By: Julian Uzielli and Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood
2011 was a lively year in politics. Between deaths, wars, revolutions and riots, the global political landscape over the past year was nothing if not captivating. Here are the mitZine’s picks for the top 10 political events that held our attention in 2011.
10. Death of Jack Layton
In the May federal election, Jack Layton led the NDP to their greatest victory ever, trouncing the other left-wing parties to take the title of Official Opposition for the first time. He seemed healthy on the campaign trail, but only a few months later he announced he would be stepping down because his cancer had returned. He died on August 22.
The NDP had surged higher than it had ever been, and suddenly they were left without the leader who had tied the party together. Some speculated the party would not survive without him, and that the surge in popularity would be short-lived.
Before long, Nycole Turmel was named interim leader of the party. We have yet to see what she can do in an election campaign, but so far she has seemed to lack the charisma and charm that made Layton so admired, even among his political adversaries. She certainly has large shoes to fill: leader of a party in its first round as the Opposition, against a majority government that is not interested in compromise.
Had Layton lived, would his leadership have changed the way this government handled the country? While it is perhaps unlikely that anything he could have done or said would have prevented the government from ramming through their platform legislation, he probably would have at least made a bigger fuss about it. Whether the NDP’s new found supporters in Quebec agree will become clear in the next election.
- Julian Uzielli
9. Death of Kim Jong-il
Though it was rumoured that Kim Jong-il’s health had been failing for several years, the world was shocked to learn of the death of the leader of North Korea, a Stalinist dictatorship and one of the most secretive countries in the world. He died of a suspected heart attack (because he had been working so hard for the benefit of his people, according to the State media) on December 17.
Though it is inevitable that some world leaders will die in office, the course of events to follow is always more uncertain when that leader is a brutal dictator. Like many dictators before him, Kim Jong-il did not seem to want to face his own mortality—deified by the state media, he was the subject of a personality cult that bordered on the absurd at times—and so he did not have a solid succession plan in place. About a year before his death, he began to prepare his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to one day take over leadership. It would appear he thought he had more time; he was groomed for leadership for many years before the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, in 1994.
An isolated country with few allies, deplorable living conditions, brainwashed citizens, and a new young leader who isn’t ready for his job and believes he must fill the shoes of a demigod is not a recipe for political stability. In the days following Kim Jong-il’s death, some speculated that his son would begin his rule with a military action against South Korea to assert his power, while others thought he might be overthrown by the military, throwing the country into chaos. As of yet, it appears that The Great Successor, as he is known, has managed to take power relatively smoothly, without violence against the South or infighting with the military. The worst-case scenario of a second Korean War did not erupt, but the world will be keeping a close eye on the Korean Peninsula in the months to come.
- Julian Uzielli
8. The Republican Presidential Campaign
US President Barack Obama’s approval rating, at a meagre 45%, reflects the American public’s increasing disillusionment with the Hawaiian-born president whose election promises of “hope” and “change” have yet to be realized. American Republicans have never been more excited to challenge an incumbent Democrat president; low approval means the door is wide open for a Republican champion to rise above Obama in the fall 2012 presidential election.
The race to select a nominee, however, has been far less encouraging for Republicans than they had hoped. 2011 saw the rise and fall of more than half a dozen candidates, with none definitively seizing the imagination of the electorate. The front-runner appears to be former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, but he has been lambasted by the Republican base for his moderate policies and has polled consistently below 30% of decided voters. His challengers include libertarian (i.e. the poor should fend for themselves) Ron Paul, radical social conservative (i.e. against birth control and climate science) Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, whose personal and political baggage is matched only by his outrageously over-sized ego.
Romney is the candidate Democrats fear least. Compared to someone like Paul, for example, Romney would, for the most part, maintain the status quo on both economic and social issues. Paradoxically, however, Romney is also the candidate who has the best chance of defeating Obama in the in the presidential election. Although the risk is higher, Democrats might prefer to face off against a Republican like Gingrich, who some Republicans fear is unelectable.
The Republican nominee will likely be decided by early March. The next president of the United States will be voted into office in November 2012.
- Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood
7. Attawapiskat Housing Crisis
On October 28, First Nations leaders in Attawapiskat, Ontario, a small James Bay community, declared a state of emergency due to an escalating housing crisis. As temperatures dropped, many people were living in tents and shelters without proper heating.
