Argentina: Civil Society’s Urgent Call to Protect Rights

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Opinion

First Round of the elections in Argentina in 2023. Credit: Midia Ninja

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, Jul 2 2024 (IPS) – Between the Mafia and the State, I prefer the Mafia. The mafia has codes, it keeps its promises, it doesn’t lie, it’s competitive. If a company pollutes a river, where is the damage? The sale of organs is a market like any other. Abortion should be considered “aggravated murder”.


These are just a couple of quotes from former TV pundit Javier Milei, now president of Argentina, as he makes anti-progressism his trademark, borrowying from the ready-made discourse of the globalalt-right. He claims that global warming is “another lie of socialism”.

In recent months, Argentina has witnessed a significant shift under his new administration that threatens to undermine the very fabric of its civil society and democratic governance.

On June 12th, there was a violent crackdown on protesters outside the National Congress, involving the use of batons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Several individuals were arrested arbitrarily and subsequently labeled as “terrorists” by the government, a move clearly intended to intimidate civil society and criminalize protest. These detainees have been transferred to federal prisons, where reports indicate continued abuse, including the use of pepper spray, physical violence, and denial of basic rights.

Last Friday, the government sent another controversial bill to Congress looking to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 13, even though minors commit less than 1% of serious crimes in Argentina. A proposal that was labelled by opposers as “pure smoke and mirrors.”

Since taking office, President Javier Milei’s administration has received significant international criticism, including from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights which has scheduled a hearing on July 11th to address the situation.

“A President proud to repress”, this is what various media across Argentina wrote as Milei went as far as accusing protesters of being “terrorists” and said police violence prevented a “coup d’état”.

These alarming development mark a stark contrast to the country’s long-standing commitment to democracy and human rights, a commitment that has been painstakingly nurtured since the end of its brutal military dictatorship in 1983.

Moreover, this change of administration has been accompanied by an abrupt “retreat” of the state from its historic role as guarantor of the rights of its citizens. This abdication by the State of its essential responsibilities adds even more concerns to the already alarming measures explicitly restricting civic space.

Javier Milei’s aggressive and theatrical style – from superhero costumes to wielding a chainsaw to illustrate his plans to cut down the size of the state – has led some to compare him to Donald Trump in the US or Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. This shift, alongside the blurring of ideological lines between the Peronist and Together for Change coalitions, has implications for Argentina’s political landscape and on civic space.

Argentina’s civil society organizations, long the backbone of its democratic resilience and human rights advocacy, face unprecedented challenges.

Legislative proposals aimed at restricting their activities, coupled with limitations on freedom of expression and the right to protest, have sent shockwaves through the community. The administration’s policies include drastic public spending cuts, the closure of state institutions dedicated to women’s rights and access to justice, and a suspension of participation in international events related to the 2030 Agenda.

A recent protocol, announced by Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, involves identifying protesters through various means and then billing them for the costs incurred by deploying security forces to police the demonstrations. Human rights activists, opposition legislators, and organizations like the Centre of Legal Studies (CELS) argue that these measures effectively criminalize legitimate protests and violate constitutional rights. The government’s allies, such as legislator José Luis Espert, have responded with aggressive rhetoric: “Prison or bullet”.

Recently, a violent attack against a member of the organization H.I.J.O.S., known for its fight against impunity for the crimes of the last civil-military dictatorship and for the defense of human rights, has been denounced. This attack, characterized by its brutality and strong political message, reflects an alarming increase in violence against activists and civil society organizations. The attackers, by leaving the acronym VLLC (“Viva la libertad, carajo!”), associated with President Javier Milei, insinuate a disturbing link between government rhetoric and violent actions directed against “dissidents”.

These proposals, exacerbated by the country’s ongoing economic and social crises, pose new hurdles for civil society’s ability to operate and advocate for public interests.

Argentina’s history, marked by the dark years of dictatorship between 1976 and 1983, serves as a reminder of the cost of silence and inaction. The country’s journey to reclaim democracy and human rights was arduous, characterized by relentless efforts to acknowledge and compensate the victims of past repression. The current administration’s move to revise policies related to memory, truth, and human rights threatens to undo decades of progress, challenging the very essence of Argentina’s democratic sphere.

The international community, particularly organizations dedicated to the promotion of human rights and the preservation of historical memory, such as UNESCO, must heed this call to action.

The situation in Argentina requires a collective effort to support its civil society, advocate for the protection of civic space, and ensure that the lessons of the past are not forgotten.

This article was written by the Entidades no Gubernamentales para el Desarrollo (EENGD) – Red Encuentro, the national NGO platform of Argentina, in collaboration with the global civil society network Forus.

IPS UN Bureau

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New Caledonia: Time to Talk about Decolonisation

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Opinion

Credit: Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images

LONDON, Jun 20 2024 (IPS) – The violence that rocked New Caledonia last month has subsided. French President Emmanuel Macron has recently announced the suspension of changes to voting rights in the Pacific island nation, annexed by his country in 1853. His attempt to introduce these changes sparked weeks of violence.


Colonial legacies

Scattered around the world are 13 territories once part of the French Empire that haven’t achieved independence. Their status varies. Some, such as Guadeloupe and Martinique, have the same legal standing as French mainland regions. Others have more autonomy. New Caledonia is in a category of its own: since the 1998 Nouméa Accord, named after New Caledonia’s capital, France agreed to a gradual transfer of power. Currently, France determines New Caledonia’s defence, economic, electoral, foreign and migration policies.

The Accord came in response to a rising independence movement led by Kanak people, the country’s Indigenous inhabitants. Kanaks make up around 40 per cent of the population, with the rest being people of European descent and smaller groups of Asian, Oceanian and mixed heritage. Kanaks experienced severe discrimination under French colonial rule, and for a period were confined to reservations.

An independence movement formed after a fresh wave of Europeans arrived in the 1970s to work in the nickel-mining industry. New Caledonia is the world’s fourth-largest producer of nickel, a key ingredient in stainless steel and, increasingly, electric vehicle batteries. The nickel boom highlighted the divide in economic opportunities. Unrest lead to worsening violence and, eventually, the Nouméa Accord.

A downturn in the industry has deepened economic strife, exacerbating the poverty, inequality and unemployment many Kanaks experience. Today, around a third of Kanaks live in poverty compared to nine per cent of non-Kanaks.

Multiple referendums

The Accord created different electoral rolls for voting in mainland France and in New Caledonian elections and referendums, where the roll is frozen and only people who lived in the country in 1998 and their children can vote. These limitations were intended to give Kanak people a greater say in three independence referendums provided for in the Accord.

Referendums took place in 2018, 2020 and 2021, and the pro-independence camp lost every time. The 2020 vote was close, with around 47 per cent in favour of independence. But the December 2021 referendum was held amid a boycott by pro-independence parties, which called for a postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic: an outbreak that began in September 2021 left 280 people dead, most of them Kanak. Independence campaigners complained the vote impinged on traditional Kanak mourning rituals, making it impossible to campaign.

Almost 97 per cent of those who voted rejected independence, but the boycott meant only around 44 per cent of eligible people voted, compared to past turnouts of over 80 per cent.

France viewed this referendum as marking the completion of the Nouméa Accord. Macron made clear he considered the issue settled and appointed anti-independence people to key positions. The independence movement insisted that the vote, imposed by France against its wishes, wasn’t valid and another should be held.

Since the Accord was agreed, the far right has risen to prominence in France, as seen in the recent European Parliament elections. French politics and its politicians have become more racist, with mainstream parties, including Macron’s, tacking rightwards in response to the growing popularity of the far-right National Rally party. The ripple effect in New Caledonia is growing polarisation. As French politicians have promoted a narrow understanding of national identity, New Caledonia’s anti-independence movement has become more emboldened.

China’s push for closer ties with Pacific countries has also raised Oceania’s strategic importance. The US government and its allies, including France, have responded by paying renewed attention to a long-neglected region. France may be less willing to tolerate independence than before, particularly given the growing demand for electric vehicles.

