For those used to a democratic system with an established political dynamic – Democrats v Republicans in the US, or Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats in Britain – Italy can seem strange. Some of the parties and alliances running in this year’s general election did not even exist in previous contests.
Italians will be asked to vote in February for one of 169 parties, movements and groups that made it onto the ballot. Many have unfamiliar names, such as the newly formed alliance of Italy, Common Good (which combines the Democratic party, the socialists and others), the Five Star Movement party created by the former comedian Beppe Grillo, or the even newer Monti movement, formed around the agenda of the ex-prime minister.
Data collated by the FT
How could the Italian political system have worked for so long with such a fragmented composition? The answer is that, for most of the time, it hasn’t.
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Israeli soldiers stand guard at an army post in the annexed Golan Heights on January 31 (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Reports that Wednesday’s Israeli air strike somewhere near Syria’s border with Lebanon was on an arms convoy destined for Hizbollah have been denied – sort of – by the Syrian regime and its paramilitary Lebanese ally.
Throughout Wednesday, Hizbollah, normally prodigious in its denunciations of any and all Israeli aggression on its al-Manar television station, maintained the stoniest of silences. Today, al-Manar moved swiftly to endorse the account given by Syria’s state news agency: that Israeli warplanes had hit a military research facility in Jamraya, near Damascus.
There is no cast-iron corroboration of anything at this stage. Israel is saying nothing. But beyond fuelling fears that Syria’s civil war will spread, Israel’s actions have led to some interesting statements. Read more >>
The former Republican senator can expect a bumpy ride as he answers questions on how he would play the role of President Obama’s new defence secretary. Hagel needs to persuade at least five of his former colleagues to support him to avoid a filibuster that would torpedo his appointment.
Ben Fenton, from the FT’s Live News Desk, and Johanna Kassel follow the hearing.
Facing a grilling: Chuck Hagel (Getty)
Chuck Hagel’s keenly awaited confirmation hearing on Thursday to be the next US defence secretary is likely to be dominated by the hot-button issues that have already got him into trouble with some of his fellow Republicans (and a few Democrats) – his position on Israel, his opposition to Iran sanctions, his criticism of the Iraq war and his views on gays.
If so, that will be a shame, because it would be both interesting and important to hear him explain what his brand of “principled realism” actually means for US foreign policy. The hearing could provide a seminal debate on America’s global role. Here are ten questions he should be asked.
1) Defence budget. You said in September 2011 that the defence budget was “bloated”. That was before the Pentagon announced $485bn in cuts over the next decade. Is the budget still bloated? Are more cuts possible or necessary?
2) Pentagon cuts. To meet the cuts that have already been announced, will the Pentagon need to axe some important capabilities? Can the US still afford all of its aircraft carrier groups? Is the F-35 jet fighter too expensive to support? Does the US need such a large presence in Europe? Read more >>
Residents welcome Malian soldiers as they enter Timbuktu on January 28, 2013 (ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
French and Malian troops this week took control of the historic city of Timbuktu from the jihadist militants that had taken over the city in April 2012. The adjective often used to describe the desert city is “fabled” – but what is the fable of Timbuktu?
In the 19th century, the city was considered so hard to get to that the Société de Géographie offered a 10,000 franc reward for the first person to reach the city and make it back. By the time the young Frenchman René Caillié arrived there, disguised as an Arab, the centuries-old reports of riches and splendour that had lured so many explorers had disappeared into myth. Caillié described his arrival in a book published in 1830:
Timbuktu circa 1950
“I now saw this capital of the Sudan, to reach which had so long been the object of my wishes…
I looked around and found that the sight before me, did not answer my expectations. I had formed a totally different idea of the grandeur and wealth of Timbuctoo. The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth.”
• Timbuktu’s golden age One definition of the word ‘fable’ is ‘an untruth; falsehood’. But Timbuktu did experience a golden age – Caillié was just a few centuries too late to see it. As E.J.Kahn, Jr. wrote of Timbuktu, “for a while, it was a shining city of the Empire of Mali, which early in the thirteenth century succeeded the Empire of Ghana as West Africa’s paramount nation.” The root of the city’s prosperity was its geographical location at the crossroads of a caravan route between Africa’s Arab northern regions and west Africa. Situated between the Sahara desert and the fertile banks of the Niger river, Timbuktu became a busy trading hub for merchants exchanging west African goods including gold, ivory, and salt, for Mediterranean products such as glass, ceramics, and precious stones. Read more >>
Presidents Raul Castro of Cuba (L) and Sebastian Piñera of Chile during a summit of Latin American states on Monday (Reuters).
It all went surprisingly well. Latin America, in sentiment if not in deed, presented a united front to its European guests at the summit of EU and Latin American leaders in Santiago, which wound up on Monday. With customary politesse, local differences were mostly swept under the carpet.
Nobody in Chile kicked up a fuss that communist Cuba will now head the 33-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean states (Celac) – even though democracy is one of Celac’s core goals. The region’s free-trading Pacific countries –Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile – agreed to drop tariffs to speed the creation of their “Pacific Alliance”, a “free-trade” block. (By contrast, Mercosur, a rival regional trade pact led by more protectionist Brazil and Argentina has been negotiating an EU trade deal for over a decade.) A handful of business deals were signed. And a long and flowery letter, supposedly written by Hugo Chávez from his sickbed in Cuba and that called for Latin American unity, was read out, which lent some colour to the last day. Read more >>
By Gideon Rachman
The “reasonable person” is usually to be found in legal textbooks. If you want to meet the “reasonable person” in the flesh, however, I would suggest a trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos.