independent Regina Ip won her seat.

But the pro-business Liberal party leader, James Tien lost his, and has resigned.

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September 4, 2008

Thai PM plans crisis referendum

Thai PM plans crisis referendum

Anti-government protesters react as they watch a TV report about Mr Samak's address

Protesters listened to Mr Samak’s address, hoping he would resign

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has announced plans to hold a national referendum in an effort to defuse the ongoing political crisis.

An exact date has not been decided, but a referendum can be held 30 days after being approved by the Senate.

In an earlier radio address, Mr Samak said he would not resign or bow to the demands of protesters who have been occupying his offices since last week.

A state of emergency has been in place in Bangkok since Tuesday.

The anti-government protesters – from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – say Mr Samak is merely a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and is now in exile.

‘Threat of anarchy’

“I am not resigning, I will not dissolve parliament. I have to protect the democracy of this country,” Mr Samak said in his radio address on Thursday morning.

He said he was a defender of democracy against a movement that threatened to bring “anarchy” to Thailand.

“The PAD is an illegal group who have seized the Government House and declared their victory. How can that be correct?” he said.

After his address, Mr Samak summoned his cabinet for an emergency meeting, and they agreed to hold a referendum to try to resolve the crisis.

BANGKOK PROTESTS
26 Aug: Protesters occupy government buildings, demand the government step down
27 Aug: Authorities issue arrest warrants for nine protest leaders
28 Aug: PM Samak promises no use of force against the protesters
29 Aug: Police try to evict protesters but pull back; crowds blockade two regional airports
30 Aug: PM Samak rules out resignation, following a meeting with Thailand’s king
31 Aug: Parliament meets for a special session on the protests
1 Sep: A late-night clash between pro- and anti-government groups leaves one person dead
2 Sep: PM Samak declares a state of emergency
3 Sept: Thai FM Tej Bunnag resigns

A government spokesman said the referendum could take place by early October if the Senate quickly endorsed a bill to organize the vote.

Culture Minister Somsak Kietsuranond said the referendum would ask a range of questions including whether the government should resign, whether it should dissolve parliament and what people think about the ongoing protests.

After hearing Mr Samak’s radio broadcast, one of the PAD’s leaders, Sondhi Limthongkul, told the French news agency AFP: “His speech only increased my confidence that what we are doing is not wrong. We will not go anywhere as long as he stays.”

The PAD has a passionate following in various parts of the country, especially Bangkok, and some powerful backers among the elite.

But it has little support in most of rural Thailand, which voted strongly for Mr Samak, and Mr Thaksin before him. Thai society remains deeply divided over the issue.

As the standoff has developed, some unions have begun supporting the protesters. However, a strike called by an umbrella group of 43 unions on Wednesday appeared to have failed – one piece of good news for the government.

But the prime minister’s attempt to contain the PAD protests with a state of emergency seem to have fallen flat.

The army has refused to exercise the extra powers he gave them, arguing that the conflict is a political one that cannot be solved by military intervention.


Are you in Thailand? Do you believe a referendum will diffuse the political crisis? Send us your comments

August 30, 2008

Energy-hungry Europe warms to Norway

Energy-hungry Europe warms to Norway

Amid frantic newspaper headlines about the possibility of a new Cold War, more and more governments around Europe are talking about their need for “energy security”.

What most of them actually mean is that they are not sure whether or not to trust the Russians.

A gas platform off the coast of Norway

Norway remains one of only two major fossil fuel exporters in Europe

There are only two big exporters of fossil fuels in Europe: Russia and Norway, so the choice – for countries without energy reserves of their own or fast depleting them – is limited.

And, undiplomatic as it is to admit it, the Norwegians stand to do very well out of the current political situation.

Officially, a healthy and productive competition exists between the two countries who share a border well above the Arctic Circle.

“We are also partners,” says Norway’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, “because both Russia and Norway have an interest in the development of the European oil and gas market.

“And we welcome them into the market, because the market will be bigger if there are several suppliers.”

Mr Stoltenberg was speaking at the opening of an international conference about offshore energy in Stavanger, southern Norway.

Transparency

And, alongside the reassurances to his Russian neighbours, he did hint at his country’s trump card, when asked why the rest of Europe should take Norway as its energy supplier of choice.

Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg

Norway offers a reliable energy supply and a stable democracy

“We are a reliable supplier. And we have proved that over many years. And we have a very transparent, open energy sector.”

The head of the conference, ONS Director Kjell Ursin-Smith, was prepared to go even further.

“The situation is very interesting for Norway, of course. We are looked upon as a stable nation, whereas Russia still has a tainted reputation in that respect. So I think we will try to prove that we are a stable producer of oil and gas for Europe.”

The proof of the UK’s commitment to Norway as a gas provider of the future is a massive new pipeline – the biggest engineering project of its kind in the world – known as Ormen Lange.

The pipeline, whose name means “giant serpent” in old Norse will stretch from the Norwegian North Sea fields to Easington on the East Yorkshire coast.

Further afield

Some 745 miles of steel tubing have been painstaking laid up and down the canyons of the seabed, designed to deliver about 20% of the UK’s domestic gas needs for the next 50 years. It came on stream late last year.

The Ukraine issue sent a shiver down the European energy spine and Georgia is a recent episode which will focus a lot of minds.
Malcolm Wicks, UK energy minister

The days when Britain could rely on its own reserves to be self-sufficient in oil and gas are long gone – with a current annual depletion rate of about 8% a year – so there is no choice but to look abroad.

Britain has always made a virtue of its lack of political interference in the energy market, preferring to make deciding on a supplier a matter of pure economics and stress the need for “diversity of supply”.

But things might be changing.

“We’re aware of what’s going on now”, says the UK Energy Minister, Malcolm Wicks.

He still stresses the need to source from more than one country, more than one route.

High stakes

But, he adds, referring to the incident in 2006 when Russia turned off gas supplies to its neighbor in order to force higher prices: “The Ukraine issue sent a shiver down the European energy spine and Georgia is a recent episode which will focus a lot of minds.

Map

“I think we have to be – how can I put it? – streetwise, when it comes to issues around energy security. Norway is a great partner to have. It’s a very sophisticated democracy with a great record when it comes to human rights. So the new pipeline is a good piece of democratic politics.”

The proportion of its energy western Europe has to import is likely to rise to about 70% in the coming decades, so the market is guaranteed and the stakes are high.

It remains to be seen whether the big two suppliers – Norway and Russia – will clash or co-operate when it comes to developing what is a potential El Dorado of the North – vast swathes of Arctic territory, largely in the Barents Sea, which new technology is opening up to oil and gas exploitation for the first time.

The disputes have already begun as to who owns what territory. Vast amounts of money are to be made.

Norway has known great wealth for nearly 40 years now, mostly thanks to its fossil fuel resources.

Russia, with an average per capita income still about a tenth the size of that of its tiny Scandinavian neighbor, has not.

And in these days of ‘new’ Russia rediscovering its confidence, reasserting its power in the world, observers of geo-politics can almost certainly expect fireworks.

August 19, 2008

Nato holds Georgia crisis summit

Nato holds Georgia crisis summit

Russian soldiers near Gori, Georgia, on 18 August 2008

Moscow insists that its troops have begun pulling back, as promised

Nato foreign ministers are gathering in Brussels for an emergency summit to discuss how the alliance should respond to Russia’s military action in Georgia.

On the eve of the meeting, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the West must deprive Russia of any strategic victory from its assault on Georgia.

But major differences remain among Nato members as to how far they should go in seeking to punish Russia, analysts say.

Tbilisi says Russia is not pulling out, as pledged, but Moscow denies it.

The conflict broke out on 7 August when Georgia launched an assault to wrest back control of the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia, triggering a counter-offensive by Russian troops who advanced beyond South Ossetia into Georgia’s heartland.

A ceasefire was signed at the weekend, with Moscow pledging to begin pulling back its troops on Monday, but correspondents say there has so far been little sign of any large-scale force withdrawal.

We hope the decisions by Nato will be balanced and that responsible forces in the West will give up the total cynicism that has been so evident [which] is pushing us back to the Cold War era
Dmitry Rogozin
Russia’s ambassador to Nato

Officials in Tbilisi said there was no evidence that Russian troops were leaving Georgian territory, but the Russian defence ministry said the redeployment had begun and would be complete within days.

As Nato’s 26 foreign ministers gather in Brussels, the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus says there is disagreement among the alliance as to how to respond, so the focus will be on where members can agree.

It is thought that in one camp, Britain, Canada, the US and most Eastern European member states will seek a tough stance on Russia, but most of Western Europe, led by France and Germany, is expected to be more cautious of harming ties with Moscow.

Flying to the Nato meeting, Ms Rice told reporters: “We have to deny Russian strategic objectives, which are clearly to undermine Georgia’s democracy, to use its military capability to damage and in some cases destroy Georgian infrastructure and to try and weaken the Georgian state.”

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Our correspondent says the summit, called at the Americans’ request, looks set to offer strong support to the government in Tbilisi, stressing Nato’s commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty.

A Nato spokeswoman told AFP news agency: “I think you can expect a strong message to Russia.”

The alliance is also expected to reiterate its backing for the agreement it reached in Romania back in April that Georgia will one day be offered membership of Nato, without setting any dates.

Nato is also expected to offer more humanitarian aid and proposals on how to rebuild Georgian infrastructure damaged in the conflict.

Our correspondent says Nato’s immediate diplomatic goals are a full Russian withdrawal, an enhanced observer force and, ultimately, a more neutral peacekeeping arrangement.

He says high-level contacts between Nato and Russia could be suspended if Russians do not pull back to the positions their peacekeepers occupied before the hostilities.

HAVE YOUR SAY
The sight of GWB [US President George Bush] complaining about Russia’s “disproportionate use of force” is hilarious

Max, London

Washington has denied claims from Moscow that it is out to wreck the Nato-Russia Council – a consultative panel set up in 2002 to improve ties between the former Cold War enemies.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to Nato, said on Monday he hoped the “decisions by Nato will be balanced and that responsible forces in the West will give up the total cynicism that has been so evident [which] is pushing us back to the Cold War era”, reported the Associated Press news agency.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili struck a conciliatory tone on Monday as he called for talks with Russia, saying: “Let’s resolve problems through civilized methods.”

Map of region

August 17, 2008

Musharraf ‘running out of time’

Musharraf ‘running out of time’

Anti-Musharraf protests in Multan, Pakistan (13 August)

Analysts say Musharraf’s best way out would seem to be a dignified exit

Pakistan’s foreign minister has said President Pervez Musharraf must stand down in the next two days or face impeachment proceedings.

“Musharraf is running out of time”, said Shah Mahmood Qureshi, of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – a major partner in the governing coalition.

Draft charges against the president include violation of the constitution and gross misconduct, officials said.

Mr Musharraf’s office has said he will not resign and will defend himself.

The impeachment campaign was launched last week by leaders of the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

A PML-N official said: “There is a long list of charges against him… we will file them, by the latest, by Tuesday.”

If Mr Musharraf chooses not to quit, he would be the first president in Pakistan’s history to be impeached.

Weighing up options

A spokesman for the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, a pro-Musharraf party, said that the president’s advisers were considering his options.

STEPS TO IMPEACHMENT
Impeachment proposers need 50% majority in Senate or National Assembly
President given notice of impeachment, and has three days to respond
Joint session of Senate and Assembly must be held between 7 and 14 days later to investigate charges
If resolution presented, joint session must approve with two-thirds majority

Nawaz Sharif, who was toppled in the 1999 coup, said he was opposed to any deal which would give his old rival a “safe passage”.

He has said the president should be tried for treason, which carries the maximum sentence of the death penalty.

But the PPP, the party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, says the decision of whether to put the president on trial should be left to parliament.

Information Minister Sherry Rehman, said the PPP “never indulges in the politics of revenge as it wants a stable Pakistan and a sustainable democracy in the country”.

Support for the president in a recent vote of confidence in the provincial assemblies has almost entirely collapsed.

Mr Musharraf’s best way out would now seem to be a dignified exit before parliament meets to debate the impeachment, our correspondent says.

Talks are going on behind the scenes.

The ruling coalition parties will have to decide where the former army chief, a key ally in Washington’s war on terror, is allowed to live and what protection he will receive, our correspondent says.

Mr Musharraf came to power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

He gave up control of the army last year and his allies were defeated in February’s elections but he retains the power to dissolve parliament.

