NORTHERNPRESS ONLINE

Subtitle

2000 L'année - the year

Yeltsin calls it a presidency

On the last day of the century of the revolution, Russian president Boris Yeltsin became the first leader of he world's largest country to step down willingly. He turned over the symbolic nuclear computer codes to chosen successor, Vladimir Putin, whom he hand-picked last Fall in view of this year's presidential elections, now being bumped up to March 26. Putin's party faired rather well during the recent parliamentary elections, as his popularity rose during Russia's ongoing military confrontation with Chechnya. Putin, once in charge of Russia's powerful security services, was relatively unknown when he was thrown into the spotlight, and remains it even as he is being touted the favorite to take over the most powerful job in Russia. Following Yeltsin's resignation, one widely acclaimed among the Russian public, Putin praised the ailing leader for having done much more to Russia than his countrymen have yet to realize. U.S. president Bill Clinton told the Russian president he was personally sad to see him go, and also recognized the accomplishments of Russia's first elected leader, this despite acute differences between the US and Russia over the handling of the Yugoslav crisis. Health reasons largely forced Yeltsin to step down months before scheduled presidential elections in which he was not expected to run, but immunity from prosecution for corruption in ongoing money-laundering investigations was certainly an added incentive. Putin quickly moved to shake up his entourage, sacking Communist-era officials including Yeltsin's personal consultant, daughter Tatyana, herself partly embroiled in the corruption scandals. Putin later admitted to the press there had been no coincidence in Yeltsin's timing. "Let's be honest," he said, "He is providing me with a forum for the presidential campaign and doing so deliberately." This week the acting president sought to allay the concerns of those critical of the mudslinging which characterized the previous Duma election campaign, promising to meet with the heads of major media outlets and discuss their coverage of the upcoming presidential campaign. He was asked to guarantee equal access to media for the candidates, an issue of growing importance as the number of serious contenders running against him continues to decline. Parties that initially opposed Putin have since deserted their own candidates and thrown their support behind him, leaving perhaps Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov as the sole real competition. The All Russia party, once forming a formidable alliance with the Fatherland Party, said it was putting its support behind Putin, rather than the coalition's man, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, once considered a strong candidate to succeed Yeltsin. The latter's decision to step down comes as Putin is riding high from his handling of the Chechen crisis, now entering its final phase deep into the capital of Grozny. The conflict started as an effort to roll back Chechen insurgents trying to establish an Islamic state in nearby Dagestan, and intensified following a series of bombings in Moscow, blamed on Chechen terrorists. But British daily The Independent quoted a captured Russian officer saying Russian special services may have been responsible for the bombings which prompted the present campaign against Chechnya. In polls conducted in the Fall, Russians did not exclude the possibility that the State, in particular Putin's former apparatus, may be behind the bombings, a sentiment which has done nothing to alter their support for Russia's offensive. While the Chechen conflict was hardly an issue during the past parliamentary elections, it may emerge during the new presidential campaign, in the days leading to the March 26 vote. Putin can only thank Yeltsin's decision to resign for moving up the elections, reducing the risk of facing a potentially costly day of reckoning in the Caucasus.

 

A long-expected conference

The reasons why it had taken so long before a European Union-Africa summit conference, such as the one which took place last week in Cairo, was finally organised became readily apparent early on as some 15 of the world's richest countries met some 50 of the poorest. Few issues raised at the conference didn't make a painful reference to the colonial relationship between the two continents, some frankly reigniting debates over Europe's imperial past. A strong case in point was the subject which locked British foreign minister Robin Cook and Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, into a heated argument; the eviction of some 20 000 white Zimbabweans, descendants of British settlers, from their farms, which the government insists were forcibly grabbed during the colonial era. While the official conference document stressed the meeting would help "sweep away the debris of the colonial past", Mugabe was going so far as to -threaten to go to war against Britain over the issue. The stand-off has diplomatic implications but its roots lie in domestic politics in view of coming parliamentary elections. The farm owners are supporters of the rising opposition Movement of Democratic Change party headed by Morgan Tsvangirai, which helped deliver Mugabe's first major defeat since independence in February, when it rallied against a draft that would have expanded already considerable presidential powers. Since, polls have shown 65% Zimbabweans want a change of leadership, notably over 800 white-owned farms now being occupied by government supporters, many of whom are war veterans. Parliament quickly approved a bill enabling the government to seize the land without compensation, defying a court ruling on the issue. Presidential supporters threaten to resort to violence if the government is defeated in the upcoming vote. The idea seems to be catching on to neighboring countries such as Kenya, where some political figures have urged the government to undertake similar actions against white farmers. The number of conflicts already raging across the continent, from Ethiopia to Angola, including the great lakes region, would certainly explain Europe's reluctance until now to engage in dialogue at this level, especially since both continents shared different perceptions on the ill-defined agenda. The little agreed-on text which did make it to the conference naturally went through a process of dilution which rendered the final statement rather bland and anything but ground-breaking. While European countries did agree to provide Africa with some debt relief, it was well short of erasing the more than $350 billion the African countries owe the old continent. On the other hand Europe had to settle for a rather timid call for greater democratization and respect for human rights. This in fact only fuelled more of the anti-colonial rhetoric, in part championed by Libya's Muammar Ghadafi, who insisted the continent needs more water pumps, not ballot boxes, and questioned the commitment of President Jacques Chirac of France and prime minister Antonio Guterres of Portugal to Africa given their colonial records. In a separate interview, former South African president, Nelson Mandela, who was not present at the conference, in turn accused Britain (and the U.S.) of wanting to become policeman to the world, while Ethiopia accused the international community in general of not responding quickly enough to calls for food supplies to head off famine in the horn of Africa. The British minister responsible for overseas aid, Clare Short, rejected the Ethiopian foreign minister's assertion that Europe only responds "when people start to see skeletons" by countering that this was extraordinary criticism from a government wasting resources on what she said was a useless border war with Eritrea. With these many barbs, it was perhaps surprising the confe-rence even took place, let alone agreed to reconvene in 2003. Or that, given the shrinking importance of Africa in world trade (from 6% in the 1960s to 2% today) the summit be held in the spirit of "strategic partnership". But the summit did open a much-needed dialogue between continents separated by a relatively small body of water, yet a history of misunderstandings. Sometimes where the collective effort could not provide, bilateral discussions did manage to make some headway, on subjects such as the wars in Congo, Somalia and Sudan, themselves reminders of the legacy of colonialism. While differences will persist for some time, there is some recognition that in the long term, according to Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika "Europe is in the best position to understand Africa's complex problems."

 

Little Elian's American Odyssey

The miracle-child of a couple distraught by a series of miscarriages, the lone survivor of a boat lost in its attempt to flee Communist Cuba and reach American shores, now a quasi-religious icon portrayed on buildings in Havana and shops in Miami, where thousands also marched in his name, could 6-year old Elian Gonzalez also become the symbol of a renewal in Cuban-American relations? The resumption of direct phone service between the U.S. and the embargoed island nation this week was the latest in a series of moves to gradually mark a thawing of relations between Cuba and the U.S., despite the strongest objections of Florida's exiled Cuban-Americans, who have seen their influence wane in Washington in recent years. In late March, the U.S. moved closer to ease sanctions against Castro's nation after a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to propose amending the 40-year old embargo by allowing the sale of food and medicine. This followed other signs of thawing between the two countries, such as the addition of direct flights, and intense lobbying by the Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau. The previous month American companies had held their first trade fair on the island nation in forty years. According to the Cuban tourism bureau, 160 000 U.S. citizens visited the island last year, which includes an increasing amount of illegal visits. This week the continuing battle by the authorities to have little Elian return to Cuba in the arms of his father, who was initially promised his son's return after the shipwreck before the heavy-handed politics of Miami's Cuban-Americans turned him into a symbol of defiance of Fidel Castro, prolonged an unusual saga during which Washington can be seen as siding with the ageing dictator. Both agreed Elian belonged with his father, following his mother's death in the sea incident, and not the Miami relatives, who considered the case more as a custody battle than an immigration issue and have come to regard the affair as a trial of Castro's regime. In this electoral year not all politicians necessarily agreed with the Clinton administration's position, as Republican hopeful George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore showed in voicing their support for measures to help keep Elian in the U.S., the former by suggesting he be granted permanent resident status. But the presidential candidates may have in their own ways missed the boat of the Latino vote swing in Florida, which is gradually becoming less influenced by Cuban-American hardliners belonging to the generation of those who fled the island in the 1960s and pushed for a U.S. invasion of Cuba, making Castro's withdrawal their raison d'être. New arrivals from Cuba are likely to be less militant, and increasingly lost in a sea of non-Cuban Latinos who have become, especially during the Elian ordeal, simply uncomfortable with the stance of the power-wielding hard-liners. The same can be said of how Americans may come to view the community after the last weeks of demonstrations, vigils and sometimes threats to disrupt law and order if Elian were forcibly removed from his Miami relatives' home. Polls revealed a majority (53%) of Americans said Elian should be sent home. One Haitian in little Haiti, a predominantly black neighborhood of Miami, tried to put his own measure of pespective on the issue: "If he had been Haitian he would have been left in the water." One does owe the peculiarity of cases involving new Cuban arrivals to the still considerable strength of the exile community, and the rigidity of U.S. sanctions against the small island. Even with the talk of rapprochement, the reality is that Washington and Havana remain ideological worlds apart. At a meeting of G-77 members in Havana Fidel Castro once more attacked capitalism, which he likened to the Holocaust. At the same time lawyers from "eight social and mass organizations" in Cuba were filing a $121 billion lawsuit against the U.S. for "economic damages" after forty years of embargo, just the latest of its kind. Dialogue may start improving when Elian leads a normal life again, which isn't any time soon by some estimates.

 

Leaving Lebanon

One year after he was elected to succeed Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak needn't be reminded the honeymoon has ended on both the domestic and diplomatic political front. Many of the bold promises made a year ago concerning the peace process have met the harsh realities of Middle-eastern politics, which this week forced the Israeli leader to cancel a planned visit to Washington. Even the promises which have been kept fail to lighten the prospects for peace in the Middle-East it seems, as the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon has shown. As a matter of fact Barak's decision to hasten Israel's withdrawal, after 22 years of establishing a security buffer with its northern neighbor, created a movement of panic which sent Israel's allies in the region, the South Lebanese Army, either fleeing or giving themselves up to fast-advancing Hezbollah fighters eager to fill the vacuum and secure cleared positions. The evacuation, which wasn't expected until later this summer, also sent Israelis living near the border huddling into bomb shelters, fearing incoming fire from the Iranian-backed group. The withdrawal equally caught United Nations troops, waiting to oversee the transition since a 1978 resolution ordering Israel out of Lebanon, both off-guard and in the crossfire. The Security Council in New York supported secretary-general Kofi Annan's plan for a two-step increase in the number of peacekeepers there, which would eventually number just under 8 000 once the Israeli withdrawal is confirmed. The UN, which is already having a hard time meeting major commitments in Africa, would like to count on the participation of Canadian and French troops, the former because of the support voiced by the prime minister during his recent visit in the region, the latter because it is the major power which has been the most involved there. Meanwhile Israel reiterated its threat that any attack against positions in northern Israel by Hezbollah would be answered by retaliation, both against targets in Lebanon and Syria, which Barak stressed he would now hold responsible for eventual attacks against Israel. The chaotic withdrawal, a hastened strategic move in the stumbling peace process, took place as peacemaking between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators ground to a halt after a week of violent demonstrations reminiscent of the 1987 Intifada. The street revolt sent the popularity of Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and his party, Fatah, plunging to their worse levels since the 1993 Oslo accords. Fatah was once the organization responsible for attacks against Israel from Lebanon which provoked the 1978 Israeli invasion. Prime minister Barak recalled his negotiating team after a two-year-old Israeli girl was seriously injured in the recent street violence, a move deemed "irresponsible" by Arafat's cabinet chief, Ahmad Abdel Rahman, fearing it would only lead to "further deterioration in the current situation and to increased tension." According to some, the break in talks cut short a deal in the making in Stockholm, where negotiations on a final peace accord had been taking place between Israeli and Palestinians. An unfortunate blow to the "summer of peace" Barak promised for the coming months, but perhaps only a temporary one. A day after the last Isareli soldier had pulled out of Lebanon, Barak toured concerned communities near the border , appealing for peace: "I call on you, President Emile Lahoud (of Lebanon): Israel extends its hand in peace, with the vision of a common future that will be better for the children of both peoples. Let us talk peace. Israel is not an enemy of Lebanon (...) Now we have an opportunty to turn over a new leaf," he went on. "This depends on us, on you and on the Syrian government." A remaining overture in an otherwise frozen peace process.

 

Le Rocket n'est plus

Le samedi soir à Montréal, c'est la soirée du hockey, les rues calmes, sauf dans les brasseries aux alentours du Forum, et les Canadiens sur le petit écran. Mais à 5 heures 40, à un peu plus d'une heure de la mise au jeu ce samedi 27 mai, une des légendes du sport national s'est éteinte à l'hôpital Hotel-Dieu de Montréal, un jour après être retombé dans le coma, souffrant d'une série de maux dont une tumeur maligne, l'arthrose et sans doute le parkinson et l'alzheimer. Il y a plus d'une semaine, Maurice Richard, à 78 ans, a reçu un diagnostic qui signalait qu'il souffrait à nouveau de son cancer de l'abdomen, qu'une faiblesse générale empêchait cette fois de soigner. L'entrée de Richard à l'hôpital avait eu lieu alors qu'un autre glorieux du Canadien, Jean Béliveau, s'apprétait également à recevoir des soins hospitaliers pour combattre une tumeur maligne. Une triste après-saison pour le club tricolore, lui qui ne s'était pas présenté aux séries éliminatoires pour une deuxième saison consécutive, une première depuis l'ère du Rocket. Tout au long de la journée de samedi la famille et les journalistes marquaient le vigile sur la rue St-Urbain, jusqu'aux derniers signes de vie du Rocket en fin d'après-midi. La famille a déclaré qu'elle tenait à partager son deuil avec les partisans, mais que l'organisation entière de l'événement serait transférée au club Canadien. On prévoit entre autre une dépouille publique au centre Molson et des obsèques nationales, possiblement précédées d'un cortège défilant dans les rues. Selon un des fils, Maurice Jr, la famille était satisfaite des "excellents soins" prodigués par l'équipe médicale lors du passage de Richard à L'hôpital. Plus que la simple vedette de hockey qui avait soulevé les foules et établi les records de comptage à son époque, ce qui lui a valu un trophée en son honneur - celui du meilleur marqueur - Richard a soulevé un peuple comme peu de politiciens, notamment lors de la fameuse révolte du Forum qui avait déferlé dans les rues suivant la suspension de 1955. Certains sont allés jusqu'à voir là les débuts de l'expression d'une réaction populaire me-nant vers la révolution tranquille du Québec la décennie suivante. Une nouvelle incarnation du "je me souviens"? Pourtant le Rocket était le premier à renier la politique, mais vu l'époque, s'est retrouvé mêlé au jeu de l'arène parlementaire malgré lui. "Héros malgré lui" peut-être aussi, explorait un chroniqueur de La Presse, car il s'agissait d'un personnage trop timide pour véritablement mener les foules. Pourtant la popularité du Canadien a atteint son zénith sous son règne, participant à toutes les finales des années 50, remportant 6 coupes, dont 5 de suite. Le nom de Richard y est gravé à 8 reprises en tout. Et ce nom ne cessera pas d'être scandé pour autant. L'an dernier, le 9ième jour du 9ième mois, l'ancien n.9 du Canadien a été honoré lors de l'inauguration du "Rocket" de la ligue junior majeur du Québec, qui dispute ses rencontres à l'aréna Maurice Richard au pied de la tour du parc olympique. Aucune surprise que lors de la finale de la coupe Mémoriale, trophée tant convoité du hockey junior, la foule ait observé un silence profond. On y entendait presque les échos de l'ovation de huit minutes qui avait accueilli le Rocket lors de la cérémonie de fermeture de l'ancien Forum, l'immeuble qu'il avait bâti presque entièrement de ses mains, à coups de championnats et de guichets fermés. Richard a été le premier joueur à marquer 50 buts en 50 matches et s'est retiré avec un nombre record de buts en carrière pour l'époque, soit de 544. Ce qui demeure un chiffre repère. Mais le cumul des maux du Rocket reste un témoignage de la brutalité d'une vie de hockey, dont les souffrances auront parfois écourté les carrières des étoiles plus récentes, dont Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, et sans doute Eric Lindros, qui souffrait la veille de sa troisième commotion cérébrale en quelques mois. Le deuil permettra sans doute au club Canadien de se retrouver dans la faveur populaire pendant quelque temps, mais rappellera aussi les moments plus glorieux, et si lointains de la sainte flanelle.

