Global News Journal

Beyond the World news headlines

MP’s nosedive mirrors Japan leader’s sinking ratings

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With voter popularity for Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama sinking to new lows, there was little sympathy even when a lawmaker from his Democratic Party fell flat on her face in parliament last week. Internet chatrooms and blogs have accused Yukiko Miyake of  faking her fall, which the Democrats blamed on a shove by a stocky opposition party lawmaker.  Footage of the scene in slow motion has flooded YouTube. One comment: “Miyake needs acting lessons”.

Just  9 months ago, the government’s support ratings stood above 70 percent after the Democrats won a landslide election, ending a half-century of nearly non-stop conservative rule. Miyake was one of many first-time lawmakers on whom voters pinned their hopes  for change – reviving the economy, cutting wasteful spending and fixing the pensions system. But polls now show the Democrats may struggle to win an election for parliament’s less powerful upper house, expected in July. Failure to win a majority risks policy deadlock at a time when Japan needs the political mandate to push through reforms and cut huge public debt.

What’s gone wrong for Hatoyama? Plenty. His credibility is in tatters, so much so that a fashion critic recently poked fun at a multi-coloured, checkered shirt the leader wore to a barbecue gathering back in April. Voters are frustrated with his handling of a row with the United States over where to relocate a Marine base on the southern island of Okinawa. He has promised a solution by the end of May, but the chances for one are looking slim. Hatoyama and Democratic Party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa are also under fire for political funding scandals. Both have refused to resign despite polls showing the scandals are hurting support.

Hatoyama has called for patience. Government spending on the economy takes time to trickle down to households.  Plus, not only are the Democrats in power for the first time, they are trying to revolutionise policymaking by reducing bureaucratic control and centralising power to the cabinet. But voters worry that Hatoyama, known more for his consensual style, lacks the strong decision-making skills needed to make the new initiative work.

What’s Merkel doing with her lonely war on speculators?

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Ordinarily, Angela Merkel is anything but a loose cannon. The German chancellor has endeared herself to a consensus-GERMANY/loving public at home over the last five years as the epitome of a safe pair of hands. There’s never been any of the fist-banging on tables or regular threats to resign like Germans grew accustomed to from her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder.
 
Merkel has managed to defuse and outfox a long line of powerful male Type A personalities with an uncanny combination of caution and a great sense of timing. Avoiding controversy and defusing problems are her modus operandi. But whenever there is a dispute that manages to surfaces in the public, one of Merkel’s favourite lines is: “It doesn’t make any sense to bang your head through a wall — because the wall will usually win.”
 
With her decision to fight speculators with a ban on some financial trades, it feels a bit like Merkel is now trying to bang her head through a wall. It is baffling on many counts — but especially because with a quick swoop of her pen she violated two key tenants of post-war German policy — do not act unilaterally and try not to annoy Germany’s allies. Germany, afterall, did enough on its own on those counts before 1945.
 
By acting unilaterally Germany has, in the words of some headline writers, made a fool of itself. “Germany embarasses itself with ban on market gamblers,” (Berlin blamiert sich mit Zockverbot) wrote The Financial Times Deutschland  on Thursday. Yet others, such as the Handelsblatt, praised Merkel for finally showing some leadership. “Return of a chancellor,” (Rueckkehr einer Kanzlerin)  Handelsblatt wrote. “The Greek debt crisis, the election and looming budget cuts leave Merkel no other choice — she’s showing leadership again, as the ban on naked short selling shows.”
 
So what’s going on with Merkel? Why has she suddenly unilaterally declared war on market speculators?
 
It’s worth keeping in mind her increasingly precarious position politically at home, as noted here  in an analysis by Reuters’ Stephen Brown. German chancellors do not have as much power as often assumed — they are very much serving at the disposal of their parties, where the real power lies. Merkel has led the conservative Christian Democrats for 10 years now, in large part as a default candidate when a trio of powerful men neutralised and thus blocked each other. One of those three, Hesse state premier Roland Koch, has been openly challenging some of Merkel’s policies this week — an ominous signal of the trouble brewing for Merkel beneath the surface.
 
GERMANY/The grumbling about Merkel’s cautious leadership has long been audible among the rank and file of the CDU — though at a low volume as long as she kept the party in the chancellery. But the volume is rising now that the CDU lost control of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, earlier this month. An opinion poll this week showing support for Merkel’s centre-right coalition falling to a 10-year low has only added to the nervousness in the CDU, where thousands of jobs for elected officials at the local, state and federal level are at risk if the party isn’t able to arrest the slide. The poll showed her centre-right coalition at 38 percent,  more than 10 percentage points below the 48.4 percent they won in the September election.
 
Merkel has evidently found a target that might help distract attention from the CDU’s tailspin — Spekulanten (market speculators). It sounds like an awful four-letter word — rather than just another four-syllable word — when German leaders utter the term Spekulanten.  Over the last six decades Germans have developed a near-hysterical fear of inflation, instability and political turmoil — and that’s understandable considering those were among the ingredients that led to Hitler’s rise. In other words, Germans can be easily spooked.
 
