A note about this blog

July 23, 2016 § Leave a comment

Congratulations on finding this blog.

I started writing it in 2009 and I pretty much stopped in 2011, although one or two articles came later.

At the time I’d never written anything for public consumption before and I really enjoyed doing so. I also felt that I learned a lot from the experience.

But reading back through it some 6 years later I do find it unbearably cringeworthy. The spelling mistakes, the glib tone, the laziness, the poor fact checking, the terrible terrible puns…

Above all though I don’t think its right that what is written here could pass for expert opinion when it is not. Some of these articles were written from a deal of knowledge and personal experience, but 90% were based on little more a quick skim of the wikipedia entry. I no longer think that that is an acceptable thing to do.

So I’m disowning the blog. I won’t delete it because I do think it has some historic value, but I have taken my name off it. Of course due to the magic of backlinks and what have you I’m aware it is pretty easy to work out who I am, and this doesn’t really concern me. There’s nothing on here I’m mortally ashamed of, merely mildly embarrassed by the lack of quality control.


“Most people in the world can’t vote” – a refutation

April 20, 2015 § 2 Comments

The lazy claim in this Guardian article that “most people in the world can’t vote” stoked my ire.

Actually virtually everyone in the world can vote. The main group of people in the world who cannot vote are children, a term defined variously around the world to mean people under the age of 16, 17, 18, 20 or 21. Virtually the entire global adult population can vote.

I’ve tried to work out how many people there are in the world that cannot actually vote at all:

  • The residents of the only countries in the world that don’t have elections: Brunei (400,000). Qatar (2 million, Qatar does have local elections but only 30,000 people within a specially selected electoral collage are eligible to vote in them), the UAE (9 million, as with Qatar the UAE does have elections, but only 100,000 people are eligible to vote in them), and the Vatican (800)
  • The residents of South Sudan (8 million) which hasn’t had elections yet and Eritrea (6 million) which hasn’t had elections since 1991 and has no plans to do so.
  • The million or so residents of the Non self-governing territories and areas under occupation. More than half of these live in Western Sahara, most of the rest in French Polynesia
  • Women in Saudi Arabia (15 million)
  • Some religious and ethnic groups, for example non Muslims in the Maldives. There are many cases globally of effective disenfranchisement of minorities through separate elections but formal disenfranchisement is rare and is largely linked to mental illness. Also some surprising groups like French Soldiers. I’d guess maybe another million globally.
  • Felons in the USA (5 million)
  • Some prisoners in the UK, China and Portugal (9 million or so, almost all in China)
  • Some non residents. Every country in the world has some sort of residence or nationality requirement placed upon suffrage. Usually everyone will be able to vote at least somewhere but sometimes they cannot. For example if you are a Sri Lankan living in India you cannot vote in Sri Lanka (where the laws require you to be resident) or India (where the laws require you to be a citizen). There are 232 million migrants in the world, let us assume 10%, or 23 million, face this problem. Of course a much higher proportion of migrants will not be able to vote for various practical and political reasons, but most will have at very least the theoretical ability.

This makes a total of around 80 million people, or around 2% of the world’s adult population, who cannot vote.

This may feel like a pedantic point, but I feel it is actually fairly important. Of course many of those people who can vote are voting in elections which are rigged, elections which are a sham, elections for powerless figurehead or fig-leaf bodies, elections at a local level only, or elections in which government heavies and the state manipulated media will guarantee the result. The Democracy Index suggests that 40% of the world’s population live in conditions of dictatorship (still not “most” but a lot). Almost all of them can vote, it’s just that their vote won’t count for anything.

Further, while not a tragedy of the same scale, it is almost as pointless voting in many places within the many countries like the UK where the electoral system means that your vote will have no value.

The point here is there is far more to democracy than voting. Democracy is about the people holding those in power to account through the influence of civil society, through political engagement, through protest, through creating an informed public and engendering a political debate within that public, and – in part – through voting. But voting is just one aspect of democracy, and arguably the least important or effective part. So by all means vote, but don’t fetishise voting. Voting, or not voting, should be the be beginning of your democratic engagement, not the end of it.

The six seats UKIP could win

April 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

Election Forecast predict with 90% confidence that UKIP will win between zero and one seats.

Election Forecast is an excellent site, and I love their model – which mixes local and national approaches and is the closest thing we have to the much more sophisticated Nate Silver style prediction models that Americans enjoy, and which sadly don’t seem to have crossed the pond. I also agree that the way in which the first-past-the post system makes it almost impossible for new and small parties to win seats means that it is very unlikely that UKIP will win more than a very small handful of seats.

However the idea that Clacton is the only seat in Britain that UKIP has a chance of winning stretches credibility. Election Forecast give UKIP a 57% chance in Clacton, a 2% chance in Thurrock, and a 0% chance everywhere else. That just doesn’t ring true. Nigel Farage might not win Thanet South but his odds are greater than zero. Mark Reckless may well not hang on in Rochester and Strood, but it is at least worth him giving it a shot.

The problem here is not Election Forecast’s model, which is the best we have, but simply that models of this sort – which are required to rely heavily on Uniform National Swing (or some variation thereof) as its primary indicator – are not well suited to dealing with small political parties. Particularly not small political parties like UKIP who might, or might not, be about to make a breakthrough. Uniform National Swing (UNS) is a good indicator – historically better than one feels it logically should be – but it’s just too blunt a tool for so delicate a task.

But given we don’t have any more delicate tools at our disposal what can we do?

I decided to start with what UKIP themselves say they are setting out to achieve, and then see how much of that is possible. Sky reported back in August that UKIP were strongly targeting 12 seats: North Thanet, Forest of Dean, Sittingbourne and Sheppey, Aylesbury, East Worthing and Shoreham, Great Yarmouth, Thurrock, South Thanet, Eastleigh, Portsmouth South, Boston and Skegness, and Grimsby. To that we would logically assume they would have added the three seats they won in by elections: Clacton, Rochester and Strood, and Castle Point.

That’s 15 targets, which already seems like far too many for a party which was third or worse in every seat it stood in in 2010.

Let’s use Uniform National Swing to see how big of a task winning those seats would be. Actually let’s not because there doesn’t seem to be a UNS spreadsheet for British General Elections available anywhere online – however there is one for Electoral Calculus’ system which is essentially a slightly altered (they would say improved) version of UNS. Their figures for some of the key UKIP targets do seem a bit high, suggesting that they may have already added in by-election figures, but let’s assume they know what they are doing (they have a very good track record).

Feeding in the results of the latest polls to this model we see that UKIP are on course to win two seats, Clacton and Thanet South, quite comfortably. For their other targets they fall short by between around 3% and 11%.

Now what I feel UNS fails to capture is that in those seats where UKIP are close, I think their chances are better than indicated because of the impact that heavily targeting a seat can have. We saw this with the Greens in Brighton Pavillion, a seat which no UNS based forecasting model would ever have given to the Greens.