 

Dirty water

How ironic that Canada, one of the world's most endowed countries when it comes to fresh water resources, is facing the biggest crisis of its water sanitation system so soon after a world conference which extolled the virtues of exporting to less fortunate, drought-ridden countries. A few months after the Hague's World Water Conference, the E. coli bacteria contamination of Walkerton's water supply, which has claimed 11 lives so far and sent hundreds to hospital, has brought home a long-overdue debate on the quality of Canada's fresh water supply. The debate, once limited to the soundness of exporting one of the commodities Canada has long taken for granted, has branched out to other sensitive areas, such as the consequences of modern-day farming, and even the once praised policies of the country's favorite cost-cutting provincial government, one year after its re-election. Opponents of Mike Harris' Tory revolution have quickly come to blame government policies for limiting resources to the municipalities to carry on their business of looking out for the safety of the services they provide. And in some precise instances, even overlooking the risks involved. The Harris government is facing its toughest crisis since its re-election, registering a considerable dip in popularity since a Spring budget which put cash back into the pockets of taxpayers. Now some have come to wonder at what cost the $200 cheque taxpayers are receiving from Queen's Park. And the grumbling could spread to other regions of the province, after one agency issued reports of pesticides and bacteria in 46 of 145 Ontario municipalities, ranging in severity. The Walkerton water scare has sparked new concerns not only in the country's most industrial province, but all across the board. The Quebec government's Association of professional engineers quickly pointed out flaws in that province's water management system as well, countering public claims the Walkerton incident could not duplicate itself in the Francophone province. The Association in fact referred to its 1998 call to review much of the province's regulations governing water, referring to them as "inadequate" compared to U.S., European and even pan-Canadian norms, and stressing the need not only to upgrade the current system, but to make sure personnel were properly trained to manage it. It also referred to some communities which occasionally ask their citizens to boil their water, as is currently the practice in Walkerton. The last time this happened on a massive scale was during the Ice storm crisis when power outage to a water treatment plant forced thousands of Montreal residents to boil their water for over a day. Nor have water scares been limited to Canada recently. Right on the border, communities of Vermont have received warnings of radon contamination. At the southern tip of the U.S., a community in Louisiana has been boiling water for weeks after public workers were found to have accidentally connected a water main to the sewer system, yielding most unfortunate and fetid results. In Washington lawmakers are passing regulations governing the amount of arsenic in tap water. And water quality regulations, passed in the US some 26 years ago, are just what may finally be coming Canada's way. While incidents and their nature may vary, an increasingly intense debate is taking place around the practice of factory farming in Canada, which in some areas is sparking fears of potentially disastrous water and soil pollution. So-called "intensive livestock operations" have centred farming in some provinces into the hands of a few agricultural barons, creating a few intensive industries at the source of unprecedented concentration of pollution; a multi-billion dollar industry in Ontario alone, by far the most industrialized and inhabitated province. In addition the urban sprawl in Southern Ontario, the country's most densely-populated area, is placing hog and other cattle industries shoulder to shoulder with residential areas, with consequences which are growing increasingly difficult to manage. A 1998 federal study found half of 27 Alberta streams in key agricultural production areas exceeded water guidelines for disease-carrying bacteria, according to Maclean's. Another 1991 study found 30% of Ontario's rural wells were contaminated with pathogens. In the U.S., the EPA estimates agricultural runoff is the main cause of water pollution in the country. Some experts are even saying the unthinkable: that at this rate, Canada's drinking water supply will be in dire straits within a century. But while factory farming is a national and global trend, those keeping the focus on the Walkerton tragedy are pointing to peculiarities that are uniquely Ontarian, such as leaving municipalities solely responsible for monitoring water quality, and the ensuing privatization of water management, which is now being heavily scrutinized. The failure of chlorine dispensing into the Walkerton water system and the fact that local authorities failed to notify the population right away, two weeks after the first outbreak-related death by one account, are leaving critics of the provincial government looking for blood. A full public inquiry has now formally been launched into the disaster, leaving the country home to so much fresh water scratching its head.

 

Fifty years after Korea

Fifty years later, it is still referred to as "the forgotten war", even as its relics command so much attention: a heavily guarded "demilitarized zone" U.S. president Bill Clinton once referred to as "the most horrible place on earth"; a last barbed divide of the Cold war separating not only two geographies but sometimes even two epochs it seems. Since both North and South Korea are still technically at war 47 years after the last direct shots rang out, it isn't the war that's been forgotten, but the peace. This month both countries' leaders made strides with simple acts which may have been viewed as guarded and hesitant under normal circumstances: they met and clasped hands in a historic summit in Pyongyang, promi-sing "no more war" and a possible rapprochement some hope could lead to reunification. While limited in substance, the gestures were openly welcomed as era-changing, prompting South Korean leader Kim Dae Jung to cancel a parade marking 50th anniversary observances, to the dismay of hundreds of veterans, and inspiring Clinton to ease sanctions against a regime slowly redefined from its "rogue" label. The North meanwhile, ordinarily accused by Washington of spreading its arms knowhow indiscrimi-nately, promised a moratorium on missile testing. Both countries have also agreed to allow family reunions and an exchange of long-time prisoners later in the Summer. South Korea has even mentioned helping the North - financially bankrupt in general and famine-ridden in some parts - rebuild its shattered economy; working towards what could one day possibly develop into a confederation of sorts on the peninsula. But even the early stages of this are nowhere to be found in the near future. Remarkably, talks of eventually signing a treaty to officially end the war or eliminating the buffer zone - the world's most heavily militarized strip of real estate - were conspicuously absent from the three-day summit. Furthermore the are fears North Korea, which is adept at provoking crises and demanding a pay-off to defuse them, may only be buying itself some more time and aid to relieve its staggering economy momentarily. Cautious reforms started under the new leadership, largely inspired by China - which North Korean leader Kim Jung Il visited prior to the summit -, remain contained by an unwavering Stalinist dogma, which only limits the background of understanding in any dialogue between the Koreas. Yet Western analysts are calculating, as they have in China's case, that just the right amount of openness and reform may open the door to democratization down the road, the only road leading to true reunification. While the light has yet to be seen at the end of the tunnel, defence analysts are already looking into the formidable implications of peace between the Koreas, when they're not greasing their weapons. "I think it will mean a significant rethinking and restructuring of U.S. forces in Asia," assessed a retired U.S. army colonel in the midst of 50th anniversary commemorations, to the point of rethinking the U.S. military's basic philosophy. Since the end of the Cold war the military used a two-war scenario to justify its size and structure, bearing in mind any erupting conflict, such as in the Gulf or the Balkans, would have to be fought while 37,000 troops remained stationed and alert in South Korea. But increasingly, as in other military bases across Asia, there is a wariness by local populations living near the installations, having to put up with fly-bys and rumbling military activity. Recent demonstrations by farmers in Maehyangri South Korea were just the latest to vent native disgruntlement with U.S. presence. But for a while this will remain the price of peace still. Indeed for now the Pentagon's assessment of the region and risks in the area of the DMZ is unchanged despite the recent talks, as are plans of a missile defense system to counter the North's misile threat in part. Sometimes in fact it would seem the men in green are the last ones to believe in the possibility, one distant day, their time on the peninsula may finally be up.

 

La paix après Assad

La candidature du fils du défunt président syrien Hafez el-Assad à peine approuvée par le parlement de Damas au courant de la semaine, on chuchotait déjà la date d'investiture du lionceau Bachar de 33 ans, même si en principe le peuple devait être appelé à se prononcer sur sa candidature lors d'un référendum populaire. Ainsi va le processus démocratique en Syrie, où les votes populaires se soldent communément par des résultats quasi-unanimes, et donc peu démocratiques. Autant dire que les espoirs de réforme pèsent lourdement sur ce médecin ophtamologiste désigné successeur du Lion de Damas, tout comme l'héritage de celui qui aura conservé les rennes du pouvoir pendant presque trente ans, jusqu'à son décès le 10 juin dernier. Même si le futur président syrien avait depuis quelques temps commencé à entamer la transition en constituant un entourage d'économistes formés en occident, tout comme lui, puis lancé une campagne anti-corruption qui a lui a valu le titre de "M. Propre" et vanté les mérites des nouvelles technologies et d'internet, peu ont risqué de se prononcer sur les conséquences de sa succession sur le processus démocratique. Certains doutent même qu'elle tienne bien longtemps, tout comme la stabilité instaurée par la force par Assad-père. Un léger vent de discorde soufflait d'ailleurs depuis Paris, où le ministre des affaires étrangères, Hubert Védrine, a mis en doute la capacité de Bachar de survivre aux querelles politiques et de famille. Pour l'heure, les tigres de l'instabilité ont été domptés par une armée qui promet de veiller au bien-être du successeur, estimant également respecter l'opinion du peuple exprimée pendant le deuil. En effet, dans la grande tradition répressive du régime, l'armée a procédé à l'arrestation des contestataires de la candidature de M. Bachar, dont certains puisent leur inspiration chez l'oncle Rifaat el-Assad, exilé depuis l'échec d'une tentative de coup d'état en 1983. Alors que le frère ennemi du président défunt a peu de chance de saisir le pouvoir dont il se déclare, "en vertu de la constitution", le véritable héritier, ses vastes ressources financières sèment la crainte d'une tentative de destabilisation interne ou de l'extérieur. La succession de Bachar est déjà contestée par ceux qui estiment que le néophyte aux main propres, malgré un manque réel d'ennemis, ne parviendra pas à maintenir au pouvoir la minorité alawite dont il fait partie. Le clan de Rifaat prétend qu'il est mieux préparé pour défendre les assises de cette secte chiite islamique qui ne représente que 10% de la population. Le tiraillement familial et fratricide d'une minorité maintenue au pouvoir par la force des armes n'est pas un scénario unique au Moyen-orient, puisqu'il semble se calquer sur le modèle du régime Hussein en Iraq. L'importance de ces querelles se fera sentir au niveau régional dans la cadre du processus de paix, où suite au retrait israélien du Liban la balle semblait être retombée dans le camp syrien, paralysé pendant les quarante jours que durent les obsèques nationales. En attendant, Washington poursuit tant bien que mal ses efforts de pacification, suite aux frousses ressenties à Jérusalem, où le gouvernement d'Ehud Barak est passé à un doigt de la dissolution. La secrétaire d'Etat Madeleine Albright, qui s'est rendue aux obsèques de M. Assad, poursuit les navettes si familière à son prédecesseur de longue date Henry Kissinger, c'est dire que ces efforts ne datent pas d'hier. Puisque le dernier mandat du président Clinton tire à sa fin, elle se voit obligée de lancer une dernière offensive afin de réunir Palestiniens et Israéliens en vue d'un sommet de la paix dans le style du camp David. Déjà Israël semble ouvrir la voie du compromis sur la question cruciale de Jérusalem et des colons des territoires, prête, dit-on, à procéder à des concessions jadis inimaginables, sans être gratuites. Le camp palestinien relève cependant plusieurs divergences importantes entre les deux camps sur certaines questions clé, de qui reporte pour l'heure les projets de sommet tant espérés. Par ailleurs un joueur externe mais intéressé, l'Iran, a donné un appui timide mais historique au processus de paix, se rangeant de toute évidence derrière le camp arabe. Alors que la mort de M. Assad a plongé la piste syrienne dans la paralysie, elle a permise aux partis de se consacrer à la primordiale question pales-tinienne. Certains espère, le deuil une fois terminé, que la succession syrienne saura s'y joindre de plein gré. Enfin, relativement.

 

Mexico's 21st century revolution

In a world where the two Koreas were finally talking peace and where the return of little Elian Gonzalez raised hopes of thawing U.S.-Cuba relations, there had to be a way to hold a free and fair vote in Mexico. That meant one which invariably removed the ruling Institutional Revolu- tionary Party (PRI) and its "dinosaurs" from power. It was then without exaggeration that this month's vote, clearly won by the National Action Party (PAN) candidate, Vincente Fox (43%), over the PRI's Francisco Labastida Ochoa (36%), was likened to the fall of the Berlin wall by analysts as well as average voters. In fine Communist fashion, the party, often quite indistinguishable from power itself, remained the longest-ruling party in history up until the July 2nd vote. Formed to bring order out of the Mexican Revolution in 1929, the revolutionary party, which turned into the PRI in 1946, ensured stability through force and corruption, a practice maintained in some regions until the party's very last gasp, at the twilight of the century it had dominated. Yet despite minor irregularities, the independent body overseeing the vote, the Federal Electoral Institute, backed by international monitors, declared the year 2000 vote fair and free of major disruption. In fact for the first time in memory no party contested the presidential vote. Setting up the FEI was a further sign the PRI was attempting to answer the growing call for reform, just as the selection of Labastida had been made through an open primary instead of the usual internal handpicking. But as most of the economic reforms of outgoing president Ernesto Zedillo and his maverick predecessor, Carlos Salinas - the architect of Mexico's entry in Nafta suspected of having been elected through fraud - many of the measures were either half-baked or too little too late and unevenly distributed. The incoming Fox, who takes up the presidential duties in November only, at a time when the U.S. will be selecting Mexico's future northern partner, will have ample time to put some order of priority into the long list of electoral promises of change he made throughout the campaign: from eradicating poverty, achieving 7% growth and creating over a million jobs, to combatting insecurity, crime and corruption. He has also promised to pick up matters in the Chiapas where they were left off in 1996, over a year after Natives revolted over Mexico's entry into Nafta. A tall order for the former Coca-Cola chief executive turned governor of Guanajuato. The pains of running a small company during the high inflation of the 1980s, after Fox had left Coke to work in his home state, is said of having convinced him of the need for political change, sending him into the path of the presidency. But while his business skills may have been proven, he hasn't inspired as much confidence on the political front, owing much of his victory to a general will to deal the PRI a historic blow and consolidate Mexico's long transition to democracy rather than endorse the full PAN platform. As a matter of fact there remains enough opposition to make the job of government uneasy at best in the six-year mandate to come, especially in the Congress where the PRI has preserved the largest voting bloc. Zedillo welcomed the outcome of the vote despite the result, calling it a proof Mexican democracy is blooming. Yet much remains to be seen on this front also, as well as on the future in store for the PRI. While some analysts contend the party, held together by little else than the ideology of keeping power, will disintegrate now that it's failed in fulfilling this primary goal, others fear it may be up to its old tricks in no time to attempt to discredit the new government. The shock of defeat once dealt with, the party has been the scene of much infighting, amid cries of treason for the way Zedillo handled the campaign, not to mention conceding defeat before the final tally. One columnist in the daily Diario de Monterrey urged caution as "Electoral triumphs often yield disappointment". The journalist reminded that ten years after the fall of Communism, much of the corruption, bureaucracy and authoritarianism of the old system has yet to be totally uprooted. And so the same may prove true in the case of the PRI, known as the "revolutionary family", where the word "family" is best understood by some through its Italian translation of "mafia". That the true transition to post-PRI Mexico will be long and tedious is something Fox had expected even before he started campaigning. At the time he claimed: "Ending 70 years of dictatorship will be a great heroic exploit for Mexico. (...) Just as reaching the moon took a decade of work, defeating the ruling party will also require lots of time, talent and money." It may also require quick "action", true to the party name, meaning reform, once the euphoria and novelty of change have faded. Many East bloc countries, long after the wall came down, did manage to re-elect former Communists campaigning under a new name, which incidently is just what Mongolia did last week.

 

Oil crazy?

It doesn't seem that long ago. The price of oil was so low it threatened the bottom lines and budgets of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries's smaller members; some even hinted the oil-producing cartel had little time left to live. Then suddenly on the eve of its 40th anniversary gathering, OPEC, and many of the world's petroleum companies, were enjoying the good life of a barrel well over 30$, the highest levels in a decade, since the Gulf war. But consumers are fuming, and world leaders, gathered at last week's UN Millennium Summit in New York, expressed fears a prolonged period of oil shortage and high prices could damage world growth, appealing to OPEC members to boost production. OPEC's largest member, Saudi Arabia, pledged to do so, and raise production figures already 600,000 barrels over its daily quota, promising to send prices dropping into the relative stability zone, between $22 and $28 dollars a barrel, already more than twice late 1998 levels. Accounting for delays to allow the increases to work themselves through the system, it could be months, and more price peaks, even Winter, before the world gets a break, and that's if the added production is substantial enough, closer to a million extra barrels. OPEC's decision last weekend to boost production by some 800 000 barrels was hence deemed insufficient by traders in the oil business, who quickly sent the price of crude oil to new heights, some $35, at the beginning of the week. Saudi Arabia could soon see itself producing the most oil it has pumped in 20 years, enough, some economists say, to call the present tidings a new oil crisis, compounded by low reserves in major countries, including the United States, making any quick fix simply impossible. Protest meanwhile has been sprouting over the price of gasoline. As always, France led the way in the form of popular condemnation, leading to confrontations between police and drivers at blockades set up across the country, in front of oil refineries and petrol stations. 80% of service stations outside Paris were said of being running dry, as the movement, including lorry drivers, taxis and even the famous Bateaux Mouches, moved into the capital, while interminable queues of panic-stricken consumers lined up in the capital's gas stations. A slipping Euro did nothing to lower costs of importing the black gold. By the time authorities in Paris had made concessions and the barricades were being removed, the movement was catching on to the rest of the continent, to the Netherlands and Spain, and even workaholic Sweden, Germany and Britain, said of carrying Europe's steepest prices, where more peaceful protests in the form of bans of certain gas companies had been the chosen modus operandi. As far away as Canada protesters were quickly growing less tolerant of high prices and squeezed budgets, promising to replicate some of the actions seen in France. Even in Games hosting Australia, where gas is fetching over a dollar per litre, protests are competing with pre-coverage of the Olympics for cover space in the press. Back in Europe, the crisis had become so sweeping it slashed the popularity of government leaders in France and Britain in no time. Oil companies meanwhile have been doing a brisk business despite a disgruntlement which has been spreading since the Spring in North America as well as Europe. Companies such as Petro-Canada and Imperial oil have registered recent profits of 130% and more, while TotalFina raked in a 43% increase in profits, revenues up nearly 50% what they were the same period last year. This sent energy stocks rocketing out of the financial derrick, a good substitute to slipping high-tech stocks in any portfolio. Protesters didn't know who to blame more, high government taxes, OPEC's tight collusion or price-gauging oil companies. But the cries were perhaps less strident in energy boom regions such as Alberta, where the wealthy provincial government started relieving its cracking coffers by distributing periodic cheques to its citizens. A boisterous highly political act other provinces didn't always appreciate. An increase of $1 a barrel is said of pumping and extra $150 million into the provincial economy. But for all the noise in the industrialised world, where it is quickly forgotten oil is responsible for a lesser share of the Gross Domestic Product than it was during the crises of the 70s, the high prices will be felt more acutely in the emerging economies, according to the Economist magazine, since the development of oil-intensive industries and lack of energy alternatives and efficiency leave them at the mercy of producing nations. Among the latter, most are already producing at or near capacity, except for Saudi Arabia, which will have to be mindful to play a delicate balancing act: not producing too much and reap an excessive share of quota among the cartel, or too little, leaving major partners in the West in a bind with shortages and energy-related inflation. To some, oil-price shocks and rising inflation are a reminder of the preludes to recession seen in previous decades. The fear OPEC may be nearing production capacity is spreading fears of a barrel as high as $40 if no relief comes before the Winter. Some analysts contend however that the ball is increasingly in the court of non-OPEC members, including Canada, who after all account for 60% of the world's oil output. The high-tech world can rant and rave about e-business, economies are still at the mercy of a major energy commodity, and a half a dozen countries where the internet still takes a back seat to crude materials. The latest crisis may only be the price to pay for one of the most prolonged periods of economic growth in the West, so far spared by other inflationary pressures, and developing Asia's unquenchable thirst for petrol.

