News & Current Affairs

August 23, 2008

Russia’s neighbours go their own way

Russia’s neighbours go their own way

It is easy to assume that escalating tensions between Russia and the West could mean an end to the blurry fudges of the post-Cold War years and a recasting of East-West relations into black and white antagonism, with two opposing camps, each surrounded by its own sphere of influence.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is flanked (right) by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in Tbilisi on 12 August

Ukraine’s leader (R) went to Tbilisi to back President Saakashvili

But look at how the Georgia crisis is being received around Russia’s edges. The response is often evasive, and sometimes downright surprising.

Among the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which 20 years ago were constituent parts of the USSR whose loyalty to Moscow was automatic, Russia has won remarkably few endorsements. Some Central Asian states have sent in aid to South Ossetia. But on the whole the response has been decidedly muted.

To be fair, Georgia too has drawn criticism. But gone are the days when Moscow could rely on satellite states to speak up for it. For Russia’s leaders to declare that Russia was and always will be the “guarantor of stability” in the Caucasus is now a risky statement that could repel as well as draw regional backing.

Its neighbours are now independent countries whose priority is not to please the Kremlin but turn any crisis to their advantage, or worry about how it might adversely affect them.

Economic interests first

Next door to Georgia in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan’s top concern is to keep the pipeline that runs from Baku through Georgian territory to Turkey free from threat of attack.

But President Ilham Aliyev is also apparently wary of aggravating Russia. He has now publically backed Georgia’s territorial integrity, but steered clear of more vigorous support of Tbilisi.

Elderly refugees from South Ossetia sit in a refugee camp in North Ossetia, Russia,  on 10 August

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have donated aid for Ossetian refugees

Landlocked Turkmenistan too, with its immense gas fields on the other side of the Caspian Sea, has a lively interest in making sure the Baku pipeline is not disrupted and Georgia remains a stable reliable partner.

It competes as well as collaborates with Russia as an energy supplier. It does not want one of its main outlets threatened.

And beleaguered Armenia, at the southern tip of the Caucasus, has even more reason to be alarmed. Any prolonged conflict in Georgia would disrupt all its supply routes.

Further west and closer to Europe in the “former Soviet space”, there has been an even more marked shift in governmental responses.

Tiny impoverished Moldova, on the border between Romania and Ukraine, has its own “frozen conflict” unsolved from Soviet days: the Russian-supported and heavily armed enclave of Trans-Dniester.

So this week Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin pointedly turned to the European Union for help in finding a peaceful way out of that stand-off.

Ukrainian ambivalence

In Ukraine, President Viktor Yushchenko from the very start saw Russia’s military intervention in Georgia as an implied threat. Ukraine too is a Nato aspirant, and Russia has frequently warned it that Nato membership is something it will not tolerate.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (image from 14 July)

Yulia Tymoshenko is likely to run in the next election

So President Yushchenko was swift to define himself as the champion of Ukraine’s right to join Nato and defy Russian pressure.

Not only did he fly to Tbilisi to offer moral support, he issued a presidential decree to remind Russia that its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol in the Crimea does, after all, use a Ukrainian port.

In future, he demanded, Russia must give 72 hours’ notice before moving its vessels and he once again raised the prospect that Ukraine might not renew its lease for the port when it expires in 2017.

But how Russia’s relations with Ukraine might unwind is not straightforward.

The fear has certainly been expressed in Kiev that a restive pro-Russian population in the Crimea might provide a pretext for another Russian military intervention. Russian nationalists who see the Crimea as historically Russian territory would seize any pretext to realise their ambitions, goes the argument.

What is certainly true is that a clash between Moscow and Kiev over the Crimea would probably cleave Ukraine in half and open up a dangerous conflict with widespread repercussions. But a more likely scenario is less dramatic.

Russia has only to wait for a change in Ukrainian politics. President Yushchenko may be a prominent leader but his long term-durability is not guaranteed. Opinion polls put his popularity at under 10%.