The Attawapiskat dilemma was the first major domestic crisis to be faced by the new majority government, and was met with heavy criticism from the Opposition. The NDP blamed the government, as leader Nycole Turmel asked why federal officials, who had travelled to Attawapiskat multiple times that year, were unaware of the housing problems. Prime Minister Stephen Harper blamed the community itself, pointing out that they had received $90 million in federal funding since 2006, saying the funds had been mismanaged. Charlie Angus, NDP MP for Attawapiskat, lambasted the Conservatives for shifting blame to the community instead of helping them.
The debate raged on, and the crisis is ongoing. Help has since arrived, with shelters being erected and some supplies provided, but the government also installed a third-party manager to take over the band’s finances, a decision met with anger by Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence.
Now that the majority government has the power to deal with this crisis as they see fit, without having to compromise with the Opposition, the way they handle it moving forward will be an important test of their skills in crisis management. As the case always seems to be with this government, some say they have done everything they can with the resources they have; others say they are destroying the community. The crisis is ongoing, and we have yet to see who, if anyone, is right.
- Julian Uzielli
6. The Safe Streets and Communities Act
Bill C-10, titled The Safe Streets and Communities Act (although commonly referred to as the “omnibus crime bill”), was put forward by the Conservative government in the wake of its majority victory in the 2011 federal election. The bill is an amalgamation of nine separate bills related to criminal law in Canada, each of which was previously proposed but failed to pass while the Conservatives held a minority. Among its many provisions, C-10 would increase minimum sentences for non-violent and youth crimes, crack down on drug possession, and make it more difficult to seek house arrest or a pardon.
The bill has drawn vocal criticism from the public, the opposition, and law enforcement experts. Critics claim the bill emphasizes incarceration over rehabilitation, which means more offenders filling up prisons. Conservative Justice figures in Texas publicly criticized the Harper government, explaining that putting more people in jail does little to reduce crime. Furthermore, crime rates in Canada are actually on the decline, raising questions about whether new crime laws are necessary in the first place. In response to these claims, Conservative Justice Minister Rob Nicholson infamously stated, “We do not govern on the basis of statistics.”
The omnibus bill was a key component of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2011 campaign, and he promised it would pass within 100 sitting days of Parliament. Because of the Conservatives’ new majority, this shouldn’t be a challenge. The bill is scheduled to be signed into law by March.
- Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood
5. End of Canada’s Afghanistan Mission and the Iraq War
It took a decade, but the wars that sprung from the attacks on September 11, 2001 finally came to a close in 2011. After the death of Osama bin Laden in May, American and Canadian troops began to wind down the combat mission in the country, and the last American troops finally left Iraq on December 18.
The invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2011 was easily justified at the time; the people wanted justice for 9/11. The Taliban was toppled, and al-Qaeda driven underground, but as the war dragged on, it became less and less clear what we were fighting for. By the end of 2011, with the war under its third Prime Minister, Canada officially ended its combat mission. The war got less popular with each passing year, and was a hot topic in Canadian politics for the duration of the decade; while the NDP called for an immediate end to the conflict, successive Liberal and Conservative governments both insisted it was our duty to finish what we started. In all, 158 Canadian soldiers died in Afghanistan. Though relatively few for a 10-year war, most can agree it was 158 too many.
If the war in Afghanistan was controversial, the Iraq war was downright polarizing. Depending who you ask, the United States either addressed a threat to world peace by preemptively toppling a hostile government and liberating its people, or they invaded a sovereign nation under false pretences, kick-started a civil war and installed a puppet regime. Like the Afghanistan war, it lost popularity with age. Unlike Afghanistan, however, it was not so easily justified; Iraq did not attack the US, nor was it ever capable of doing so. Nonetheless, the war dragged on for most of the decade, and was one of the dominant political issues for two Presidents. In what probably turned out to be a shrewd political move, then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien did not support the 2003 invasion, saving Canada from another interminable conflict and mountains of debt.
- Julian Uzielli
3. The Occupy Movement
In the wake of the Arab Spring, Vancouver-based, anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters put out a call to action for the occupation of Wall Street in New York City, the symbolic heart of the global financial system. Adbusters envisioned a massive, populist movement that would hold Wall Street ‘fat cats’ (bankers, investors etc.) to account for their role in the financial crisis of the past several years. It was time for “democracy not corporatocracy,” they claimed in July.
Remarkably, the idea took hold. By the end of September, thousands of protesters were demonstrating daily on Wall Street and activists had even taken over Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan. Spin-off occupations cropped up in more than 1000 cities in over 80 countries. What started as a fringe demonstration organized through social media became a serious political movement, unified by the simple but powerful slogan “we are the 99%.” The mainstream media, at times skeptical but often sympathetic, lent Occupy further legitimacy.