State of emergency

The immediate cause of the protests was the French government’s plan to extend the franchise to anyone who has lived in New Caledonia for more than 10 years. For the independence movement, this was a unilateral departure from the Nouméa Accord’s principles and a setback for prospects for decolonisation and self-determination. Tens of thousands took part in protests against the change, approved by the French National Assembly but pending final confirmation.

On 13 May, clashes between pro-independence protesters and security forces led to riots. Rioters burned down hundreds of buildings in Nouméa. Communities set up barricades and people formed defence groups. Eight people are reported to have died.

France declared a state of emergency and brought in around 3,000 troops to suppress the violence, a move many in civil society criticised as heavy-handed. French authorities also banned TikTok. It was the first time a European Union country has made such a move, potentially setting a dangerous precedent.

Dialogue needed

Macron, who paid a brief visit once violence had subsided, has said the electoral changes will be suspended to allow for dialogue. His decision to gamble on early elections in France in the wake of his European election defeat has bought him some time.

This time should be used to build bridges and address the evident fact that many Kanak people don’t feel listened to. This goes beyond the question of the franchise. There are deep and unaddressed problems of economic and social exclusion. Many of those involved in violence were young, unemployed Kanaks who feel life has little to offer.

As a consequence of recent developments, New Caledonia is now more divided than it’s been in decades. The question of independence hasn’t been settled. Many Kanak people feel betrayed. For them, before there can be any extension of the franchise, France must agree to complete the unfinished process of decolonisation.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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Sawantwadi’s Traditional Handmade Toys Struggle for Survival

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Arts

Shashikant Rane with his wooden fruits. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Shashikant Rane with his wooden fruits. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

PUNE, Jun 14 2024 (IPS) – Sawantwadi in Maharashtra, on the western coast of India, bordering Goa, has always been known for its wooden toys. A picturesque town amid hills and lush greenery, Sawantwadi retains an old-world charm to this day.  The regal Sawantwadi Palace holds pride of place, with colleges, schools, and temples cloistered around the periphery of the lake, which was once an extension of the royal grounds.  In the centre of the town is the Ubha Bazaar, or Hanging Market, which houses rows of shops selling the iconic wooden toys that are a hallmark of Sawantwadi.


The wooden toys of Sawantwadi are a legacy that the previous rulers nurtured, and they reflect the spirit of the area. Generations of children in Maharashtra and Goa have grown up playing with the life-like depictions of fruits, people, and the pull-along toys that were a necessary part of growing up. But today, these painstakingly carved, hand-made toys made of Pongamia and mango wood are struggling for survival. The once-bustling hilltop market in downtown Sawantwadi, known as Ubha Bazaar (Hanging Market), is now a ghost of what it once was. The artisan families who manufactured and sold these toys from their workshops-cum-homes are now reduced to a handful.

So, what caused the busy hands of these artisans to fall silent?

By the looks of it, several factors are responsible.

Female musicians in concert. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Female musicians in concert. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Backgrounder

Unlike the cheap machine-made toys that flood the market today, toys are a traditional craft in India, commanding a hoary lineage from the era of the Indus Valley civilization. Like many other centers in India, Sawantwadi always boasted gifted artisans capable of painstakingly breathing life into wood and carving out an array of life-like figures inspired by everyday life. Over the decades, the life-like depiction of fruits and vegetables was always been a specialty of Sawantwadi craftsmen. Of course, there were other toys too, for every age group of children: pull-along toys for toddlers, kitchen sets for little girls, bullock carts and other vehicles for bigger children, as well as spoons, cutters, and ladles used in the kitchen. What always made these toys stand out was the environment-friendly techniques and colors that were used to produce them.

Toy-making in Sawantwadi had its origins in the arrival of  Telangana Brahmins in the 17th century, who visited the kingdom to take part in religious debates with the then ruler, Khem Sawant II, who was extremely well-versed in Hindu religious scriptures and philosophy. The Chitrali artisans who arrived with the Brahmins brought the craft of toy-making and ganjifa (playing cards) to Sawantwadi.

Ideally suited to the greenery and scenic landscape of Sawantwadi, toy-making here made use of Pongamia and mango wood, which thrived in the thick forests here. The wood used for the toys would be collected in the summer and, after being washed and dried, left out to get thoroughly soaked during the entire monsoon. After thorough drying, they would be carved as per the desired shape. Once the toys were carved out, they would be covered with five layers of earth and left aside for a certain period of time. The lathe would then be used in this stage to impart the desired shape and finish. They would be painted with a powdery mixture made of tamarind and other seeds once dusted off and smoothed with sandpaper. After applying several coats of paint, a coat of lacquer and natural gum would add the finishing touches.  To this day, the lacquer used in Sawantwadi toys is their special feature. It is durable and never fades or chips away, no matter how roughly the toys are used. When toy-making was on the verge of fading out at one point in time, the local royal family gave it an impetus in the early 1970s. Primarily responsible for this shot in the arm were the Queen, Maharani Satvashila Devi and her husband, the reigning king, Rajesaheb Khem Sawant VI, Lt Colonel Shivram Sawant Bhonsale. The reigning royal family also set up a workshop to make hand-painted ganjifa cards at the palace, which is functional to this day.

Sawantwadi Palace grounds. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Sawantwadi Palace grounds. Credit: Rina Mukherji/IPS

Difficulties in Procuring Inputs

Historically, Sawantwadi was a vassal state of the mighty Maratha empire. When the British defeated the Marathas, Sawantwadi continued to exist as a small principality with a benign ruler during the British Raj.  The erstwhile British Resident’s home in downtown Sawantwadi, at a stone’s throw from the Palace, testifies to those bygone days. The early years of the 20th century saw Sawantwadi thrive in matters of education and culture, with the rulers also making efforts to nurture traditional crafts and artisans.

In recent times, however, deforestation has made it difficult to get adequate supplies of pangara (Pongamia) wood, while mango is not suitable for products that need the lathe machine.  Artisans have now turned to Acacia, Shivan (Gmelina Arborea) and Glyricidea, compromising on the quality of the toys.  Glyricidea has particularly emerged as a favorite, notwithstanding its being environmentally unsound and causing rats to overrun homes.

Lack of skilled artisans

The painstaking nature of the job, the difficulties in procuring wood and other inputs, and an uncertain market that cannot guarantee earnings in keeping with the efforts put in have resulted in many skilled artisans moving out of the industry and opting for employment elsewhere.  Industrialization in the neighboring districts has also been a big draw, while government initiatives to train young artisans in wood carving have been lackadaisical at best.

Very few can carve wood now, unlike in the past. So, instead of carving out a toy, the prevailing trend is to fill up sawdust into ready moulds. This also helps keep costs low and is not labour-intensive.  Shashikant Rane, one of the very few remaining master craftsmen in Sawantwadi, who the government approached about opening a Hastkala (handicrafts) Kendra (centre), tells me, “I entered the profession in the early 1960s, thanks to my father, who had received special training from Abha Gawde, a well-known master in the craft. Traditional toy-making requires a great deal of patience, starting with the procurement of the right wood. You procure the wood in May but cannot work on it until a few months later. In these times of quick turnarounds and massive profits, few are willing to put in the effort,” he points out.

Rane has been training 30 youngsters in the craft every year at his modest workshop-cum-home and is a much sought-after craftsman for prominent projects all over India. Referring to the government’s lackadaisical approach to training artisans, Rane tells me,  “The Minister-In-Charge had identified the venue for setting up the Hastkala Kendra and spoken to me about his vision at length.  But it is over a year now, and the plan still awaits finalization.”

Unfair Competition and Dwindling Demand

There are other factors, too. Cheap Chinese machine-made toys have also made consumers move away from these beautiful, hand-carved toys, which, owing to rising input costs, sell at higher rates. One also perceives a change in taste. P D Kanekar and Company, a prominent seller of toys in Sawantwadi, has moved to manufacture non-traditional toys in recent years.  Ankita Kanekar, from the Kanekar family, tells me, “Pangara (Pongamia) wood was always used to make life-like fruits and vegetables in the past. But no one is interested in playing with those now, unlike the previous generation.  Pangara trees are only available in a few villages now. Besides, a single set takes around one and a half months to be made. The work is painstaking and exacting, and the return is very little. There are very few good artisans practicing the trade.”