But his public standing suffered a huge setback in 2007 when he sacked Pakistan’s chief justice and nearly 60 judges to prevent them from overturning his re-election as president.

But analysts say the president is still thought to have heavy influence over the military and its reaction will remain crucial.

August 8, 2008

US halt aid over Mauritania coup

US halt aid over Mauritania coup

General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz (r) with unidentified junta members in Mauritania

Gen Abdelaziz has promised to hold fresh elections

The United States has suspended more than $20m (£10m) in  non-humanitarian aid to Mauritania after a coup.

The US state department said it condemned in the strongest possible terms the overthrow of the country’s first democratically-elected president.

But General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, who led the military coup, said the army would safeguard democracy.

Meanwhile, the Arab League and the African Union have demanded the ousted president’s be released immediately.

Diplomats from both organisations are due in Mauritania on Friday to discuss the situation with the coup leaders.

President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was detained by renegade soldiers on Wednesday after he tried to dismiss four senior army officers – including Mr Abdelaziz, the head of the presidential guard.

I’m very worried about his health and his security
Amal Cheikh Abdallahi
President’s daughter

Prime Minister Yahia Ould Ahmed El-Ouakef – who the coup leaders had also detained – was reported to have been taken to a barracks near the presidency.

The whereabouts of the president are still unclear, and his daughter, Amal Cheikh Abdallahi, said she did not know where her father was.

“I’m very worried about his health and his security,” she told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme.

“He doesn’t have the right to move or to call. He doesn’t have a phone. He doesn’t have liberty,” she said.

Joking

The US aid suspended includes $15m (£7.5m) in military-to-military co-operation, more than $4m (£2m) in peacekeeping training, and more than $3m (£1.5m) in development assistance.

A demonstration in support of the coup leaders

Some MPs and parties have expressed support for the military intervention

Gen Abdelaziz said the new military council, which has promised to hold elections, would “solve the country’s problems”.

“The armed forces and the security forces will always stay with the people to deepen the democracy,” he said in the capital, Nouakchott.

“It’s them who brought the democracy here and it’s them who have always protected this democracy and they will always preserve it.”

On Thursday, there were demonstrations for and against the coup in Nouakchott.

But the BBC’s James Copnall, who arrived in the city on Thursday evening, the day after the takeover, says it is remarkably calm and relaxed.

He said some people at the airport were joking about the situation – possibly as it is not regarded as that out of the ordinary given the country’s history of coups.

The military has been involved in nearly every government since Mauritania’s independence from France in 1960.

The president transformed everything into a family business
Morsen Ould Al Haj
Senate vice-president

Presidential elections held in 2007 ended a two-year period of military rule – the product of a military coup in 2005.

Despite the widespread international condemnation of the takeover, many MPs and political parties have expressed their support for it.

Senate Vice-President Morsen Ould al-Haj said that the president had abused his powers and was particularly angered by the influence his daughter and wife wielded.

“He failed completely – he transformed everything into a family business. He became very stubborn; he started by installing his children all parts of the government,” he told the BBC.

“Each of his children consider themselves himself a prince ready to inherit the country. They are a real royal family.”

August 7, 2008

China rejects Bush criticism of its affairs

China rejects Bush criticism of its affairs

Courtesy Yahoo

BANGKOK, Thailand – China rejected President Bush’s criticism Thursday of its human rights record and restrictions on religion, diplomatically telling him to stay out of its affairs even as he flew to Beijing to attend the Olympics.

In a speech outlining America’s achievements and challenges in Asia, Bush pushed for a free press, free assembly and labor rights in China, and against its detentions of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists. He said he wasn’t trying to antagonize China, but called such reform the only path the potent U.S. rival can take to reach its full potential.

He antagonized the Chinese anyway, setting the stage for an interesting reception when he attends the opening ceremonies Friday evening, takes in some events — including the U.S.-China men’s basketball game — and meets with President Hu Jintao on Sunday after attending church.

“The Chinese government puts people first, and is dedicated to maintaining and promoting its citizens basic rights and freedom,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in response to Bush’s speech. “Chinese citizens have freedom of religion. These are indisputable facts.”

He said China advocates discussions on differing views on human rights and religions on “a basis of mutual respect and equality,” then indicated it didn’t see Bush’s criticism in that light.

“We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues,” Qin said.

Bush did offer praise for China’s market reforms. “Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and its own traditions,” he said. “Yet, change will arrive.”

Bush has been trying to walk a tightrope in attending the games, wanting to avoid causing Beijing embarrassment during its two weeks on the world stage while also coming under pressure to use his visit to openly press China’s leaders for greater religious tolerance and other freedoms. Chinese officials bristled when he met with Chinese activists at the White House last week.

“With this speech, Bush is trying to address two polar issues: easing the controversy created by those who oppose his visit during the Games and simultaneously maintaining America’s strategy with China,” said Yan Xuetong, an expert in U.S.-China relations at Beijing‘s prestigious Tsinghua University.

Making the repression issue timely, China has rounded up opponents ahead of the Olympics and slapped restrictions on journalists, betraying promises made when it landed the hosting rights.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd urged the international community “to speak with a strong and united voice” to maintain pressure on China over human rights. But he conceded Beijing’s record has improved.

“Remember, it was not all that long ago they were in the middle of the cultural revolution with people getting put up against a wall and basically knocked off,” he told Nine Network television before flying to Beijing.

The White House’s handling of the speech demonstrated the president’s balancing act. Bush’s address containing the criticism of China was delivered outside the country, in Thailand. The White House took the unusual step of releasing the text of it even earlier, about 18 hours before he spoke.

And the speech was followed by a string of events Thursday, by both the president and his wife, Laura, that were clearly aimed at shifting the focus to the repressive military regime in Myanmar, neighbor to Thailand, where Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej regards himself as a friend of Myanmar’s generals. Myanmar, also known as Burma, marks the 20th anniversary of a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists on Friday.

The Bush administration has become increasingly vocal about Myanmar in recent months, blaming a corrupt regime for failing to help its citizens after a devastating cyclone in May, in large part by initially failing to accept international help and then only with tight restrictions, and for violently suppressing democracy demonstrations by Buddhist monks in last September’s so-called Saffron Revolution.

Mrs. Bush, the administration’s highest-profile spokeswoman on the issue, flew for the day to northwestern Thailand to visit a border refugee camp. The Mae La camp is home to 38,000 Karen, an ethnic minority that human rights organizations say is the target of an ongoing Myanmar military campaign marked by murders of civilians, rapes and razing of villages. She also stopped at a health clinic run by a woman known as the “Mother Teresa of Burma.”

Remaining in Bangkok, the president was briefed at the U.S. ambassador’s residence on recovery from the cyclone that devastated Myanmar’s heartland and killed more than 80,000 people, had lunch with nine Burmese activists and did an interview with local radio journalists in hopes of influencing events across the border.

Bush called the activists “courageous people,” saying he wanted to hear their stories and their advice.

One of the activists, Lway Aye Nang of the Women’s League of Burma, said rape has long been used “as a weapon of war” in Myanmar and thanked Washington for imposing sanctions against her country.

“This is really hitting … the regime and their associates, who have been defiling the country’s natural resources for their own benefit and leaving ordinary citizens in extreme poverty,” she said.

Bush’s speech had been expected to prominently feature Myanmar. But it contained only a brief — though blunt — mention of the reclusive nation.

One of the world’s poorest countries, Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962, when the latest junta came to power after brutally crushing a pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

“We will continue working until the people of Burma have the freedom they deserve,” Bush said, calling for the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners.

Bush also urged North Korea to live up to its promise to dismantle its nuclear weapons, adding: “The United States will continue to insist that the regime in Pyongyang end its harsh rule and respect the dignity and human rights of the North Korean people.”

About 25 people around the convention center where Bush spoke welcomed him. But a Muslim group shouted “Bush, get out. God is great” as the presidential motorcade passed. The protesters handed out leaflets saying “George Bush is a war criminal.”

August 5, 2008

Money’s power marks US election

If Barack Obama wins his way to the White House, one quiet decision may turn out to have been crucial.

Towards the end of June, he announced that he would not participate in the system of public funding for elections in the United States.

That means he can raise – and spend – perhaps $300m (£150m) compared with the $84.1m (£43.6m) that Mr McCain will get from the tax-payer under the public funding system.

Under the rules, candidates who take public funding for the general election have their spending capped. Accordingly, Mr Obama will be free to spend – Mr McCain will be constrained, although he will be bolstered by the Republican National Committee, which has far more money than the Democratic National Committee.

Tad Devine, who was one of the main strategists for John Kerry in 2004, told the that Mr Obama had learnt from the “swift boating” that floored the Democratic contender.

(A group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran a series of adverts accusing Mr Kerry of lying about his service in Vietnam to get one of his medals for bravery and two of his three Purple Hearts.)

He says of the Kerry decision: “If we had not accepted public funding we would have had on hand enormous resources and when those Swift Boat attacks came, we would have dealt with them in the medium in which they came, which was paid advertising.”

Mr Obama had indicated that he wanted to stick with the public funding system. Renouncing it, accordingly brought Republican allegations of an about-turn.

Mr Devine, a Democrat, sees it differently.

“It’s a testament that this guy can make tough choices,” he says.

Democrats are still smarting from the mauling they got from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

They were a group of individuals who formed what is known as a 527, after the clause in the tax code that applies to such advocacy groups.

Under the rules, these 527s cannot be connected to a campaign.

But a connection to a campaign can be ambiguous, and where there is ambiguity there will be lawyers.

Democracy

Overlooking the corner of M Street NW and 26th Street in Washington DC is the office of the lawyer for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

He is one and the same man, Benjamin Ginsburg.

He told me: “There was not a direct link. The truth is that I provided legal functions for them.

“I didn’t deal with the messages and I was very careful to make sure there was no co-ordination between the two in terms of their messages and activities.”

Mr Ginsburg is a charming man with a mind like a laser. His office is a museum of mementos of big historical events in which he has been central.

In one corner, there is a metal voting booth from Palm Beach County in Florida in 2000, complete with chads, those small bits of paper – small bits of contentious paper – on which the presidency turned.

He is a great defender of 527s, the outside groups that are raucous and unpredictable in elections.

“This is a democracy,” he says. “People are allowed to express their views outside the political party structure.”

Another Republican, Michael Toner – who used to be chairman of the Federal Election Commission, which polices elections – says the imbalance in funds this time shows that the system is not working.

He wants more money to be available to candidates who take public funding.

Americans do not spend too much on elections, he thinks, but too little.

“Americans spent $3bn (£1.5bn) last year on potato chips. Isn’t the next leader of the free world worth at least that much?

Fair game

Democrats tend to see Swift Boat Veterans, and the campaign they ran last time, as way below the belt.

Republicans, in return, see it as pretty fair game and point their fingers back at campaigns run by MoveOn.org in particular, which has depicted the US military leader in Iraq, Gen Petraeus as General Betray Us.

Move On is a big web-based organisation that does take much money from ordinary people but also in the past from billionaires like George Soros. Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn’s campaigns director, defended the adverts.

“Raising that issue is critical to having a dialogue into how we responsibly and safely withdraw our troops,” she said. “We’re proud of our record.”

“MoveOn is member-driven, small donor driven. Over the past ten years, 90% of our fund-raising has been from small owners. The current average donation is $42 (£21).

“Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was all big donor funded. It was a couple of big donors calling the shots. That’s the antithesis of how MoveOn works and believes that civil society should work.”

One of the benefits for Mr Obama of raising his own money rather than relying on public funding may be that he can keep better control of his own message.

The reasoning runs that there is little point in giving to candidates if their spending is capped. Why give what cannot be spent?

So his hope may be that giving to his campaign directly might seem more effective for his supporters than giving to fringe groups. So runs the argument.

If that is so, he will be better able to meet whatever gets thrown at him, by fringe groups implying that he is a Muslim, for example.

“They will try that,” says Harold Ickes, one of the legendary political workers in Washington for the Democrats and formerly deputy chief of staff at the Clinton White House, where he earned the appellation “Garbage Man” because of his role as a cleaner up of political mess.

“If you’re talking about a tight election and enough people are convinced of that in Ohio, it can make Ohio slip into the Republican column.”

And race may surface – not formally from the McCain campaign, but from the outside groups.

As Mr Ickes said: “We’re going to find just how deep race cuts in this country.”

The first part of Steve Evans’s two-part investigation into the “The Billion Dollar Election” is broadcast on the World Service on Monday 4 August.

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