 

Corcorde: cette fois la fin?

Curieusement, alors qu'il semblait prématuré de parler de fin de l'ère Concorde le lendemain du terrible accident le mois dernier près de Paris, il en est moins le cas aujourd'hui; le bel oiseau blanc a peut-être après tout effectué son dernier envol. L'enquête sur la première catastrophe supersonique de l'histoire, après 25 ans de vols commerciaux, a conclu que l'éclat d'un pneu au décollage aurait été à l'origine du fil des événements qui ont abouti à l'écrasement du vol Paris-New York, causant la mort de 113 personnes. Qu'un événement à l'origine aussi banal soit porté responsable d'une telle tragédie a suffi pour garder cloués au sol les vols d'Air France, suspendus depuis l'accident, et paralyser ceux de British Airways, qui protestait toujours l'excellence de l'état de sa flotte, malgré quelques incidents techniques récents (dont un aurait forcé l'atterrissage d'une liaison Londres-New York à Terre-neuve). Chez l'une des compagnies comme chez l'autre, c'est le prestige qui est en ressorti blessé, car le chiffre d'affaire en question est négligeable, et l'on savait qu'à long terme le supersonique avait peu d'espoir de connaître un renouveau, au moment de retirer les modèles existants du service. L'on craint déjà, après le retrait du certificat de navigabilité de Concorde des deux côtés de la Manche, que les modifications que l'on exige des modèles existants, pour éviter une nouvelle tragédie, ne signalent l'enterrement de l'avion de prestige. "Sur le Concorde, il pourrait s'agir de modifier, par exemple, les moteurs ou leur emplacement. C'est trop cher ou impossible", fait noter Bruno Senatti, représentant du syndicat d'un constructeur. C'est bien cette notion de coût, prohibitif à tous les niveaux, qui aura régulièrement terni l'aventure Concorde. Depuis le prix de sa conception jusqu'à celui de son opération et de sa maintenance, la piètre rentabilité de ses vols était parfois devenue aussi légendaire que ses performances aéronautiques. D'ailleurs au moment de l'écrasement de Gonesse, près de Roissy, le monde de l'aviation consacrait une nouvelle fois la voie du gros porteur lors d'une conférence internationale tenue en Grande-Bretagne, où la folle course aux contrats des modèles Boeing 777 et Airbus A3XX était lancée. La tendance de faire traverser l'Atlantique à plus grand nombre au moindre prix se poursuivait, celle qui avait limité le potentiel Concorde lors des années 70. Pendant quelques temps, des chercheurs américains, dont Boeing, avec la collaboration de la Nasa, ont d'ailleurs tenté d'appliquer cette logique au supersonique. Les ingénieurs rêvaient d'un modèle pouvant transporter jusqu'à 300 passagers pour un prix à peine 20% supérieur aux prix réguliers, mais en vain. Ces espoirs furent mis au placard, même par ceux qui voulaient encore y croire, il y a un peu plus d'un an. La prochaine génération du supersonique risque d'avoir des applications militaires plutôt que commerciales. Même chez ceux qui osaient encore rêver, l'image de ce Concorde en flammes à quelques secondes du moment fatidique était plutôt celle d'Icare s'étant trop approché du soleil que du phénix jaillissant des cendres. Mais il en reste pour qui la légende n'en est pas encore à ses derniers jours. A court terme, Air France et British Airways ont fait appel à BAE Systems et l'EADS pour corriger les défaillance actuelles et proposer un plan d'action afin d'assurer la survie de la douzaine de supersoniques existante. Pour l'avenir, même après s'être retiré du projet Nasa, Boeing caresse encore des rêves virtuels de supersonique, la course à laquelle ne se sont jamais engagés les Etats-Unis au niveau civil, du moins sur son site web. Folie aéronautique à première vue: la nouvelle génération d'ingénieurs de Tupolev ose aussi encore rêver d'un prochain Konkordski, du moins sur papier, une réalité bien lointaine de celle du portefeuille. C'est d'ailleurs un modèle modifié de la version russe du Concorde, qui a longtemps été consacrée comme un grand coup de l'espionage russe plutôt que celui de son ingénierie, qui a servi à la Nasa. Mais si le modèle soviétique n'a pas connu l'espérance de vie du modèle franco-britannique c'est également en raison de ses défaillances techniques, notamment lors de l'incident fatal qui, en 1973, signalait l'humiliation russe et la mort lente de l'utilisation commerciale de l'avion. Ironie du sort, cet incident a eu lieu pas si loin du site de la tragédie Concorde, au Bourget, l'aéroport où espérait peut-être atterir le pilote du vol damné. Véritable sirène des temps modernes.

 

Trudeau put to rest

"Gentlemen, my work here is done." Those could have easily been the parting words of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, prime minister for nearly sixteen years, the first to be born this century, who passed away at the dawn of the Millennium, on September 28th in Montreal. And why not. Into the second century of bilingualism, language immersion is thriving across the country. At least according to the thousands who paid tribute to the former head of government in both Ottawa and Montreal, tens of thousands in all, often well into the wee hours of the morning. In addition Canada is now a proud nation which settles for nothing less than excellence, and is disappointed by less than stellar performances, as seen by the reactions to the latest Olympic games medal count. Then the Charter, it is increasingly agreed, may have been the single most important Canadian document of the last century. Before it, the subjects of the Crown were not yet recognized as "Canadians". In fact, the Crown, England, whence Trudeau patriated the Constitution in 1982, has only this week looked into establishing its own equivalent "bill of rights". Separatists meanwhile, although not yet throwing in the towel, have acknowledged for the first time that the unity debate has thrown the country into serious constitutional "fatigue". Quebec premier Bouchard's own words in front of businessmen in Wisconsin last week. Trudeau could be heard smiling from inside his casket at Notre-Dame basilica, where world leaders gathered to pay hommage on Tuesday. Among them, Bouchard himself, as well as former prime minister Brian Mulroney, but also a who's who of 70s world leaders, such as former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and Cuban president Fidel Castro. Perhaps there is some fine tuning left to be done in Trudeau's masterpiece. It wouldn't be one if it weren't so; if some thought-provoking ideas didn't still leave some serious divisions between various elements of society. Although superstar Trudeau ushered in the television political era, his brand of politics was one his contemporaries have not always sought to emulate. Many who have paid hommage to the "great" leader, a superlative used with great ease and liberty these last days, said he may well be remembered for his vision of the country, and drive to bring it to fruition. A resonant reproach in itself that this is precisely what current political leaders lack. And this vision was unwavering and clearly defined in the earliest stages of his career. Of his victory in Town of Mount Royal, a riding won by Trudeau in 1965 to the surprise of many, the young MP said "This vote is a clear indication of the ethnic and cultural maturity in a riding with a small minority of French-Canadians. The fact that I am the first French-Canadian to represent you is, to me, an indication that Canada can, if it wishes, hold fast to that ideology deeming all men equal." Not only was this eloquent of his vision of a country that is "more than the sum of all its parts", whether Anglophone or Francophone, Allophone or Native, but this was the start of an era in federal politics which saw an uninterrupted string of Francophone prime ministers take the leadership of the country, save those few months of protest which saw Joe Clark briefly move to 24 Sussex drive. Then, one year before his election, on December 21st, his famous "There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation," became no less than a global leap into a new age of social consciousness. The Omnibus bill, legalizing homosexuality and "therapeutic abortions", set precedents which transformed Canadian society, and with current debates on abortion pills and gay marriages, transform it still. The prime minister who took office in the Spring of 1968 had the unusual distinction of having been blacklisted in the United States, and holding a brown belt in judo. But had the conviction of a vision which lives in the heart of the few who worked under him that are still in parliament: Prime minister Jean Chrétien, champion of the 1995 referendum, who's vision of federalism and impatience with separatists are as unwavering, and Lloyd Axworthy, the outgoing foreign affairs minister, who developed a humanitarian agenda based on the international activism and Third world support of the former liberal leader. Trudeau's work is perhaps not yet complete. This week the Supreme court of Canada rescheduled a high-profile court case arising from the troubling events of some thirty years ago, the 1970 October crisis. Terrorism from that era remains on trial. In fact tiny cells of separatist extremists are still detonating small explosives near businesses carrying English names. But they for now no longer drive a movement powerful enough to split the country. That battle was waged and won in 1980. This week's hommage by friends and former foes, in Trudeau-loving Ontario and divided Quebec, spoke volumes on a society where the great battles have apparently been won, often under Trudeau's leadership. But, reminded young Justin, in a moving eulogy to his father during this week's grand state funeral, to ensure the survival of his legacy, we can no longer count on Trudeau's interventions anymore, "it's all up to us - all of us".

 

La fin de Milosevic

Onze ans après l'automne des révolutions en Europe de l'est, neuf après celui de l'effrondrement de l'Union soviétique, le dernier bastion du totalitarisme en Europe s'est effondré. Malgré les faux espoirs et les déceptions du passé, la prise du parlement yougoslave par les foules la semaine dernière, enragées par l'annulation du vote qui avait infligé un premier revers électoral cuisant à Slobodan Milosevic, a mis un terme au règne de fer de treize ans du président yougoslave. Celui-ci avait refusé de se plier à la volonté populaire après l'élection du 24 septembre qui, selon l'opposition et certains observateurs étrangers, était marquée par une fraude massive. Une commission électorale partisane a exigé la tenue d'un second tour, rejeté par l'opposition. L'Opposition démocratique de Serbie, constituée de 18 partis, a alors lancé un ultimatum à Milosevic, qui devait reconnaître la victoire incontestée de Vojislav Kostunica. L'ultimatum une fois passé, les foules ont envahi le parlement, parfois même assistées des troupes fédérales, dont l'allégiance à l'opposition laissait de moins en moins de doute. La veille l'armée était restée aussi impassible devant l'invasion d'une foule de plusieurs milliers de manifestants d'une mine où 500 mineurs avaient suivi l'appel à la désobéissance civile de l'opposition, le lendemain du scrutin, afin de faire plier le régime en place. Chose faite, Kostunica s'est déclaré président jeudi soir devant une foule en délire, tandis que l'on ignorait le sort de Milosevic, qui le disait-on avait pris la fuite. Mais le président déchu était toujours à Belgrade et s'empressa d'ajuster son tir en allant féliciter Kostunica, alors que les membres de sa famille tentaient de se réfugier à l'étranger. Jamais n'avait-on imaginé que le nouveau slogan des foules yougoslaves, "Gotov je!" (Il est fini!) correspondrait si vite à la réalité. La veille le Département d'Etat américain rappelait le sort qui attend Milosevic: "Il existe un acte d'accusation du Tribunal pénal international qui appelle tous les pays à remettre Milosevic à La Haye." Mais Milosevic a parié sur le patriotisme de Kostunica, qui a promis de ne pas le faire juger à la Haye, proposant de jouer un rôle actif au sein de la nouvelle opposition. S'il y parvient il ne sera plus cerné de son entourage habituel, qui a longtemps bénéficié du régime de corruption. Au courant de la seconde semaine de "révolution pacifique" en Yougoslavie, le parlement comme le monde des affaires ont été progressivement purgés de l'ancien ordre, en attendant de nouvelles élections dans quelques mois. L'armée a cependant indiqué qu'elle résisterait à une telle purge. Entre temps l'occident a accueilli ce changement d'ordre avec enthousiasme, mettant un terme aux sanctions économiques des dernières années et permettant le retour progressif de la Yougoslavie au sein du giron européen. Alors que Kostunica allait rendre visite aux mineurs qui furent les catalystes du soulèvement populaire, de sérieuses questions perduraient quand à l'avenir des relations entre la Serbie et le Monténégro, et surtout le Kosovo, à propos desquels il était si récemment question de rupture.

 

Closest U.S. race in history

After an election night which was everything as nail-biting as it was billed to be, no final results could do justice to the roller-coaster ride which will eventually leave the next president of the United States leading a divided government in a divided country. So there was none. It was perhaps fitting that the race came down to crucial polls in a divided state, Florida, which early exit polls conceded to the camp of Democratic contender Al Gore, and later results to Republican George W. Bush. Not only is the state divided between Democrats, who live primarily in the urban and liberal south-east, and Republicans, who make up much of the rest of the state and especially the West, it is divided between Eastern and Central time zones, sending networks scrambling when they realized the state was initially being conceded as Western Florida was still at the polls. Making matters more difficult and sending the final run to the photofinish was the split within the Hispanic vote itself, increasingly made of communities other than Cuban, which wasn't enough to give the crucial 25 electoral college votes to the vice-president, nor to the Texas governor, whose brother, Jeb, is state governor. (90% of the African-American vote went to Gore in the state) Both candidates had recognised the state's importance from the outset, pre-campaigning as early as during the crux of the Elian Gonzales crisis, right up until the eve of the vote. Gore in fact held his last rally in South Beach. This was the large state the vice-president couldn't afford to lose, especially since the win in Iowa would mean that a Florida victory would give him the 270 electoral college votes and the presidency. Analysts didn't fail to point out the importance of the Ralph Nader vote there, whose left-leaning policies appealed to a number of Gore voters, taking a crucial 2% of the vote, and 3% nationwide; not enough to get party funding but plenty to play the spoiler in a close contest. He may have hurt the Democrats as the disintegrated Reform party had done to Republicans in previous elections. Both Bush and Gore collected 48% of the national vote, but by leading the popular vote by just over 200,000 voices, the Democrats face the possibility, for the first time in over one hundred years, of winning this count but losing the crucial electoral college count. This would be sure to put into question America's long, complex and expensive electoral process. The vote cost over $3 billion. In the final days both camps were pressing hard to bring out the vote of a population which to a degree seemed unmoved by the issues. In fact Gore was still making phone calls to radio stations out West while the polls were closing in the East. Bush lead in most major pre-electoral polls and was right on Gore's heels in the electoral college tally; both candidates often separated by a tiny lead well within the margin of error. In addition more than enough states remained undecided to tip the balance. Giving an indication of the importance of every single vote, in a country which usually posts disappointing participation results (just over 52% here, considered better), analysts pondered the importance not only of smaller states, but of absentee and overseas voting. As projected, Gore won his electoral college votes, a total of 255 with three states still undecided (Oregon voting was done exclusively by mail thus slow to come in), primarily in a handful of large states, such as California and New York, and even scored victories which sent the Bush camp reeling in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Bush on the other hand, who finished with 246 electoral college votes for the unfinished night, took the smaller, especially Southern and mid-West states he was expected to win, including that of his competitor, Tennessee, and predecessor, Arkansas. For outgoing president Bill Clinton, the night was bittersweet, celebrating his wife's historic Senate win in New York state, but anxious he failed to warm the seat for his eight-year running mate, the son of a politician who had also lost Tennessee thirty years ago to the date. It was the first time in 26 years Clinton wasn't on an Arkansas ballot. Fittingly again, the evening started to appear much like a retrospective of a 1960 vote only decided in the early hours of the morning, conceding the win to John F. Kennedy. On election night in Nashville, crowds were left waiting in the rain into the wee hours for a concession speech which never came. It was interrupted by a call from Gore's campaign manager, echoing Florida's State Auditor General, who pointed to the narrowness of the vote in his state. Florida state law calls for an automatic recount when votes are within half a percentage point. After initially calling his contender to concede the election, Al Gore retracted the move and was forced to cancel or at least postpone his speech, as the East coast presses calling for a "Bush Win" came to a grinding stop. With less than 2,000 votes separating the candidates in the Sunshine state, well under the 28,000 limit requiring a recount (which itself was less than 10% of the gap between the two nationally, after over 98 million votes), weary Americans went to bed and then woke up, not knowing who would lead them for the next four years. Red-faced overseas leaders had to retract statements congratulating Bush on his electoral win, and wait. How long became a new point of contention in a vote which lacked few, including two blown election calls on Florida by the national television networks. By the time recounting started in Florida, allegations of irregularities were growing larger. At least three voters took legal action to contest the vote in Palm Beach county, where unclear electoral markings could have resulted in a number of Gore votes going to Reform opponent Pat Buchanan, who scored above average numbers in the strongly Democratic district. Finally Elections officials said they would await the last overseas absentee ballots before certifying the final count, extending the counting process by over a week. What had started as a bizarre night became a bizarre week leaving the presidency of the world's largest economic and military power in limbo. Into week two of the U.S. presidential election, both parties were getting nastier about the outcome of the vote, entering a complex realm of legality, technicality and judisprudence both in Florida and nationally. Florida's machine recount process shrank the already slim lead of under 1,800 votes initially enjoyed by Republican candidate George W. Bush according to unofficial press reports. With the margin growing smaller, a few hundred votes unofficially, Democrats asked for a manual recount in a few Florida counties, reducing the chance machines missed computing some votes in the mainly Democrat areas. Showing signs of losing patience, the Bush camp pointed to three other states, all narrowly won by the vice-president, where some recounts may be in store, potentially opening a Pandora's box into the post-electoral process. In fact a recount was already under way in New Mexico after thousands of ballots were left out of the tabulation, giving Bush a narrow lead there and withdrawing the state from the Gore column pending the final outcome. Meanwhile Gore was said of having taken the state of Oregon according to the A.P., but other media have been in no rush to add the state to the democratic tally by fear of repeating earlier mistakes of blown calls. This is another state Republicans may choose to review. Sending the electoral process "spiralling out of control", to use former Secretary of State James Baker's terms, is also a concern in the Bush camp after lawyers representing the Democrats hinted they may pursue their actions through the courts. But the Republican party opened the legal proceedings first, seeking, unsuccessfully, a court injuction to prohibit the manual recounts sought by the Gore camp, claiming they could be tampered with or would only delay the final tally in Palm Beach. The heavily Democratic hotbed was home to petitions and demonstrations as protesters called for a new vote following a number of reports of irregularities. Adding to the accusations unusual ballot markings could have scrapped a number of Gore votes were reports some 19,000 ballots were thrown away because they had been punched twice. (10 000 more were not marked at all) The Gore camp said it was because many voters, realizing they may have voted for Buchanan instead of the vice-president, sought to correct them. Buchanan himself went public voicing surprise at his Palm Beach tally, indicating some of Gore's votes may have mistakenly gone to him. For an election going into unchartered waters, including that level of political honesty, it was probably only fitting there was talk the process may extend as far as allowing a new vote in the county. But there is some reluctance to plunge the country as a whole into an all-out constitutional crisis, one which, Republicans point out, had been avoided in 1960 when Richard Nixon had refused to contest a close vote and accepted defeat to John F. Kennedy. The uncertainty has also been felt on the bearish world stockmarkets, including New York, fearing a lengthy legal process would leave the U.S. without a president come inauguration time on January 20th. Short of allowing a new vote, the process will be extended until Friday when absentee ballots are accounted for. The next looming deadline would be December 18th when members of the electoral college cast their votes. But deadlines have not always been respected in the midst of such an unprecedented, at times ugly, certainly historic, event. Meanwhile the rhetoric by both camps has become inflamed as the review process was heading toward new stages of the Florida recount, from accusations the Democrats were "sore losers", to claims their votes had been robbed in Palm beach. Already it seems the next president, who will have to deal with a sharply divided Congress, will be facing tough questions surrounding his legitimacy early in his tenure.Unfortunately while the coming presidency will be expected to perform, for lack of choice, in a bipartisan environment, it may only be determined after much more bitter partisan bickering. Used to taking lessons from the self-proclaimed champion and defender of democracy, the world can only watch, baffled, dumbfounded and a bit amused. It was perhaps the sure mark of absurdity, one analyst stressed, that Cuba be given the opportunity to call its mighty northern neighbor a "banana republic".

 

Liberals get third majority government

Jean Chrétien has come out a winner in his latest electoral gamble, winning a post-war record third majority government with seats in every province of the country and in greater numbers than previously expected. The prime minister also handily won his riding of St-Maurice for an eleventh time, in a province which registered the highest score by his party in twenty years. The networks, careful not to repeat the mistakes made south of the border, declared the victory at around 10:15 pm, shortly after the polls closed in British Columbia. The Liberals took an early lead in the election in the Atlantic provinces, where they managed to add to their vote total, taking over 40% of the tally and 19 seats, and never looked back. Chrétien's hand-picked Atlantic right-hand man, Brian Tobin, won easily in Newfoundland, and called the night's numbers a "tribute to Jean Chrétien" whom he said was on his way to a "historic three-peat". The sentiment was echoed by Allan Rock, in Etobicoke Centre, who took shots at the past US election declaring "Never mind dimpled or pregnant chads, we have a third majority government!" The red tide continued into Ontario, scoring no less than 100 seats, in addition to a surprise performance in Quebec, where the Liberals took 36, including a handful from the Bloc Québécois. The victory was also a personal one for Chrétien, who defied his own party strategists by running again instead of stepping aside to let popular Finance minister Paul Martin take the helm. In all 172 seats went to the Liberals across the country, leaving all the other parties licking their wounds. The Canadian Alliance, which managed to score its first seats in Ontario and add to its national tally (66), nevertheless still remained a largely Western-based party. Stockwell Day easily took his B.C. riding, and offered a humbling concession speech in which he promised to work with the government to bring the country in the right direction. "The message to us is 'not this time, not yet'," he said. The Bloc came in third in the number of seats collected, 38, scoring a disappointing second in the popular vote behind the Liberals in Quebec, the only province where it fielded candidates. The New Democratic Party, with 13 seats, considered itself satisfied it had claimed official party status, Alexa McDonough winning her fight for political survival by keeping her seat. Joe Clark was probably the most likely of the leaders to lose in his riding, his Tories waiting well into the night to claim official party status, ending with just barely the minimum number of seats required (12). Clark's win in Calgary Centre was a rare Conservative victory in the Western provinces. In fact, both NDP and Tories managed to win seats in just seven provinces, the Alliance doing so in only six. The Liberal victory was so sweeping that it even included that of Human Resources minister, Jane Stewart, who was at the heart of the HRDC scandal the Alliance hammered out when it accused the government of corruption during this, one of the nastiest political campaigns in memory. At the end of the evening, even the prime minister agreed that in the heat of a campaign some things which were said had been regretted, and echoed sentiments from other leaders who had disputed a bitter run for office to work together in the coming mandate. In the final full week of the campaign, prime minister Chrétien had been cleared of wrongdoing by an ethics commissioner looking into calls he had placed to a Crown corporation in his riding. The prime minister had come under fire by the Canadian Alliance for contacting the Development Bank of Canada concerning loans for an inn in his riding. The ethics official ruled Chrétien had committed no violation. This was just the latest blow for the Canadian Alliance party, after polls showed it failed to gain much ground on the Liberals in the final stretch of the campaign. In addition, two of its candidates had come under fire for upsetting some of the country's Asian and Native minorities, the first bowing out of the electoral race altogether but not before complaining of being forced out by Stockwell Day. The Alliance had been desperately trying to shed any image of intolerance, carefully choosing candidates to represent a number of ethnic minorities across Canada. The party also came under fire by federal Tories competing for the same electorate in many ridings. When all was said and done, the great "unite the right" aborted campaign carried out since 1997 only divided right-of-centre voters across the country, leaving the Liberals securely in charge to form the next government. But while the vote was a further endorsement of the party which has been leading the country since 1993, what is less certain is whether it was an equal endorsement of its leader, Jean Chrétien. In the course of the campaign, Chrétien made unprecedented comments to a television station which stuck with some newspaper editors and perhaps voters. Minding polls which indicated his personal popularity should not be confused with that of his party, the prime minister hinted he may retire midway through his third mandate. In an editorial preceding the vote, the Globe & Mail suggested Canadians vote Liberal to back a future Paul Martin leadership. One has to wonder whether some of this had any bearing with Monday's sweeping results. In a poll conducted on the web site of the CTV network, the first to call the election, some three-quarters of respondents said they would prefer Chrétien retired than serve his full term. In another online poll on the National Post's web site, over a quarter of respondents believed he would probably be the first of the actual party leaders to resign. But the prime minister indicated in a post-electoral news conference that he was in no hurry to hand over the reins of power. "I have received a very good mandate from the Canadian people," he said, "So I intend to live up to the mandate that the Canadian people have given me last night." The man who loves to surprise everyone may have surprised even himself with Monday's strong results. But a record low participation rate, barely 63%, weakens the mandate somewhat, in a country severely divided along political lines at the Ontario border.

 