And the Greek debt crisis has triggered fears that their currency and their lives could be hit by inflation, instability and GERMANY/political turmoil. Merkel, who until the Greek debt-crisis had not faced any major international crises in her five years in power, has in the eyes of many not done enough to meet the challenge.
 
As Nico Fried, a leading German columnist for the Sueddeutsche ZeitunSueddeutsche Zeitung, wrote: “The chancellor spoke in parliament about the dramatic fall in exchange rates and she meant the euro. But in Berlin it’s not only the weakness of the currency that’s causing problems — instead its the coalition. The value of the chancellor is falling as well.”

from MacroScope:

Deficit-obsessed Czechs grapple ahead of vote

If one were to believe the noise coming from right-of-centre politicians in Prague, the Czechs are on the brink of a Greece-style budget meltdown, and victory by the leftist Social Democrats in a May 28-29 election would plunge them into economic collapse.

ODS Greece1An ad in newspapers this week from the right-wing Civic Democrats (ODS) showed masked Greek rioters in front of a burning barricade. “Socialists in Greece – the same as in the Czech Republic”, the headline read. Alongside, a picture of Jiri Paroubek, leader of the Social Democrats (CSSD) bore the caption “CSSD = State Bankruptcy”.

China and the Cheonan

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- Mourners for deceased sailors from the Cheonan

Mourners for deceased sailors from the Cheonan

The news conference dragged on for 20 minutes as several dozen journalists in the room tried to rephrase the only question they wanted an answer to, but China’s foreign ministry wasn’t biting.

South Korea had announced earlier in the day that after a long investigation with international participation, it was sure that a North Korean torpedo had sunk a navy warship, the Cheonan, in March, with a loss of 46 lives.

from FaithWorld:

Sarkozy says Muslims should not feel singled out by full veil ban

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A veiled woman in Nantes, western France, on April 26, 2010/Stephane Mahe

France attempted the arguably impossible on Wednesday by presenting a bill to ban Muslim face veils and asking Muslims not to feel it was singling them out in the process.

President Nicolas Sarkozy made a brave effort of it at the cabinet meeting that approved the government's draft "burqa ban" that we reported on here.  Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, who Sarkozy's UMP party always seems to call on when things get tough, did her best in an interview (here in French) that got the part about Mecca wrong. There will be more of this in the months ahead as the bill moves through the National Assembly and Senate.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

In Pakistan, making sense of the “do more” mantra

damadola2White House National Security Adviser Jim Jones and CIA director Leon Panetta are visiting Pakistan to step up pressure on militant groups following this month's failed car-bombing in New York's Times Square. But what specifically do they want from Pakistan in what has now become a familiar "do more" mantra from the U.S. administration?  That, as yet, is not entirely clear.

The Washington Post and the New York Times quoted unnamed administration officials as saying Jones and Panetta would press Pakistan to step up its military action against Pakistani and Afghan Taliban militants based in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

from Environment Forum:

So long, sardines? Lake Tanganyika hasn’t been this warm in 1,500 years

lake_tanganyika1_hEast Africa's Lake Tanganyika might be getting too hot for sardines.

The little fish have been an economic and nutritional mainstay for some 10 million people in neighboring Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo -- four of the poorest countries on Earth. They also depend on Lake Tanganyika for drinking water.

But that could change, according to research published in the online version of the journal Nature Geoscience. Using samples of the lakebed that chart a 1,500-year history of the lake's surface water temperature, the scientists found the current temperature -- 78.8 degrees F (26 degrees C) -- is the warmest it's been in a millennium and a half. And that could play havoc with sardines and other fish the local people depend on.

Germany’s euro-zone bind

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Whichever way you look at it, Germany is in a bit of a quandry.

For the past 11 years, since the launch of the euro single currency, Europe’s biggest economy has enjoyed steady current account surpluses as it has exported its manufactured goods around the world, while keeping labour costs down and productivity steady at home.

Its economic growth may not have been stunning in recent years, but it has experienced none of the huge budget-deficit and debt problems of its euro zone partners, particularly those in southern Europe such as Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy. And it has none of the nagging competitiveness issues that all those countries also face.

from Afghan Journal:

Is the surge failing in Afghanistan?

(Afghan women in a car in Kandahar province.Reuters/Yannis Behrakis

(Afghan women in a car in Kandahar province. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis)

Six months into the surge in Afghanistan, Americans and Afghans alike are asking the question whether it has worked and the ugly reality is that it has failed to make a difference, writes Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post.

To be sure, as U.S. President Barack Obama said last week only half the reinforcements he ordered in December have arrived and there is still more than a year to go before the troop withdrawals begin.

Who do you call to speak to Europe?

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- Obama on the phone

Obama on the phone

Who do you call when you want to speak to Europe? The question, long attributed to Henry Kissinger, has yet to be answered convincingly by the 27-country European Union.

Six months ago, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told a news conference the person to call on foreign policy issues was Catherine Ashton, who had just been chosen as the European Union’s foreign affairs chief.  The “so-called Kissinger issue is now solved”, he said.

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