With presidential elections due in 18 months, the Kremlin may well reckon it can look for a more reliable partner in his likely opponent and current Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been remarkably quiet on the Georgia crisis.

Mixed signals from Minsk

But perhaps the most interesting response has come from Belarus and its President, Alexander Lukashenko, sometimes described as “Europe’s last dictator”.

Belarussian police arrest demonstrators outside the Russian embassy on 11 August

Belarussian police pounced on anti-Russian protestors during the conflict

Only a few years ago Russia was such a close ally, there was talk of the two countries merging, so one might have expected him to back Russia’s action in the Caucasus.

But Belarus has had a series of bad-tempered rows with Russia over energy supplies and has recently shown more interest in improving Western contacts.

The initial response from Minsk to Russia’s intervention in Georgia was decidedly ambivalent – so much so, that the Russian ambassador there even publicly expressed his displeasure.

President Lukashenko then travelled to Sochi to reassure President Medvedev that Moscow’s military operation had been conducted “calmly, wisely and beautifully”.

But he took steps to clear the way for better relations with the US and Europe.

In the last few days the final three political prisoners in Belarus have been suddenly released – the beneficiaries, it seems, of an unexpected presidential pardon.

“It’s very significant,” said Britain’s Ambassador to Minsk, Nigel Gould Davies. “For the first time in a decade Belarus does not have any political prisoners.”

And watch this space. Whether Belarus is really serious about improving its relations with the West will be tested in September, when it holds parliamentary elections.

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August 22, 2008

Obama set to reveal running-mate

Obama set to reveal running-mate

Barack Obama on the campaign trail on 21 August in Chester, Virginia

Speculation has been rife about who will share Mr Obama’s platform

US Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is expected to reveal his choice of vice-presidential running mate within hours.

He has told journalists he has made his decision, which will be revealed by text message to the party’s senators and supporters, and journalists.

Democrats gather for their party convention in Denver on Monday.

Mr Obama and his running mate are set to make their first campaign appearance together in Illinois, on Saturday.

“I’ve made the selection, that’s all you’re gonna get,” Mr Obama told reporters while campaigning in Virginia on Thursday.

Text alert

In an interview with USA Today newspaper, the Illinois senator said he had selected a running mate who was independent and would challenge him in the White House.

JUSTIN WEBB’S AMERICA
Hang on, I think that’s a text coming in

He added that he had opted for someone who would help him strengthen the economy, and was also ready to act as president.

But Mr Obama gave no clue as to whether he had notified his preferred running mate yet.

It is possible the Obama camp might keep the name of the vice-presidential selection a secret until just before the appearance in Springfield on Saturday but, realistically, that seems unlikely, says the BBC’s North America editor, Justin Webb.

The expectation is that during the course of Friday a text message will be received by those who have signed up for it, revealing the name.

Surprise in store?

The conventional wisdom is that vice-presidential candidates do not swing elections, our editor reports.

John McCain, file pic

But Mr Obama’s choice is interesting because it will reveal a little more about the style of the man and how willing he is to be adventurous.

Most commentators believe he will play it safe, opting for a governor, perhaps Tim Kaine of Virginia, or a political veteran like Senator Joe Biden.

Some Democrats are hoping he has a surprise up his sleeve – a Hillary Clinton or an Al Gore.

Mr Obama’s rival, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, has reportedly not settled on a running mate.

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney are reported to be under serious consideration for the role.

August 12, 2008

Le Pen sells party HQ to Chinese

Le Pen sells party HQ to Chinese

Jean-Marie Le Pen

The National Front party headquarters was dubbed The Cruiseliner

France’s anti-immigrant party, the National Front, is selling its  headquarters to a Chinese university, according to the party leader.

Jean-Marie Le Pen has confirmed that the party base has been purchased by a Shanghai university.

Mr Le Pen, 79, has campaigned to become president several times under the slogan “Keep France for the French”.

But his party faces growing financial difficulties. It has already sold its bullet-proof car on Ebay.

The party has a total debt of some 9m euros ($13.4m; £7m), according to French newspaper Le Monde, partly due to a poor showing in the 2007 legislative elections which meant it had to cover its own campaign costs.

Language school

“A formal sale offer has been signed with a university in Shanghai,” the National Front’s press service said, quoted by AFP.

The unnamed Chinese higher education institution has reportedly paid between 12 and 15m euros ($18 – 22m; £9.4m – 11.7m) for the sprawling mansion in the western Paris suburb of Saint Cloud, known as The Cruiseliner.

The university is reportedly considering turning the building into a French language school.

The building, thought to be the party’s biggest asset, was inherited from a millionaire supporter in the 1970s.

The organization has already had some bank accounts frozen after disagreements with creditors.

Right-wing firebrand Mr Le Pen startled Europe by reaching the second round of the 2002 presidential election. In 2007, he achieved some 10% of votes in the presidential race.

August 8, 2008

Israeli PM faces corruption quiz

Israeli PM faces corruption quiz

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert (03/08)

Mr Olmert had faced growing calls to resign over the claims

Israeli police are questioning Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a  fifth time over corruption allegations.

Mr Olmert denies claims that he double billed charities and state bodies for overseas trips and improperly accepted donations from a US businessman.

Last week Mr Olmert revealed plans to stand down amid growing pressure over the two latest fraud investigations.

He said he would not stand in his party’s leadership elections, paving the way for a successor to take over.

But if the new leader of the Kadima party is unable to form a coalition government after the September elections, Mr Olmert could remain as caretaker prime minister until a general election is held.

In all Mr Olmert has faced six corruption investigations relating to before he became prime minister, although no charges have been filed in any of them.

EHUD OLMERT’S POLITICAL LIFE
1993: Begins 10-year stint as mayor of Jerusalem
2005: Leaves right-wing Likud party with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to form Kadima
2006: Takes over as leader when Ariel Sharon suffers a stroke
2007: Helps re-launch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after seven-year hiatus
2008: Announces plans to resign

In the most recent case, he is accused of submitting duplicate claims for travel expenses for overseas travel and using the money to fund family trips abroad.

That followed claims by a US businessman, Morris Talansky, that he gave Mr Olmert cash-stuffed envelopes.

Mr Talansky has said the money may have been used on luxury items, but Mr Olmert has said he only received legitimate funds for his campaigns for re-election as mayor of Jerusalem and for the leadership of the Likud party.

He has said he will resign if charged.

In the succession race for the leadership of the centrist Kadima party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni leads Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz in the polls.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit are also seen as potential successors.

But the leader of the right-wing Likud party, Binyamin Netanyahu, has been performing well in polls for a potential general election.

The political uncertainty in Israel has cast a shadow over a faltering US-backed peace process with the Palestinians and indirect talks with Syria.

Musharraf faces impeachment bid

Musharraf faces impeachment bid

President Musharraf in Islamabad in April 2008

President Musharraf has said he would rather resign than be impeached

Pakistan’s ruling coalition parties say they will begin impeachment proceedings against President Pervez Musharraf.

Party leaders Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif made the announcement after three days of talks. They would need a two-thirds majority to impeach.

Mr Musharraf took 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.

Mr Musharraf has previously said he would resign rather than face impeachment proceedings.

But late on Thursday, aides said the president would respond to the allegations in parliament.

The BBC’s Mark Dummett in Islamabad says an impeachment would take Pakistani politics into new territory, since no Pakistani leader has faced it before.

Sacked judges

Mr Zardari, of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the PML-N’s Narwaz Sharif announced the impeachment move at a press conference in Islamabad.

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

Mr Zardari said: “We have good news for democracy. The coalition believes it is imperative to move for impeachment against General Musharraf.”

Mr Zardari, the widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, derided Mr Musharraf’s economic policies, adding: “He has worked to undermine the transition to democracy.”

He also warned Mr Musharraf not to dissolve parliament, saying: “If he does it, it will be his last verdict against the people.”

Mr Sharif said: “Pakistan cannot afford to see democracy derailed, this is not the same Pakistan as was the case in the 1980s and 1990s. People will not accept it now.”