Bush wins, finally

The U.S. electoral process was marked by a case of serious number shrinkage this year. From the 1,725 votes which initially separated the two candidates in the key state of Florida on election night, to the 930 of the first recount, the 537 (certified) of the second and 154 of the unofficial third. Finally nine voices, that of the Supreme Court justices, would decide the next presidency, by a majority of one vote, giving George W. Bush the White House. After an election run on few hard issues except perhaps the future nominations to the highest court in the land, this was certainly fitting. Winning the war of judicial attrition, an uncommon way to claim the U.S. presidency, the Texas governor takes a disputed stewardship that leaves a bitter taste and hoarse throats. Up until the very end, vice-president Al Gore and his Democratic supporters remained convinced that they had not only won the popular vote across the United States, but in the crucial state of Florida as well. Among them, an outgoing president, growing bolder as his last days were running out, who infuriated some Republican supporters by stressing that his running mate would win if state judges allowed there to be a manual recount in disputed counties. This shared but unproven certainty pressed Al Gore to fight on until the bitter end, despite running the risk of alienating a public opinion growing more impatient by the day. After all, while Bush never failed to stay on top of the popular vote in the state, be it by the slimmest of margins, it seemed a Gore win was simply a matter of votes counted, and time... that ran out. One of the most concrete illustrations of this was Miami-Dade's disputed hand recount, which had netted the Gore camp a gain of some 150 votes with a quarter of the ballots tabulated, before it was halted by the canvassing board, for lack of time, annihilating any gains by the Democratic camp. That was also a quarter of what Gore needed to win. The Miami Herald, which has filed to have the right to count the votes, a provision of Florida's open electoral laws, has estimated that if all ballots were recounted Gore could win the state by as many as 23 000 votes. It may yet prove this. Then there was the case of absentee vote tampering, in Seminole and Martin county contests where Republican officials had been allowed to make last minute corrections to ballot envelopes which had been insufficiently marked. Not to mention the famous "butterfly ballot" confusion in Palm Beach, which canceled over 2.5% of the ballots in the highly Democratic riding, well above the national average. The number of similar cases just reinforced the perception the Texas governor had won by the slimmest of margins, making Democratic concession a bitter, very bitter pill to swallow. With every crucial electoral decision came an all-important court date, including three at the Florida Supreme Court and two at the Supreme Court in Washington, often decided by a single vote. There would be no certainty of a winner's mandate, only certainty of the loser's misery. "Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear," wrote Justice Stevens. He and four other justices had decided, on the day state electors were to be selected across the country, that the Florida Supreme Court had erred when it permitted hand recounts in the state, squashing Gore's last hopes. Bush and Gore ultimately split the contest, one winning the popular vote, the other the electoral college. Not an uncommon balanced account in a federal system built to avoid the tyranny of the metropolis, or populated states, let alone that of the majority. A reversal of fortune perhaps, which meant everything, after earlier pre-electoral forecasts which said Gore would win the electoral college and Bush the popular vote, the former winning big in the few big states. Except Florida. In a way the system, despite all the confusion, worked relatively well. The contest lasted so long, some five weeks, that babies indeed were born, and economic forecasts even seemed to be changing in the midst of it. The incoming president, it was soon becoming clear, would inherit not only a tainted presidency and a divided Congress, but possibly a slow reversal of economic fortune, as the longest running boom in U.S. history gave signs of starting to cool off. Markets across the continent, smelling the endgame, had reacted well to two major court decisions in federal and circuit court, going against the Democratic camp, and driving Gore's chances closer to the abyss. But this did little to stop the crash of tech stocks which had dropped the Nasdaq down a quarter of its size since the beginning of the year, one initially marked by the unprecedented surge of e-biz markets and billion-dollar internet IPOs. The cooling economy may for a while still be carried by a second wind, by reducing pressure to keep interest rates high, but there is an overall feeling the boom of the 1990s is slowly but surely turning around, a situation the Republican camp promised to correct with lower taxes and smaller government. A strong testimony of the enduring strength of the presidency, despite all its travails, was that despite the dark clouds and dubious prospects on the horizon, the top job in the U.S. remained one worth taking over, and one painful to let slip after a bitter divisive contest; years of work that had fallen just short in the case of the vice-president, on a cold December night. Five weeks after he had been preparing to break the sad news to supporters gathered in Tennessee, Gore finally made a nationally televised concession speech. He started off by quipping he had just congratulated George W. Bush but "promised I wouldn't call him back this time." "While I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court's decision I accept it," he stressed in his first comments on the week's events. But he wasted no time reaching out across the floor. "There is a higher duty than the one we owe to political party. (...) Just as we fight hard when the stakes are high, we close ranks and come together when the contest is done," he said. "Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I'm with you, Mr. President, and God bless you." Stepping outside, the vice-president was greeted with cheers of "Gore in four" by supporters. Less than an hour later, it was Bush's turn to make his long-awaited acceptance speech. He started by praising his opponent, stressing that during "a long and trying period (...) We both gave it our all." The 43rd president-elect said it was time for "reconciliation and unity" and repeated his calls to "change the tone in Washington D.C." "Compassionate conservatism will be the foundation of my administration," he reminded, but stressed in closing "I was not elected to serve one party but one nation." With a shortened transition period left for Bush to work with, there was no time for balloons, as the president-elect hurried off to prepare his hefty political baggage for Washington.

 

Mexique: un mandat qui commence vite

Perdue dans la tempête électorale qui s'est emparée du continent tout au long du mois de novembre, il était difficile de retenir la seule véritable transition gouvernementale digne de mention en Amérique du nord, celle qui a eu lieu à Mexico. A peine investi en tant que premier président mexicain de l'ère post-PRI, Vicente Fox n'a pas perdu de temps avant de souligner ce qui constituait les priorités de son administration. Le lendemain de la transition officielle à la présidence, le sous-commandant Marcos du Chiapas, figure centrale du soulèvement autochtone de 1994, acceptait l'invitation du nouveau chef d'Etat de rouvrir le dialogue, à condition de ratifier l'entente de San Andres sur la reconnaissance des droits et de la culture des Indiens au Mexique. Le surlendemain de l'investiture, Fox donnait son accord, engageant un retrait militaire du sud du Mexique (même si la trêve actuelle n'inclut pas les autres mouvements de guérilla). Jusque là, tout semblait justifier les dires de M. Fox selon lesquels il se voyait régler la crise zapatiste en un quart d'heure. Marcos prévoyait alors déjà une visite inusitée à Mexico pour arguer sa cause auprès du Congrès mexicain. "L'objectif de l'EZLN (l'Armée zapatiste de libération) est non seulement d'obtenir la reconnaissance des droits indigènes, de terminer la guerre et de parvenir à la paix, a-t-il dit, mais aussi de se lancer dans la politique, comme n'importe quel autre mouvement". Mais c'est à ce niveau que le processus de pacification risque de se compliquer. Car alors que la scène paraît tout à fait pacifique et prometteuse en province, elle se bute à de sérieuses réalités dans la législature mexicaine, profondément divisée à l'issue du dernier scrutin. L'investiture elle-même s'est faite dans une cacophonie burlesque démontrant les tensions qui rongent le Congrès et les divisions qui vont marquer le nouvel équilibre des forces au Mexique. Car si le PRI a bel et bien été évincé de la présidence, avec l'aide, entre autres, des zapatistes du Chiapas qui avaient juré de venger le refus d'Ernesto Zedillo de présenter le projet de loi de reconnaissance au Congrès, il n'empêche qu'il garde une emprise indéniable sur le processus législatif, en chambre. Le PAN de M. Fox, en revanche, n'a de majorité dans aucune des deux chambres du Congrès. On y reproche d'ailleurs l'empressement de M. Fox sur la question, lui qui ne bénéficie d'aucun appui majoritaire proprement dit. A tort ou à raison, la fin de 70 années bulldozer, où l'exécutif n'avait rien à craindre d'une révolte législative, ouvre la perspective d'un jeu nettement plus serré des équilibres au Mexique. Néanmoins, sous la devise "les paroles ne suffisent pas, moi je passe à l'action", M. Fox n'a pas hésité, malgré les obstacles qui l'attendent, d'offrir une nouvelle proposition de loi sur les accords San Andres à l'Assemblée. Il s'agit là pour les zapatistes d'un des trois "signes" préalables à toute discussion, les deux autres étant la libération de tous les prisonniers politiques zapatistes et la fermeture de certaines positions de l'armée fédérale. Dans la région du Chiapas, le chef d'Etat, qui a promis de mettre un terme à "l'injustice et à l'humiliation des Indiens" afin de leur rendre "la dignité humaine", obtient le bénéfice du doute de la traditionnelle période de lune de miel électorale. "Le dernier gouvernement nous a apporté les massacres et la douleur, soutient un habitant d'Acteal dans le sud, mais avec Vicente Fox nous espérons nous ouvrir sur un monde nouveau". Ceci à l'opposé du monde actuel, non seulement marqué par les divisions et clivages raciaux ou ethniques, mais socio-économiques, car la crise au Chiapas est d'abord liée à une pauvreté endémique, la région ne recevant pas sa part de la croissance, presque surchauffée, de l'économie mexicaine. Alors que le programme économique de M. Fox, soit de préserver une croissance annuelle de l'ordre de 7% jusqu'en 2006, est ambitieux, il est accompagné d'un programme social qui l'est beaucoup plus, comprenant entre autre une réduction de la pauvreté du tiers en dix ans, accompagnée d'une augmentation des dépenses sociales, notamment en matière d'éducation. Alors que le retrait des troupes et la ratification de l'accord de San Andres pourraient instaurer la paix, c'est ce genre de transformation socio-économique beaucoup plus profond qui pourrait lui donner un aspect durable. La guérilla avait, faut-il le rappeler, pris les armes pour protester le passage de l'accord de libre-échange d'ALENA, qui risquait de creuser les différences régionales au Mexique. Mais là-dessus, en matière de politique étrangère et commerciale, le programme de M. Fox pourrait se buter à un nouvel obstacle. M. Fox se veut en effet un champion du libre-échange à travers les Amériques, et risque de subir une révolte similaire à celle de 1994 dans l'avenir, à moins qu'il ne parvienne à faire profiter les gains de l'échange à toutes les régions du pays. Le projet de loi présenté au Congrès, qui risque de faire l'objet de maintes délibérations, au moins jusqu'en mars, prévoit entre autre un partage "équitable" des richesses mexicaines avec les Indiens. Mais il faudra étendre ces privilèges aux autres régions défavorisées du pays. Voilà de quoi tenir M. Fox occupé pendant les six ans de sa présidence, ou au besoin, de faire repenser la sagesse de la loi du mandat unique.