She also blames the current transport infrastructure for dwindling sales. “Earlier, the road links from Mumbai and Pune passed through Sawantwadi. But the highways now skirt our town.”

Changing tastes are evident when one browses through the shops today. Imitations of machine-made toys hold pride of place as compared to the artistic depictions of musicians, vegetable -sellers, or fishermen in traditional attire. It is tough to spot a bunch of bananas or betelnuts either.

Lack of government support is another major factor.

The active support of the ruling royal family had bolstered the toy industry in the previous century. This kind of support is no longer forthcoming. The lack of a strong toymakers’ cooperative or guild is also partly to blame. “There is no unity among the various people in the trade to negotiate in one voice with the authorities and demand guarantees or protective subsidies,” rues a prominent toymaker, requesting anonymity.

Consequently, Sawantwadi toys were devoid of geographic identification (GI) until now.

Light at the End of a Tunnel

As I write this, toymakers are jubilant about a GI tag having been granted to Sawantwadi wooden toys on March 30, 2024. This opens up a new vista for them. Toymakers like PD Kanekar have already taken to selling their toys online. “ We started selling online during the pandemic when everything shut down,” Ankita Kanekar tells me. The Kanekars sell through the DirectCreate platform to buyers all over India. Otherwise, sales are made to wholesalers based in Goa, who, in turn, sell to those traveling to India. This is because “international courier services are not yet developed from Sawantwadi. ”

Even so, with Goa’s newly-opened MOPA airport just 15–16 km away, international tourists often come down to Sawantwadi to buy these iconic toys.

One could well say that the GI tag and the inclusivity it bestows on these beautiful handcrafted toys are a good beginning. However, a lot more needs to be done if these toys are to capture the attention of a global market. Improving the courier services as well as government subsidies to the makers could go a long way here.

IPS UN Bureau Report

IPS UN Bureau, IPS UN Bureau Report, India

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Small Island Nations Demand Urgent Global Action at SIDS4 Conference

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Conferences

The once-in-a-decade SIDS Conference opened in Antigua and Barbuda today, with a clear message: the world already knows the challenges that SIDS face—now it’s time for action.

King Charles III of Britain addresses the opening ceremony of the Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States, May 27, 2024. Credit: Alison Kentish/IPS

King Charles III of Britain addresses the opening ceremony of the Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States, May 27, 2024. Credit: Alison Kentish/IPS

ANTIGUA, May 27 2024 (IPS) – “This year has been the hottest in history in practically every corner of the globe, foretelling severe impacts on our ecosystems and starkly underscoring the urgency of our predicament. We are gathered here not merely to reiterate our challenges, but to demand and enact solutions,” declared Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Brown at the opening of the Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States on May 27.


The world’s 39 small island developing states are meeting on the Caribbean island this week. It is a pivotal, once-a-decade meeting for small states that contribute little to global warming, but are disproportionately impacted by climate change. The Caribbean leader reminded the world that SIDS are being forced to survive crises that they did not create.

“The scales of equity and justice are unevenly balanced against us. The large-scale polluters whose CO2 emissions have fuelled these catastrophic climate changes bear a responsibility—an obligation of compensation to aid in our quest to build resilience,” he said.

“The Global North must honor its commitments, including the pivotal pledge of one hundred billion dollars in climate financing to assist with adaptation and mitigation as well as the effective capitalization and operationalization of the loss and damage fund. These are imperative investments in humanity, in justice, and in the equitable future of humanity.”

Urgent Support Needed from the International Community

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the gathering that the previous ten years have presented significant challenges to SIDS and hindered development. These include extreme weather events and the COVID-19 pandemic. He says SIDS, islands that are “exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally resilient, but exceptionally vulnerable,” need urgent support from the international community, led by the nations that are both responsible for the challenges they face and have the capacity to deal with them.

“The idea that an entire island state could become collateral damage for profiteering by the fossil fuel industry, or competition between major economies, is simply obscene,” the Secretary General said, adding, “Small Island Developing States have every right and reason to insist that developed economies fulfill their pledge to double adaptation financing by 2025. And we must hold them to this commitment as a bare minimum. Many SIDS desperately need adaptation measures to protect agriculture, fisheries, water resources and infrastructure from extreme climate impacts you did virtually nothing to create.”

Antigua and Barbuda Agenda for SIDS (ABAS)

The theme for SIDS4 is Charting the Course Toward Resilient Prosperity and the small islands have been praised for collective action in the face of crippling crises. Their voices were crucial to the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement.

Out of this conference will come the Antigua and Barbuda Agenda for SIDS (ABAS). President of the UN General Assembly, Dennis Francis, says that programme of action will guide SIDS on a path to resilience and prosperity for the next decade.

“ The next ten years will be critical in making sustained concrete progress on the SIDS agenda – and we must make full use of this opportunity to supercharge our efforts around sustainability,” he said.

The SIDS4 conference grounds in Antigua and Barbuda will be a flurry of activity over the next four days. Apart from plenaries, there are over 170 side events hosted by youth, civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations, and universities, covering a range of issues from renewable energy to climate financing.

They have been reminded by Prime Minister Gaston Browne that this is a crucial juncture in the history of small island developing states, where “actions, or failure to act, will dictate the fate of SIDS and the legacy left for future generations.”

IPS UN Bureau Report

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North Macedonia Turns Back the Clock

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Opinion

Credit: Robert Atanasovski/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON, May 23 2024 (IPS) – The old guard is back in North Macedonia, as the former ruling party – the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) – returns to parliamentary and presidential power.


Long the country’s dominant political force, the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE had been out of power since 2016. But this month, the political alliance it leads came first in the parliamentary election, taking 58 of 120 seats. In the presidential election runoff, its candidate triumphed with 61 per cent of the vote. In both cases the centre-left, pro-Europe Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), which had led the governing coalition and held the presidency, came a distant second. In parliament, its political alliance lost 28 of its 46 seats with only 14 per cent of the vote.

VMRO-DPMNE made its way back to office by harnessing widespread public frustration over the country’s attempt to join the European Union (EU), which has moved slowly, been dogged by controversy and forced the government to make numerous compromises. SDSM stood on a platform of rapid constitutional reform to accelerate progress, but VMRO-DPMNE, while claiming to support EU membership, opposes further changes. Its return signals a turn away from Europe, and a likely worsening of civil society conditions.

Rocky road towards the EU

North Macedonia has been an official candidate to join the EU since 2005. Negotiations are always lengthy, but North Macedonia’s road has been particularly bumpy. Before it could begin formal negotiations, it had to change the country’s name. Any existing EU member can block a non-member’s accession, and Greece stood in the way. The country shared its name with a region of Greece, which the Greek government saw as implying a territorial claim.

The hugely controversial issue brought extensive protests as name-change negotiations reached their conclusion in 2018. A referendum intended to approve the change failed when a boycott left turnout well below the level required; VMRO-DPMNE urged its supporters to reject the deal. The referendum was non-binding, and parliament went on to change the constitution regardless in January 2019.

Then Bulgaria intervened. The Bulgarian government insists its North Macedonian counterpart must do more to prevent the spread of anti-Bulgarian sentiments and protect the rights of the country’s Bulgarian minority. This heated issue, inflamed by much disinformation, helped force a political crisis in Bulgaria in 2022 when the government collapsed.

The two sides finally struck a deal to allow North Macedonia to begin EU negotiations in July 2022, but disputes still flare. In 2023 Bulgaria’s parliament warned it could halt the process again. North Macedonia’s outgoing government failed to win the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to change the constitution to recognise the Bulgarian minority.

Relations with Bulgaria played their part in the campaign. Some think the government has gone too far in compromising, and VMRO-DPMNE characterised the SDSM-led government’s actions as a surrender.

As a consequence of all the delays and compromises, public support for joining the EU has fallen.

A troubling return

VMRO-DPMNE led the government for a decade from 2006 to 2016, with Nikola Gruevski prime minister throughout. The party also held the presidency, a less powerful role, from 2009 to 2019.

Gruevski and his party fell from grace in 2016 amid allegations that he and many more of his party’s politicians were involved in a wiretapping scandal affecting over 20,000 people. Mass protests followed. VMRO-DPMNE still came first in the 2016 parliamentary election but couldn’t form a coalition, so power passed to an SDSM-led government. SDSM retained power in the 2020 election, and its candidate won the presidency in 2019.

Gruevski’s fall was swift. In 2018, he was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption, but he fled to Hungary, where the government of his authoritarian friend Viktor Orbán granted him political asylum. Further convictions followed, including a seven-year sentence for money laundering and illegal acquisition of property.

From exile, Gruevski has continued to criticise the government that replaced him. And while relations with VMRO-DPMNE’s current leader are hostile, ideologically VMRO-DPMNE still carries his fingerprints and the networks Gruevski developed among supportive media, the private sector and criminal groups remain. Under Gruevski, the party took a nationalist, pro-Russia and anti-west direction, promoting identity politics that hark back to the ancient Macedonian Empire.

For civil society, this makes the results concerning news. Conditions deteriorated during VMRO-DPMNE’s decade in power. The party’s identity politics fuelled a polarised environment. Nationalist groups physically attacked several journalists. Civil society leaders were among those subjected to illegal surveillance. Using the same tactics as Orbán, the government hurled abuse at civil society groups receiving funding from Open Society Foundations, accusing them of colluding with foreign governments. It subjected critical organisations to financial audits and raided their offices.

The election was held in an atmosphere of intense polarisation and proliferating disinformation, some originating in Russia, which doesn’t want any more countries joining the EU. There’s now a risk of a return to the politics of division, which would bring a resumption of attacks on civil society and independent media. VMRO-DPMNE has already made clear it’s looking for confrontation. New president Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova upset Greece by using North Macedonia’s old name during her inauguration ceremony.

The EU impasse wasn’t the only reason voters were unhappy. People haven’t seen any progress in combating corruption or improving economic conditions and public services. In country after country, there’s a broader pattern of electoral volatility as voters, unhappy with the performance of incumbents in difficult economic conditions, shop around for anything that looks different. Populist and nationalist parties – even long-established ones such as VMRO-DPMNE – are doing best at making an emotional connection with voters’ anger, offering deceptively simple answers and promising change.

For civil society, that means there’s now work to be done in depolarising the debate, building consensus and defending civic freedoms: a tall order, but a vital one, for which it’ll need a lot of support.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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Panama’s Elections: Has Impunity Prevailed?

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Opinion

Credit: Johan Ordoñez/AFP via Getty Images

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, May 21 2024 (IPS) – Regional experts called it Panama’s most important election since the 1989 US invasion that deposed de facto president General Manuel Noriega. Panamanians went to the polls amid high inflation and unemployment, with a stagnating economy. Endemic corruption was also high on their long list of concerns, along with access to water, education and a collapsing social security system.


The winner, conservative lawyer José Raúl Mulino, was a stand-in for former president Ricardo Martinelli, disqualified from running due to a money laundering conviction. Martinelli remains popular regardless and managed to transfer his popularity to his less charismatic substitute. For those who backed Mulino, nostalgia for the economic stability and growth that marked Martinelli’s pro-business administration seemed to outweigh his proven record of corruption.

On the face of it, the election results seemed to demonstrate the primacy of economic considerations in voters’ minds, with hopes for growth trumping corruption fatigue. But that’s not the whole story.

Free, fair and uncertain

On 5 May, Panamanians went to the polls to elect a president and vice-president, 71 National Assembly members, 20 Central American Parliament deputies and local representatives.

The elections were undoubtedly clean and transparent, with integrity guaranteed by the participation of civil society in the National Scrutiny Board. Results were announced quickly and all losing candidates accepted them. But the pre-voting context was far less straightforward. Until the very last minute the now president-elect wasn’t sure he’d be allowed to run.