Although the majority of Occupy camps were ultimately disbanded, either because of police intervention or because of the coming winter, the impact the movement has had on Western politics cannot be overstated. It drew attention to income inequality, government corruption, and the role of the public in influencing policy. It forced a discussion about what is really important, and fair, in democracy. Expect an Occupy rebirth in 2012.
- Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood
3. The Conservative Majority Government
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have formed the government since their defeat of Paul Martin and the Liberals in 2006, but until May 2 that government was a minority, outnumbered by the Official Opposition of the Liberals along with the NDP and Block Quebecois.
The election gave the Conservatives a majority in the House of Commons, having eluded them since 2006. This allowed them to pass several previously unpopular pieces of legislation, including the controversial abolition of the long-gun registry (along with the destruction of all its records) and of the Canadian Wheat Board.
The election was as disastrous for the Opposition as it was successful for the Conservatives. The Liberal Party was led to one of its worst elections ever, losing 43 of its 77 seats, including that of leader Michael Ignatieff. Similarly, the Bloc Quebecois’ presence in the House was reduced from 47 seats to only 4. Meanwhile, Jack Layton’s NDP picked up much of the slack, making them the Official Opposition for the first time in the party’s history.
Now that the Conservatives have a majority in both the House and the Senate, they have much more power than they did between 2006 and 2011, allowing them to pass legislation effectively unopposed. Whether this is good or bad is, of course, a matter of opinion, but regardless of political views it is clear that they aim to use this power as much as possible over the next four years. Stephen Harper is not exactly known for playing nice with the Opposition—proroguing Parliament twice and being found in contempt of Parliament just before the election—and he has made it clear that he wants to change Canada. The new government has rushed several sweeping pieces of legislation through Parliament while limiting debate as much as possible, and this happened only in the past six months. Whether you’re a fan of these policies or not, it’s clear that Canada will look rather different by the time the next election rolls around in 2015.
- Julian Uzielli
2. The European Debt Crisis and Riots in Greece
The crisis created by escalating debt and unstable economies in the European Union was the top story in the financial world of 2011. The Euro teetered close to collapse, which would throw Europe into disarray, and affect economies worldwide.
To put it simply, the biggest problem lay in the fact that many economies shared the same currency. Greece had gone into a lot of debt that they couldn’t afford, betting that the Euro would remain strong because it would be propped up by the stronger economies in the EU. But as governments squabbled over how to handle the debt, the currency began to devalue, and suddenly Greece became perilously close to defaulting on their debt.
They were forced to adopt a series of harsh austerity measures: tax hikes and spending cuts across the board, including cutting public sector wages by 20%. The people were furious, and they showed it. Throughout the summer, Greece was plagued by a wave of protests and violent riots, as people voiced their anger over the tough measures the government insisted were necessary to save the economy.
Through those measures, as well as a series of rescue packages put together by other EU countries, the worst did not come to pass. Though Greece is still sticking with the austerity measures to try to resuscitate their economy, the Euro was saved from the brink of collapse, potentially preventing another crisis on the scale of the 2008 global meltdown.
- Julian Uzielli
1. The Arab Spring
The wave of revolts and revolutions that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 was sparked on December 17, 2010, by Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in protest of his treatment by the police. Bouazizi’s actions led to the Tunisian revolution, the first of the Arab Spring. This was soon followed by civilian uprisings in Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Egypt, and other countries.
Some governments collapsed relatively quickly. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in mid-January, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned a month later, while many other leaders have vowed to step down at the end of their current terms. Some regimes, however, were more reluctant to let go of power. Uprisings led to the much-publicized civil war in Libya, ending with the death of Muammar Gadhafi on October 20, and massacres of protesters by police in Bahrain, Yemen, and most recently, Syria.
While long-oppressed civilians stood up to their governments, the world watched and cheered, heralding the populist movement as a great triumph for democracy in the Middle East. However, the long-term implications remain unclear. Though Mubarak stepped down nearly a year ago, for example, Egypt has remained in a state of limbo ever since, ruled by a military whose suppression of continued unrest has not been much better than the former President’s. Countless people have died in the name of freedom, and sadly it seems many of these deaths may have been in vain. So far, Tunisia is the only country of the movement to have held elections, and whether the new government will prove stable remains to be seen. Tout ça change, tout c’est la même chose.
- Julian Uzielli