The leaders say they will also move to have Mr Musharraf face votes of confidence in the national and four provincial assemblies.

Our correspondent says these will not be enough to dislodge President Musharraf but might weaken him ahead of any impeachment showdown.

Impeachment would need a two-thirds majority in the upper and lower houses of parliament but, our correspondent says, getting those numbers might be difficult.

The two leaders also promised to restore judges sacked under Mr Musharraf’s emergency rule once impeachment was successful.

How to proceed on that issue had caused deep divisions between the two coalition parties since the elections.

Military role

Mr Musharraf had been scheduled to attend the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing but has cancelled his trip and will be replaced by Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani.

Mr Musharraf was elected president for a five-year term last October in a controversial parliamentary vote.

One presidential source told AFP news agency Mr Musharraf was discussing a course of action and had the options of dissolving parliament or imposing emergency rule again.

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

Pakistan has been ruled by military leaders for more than half of its existence since Partition in 1947.


What is your reaction? Should President Musharraf be impeached? Send us your comments

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

Mauritanian army coup condemned

Mauritanian army coup condemned

General Ould Abdel Aziz

General Ould Abdelaziz is now in charge in Mauritania

There has been widespread international condemnation of the  military takeover in Mauritania.

Troops overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, detaining him after he tried to dismiss army chiefs.

UN chief Ban Ki-Moon called for the “restoration of constitutional order”. Condemnation has also come from the US, the EU, and the African Union (AU).

The military promised to hold fresh elections “as soon as possible”.

In a statement released a day after Wednesday’s coup, the junta promised the polls would be “free and transparent”.

Meanwhile US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for the immediate release of President Abdallahi and Prime Minister Yahia Ould Ahmed El-Ouakef, both of whom were detained by troops on Wednesday.

“The United States looks to all of our international partners to condemn this anti-democratic action,” she said in a statement.

The European Union warned that it may suspend aid to Mauritania.

The AU denounced the coup, demanded a return to constitutional government and said it was sending an envoy to the capital, Nouakchott, immediately.

Political crisis

On Wednesday the president tried to dismiss four senior army officers, including the head of the presidential guard, Gen Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, who responded by launching the coup.

Map of Mauritania

A statement issued by a body calling itself the “State Council” and led by Gen Abdelaziz, was broadcast by Gulf-based Arabic television stations.

It said Mr Abdallahi – who came to power in polls last year, taking over from a military junta – was now a “former president”.

Troops deployed on Nouakchott’s streets fired tear gas to disperse about 50 protesters as the council annulled his previous decree dismissing the military chiefs.

The country has been in the grip of a political crisis since a vote of no confidence in the cabinet two weeks ago.

On Monday, 48 MPs walked out of the ruling party.

Reports suggest some of the generals orchestrated the mass resignation, says the BBC’s James Copnall in the region.

Food protests

Mauritania has a long history of coups, with the military involved in nearly every government since its independence from France in 1960.

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

The elections were deemed to have been free and fair and appeared to herald a new era of democracy.

Earlier this year, however, the president dismissed the government amid protests over soaring food prices.

The cabinet that replaced it has been dogged by instability, lacking the support of a moderate Islamist party and a major opposition group that were in the former government.

Mauritania is one of the world’s poorest nations as well as its newest oil producer.

Ruling parties in Musharraf talks

Ruling parties in Musharraf talks

Photo of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf seen partially torn down on outskirts of Islamabad

President Musharraf hopes to see out his term

Pakistan’s ruling alliance is expected to decide whether to  begin moves to try to impeach President Pervez Musharraf, following three days of talks.

Mr Musharraf has delayed his departure to China to attend the opening of the Olympics, after earlier suggestions he might cancel the trip entirely.

The president’s allies were defeated in elections in February, but he has so far resisted pressure to quit.

The governing coalition is divided over whether to impeach Mr Musharraf.

Latest reports from Islamabad quote “senior coalition sources” saying a deal has been reached in principle on impeaching the president, but these have not been confirmed.

Correspondents say it is also far from clear whether the ruling alliance could muster the required two-thirds majority needed in both houses of parliament.

‘Special relations’

The president was due to leave for the Chinese capital, Beijing, on Wednesday but at the last minute the trip was cancelled. No reason was given.

A statement from the foreign ministry later said that he would leave for China on Thursday.

Work is under way to finalise the draft of a joint statement
PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar

“In view of our special relations with China, the president has decided to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics,” said the foreign ministry statement on Wednesday.

China is one of Pakistan’s closest allies, and it would have been highly unusual for a Pakistani leader to call off a visit at such short notice.

The question of whether or not to impeach Mr Musharraf has threatened to divide the governing coalition.

Early in what was a dramatic day on Wednesday, the threat of a new opposition onslaught appeared sufficient to force him to cancel his Beijing trip. Yet by evening a spokesman said he would travel as planned.

That Mr Musharraf felt confident enough to fly to China would suggest to many Pakistanis that for now at least he feels more secure in his position, our correspondent says.

The president has previously said he would prefer to resign than face impeachment.

Last year, he gave up control of the army, the country’s most powerful institution, but he retains the power to dissolve parliament.

How the military reacts to any efforts to oust him would be crucial in determining his fate.

Opponents’ moves

The governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and its alliance partners appeared deadlocked by Wednesday evening over the impeachment moves.

Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif met on 5 August 2008

Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif met on Wednesday

At one point, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stormed out following the announcement that Mr Musharraf had issued orders to reinstate some of Pakistan’s top judges.

Mr Sharif argues that the president is attempting to divide the governing coalition.

But progress appears to have been made since then.

PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar told the news agency AFP work was under way “to finalise the draft of a joint statement” by Thursday evening.

A spokesman for Mr Sharif’s party also said an announcement was due.

Mr Musharraf’s political allies were defeated in February elections, from which the PPP emerged as the largest party.

In second place was the PML-N of Mr Sharif, whom President Musharraf ousted in a 1999 coup.

The two parties formed an alliance in March, but have since been split over the issues of presidential impeachment and the reinstatement of judges sacked by President Musharraf during a state of emergency in November.

The PML-N pulled out of the federal cabinet in May when PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari refused to move immediately on these issues.

The rift has caused a sense of paralysis in the government, which is under pressure to tackle militancy and a worsening economy.

August 6, 2008

Troops stage coup in Mauritania

Troops stage coup in Mauritania

map

The president and prime minister of Mauritania, in north-west Africa, have been taken into custody by soldiers in a military coup.

President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi and Prime Minister Yahia Ould Ahmed El-Ouakef are being held by men loyal to a general sacked by the president.

Mauritania staged elections in June 2007, two years after a military coup.

The country has been gripped by political crisis for a fortnight, after a vote of no confidence in the cabinet.

On Tuesday, 48 MPs walked out of the ruling party.

Unusual troop movements

Earlier on Wednesday, President Abdallahi replaced several senior army officers, including the head of the presidential guard, Gen Ould Abdelaziz.

Shortly afterwards, Gen Abdelaziz led soldiers in a coup against the president.

Officials loyal to the general said that all the officers sacked by the president have been re-instated.

A statement issued by them also said Mr Abdallahi was no longer president of Mauritania.

The first indications of a military coup came as state television was taken off the air amid reports of unusual troop movements in the capital, Nouakchott.

The president’s daughter, Amal Mint Cheikh Abdallahi, told Reuters news agency soldiers seized her father at his house at 0920 local time (0920 GMT).

The streets of the capital are said to be calm with no violence reported.

Political instability

Mauritania is one of the world’s poorest nations as well as its newest oil producer.

The desert nation, a former French colony of more than three million people, has been looking to oil revenues to boost its economy.

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

The elections were deemed to have been free and fair and appeared to herald a new era of democracy.

Earlier this year, however, the president dismissed the government amid protests over soaring food prices.

The cabinet that replaced it has been dogged by instability, lacking the support of a moderate Islamist party and a major opposition group that were in the former government.

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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