Mulino served as security minister in Martinelli’s government between 2009 and 2014. Ten years later, largely unknown to the electorate, he entered the race as Martinelli’s running mate for Achieving Goals (Realizando Metas, RM), a party Martinelli founded in 2021.

In July 2023, Martinelli was convicted of money laundering and sentenced to 10 years in prison, making him ineligible to run. He appealed, but the Electoral Tribunal didn’t make a final decision on his disqualification until March. To avoid jail, he sought asylum in the Nicaraguan embassy in Panama City. Mulino took his place, but his presidential candidacy was also challenged. For two months, he became the centre of attention as the Electoral Tribunal and Supreme Court debated whether he could ran. The positive court ruling came on 3 May, just two days before voting. Mulino also received a lot of help from Martinelli, who campaigned for him online while holed up in the Nicaraguan embassy.

A fragmented vote

Eight candidates contested the presidency, a five-year position with no possibility of a second consecutive term. With no runoff, a fragmented vote was likely to produce a winner with far less than half the vote. Mulino’s winning total of 34.2 per cent wasn’t unusual: two previous presidents received similarly low shares, including the outgoing centre-left president, Laurentino Cortizo of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Democrático, PRD).

Mulino’s closest competitor, on 24.6 per cent, was Ricardo Lombana, a centre-right anti-corruption outsider. In third place was Martin Torrijos, another former president and Martinelli’s immediate predecessor, now distanced from his original party, the PRD, and running on the ticket of the Christian democratic People’s Party (Partido Popular, PP). Fourth was Rómulo Roux, of the centre-right Democratic Change (Cambio Democrático, CD), the party Martinelli founded and used as a vehicle for the presidency, but which he abandoned in 2020 amid leadership disputes.

The parties that once dominated the political landscape fared badly. The Panameñista Party didn’t even have a presidential candidate; instead, its leader joined Roux as his running mate. The PRD, which led three of the last six governments, fell below six per cent.

Independents on the rise

In 1998, Martinelli’s CD was the first to challenge the dominance of traditional parties. Later changes to the electoral law allowed independent candidates to stand. Their growing prominence reflects widespread dissatisfaction with traditional parties and the political class.

In the 5 May congressional elections, independent candidates won more seats than any political party – 20, up from just five. Mulino’s new RM party took 14 seats. The PRD lost a whopping 22, retaining only 13. The new composition of the National Assembly speaks of a thirst for renewal that doesn’t match the choice for corruption and impunity the presidential results might suggest.

Spotlight on the economy

For the three decades before the pandemic, the Panamanian economy grew by around six per cent a year, helped by income from the Panama Canal and construction and mining booms. But then challenges started piling up. The economy slowed down. Jobs disappeared. Inflation rose.

Activity in the Panama Canal has been severely affected by the impacts of climate change, with a drop in water levels. Drought has also reduced access to drinking water in some regions. Meanwhile an unprecedented rise in the numbers of migrants travelling through the Darién Gap, the treacherous stretch of jungle at the border with Colombia, has stretched the resources of the humanitarian assistance system.

Mulino campaigned on promises to improve the economy by attracting investment, developing infrastructure and creating jobs. He pledged to improve access to safe water and promised to ‘shut down’ the Darién Gap.

Mulino’s voters may have accepted the bargain he appeared to offer – prosperity in exchange for impunity – but many more people voted against him than for. He was able to win because the vote against was so fragmented. The number of independents who entered Congress is just one of many indicators of widespread dissatisfaction with politicians like him.

Mulino will have to deliver on his promises to attract investment and create jobs. He’ll need to reduce inequalities and deal with growing insecurity, the situation in the Darién Gap and a pensions system on the brink of insolvency. Last but not least, he’ll need to strengthen institutions and tackle corruption – which begs the question of what he’ll do about Martinelli.

The challenges are many and great, and Mulino won’t have anything close to a legislative majority. The National Assembly is so fragmented that a high-level deal with one or two parties won’t be enough. Mulino seemed to recognise this on election night when he called for national unity and said he was open to dialogue and consensus. This was a first step in the direction he should keep following.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

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