By far the most successful piece of political targeting of modern times was the Liberal Democrats’ 1997 campaign. They nearly trebled their number of MPs (18 to 48) despite the fact that their share of the vote actually went down (19% to 18%). Various things combined to make that election unique and for various reasons it is certain that UKIP won’t be as successful in their targeting as the Lib Dems were. Most importantly the 1997 Lib Dems benefited from massive tactical voting to get the Tories out, and that will not happen for UKIP in remotely the same degree. Futhermore the impact of this tactical voting was that the Lib Dem figures from that election are fairly misleading: their share of the vote only went down because so many of their supporters were tactically voting Labour in Labour’s target seats.

However, as an experiment, let us assume (and I feel it is an assumption that is generous to UKIP), that UKIP’s targeting strategy is as successful as the Lib Dems’ was in 1997.

On this lovely website you can see the election results for every election since 1832 and so see how parties did with respect to their targets. Let’s take the Lib Dems 1997 targets and, for simplicity, look at them in groups of 10:

  • GROUP 1 – targets 1-10: Brecon & Radnor to Falmouth & Camborne. Winning these seats required the Lib Dems to outperform UNS by 1.13-3.31%. The Lib Dems won 80% of these.
  • GROUP 2 – targets 11-20: Devon West & Torridge to Torbay. Winning these seats required the Lib Dems to outperform UNS by 3.31-5.06%. The Lib Dems won 70% of these.
  • GROUP 3 – targets 21-30: Bristol West to Salisbury. Winning these seats required the Lib Dems to outperform UNS by 5.06-6.91%. The Lib Dems won 40% of these.
  • GROUP 4 – targets 31-40: Teignbridge to Carshalton & Wallington. Winning these seats required the Lib Dems to outperform UNS by 6.91-8.63%. The Lib Dems won 20% of these.
  • GROUP 5 – targets 41-50: Newbury to Bournemouth West. Winning these seats required the Lib Dems to outperform UNS by 8.63%-9.46%. The Lib Dems won 30% of these.
  • GROUP 6 – targets 51- and on: Newbury to Bournemouth West. Winning these seats required the Lib Dems to outperform UNS by 9.46%+. Their biggest win was Kingston on a 10.94% above UNS swing The Lib Dems won 20% of seats up to Kingston.

Now let’s go through the UKIP Targets:

  • Clacton and Thanet South – as previously mentioned, UKIP should win these seats based on Electoral Calculus’ version of UNS alone.
  • Rochester and Strood – UKIP currently need to outperform UNS by about 2.85%, making it an equivalent to a group 1 seat for the Lib Dems in 97. Give them an 80% chance of winning.
  • Portsmouth South – UKIP currently need to outperform UNS by about 4.95%, making it an equivalent to a group 2 seat for the Lib Dems in 97. Give them an 70% chance of winning.
  • Thurrock – UKIP currently need to outperform UNS by about 5.7%, making it an equivalent to a group 3 seat for the Lib Dems in 97. Give them an 40% chance of winning. (Although personally I would have thought the fact Thurrock is a Labour-Tory marginal means UKIP have no chance)
  • Grimsby – UKIP currently need to outperform UNS by about 5.9%, making it an equivalent to a group 3 seat for the Lib Dems in 97. Give them an 40% chance of winning.
  • Great Yarmouth – UKIP currently need to outperform UNS by about 6.1%, making it an equivalent to a group 3 seat for the Lib Dems in 97. Give them an 40% chance of winning.
  • Eastleigh – UKIP currently need to outperform UNS by about 6.5%, making it an equivalent to a group 3 seat for the Lib Dems in 97. Give them an 40% chance of winning.
  • Castle Point – UKIP currently need to outperform UNS by about 6.75%, making it an equivalent to a group 3 seat for the Lib Dems in 97. Give them an 40% chance of winning.
  • Boston and Skegness – UKIP currently need to outperform UNS by about 7.45%, making it an equivalent to a group 4 seat for the Lib Dems in 97. Give them an 20% chance of winning.
  • Sittingbourne and Sheppey – UKIP currently need to outperform UNS by about 9.55%, making it an equivalent to a group 6 seat for the Lib Dems in 97. Give them an 20% chance of winning.
  • Thanet North – UKIP currently need to outperform UNS by about 10.4%, making it an equivalent to a group 6 seat for the Lib Dems in 97. Give them an 20% chance of winning.
  • Forrest of Dean – UKIP currently need to outperform UNS by about 10.65%, making it an equivalent to a group 6 seat for the Lib Dems in 97. Give them an 20% chance of winning.
  • Sittingbourne and Sheppey – UKIP currently need to outperform UNS by about 9.55%, making it an equivalent to a group 6 seat for the Lib Dems in 97. Give them an 20% chance of winning.
  • Worthing East and Shoreham – UKIP currently need to outperform UNS by about 10.95%, making it an equivalent to a greater swing above UNS than any the Lib Dems managed in 1997. The biggest swing ever recorded in a General election was the 17.6% seen to unseat Portillo in Enfield Southgate in 1997 – even that was only 8.8% above UNS. Give UKIP a 0% chance of winning.

Therefore on average you would expect UKIP to win 5.9 of the seats above on this model. There’s a 40% chance that one of those would be from Labour (Grimsby) and a 40% chance that one of those would be Thurrock which is an expected Labour gain from Tory.

This gives a revised (rounded) Electoral Calculus prediction for the election overall of:

  1. Labour 293
  2. Conservatives 271
  3. SNP 45
  4. Lib Dems 11
  5. DUP 9
  6. UKIP 6
  7. Sinn Fein 5
  8. Plaid 4
  9. SDLP 3
  10. Alliance 1
  11. UCU-NF 1

This isn’t what I expect to happen. This is what I think the best possible result for UKIP could be based upon the current polls, but only if they ran a truly spectacular targeting campaign. What I think it is safe to say is that UKIP will win between 0 and 6 seats.

For various reasons I think it will be closer to zero than six – the biggest being that UKIP’s entire campaigning approach thus far has been “air war” (TV and newspapers) whereas effective targeting requires a “ground war” (door-to-door).

And then some sort of concluding paragraph.

What happens after an independence referendum?

September 25, 2014 § 2 Comments

There’s been a lot of verbiage following Scotland’s vote last Thursday, much of it opinionated ranting. It has been exceptionally tempting to join in but I don’t feel I have anything to say which is particularly new or insightful, and yet another “you are all missing the point” blog is hardly going to do any more than add to the noise.

So instead here’s some history and facts.

I haven’t done an exhaustive search but a quick Google survey suggests that there have been 60 independence referendums* in the modern era (ie since the 1800s when the concept of a nation state first started to take on meaning). This is ignoring various online polls or diaspora organised bits of nonsense such as the online plebiscite in Venice earlier this year. I’m also ignoring West Papua’s ridiculous “Act of Free Choice” in which the Indonesian army hand selected 1000 West Papuans who, surprise surprise, voted that West Papua should join Indonesia. I am however including a bunch of referendums that are only slightly more credible – in the interests of simplicity I’ve drawn some quite arbitrary definitions.

Edit: (see bottom) now 73…ish

So 60 referendums worth the name. One of these, Micronesia’s in 1983, wasn’t quite an independence referendum*. The question was “do you want to join a free association with the USA” followed by “if not, do you want full independence or an alternative, write your alternative in the box”. It was a leading question and it resulted in the expected answer – a free association. Micronesia then evolved full sovereignty within the free association over the next few years. 59 to go.

* What was now Micronesia did actually vote for independence in 1975, but it was a 6 question referendum and Micronseians voted in favour of three of the options, including the status quo option, so America went with that. That same elections saw the Marshall Islands and Palau vote strongly against independence.

27 of these referendums I consider to be less interesting than the others in that they essentially ratified the existence of already de-facto states. None of these has surprising or interesting results: all were easily won by the yes camp with a greater or lesser degree of credibility, and in most cases it made no difference to the politics of the day; it simply validated what was already known (or didn’t depending on the geopolitics).

– 4 (Bosnia, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia) came from the break up of Yugoslavia (actually this is a little harsh on Slovenia whose referendum slightly predated, and arguably perpetuated, the break up – but regardless is better understood through the rubric of Yugoslavia’s breakup).

– 9 (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan) came from the break up of the Soviet Union. These referendums were particularly dull as there really wasn’t any alternative to independence.

– 8 (Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia twice, Transnistria twice, Donetsk, and Lugansk) were from what the Russians would object to me calling Russian puppet states (so I won’t) and concerned de facto independent breakaway republics in the former Soviet Union who enjoy good relations with Moscow. You will think of these as your politics dictates.

– 3 (Eritrea, East Timor and South Sudan) came out of peace talks at the end of bloody civil wars which had in any case already been all-but won by the separatists.

– 3 are historical curios. Moldova’s 1994 referendum: “do you want to remain part of Moldova?” (with no alternative given) was a fairly needless passive aggressive swipe at Romania. Southern Rhodesia’s (now Zimbabwe) 1964 referendum was part of Ian Smith’s tireless campaign to be the most irritating and embarrassing of all the British Empire’s racist colonial hangers-on. And in 1945 Cambodia, still under Japanese occupation, had a referendum on declaring independence from France (while still remaining a Japanese puppet state, natch) which had the magnificently biased wording “would you like to be free as King Jayavarman VII was when he built Angkor Wat?” A proposal which was passed by 541,470 votes to 0.

So that leaves us with 33 referendums which I would consider non trivial. Of those 14 were won by no*, 11 were won by yes and that result led to independence, and 8 were won by yes but independence was never granted. I think its worth briefly looking at each in turn.

* this includes the two rigged Djibouti referendums which were followed by a third successful one.

Successful yes votes

– Algeria 1962 This came out of the peace talks following the Algerian civil war and indeed I almost considered throwing it into a category above. But Algeria was still clearly a part of France at the time so it qualifies as a slightly more meaningful referendum. In the sordid bloody history of the French occupation of Algeria this is about the one thing the French got right: a referendum was held, there was a 99.7% yes vote on a 91.2% turnout and the French respected the result. Tens of thousands of lives could have been spared if this had been the start rather than the end of the civil war and the end, rather than the start, of meddling in Algerian politics. Since then Algerian politics has been pretty grim, but life wasn’t exactly fantastic under the French either.

– Bahrain 1970 Another straightforward one I considered placing in one of the categories above. Britain wanted out of Bahrain one way or another; this vote was merely to decide if Bahrain was to declare independence or join Iran. It chose the former much to the relief of its significant Sunni minority, but its Shia majority was enough to quash any hope of it joining the UAE. Bahrain is doing about as well as can be expected from a former British colony in the middle east wracked with ethnic division and containing a bunch of petrochemicals and not much else.

– Djibouti 1960, 1967, 1977 A case of “third time’s the charm”. France managed to rig the first two of Djibouti’s independence referendums but lacked the resources or political will to do it a third time and Yes finally won by 99.8% in 1977. The long term consequence of these rigged polls was that the expectation (explicit in the first poll and implicit in the second) that an independent Djibouti would merge with Somalia would remain unrealised, as by 1977 Somalia was in no fit state to merge with anything. Since then Djiboutian politics has been pretty grim, but life wasn’t exactly fantastic under the French either. Djibouti remains the only country to declare independence following previous referendum results won by the no campaign.

Edit I realise I also missed the referendum in Comoros in 1975 Without looking into it more closely it seems that it went down in a similar fashion to Djibouti. Most of Comoros voted overwhelmingly for independence but Mayotte voted strongly against, and so it remains part of France to this day.

– Guinea 1958 Arguably this shouldn’t be on this list, and arguably Niger should, but I’m drawing arbitrary lines to keep this simple. In 1958 France and all remaining French colonies voted on the constitution of the 5th republic, the idea being to provide stability after the chaos of the 4th republic and to solidify Charles De Gaulle’s position as inaugural president. It was explicitly made clear that in addition to the constitution needing an overall majority from the empire to pass (which it easily got) a no vote from any colony would mean that colony’s expulsion – ie independence.

However 1958 is pretty early on in the history of the anti-colonial movement and – while there was a small but significant no vote in French Polynesia, what is now Djibouti, and Madagascar – there was only a concerted independence campaign in Niger and Guinea. In Niger they fell a long way short (22%) but in Guinea 95% of the population rejected the constitution. France accepted the result and respected Guinea’s independence declaration that followed shortly after. However they then set out to destroy Guinea through sanctions and non co-operation. This drove Guinea into further poverty and the arms of the Soviets.

– Iceland 1944 This probably would have happened anyway at some stage but was hastened, and the result made less close (99.5% for yes and 98.5% for declaring a republic) by the fact that Denmark was under Nazi occupation at the time and Iceland wasn’t. Given those circumstances it was a surprisingly civil affair and King/ex-King Christian X even sent a message of congratulations to the Icelandic people afterwards. Iceland has been doing pretty well since.

– Liberia 1846 Liberia was founded by freed slaves in 1820 as a self-governing American colony. In 1846 they held the world’s first independence referendum which passed with 52% of the vote. Nothing about Liberia’s history isn’t fascinating, or in some way horrible, or in some sense unique.

– Malta 1964 The referendum was actually on a new constitution, but part of the constitution was a declaration of independence so I am including it. It was close-ish but the yes campaign won with 54% of the vote. Malta has been doing pretty well since.

– Maryland 1853 What do you mean you’ve never heard of Maryland? Maryland was founded by freed slaves in 1834 as a self-governing American colony along the lines of neighboring Liberia. In 1853 they followed Liberia’s example in holding an independence referendum (which went: Yes 122 No 0) and declaring independence. In 1857 they came under attack from African tribes who objected to their interference with the slave trade. Maryland therefore decided to merge with Liberia for its own protection.

– Montenegro 2006. Montenegro had stayed with Serbia throughout the entirety of the Yugoslavian Civil War, and was the last of the former Yugoslav republics to do so. It finally went its own way in an EU backed referendum in 2006. 55% of the vote was needed for a yes and 55.5% was received, amidst some allegations of vote rigging and bribery. It’s probably too early to say how it is going.

– Norway 1905 Norway and Sweden were in a Swedish-led union from 1814 to 1905 as a consequence of the Napoleonic war. Norway had been growing restless for some time and in 1905 unilaterally declared independence. Sweden refused to accept this unless it was ratified by a referendum. The Norwegian Government therefore put the question to the people with the following wonderfully petulant wording: “do you approve the already completed dissolution of the union?” 368,208 people did, 184 didn’t. Norway then went on to become the richest country in the world and regularly tops quality of life charts; although this probably has more to do with oil than anything else.

– Samoa 1961 New Zealand controlled Samoa under a League of Nations mandate (how retro) from 1918 until 1962. They didn’t do a very good job and had an unfortunate habit of massacring peaceful protesters. By 1962 clamour for independence led to a UN sponsored referendum which was won by yes with 85% backing. New Zealand accepted the result with good grace. There’s probably a good bit of research to be done comparing Samoa and American Samoa to see what the impact of independence has been. I don’t know enough to comment.

Yes votes that were ignored by the occupying power

– Aruba 1977 Aruba is a part of the Netherlands within the Dutch Antilles. In 1977 95% of them voted for independence. From this point on the Dutch played a magnificently Machiavellian game to keep hold of the island. At no point did they refuse to recognise the result but they did stall for time, then they stalled, then they stalled a bit more, then they set up a constitutional committee, then they did some more stalling. Finally in 1983 they agreed to Aruban independence in principle and in 1985 as a matter of law. But independence was not to be granted until 1996! Many people may have thought Alex Salmond’s 18 month timeframe was a little ambitious, but 19 years seems excessive.

Finally, in 1990, once many of the key supporters of independence had died and a pro Dutch Government was in power, the Prime Minister of Aruba asked for the independence programme to be put on hold. This request was immediately granted and in 1995 the referendum result was effectively nullified by a new Dutch law meaning that in future independence would require a vote by two-thirds of the Aruban parliament followed by a new referendum yes result backed by over 50% of all registered voters. In the meantime however Aruba did get to use the leverage to get a good deal more self-government, and in particular was allowed to escape from under the umbrella of the Dutch Antilles.

– Faroe Islands 1946 Yes narrowly won this vote with 50.7% of the vote. Denmark refused to accept the result and responded by dissolving the Faroeise Parliament. In the chaos that followed the pro-independence coalition fell apart, meaning that pro union parties won the subsequent general election. In 1948 Denmark agreed a powerful package of devolution and increased subsidies to prevent a yes vote from winning again. So far this has been successful and there have been no subsequent referendums, although the Faroe Islands still have a powerful independence lobby and are pushing for a fresh referendum at some point in the next couple of years.

– Kosovo 1991 As the rest of Yugoslavia was falling into pieces Kosovo too voted for independence and the yes campaign easily won with 99.8% of the vote on an 87% turnout, despite a widespread boycott among ethnic Serbs. However unlike other members of former Yugoslavia, Kosovo wasn’t able to get away and it remained under Serbian control until the Nato intervention of 1999. As only Albania had recognised the result of their 1991 referendum Kosovo declared independence once again in 2008. This time 108 countries, including much of the west (but not separatism wary Spain), recognised their claim, but the UN and 85 other countries still do not. This makes Kosovo the world’s most half-recognised state.

– Kurdistan 2005 This referendum was held by the Iraqi Kurdish provisional provincial Government at the same time as Iraq’s first elections. Iraq was still under American occupation at the time and even the Kurdish provisional provincial Government acknowledged that a yes vote was unlikely to lead to independence. However they felt that a demonstration of support would prove a useful campaigning point. And the 98.8% mandate for independence has indeed featured in many Kurdish speeches since.

– Nevis 1998 62% of the population of Nevis voted to break away from St Kitts and Nevis but the Government of St Kitts refused to accept the result without a two-thirds majority. The referendum took place as part of a still ongoing series of constitutional crises in the islands, as part of which the federal Governments of St Kitts and the devolved Government of Nevis still frequently refuse to recognise the validity of laws passed by the other authority. They are just about getting on at the moment, but there is still a powerful Nevisian separatism movement, partly fed by fear that St Kitts may once again refuse to recognise the authority of Nevisian legislation, and partly by irritation that currently almost all departure taxes go to St Kitts because they have a bigger port and airport.

– Tokelau 2006 and 2007 Technically this was a referendum on self-governance and not full independence but it is still an example worth talking about. Tokelau voted for self-governance in 2006 with 60% support. However the New Zealand Government said that they would need a two-thirds majority in order to accept the result. They conceded that the result was close enough that a re run was in order. The re run, in 2007, was closer still: the 64.45% who voted yes meaning that Tokelou (which is really small) was just 15 votes shy of self governance. In response Tokelouan politicians asked for a third referendum, this time with a simple 50% majority being all that would be required, but thus far New Zealand hasn’t shown much interest in this idea.

– Western Australia 1933 Western Australia  is very very big and very very empty. As such it isn’t of that much interest to Australian federal politicians due to its lack of votes. Western Australians had therefore felt for some time that the Australian Government had neglected their needs. In the early 1900s the gold rush brought quite considerable prosperity to some in Western Australia, and several key mining magnates and newspaper owners – often of a libertarian bent – started to question why Western Australia should give up so much of its mineral reserves to the federal government in taxes, when it seemed to receive so little in return.

In 1933 the agitation of the secessionist Keith Watson led to an independence referendum which was won by the yes campaign with 66.22% (narrowly passing a self-imposed 2/3rds majority requirement). The victorious State Government took the result to the Australian Parliament who refused to recognise the result. The State Government then sent a delegation to London where a Parliamentary Select Committee was set up to discuss the matter. They ultimately decided to ignore the result but “Commonwealth Grants Commission” to make “Horizontal Fiscal Equalisation” (ie more money for Western Australia) a matter of Australian policy. It has been ever since, and since then the demand for Western Australian secession has been greatly diminished.

Victories for the no campaign

– Bermuda 1995 There had been a general agitation for independence in Bermuda for some time; this especially grew after 1968 when Bermuda was granted a constitution which allowed non landowners to vote for the first time, but independence didn’t naturally follow as it did elsewhere in the Caribbean. It grew further, particularly among the poor black Bermudans, in the 1970s following the assassination of Governor Sir Richard Sharples, the execution of his assassins, and the subsequent rioting. It grew further, particularly among more white and middle class Bermudans, in the 1980s following the success of self-government and the seemingly resultant economic prosperity. This led to the pro-independence Prime Minister Sir John Swan pushing for an independence vote in 2005.

However the yes campaign descended into chaos almost as soon as it had started. For one thing, while Sir John Swan was supportive of independence, most of his party (the centre right UBP) were strongly against independence and the UBP went into at civil war on the issue. This in turn led to the independence campaign stating that a yes vote might not necessarily mean independence right away, leaving many voters wondering why they should bother. To make matters worse the opposition centre-left PLP were in favour of independence but felt that it should be a matter for a general election (in other words if you want independence, do it by voting PLP, not through this referendum). So they scuppered the first referendum bill, voted against the second one, and called for a boycott of the poll itself. And then hurricane Felix hit on polling day lowering turnout in yes areas. So a victory for no (only 26% voted yes) was no surprise.

In the aftermath Sir John Swan resigned and the PLP rose to power. However the PLP rowed back on their previous commitment to independence and instead spoke only of preparing Bermuda for the possibility of independence down the line – in 2001 the new PM Jennifer M. Smith said that Bermuda is at least two parliamentary terms away from being ready for an independence vote, and the matter hasn’t been raised since. In 2002 the British Government gave Bermuda’s residents entitlement to British Citizenship which considerably reduced support for independence, particularly among more affluent white Bermudans.

– Montenegro 1992 As the rest of the Yugoslavian governments were holding independence referendums Montenegro had one too. However unlike Yugoslavia’s other provinces Montenegro had a pro-Serb leadership, and was using the poll as a means to bolster support for remaining with Yugoslavia. The no campaign won with 96% of the vote.

– New Caledonia 1987 The Kanak people are the original inhabitants of the South Pacific islands of New Caledonia, but over the last 50 years they have become outnumbered by European and Polynesian settlers. This has caused quite considerable discontent among the Kanak who have waged an, at times violent, separatist struggle. In 1984 the French Parliament, in high-handed fashion, decided to hold a referendum on independence with the aim of undermining the secession movement – thus mistaking a question of protection for minorities for one of the majority will. With most Kanaks boycotting the referendum, the no campaign won with 98% of the vote.

This did not undermine the secession movement even slightly, and six months later they kidnapped 27 French gendarmes in what became known as the Ouvéa cave hostage taking. The French sent a public prosecutor to negotiate with the hostage takers. They took him hostage. They then sent a team of paramilitaries to free the hostages. They took seven of them hostage. Finally the French sent four parachute regiments to assault the caves. The assault went farcically although all the hostages were eventually freed. 2 paras and 19 hostage takers were killed, 12 of them seemingly in cold blood which did nothing to soothe secessionist sensibilities. Nor did things improve 6 months later when the leader of the Kanak Independence movement was assassinated.

However out of this darkest day things did start to improve: peace talks led to a devolution package in 1998, and perhaps more importantly, to attempts to safeguard and support Kanak culture. In 2004 the militantly anti-independence RPCR party fell to the l’Avenir Ensemble party – which is still anti independence but more moderately so and more conciliatory towards Kanak people. A fresh independence vote may even take place later this year.

– Northern Ireland 1973 Not quite an independence referendum but a referendum on if Northern Ireland should stay with the UK or join the Republic, this was a fairly cynical ploy by the Government of Northern Ireland to undermine republicanism. As with New Caledonia it misses the point: the issue is not the will of the majority but respect for the rights of the minority and the need for asymmetric power sharing to protect minorities. All republicans called for a boycott of the poll and the IRA threatened dire consequences for anyone who participated – meaning that he no campaign won with 99% of the vote on a 56% turnout. It is estimated that less than 1% of Catholics voted.

– Puerto Rico 1967, 1993, 1998, and 2012 Puerto Rico, You lovely island, Island of tropical breezes. Always the pineapples growing, Always the coffee blossoms blowing, Puerto Rico, You ugly island, Island of tropic diseases. Always the hurricanes blowing, Always the population growing . . . And the money owing, And the babies crying, And the bullets flying…. 

Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States – as such it enjoys none of the civic benefits of being part of America, nor any of the freedoms of independence. However supporters of the status quo would suggest that it gains financially out of the arrangement while still enjoying functional self governance. There are three main political parties each corresponding to one of the three main constitutional positions on Puerto Rico.

The politics of the Puerto Rician Independence Party won’t surprise you. They are unrelated to the earlier Puerto Rician Nationalist Party that led an unsucessful armed revolt in 1950 but they did cash in on their support, gaining 20% of the vote in the 1950s. Since then they have been much less successful, and normally get around 3% of the vote.

The New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico pushes for Puerto Rico to become a full state of the United States. It is also vaguely centre right and is more affiliated with the Republican Party (although also has some Democrat affiliation).

The Popular Democratic Party advocates for the status quo. It is also centre left and closely aligned with the Democrats. The NPP and the PDP have been by far the two most successful political parties in Puerto Rico, the PDP have been marginally more successful but at times the NPP have also held commanding super-majorities.

Four status referendums which included an option for independence have been held (along with several that haven’t); oftentimes the motives for these polls haven’t been entirely pure but have had more to do with the party politics of the day.

The first such poll, in 1967, gave voters a choice between Puerto Rico being a Commonwealth (the status quo – which received 60.4% backing), a US state (39%), or gaining independence (0.6%).

It was nearly 30 years before the question would be asked again but it would be asked twice in the 1990s as a result of a significant period of fluidity in Puerto Rician party politics. In 1993 the question was asked again in identical form. This time 48.5% backed the Commonwealth, 46.3% Statehood, and 4.4% independence. This was taken as a victory for the status quo as that was the plurality outcome.

In 1998 the then NPP Government proposed a 5 option referendum which asked voters to choose between “limited self-government”, “free association”, “statehood”, “sovereignty”, and “none of the above”. Arguing that none of the terms were clearly defined the PNP asked people to vote for “none of the above”, and there was a general dissatisfaction as to how the question had been asked and the fact that it had been asked without using a preferential voting system. In the end statehood received 46.6% of the vote, sovereignty 2.6%, free association 0.3%, limited self-government 0.006%, and none of the above 50.5%. The PDP, who came back into power at about the same time, argued that this constituted a vote in favour of the status quo and no action was taken.

Finally in 2012 the question was asked again, this time two questions were asked. The first was “should Puerto Rico continue its current territorial status?” and the second was  “which non-territorial option do you prefer? Statehood, a Sovereign Free Associated State, or independence?” The NPP advocated voting against the status quo and for statehood, the PDP advocated voting for the status quo on the first question and leaving the answer to the second question, which they deemed an “undemocratic trap”, blank. The result was that 54% of the population voted against the status quo. On the second question over 38% of voters did leave ballot blank but their ballots were ignored in the final tally, which came in 61.2% for statehood, 33.3% for a Sovereign Free Associated State and 5.5% for independence.

As this is the first time Puerto Rico has voted for anything other than the staus quo, this is the first time America has been asked to respond to a referendum result. So far Obama has not done so, but he has said he want the matter to be dealt with by a constituent assembly, which he has not yet established. The situation is further muddied by the fact that, at the same time as Puerto Ricans voted for statehood, they elected a passionately anti-statehood PDP governor who has written to Obama urging him to reject the result. There are suggestions that another referendum could be held soon.

– Quebec 1980 and 1995 Do please let me know in the comments if there have been any good historical studies of the ebbing and flowing levels of support for independence in Quebec over the last 50 years and the impacts of various federal measures to support the French language – I have looked in vain. My understanding is that demands for independence grew throughout the 1950s as a result of the Francophone liberal awakening known as the “quiet revolution”. It then took a knock as a result of the Official Languages Act of 1968 (which enshrined the role of French in Canadian governance) and as a result of terrorist actions of the Front delibération du Québec, which culminated in 1970 when they kidnapped the British Trade Envoy and the Vice Premier of Quebec, and strangled the latter with a set of rosary beads. Demand then grew again throughout the 1970s as the Quebec nationalist Parti Québécois rose to power.

This led to the first independence referendum in 1980, it was perhaps premature and The no campaign won with 60% of the vote. However this was not the end but the beginning of a decade of Canadian constitutional turmoil. Quebec refused (and still refuses) to ratify the new Canadian constitution of 1982, and attempts at a compromise were scuppered in 1987 (by Manitoba) and 1992 (by a split in the Liberal Party). The amendment to the languages act in 1988 helped reduce demands for independence somewhat, but they were back with a vengeance in the early 1990s when the Parti Québécois again took power.

In 1994 the Parti Québécois held another independence referendum. It was incredibly dramatic and the 93.5% turnout is the highest ever achieved in a referendum in any place in the world where voting is not compulsory. Early polls suggested as many as 67% of Quebecois would vote no, but momentum rapidly shifted behind the yes campaign and for much of the campaign a yes victory looked certain. But a 6% swing on the day of the vote itself (seemingly a result of last minute nerves) defied the opinion polls and led to a no campaign victory by the slimmest of margins: 50.6% to 49.4%.

In the immediate aftermath of the result the Canadian Government switched to what they called “plan B”, which was to get political scientist Stéphane Dion to write a series of three open letters to the Government of Quebec challenging the legal basis on which the referendum was held and stating that Quebec did not have the power to declare independence. While this display of passive aggressive churlishness (David Cameron was presumably taking notes) predictably backfired and led to a further Parti Québécois electoral victory in 1998, the ongoing constitutional debate did lead to the “Clarity Act” of 2000, which laid down the constitutional process for Quebec to leave Canada if it so chose. Knowing that option was there, and an extended federal love-in during which the special status of Quebec has regularly been asserted, seems to have reduced demands for secession somewhat.

Even more importantly both the Parti Québécois and its federal equivalent the Bloc Québécois have utterly imploded of late, and while the reasons for this have far more to do with governance and very little to do with independence, the fact that there are no longer any standard bearers for independence presents a formidable barrier for any future referendums. At the state level the unionist Liberal Party hold sway while at the Federal level Quebec was absolutely swept at the last election by the left wing NDP (which supports a unified and more federal Canada but respects Quebec’s right to secede if it so chooses) on the back of an incredible speech by the charismatic, but now sadly dead, Jack Layton. The NDP had barely held a single seat in the Province in their history before the last election and so it remains to be seen if they can hold on to any of their gains, although a new Quebecois leader may help.

Edit: I found some more, although they are all a bit unusual:

– Guam 1976 Guamanians (actually what they are called) were asked to choose between an “improved status quo”, the status quo, joining the USA, independence, or none of the above. 58% chose “improved status quo” with 9% preffering the status quo to not be improved, 24% wanting to join the US and 6% wanting independence.

– Northern Marianas Islands 1958, 1961, 1963 and 1968. These rather sad elections always went exactly the same way: voters were presented with a very long shopping list of options including independence and some really fanciful ideas (integration with Japan always gets one vote – I wonder if it was the same person each time and if they stood out). Each time 90%+ vote for integration with Guam, and each time Guam says “no thank you”.

– Saarland 1955 Saarland is an area of Germany on the border with Luxemburg. Its borders have always been disputed. From the end of WW2 to 1957 it was governed by France as a protectorate and even entered its own football team to the 1954 world cup (they didn’t qualify). In 1955 the French organised a referendum on Saar independence under a Council of Europe mandate. The vote split along largely linguistic lines with French speakers backing the yes campaign. The no campaign won with 68% of the vote and this was taken as a mandate for the reunification with Germany that followed.

– Various places in the Dutch Antilles 1993, 2000, 2004, and 2005 After Aruba (see above) left the Dutch Antilles Curaçao held a referendum in 1993 on a number of options including Independence. This didn’t receive much support but the option that overwhelmingly won was for a fundamental restructuring of the Antillies. Various committees set to work on this over the next decade, but as they did so the whole thing started to fall apart at the seams. First Sint Maarten, then Saba, Bonaire, Sint Eustace and finally Curaçao once again held referendums asking the public to choose between the status quo, forming part of the restructured Dutch Antilles, forming some form of union with Holland, or independence. While independence received very few votes (ranging from 14% on Sint Maarten to 0.7% on Saba) in every case the islands voted to leave the Dutch Antilles, and now they are no more – each island is now a territory of the Netherlands in its own right.

– Palau and Marshall Islands 1983 As with the Micronesia election mentioned at the top of the page, voters were asked if they favoured “free association with the USA”, and voted yes. Had they voted no there was a subsequent question on independence, but it didn’t come up. However both Palau and the Marshall Islands evolved full sovereignty from within the free association over the next could of years.

– Ciseki 1980 Ciseki was one of several “Bantustans” – nominally independent states which were in reality reservations for Black residents – that existed within Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Ciseki’s independence was ratified by a referendum – the only time in Apartheid history when black people have ever been allowed to vote – which backed independence by 99% (the alternative was living under Apartheid so that makes sense).

And so ends my tour of interesting independence referendums. Working out what any of this means for Scotland is left as an exercise for the reader.

Firdous e Bareen

September 9, 2014 § 4 Comments

I thought I’d write about Isis since it seems to be pub hour for international political journalism. I should add the caveat that I know very little about Syria and less about Iraq, and so my writings are likely to be uninformed and wide of the mark. But that doesn’t seem to matter these days, it’s pub hour. I’ll fit right in.

I’m not entirely convinced Isis really exist.

I don’t mean that in a conspiracy theory, flat-earth, 911-was-an-inside-job, Prince-Philip-is-a-lizard kind of way. Of course Isis really exist in some sense. But I’m not sure they do all that much existing.

Not In Rivers, But In Drops

I quote Adam Curtis far too often. I am aware that he is not without his flaws, and that quoting his documentaries is only one step above quoting Vice magazine and several staircases below quoting an actual academic (heaven forfend). But I did find his argument in “the Power of Nightmares” about the non-existence of Al Qaeda in any substantive form to be compelling – regardless of how often it is misunderstood by idiots.

Essentially Al Qaeda became a brand, like frosted flakes or knife crime, and it became the case that there was a strong vested interests for the media, the coalition of the willing, and the terrorists themselves to pass off every attack and atrocity, every event and action both successful and unsuccessful, as being by or against Al Qaeda. And to do this they didn’t really need to lie as Al Qaeda is such an amorphous and ill-defined organisation that virtually anyone can be covered by the shadow of the ludicrously large umbrella that the term “Al Qaeda associated” throws up. All that was required is that we not look too closely for deeper truths, for anything approaching insightful analysis. This is something we got pretty good at during the war on terror.

I am no expert on Isis, but my understanding is that they are nowhere near as amorphous as Al Qaeda and that, to return to my original point, they do exist. They are a fairly conventional military force, which will probably end up being the reason they lose. But how big are they really? And how much of what we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria is really down to Isis and to what extent are they merely the sparks shooting out of a flaming log – highly visible certainly, but tiny and not where the heat is coming from?

1,000 Shards

The Economist estimated Isis’s size as 6,000 or so fighters in Syria, and a similar but smaller number in Iraq. So in all likelihood its army is about the same size as that of Fiji, and probably not as well equipped.

Isis are of course much more active on social media than the Fijian armed forces. They are also much better at using terror as part of a media relations strategy as the War nerd writes in a typically gruesome recent blog. They are also operating in a political vacuum, and 10,000 crazies can do a lot of damage in a political vacuum – for a bit. But the point remains, they are small, and probably too small and too unstable to stick around for long. Probably.

So a more interesting question to ask is whether anything has really changed in Iraq and Syria since Isis came along. In other words how has the situation changed as we’ve climbed this mountain?:


In Iraq, in the areas they control, most certainly things are different. Although “Isis controlled” is a sobriquet which the media is quick to bestow on a town but which the town will often not merit. It is also worth taking something of a historical perspective. Is the situation in Iraq now as fragmented and anarchic as it was in 2006 when the Iraqi insurgency controlled much of the country, Muqtada al-Sadr controlled much of the rest, and there were 30,000 (IBC) to 300,000 (Lancet) dead? I would argue it is not. As for Syria: pre Isis Syria was a catastrophic failed state wracked by civil war with roaming feral gangs of murderers and fundamentalists competing with each other to spill the most blood. Isis have caused about as much damage in Syria as a tornado in a scrapyard.

But what has changed fundamentally since Isis came along, is we now have a narrative we can all get behind. We have a prism through which to see things. Our story, which previously was confusing and required concentration to follow, finally has goodies and baddies, or rather baddies and worsies. And this means that a lot of stuff that was previously considered to complicated to be news is now all over our front pages.

This is what I mean when I say Isis don’t exist: of course they exist, but they are also a narrative device, and the narrative device is growing out of all scale to the tiny group of rather sad 4 Lions wannabes they are named after. The situation in Iraq and Syria is doubtless bad, but the idea that it was substantively better before, or that these bad things weren’t happening previously, is misleading. The major change has been that Isis have given us a language in which to discuss these things.

Some of the things that Isis have done would definitely be news regardless of this narrative device. Taking control of Iraq’s second largest city, however briefly, is massive. Although it did also happen in 2004 and 2008 with less fanfare, and by groups we have now forgotten about.

Similarly the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff were such craven acts of barbarity that they would have got headlines at any time and place. Although again it is worth noting that 102 journalists were murdered in Iraq between 2003 and 2013 and 7 in Syria, while at least 36 internationals including 10 Americans have been captured and executed by Iraqi insurgents in that time. This doesn’t detract from the tragedy of Foley and Sotloff’s deaths, but it does place them in context. It is also worth noting that twelve other western journalists have also been kidnapped by Isis and subsequently freed. This  difference in treatment could be because those countries and employers have different attitudes towards ransom, it could be because Isis really hates Americans. But it is possible that the narrative itself, and those who perpetuate it, also share some of the blame for this change of tactic. Could it not also be that the tactics changed  because the new media narrative is becoming increasingly thirsty for blood, blood Isis is all too happy to provide?

In a sense this is the heart of Curtis’ “power of nightmares” thesis – the idea that terrorists, counter-terrorists, and the media end up inadvertently colluding with each other, validating each other, and perpetuating each other,  due to the nature of their symbiotic yet parasitic relationship.

Our more immediate problem is that the Isis story has now taken on a life of its own, and a life to which the facts are increasingly being bent to fit. So non stories like Isis’ hoax attempt to make FGM compulsory (a clear case of picking the wrong Orientalism out of the hat), or the desperate situation on that mountain top that turned out to be not so desperate, get waved on to the front page without much scrutiny. Meanwhile there is no room in this new narrative to point out such inconveniences as the fact that it was only a year ago we were talking about arming Isis’ allies and bombing Isis’ adversaries in the Syrian civil war.

But above all we are being misled as to the novelty of all this; a situation which is utterly horrible, but which has been more or less the status quo for the last several years, is being presented as something new and dangerous and requiring our urgent attention. And I just don’t believe it. Certainly not the new bit, probably not the dangerous bit, and as for urgent attention, urgent attention to what end?

In the Absence of Truth

Utter cliché though it now is, I do love Maslow’s hammer. When all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. Unfortunately the subset of things which it is constructive to hit with a hammer is actually pretty small, and the vast majority of things outside the set are things that a hammer is just going to make more broken, messier, and more fragmented. Not to mention the fact that when you wave a hammer around you tend to hurt people.

This of course is what’s spurring my worries about all this manipulation of narrative, the sneaking sense that what we are seeing now is the interventionist right’s attempt to rehabilitate the idea that we should always be declaring war on the people we don’t like; to undo some of the damage that was caused to this idea by Iraq, Afghanistan, and last September’s failed attempt to drum up support for an invasion of Syria. Fortunately this time even the neocons seem unsure as to who we should be declaring war on, or how. Granted America is dropping a few bombs, but not even I really mind that – much as I think precision targeting is a myth (the more accurate our weapons have got the more civilians we seem to accidentally kill) if you are going to drop a bomb on anyone (and that seems to be non negotiable) it might as well be on a murderous fascist driving a Humvee through the middle of the desert.

So the lies are troubling but ultimately don’t, in my view, warrant a particularly different response. Imagine a doctor who has just found out that her patient, whom she thought had cancer, is actually the victim of a plot by the international capitalist hegemon to cause their cells to divide uncontrollably. She’d be annoyed but she’s still going to treat them for cancer, because that’s what the symptoms demand.

It is easy to be wise after the event but that Russian proposal for a Syrian ceasefire in June of 2012 is looking pretty good right now. It looked quite good at the time, but America wanted Assad’s removal to be a precondition for talks and Russia thought that was putting the cart before the horse. This was back in the olden days when we cared two hoots what happened to Assad; it all seems rather quaint now. Of course that is not to say Russia’s role in events hasn’t been entirely despicable, but simply to suggest that so has everyone else’s, and Russia just might have been right that one time. Of course it’s a bit late to do anything about that now.

The west could always stop funding and backing Saudi Arabia, who remain the primary source and supporter of fundamentalists, fascists, fanatics and fruit loops in the region. That would, at a stroke, make the world a far better and safer place as well as bringing to an end perhaps the biggest and most dangerous of all foreign policy hypocrisies. That might improve the situation in Iraq and Syria ten years from now.

Until then I can’t really see that there is much more to do than wait it out and accept it is going to be horrible. Depending on your personality you may either take comfort or derive further despair from the fact that the situation isn’t really any worse than it was before you’d heard of Isis, and is still more-or-less better than the situation in the Central African Republic, the DR Congo, or any number of other places that decent people don’t like to think about too much.

Firdous e Bareen is the name of a track by the sludgy post rock band Isis. They most certainly do exist. All the subtitles are named after Isis tracks too. Firdous e Bareen was also the name of a historical and potentially mythical Persian pleasure garden where the Hashshashin (or Assassins, as their name was anglicized) would take new potential recruits. They would drug them and bring them to the gardens while they were asleep and then when they awoke they would imagine that they had died and gone to paradise. Thus they would think their orders were the voice of god, and would know no fear because they would think that they had already died. Which is a great story, although the logic falls apart if you think about it at all.

It is worth noting that the brazen nature of the murders carried out by the Assassins was once one of the most feared things about the middle east; their raids were thought to be among the key destabilizing influences in the region – stirring up Sunni Shia animosity, rattling empires, and altering the path of the crusades. These days the Assassins are mostly remembered as stoners and characters in fairy stories and their branch of Islam, Isma‘ilism, is considered to be one of the most liberal and progressive. It is worth noting that Rita Hayworth was an Ismaili. It is worth noting that for the extra web searches it will bring alone. It is worth noting all this, it isn’t worth reading too much in to it.

Imran Khan, what next?

May 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

I just spoke on Radio about the elections in Pakistan (if you are interested you should soon be able to find it here soon). One thing I forgot to say so I’m expanding on it here.

Imran Khan actually did pretty well. For a party that has only ever won one seat in its history before and didn’t even compete last time round to get to 30+ odd seats in a first past the post system is pretty impressive. No one sane really expected them to do much btter. To be the official opposition and in power in one of the four provinces is actually better than they had any right to expect. The problem is however that having told everyone that the PTIsunami was going to sweep all before them, how do they now deal with the disappointment  And how does a party that has very shallow roots, and is all about momentum, keep going for the now virtually guaranteed five years until the next election? The PTI could well fall apart. I really hope it doesn’t because if they stick around Pakistani politics could start to get really interesting.

Although most people got the number of seats the PTI won about right I think everyone was a little surprised about how well Khan did in the northwestern KPK (and indeed in Pathan areas general), and how badly he did in Punjab. We should have seem the writing on the wall really: a massive power vacuum in KPK and a rampant PML-N in the Punjab. So now the PTI has two options: they could become an ethnically Pathan party and probably enjoy quite a lengthy and comfortable existence. Or they could keep their eyes on the main prize in the Punjab.

If they do keep their eyes on the Punjab then things could really pan out for them long term. Not only are they second across vast swathes of the Punjab, particularly in urban areas (and the entire Punjab is going to be peri-urban pretty soon), but everyone else has been cleaned right out of the Punjab – especially the PPP who don’t even seem to have much of a base in the south any more. Long term the Punjab could well develop stable two party system with the PTI as one of the two parties.

So the choice seems like a no brainer, but it is one easier to make in theory than in practice. While they may be second placed and well poised the PTI might really struggle to survive five bleak years in the Punjab with no base of MNAs or MPAs, no access to the patronage network that comes with incumbency, and a totally dominant PML. And at the same time they are in power, and have MNAs and MPAs, in ethnically Pathan areas – that has to pull them Pathanwards.

I think there are a couple of clear signals Khan could send now if he’s serious about the Punjab and long-term power. One is to take the role as leader of the official opposition. That will put him right at the centre of national politics for five years. The other is in the choice of seat he takes. In Pakistan you can stand for more than one seat, but if you win more than one you have to choose one and give up the rest. Khan stood for four and won three. He can now take his seat in Peshawar, in Islamabad, or in Miānwāli (a town in the north west of the Punjab which is kind of on the cusp of the Pathan areas of the Punjab and the Punjabi areas). Peshawar is the easy option. I hope he takes Islamabad.

The results

May 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Perhaps it wasn’t surprising but Nawaz Sharif won. What was surprising was that he won by an absolute landslide. He’s going to have an absolute majority nationally and a 2/3rds majority in the Punjab. Sindh is likely to have a PPP government and KPK will have some sort of PTI led coalition.

Results are still coming in, but at the moment it is:

  • PML-N 130
  • PTI 33
  • PPP 31
  • MQM 15
  • Islamic parties 8 (JUI 5, JI 3)
  • PML-F 4
  • PPMAP (a Baluchi party) 3
  • NPP (A PPP splinter) 2
  • AML (a PML splinter) 1
  • ANP 1
  • PML-Q 1
  • AJIP (the new party of Musharraf – who were supposed to be boycotting) 1
  • Independents 21 (expect to see some of these join the PML)

Here’s a very rough and ready map. I am grateful to uelect.org.pk as I stole their 2008 map and updated it. Its based on provisional results so some of these will change, and I’ve already spotted at least one that’s wrong:


It is just incredible how well the PML did in Punjab. They destroyed the PML-Q and the PPP only won one seat. The PML didn’t really break out of the Punjab but they didn’t need to – and they did randomly win a seat in Karachi.

The PTI didn’t break through in the urban Punjab but they did get a lot of second places and could be well set next time round. They also cleaned up in Pathan areas.

Also interesting to see mainstream parties taking advantage of new rules to field candidates and win seats in the Tribal Areas.