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DemLab Weekly Brief: One Step Back in Burma -- And a Hint of Promise in Pakistan

Asia

On Friday, the Burmese monk Shin Gambira, one of the leaders of the 2007 protests, was reportedly detained by the authorities. Earlier this week, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi received formal approval from the election commission to run in the parliamentary elections in April and a UN envoy said Burma was considering allowing foreign election observers in to monitor the polls. The US waived one of its sanctions against the country, making it easier for Burma to get help from international financial institutions, and reports indicated CIA director David Petraeus may travel to Burma later this year. According to a report ranking countries on their respect for the rule of law, Burma ranked last out of 197 countries, offering the least legal protection for foreign companies and investors.

Thailand's ruling party submitted a plan to the Parliament to amend the country's constitution, which was drafted after the 2006 coup. A similar attempt four years ago led to large protests.

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), the country's notoriously powerful spy agency, faced a rare wave of court actions against it. Although most of the cases have little chance of success, some analysts believe they demonstrate new resolve on the part of the judiciary to curb the power of the security establishment.

Two Tibetan brothers are said to have been shot down by Chinese security forces. They had been on the run since participating in January protests against Chinese rule. This comes after another Tibetan protester was reported to have set himself on fire in China's Sichuan province. A Chinese human rights group said that a dissident writer had been sentenced to seven years in jail for inciting subversion in a poem he wrote. Three other dissident writers have been sentenced to jail in the past few months.

The Maldives President resigned - under duress, according to him - after three weeks of protests and a police mutiny. Since then there have been violent clashes, and the Maldives' Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against the former president and the former defence minister. The UN arrived Friday to meet with both parties.

(As FP's Joshua Keating noted in his report on the turmoil, the incident reminds us coups have become an increasingly rare phenomenon in recent years.)

Europe

Spain's notorious international human rights judge Baltazar Garzon, most famous for indicting former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998, was convicted for overstepping his jurisdiction and barred from the bench for 11 years. (The photo above shows a pro-Garzon demonstration in Madrid.)

The European Commission released a report saying Bulgaria and Romania needed to do more to fight corruption and reform the judiciary - meaning it is unlikely that either country will accede to the Schengen Area any time soon

Russian police threatened to retry a dead lawyer who had died in custody. Meanwhile, commentators continued debating the future impact of the protests in Russia.

Africa

Colonel Moussa Tiegboro Camara, minister in the Guinean presidency, was charged for his role in the 2009 Conakry stadium massacre of 157 protesters. Rights groups hailed the move as a step toward justice.

Commentators argued that, despite recent military gains, it is time for Somalia's government to start negotiations with the militant group al-Shabab. In a possible response to that increasing military pressure, al-Shabab announced that it was officially joining the al-Qaeda franchise. Meanwhile, the breakaway territory of Somaliland planned to lobby for international recognition at a conference in London on February 23. It has been battling its own secessionists since January.

Middle East & North Africa

In Syria on Friday, the regime intensified its bloody crackdown and two bombs struck military and security buildings in Aleppo. (The government and opposition blamed each other for the attacks.) A UN Security Council resolution on Syria was vetoed by Russia and China. The shelling did not stop despite Assad's pledge to embrace reform following a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Commentators spent the week arguing about what the international community should do next, and there was talk of creating a "friends of Syria" group as well as sending a beefed-up joint UN and Arab League observer mission back on the ground. Syria's opposition was still struggling to overcome its own rivalries and divisions.

On Wednesday, Libya finalized an electoral law governing national assembly elections in late June. This elected body is to draft a new constitution and form a government until general elections are held next year. Earlier that week, court proceedings against 41 Libyans accused of being Gadhafi loyalists were postponed after the defense argued that they should be tried in a civil court - not a military court. The Libyan government predicted its budget deficit would reach $10 billion this year, explaining that it had only received a small portion of its frozen assets.

Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) reiterated that it would relinquish power after the presidential elections in May, which were moved up from June earlier this week, although a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman demanded that the SCAF immediately hand over power to a coalition formed by the parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood also condemned calls by 40 political movements and parties for a day of civil disobedience and a general strike on 11 February. The question of how and when Egypt's new constitution should be drafted remained a divisive issue. US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested the Egyptians look to South Africa's constitution as a model.

Yemen started a campaign to get people to vote in the upcoming presidential election. With only one candidate to vote for, officials are worried about low voter turnout. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, for his part, has vowed to return from New York to vote. (A reminder: He traveled to the U.S. for medical treatment after a parliamentary deal that gave him immunity from prosecution.)

Both the government and the opposition in Bahrain are preparing for the February 14 anniversary of last year's protests. Foreign journalists planning to cover the anniversary were denied visas.

In Iraq, Ministers of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya block ended their boycott of the cabinet, in a move to diffuse the political crisis which started last December.

In yet another sign of power struggles at the top, Iranian lawmakers summoned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to testify before Parliament in the next few weeks to answer questions about the country's faltering economy.

A recent survey indicated that three out of five survey respondents in the Middle East saw Turkey as a model for their country.

And finally, this week's recommended reads:

An inside report from Syria on the continuing rebellion.

And a Harvard professor with a background in Russia ponders the lessons of transition.

-- by Chloé de Préneuf

PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

It's man versus machine for Venezuela's opposition

The opposition candidates, from left to right: Leopoldo López, Henrique Capriles, Diego Arria, Maria Corina Machado, Pablo Medina and Pablo Pérez.

This Sunday, Venezuela's opposition will select its candidate to face President Hugo Chávez in next October's presidential election. Long seen as a cakewalk for Miranda State governor  Capriles, there are indications the open primary could be tighter than expected.

Miranda, population 3 million, includes large chunks of the Caracas metropolitan area, and is Venezuela's second most-populous state. Capriles, 39, handily wrested away the governorship in 2008 from one of Chávez's closest allies. Since then, he has established a good working rapport with local chavista organizations, and his administration is regarded as an efficient, solutions-centered model for how the opposition might govern in a post-Chávez world. His scrupulously non-confrontational message (he refuses to even mention Hugo Chávez by name) has played well to an electorate weary of Chávez's us-versus-them, conflict-based brand of politics.

Capriles's strongest rival, Pablo Pérez, is the governor of the most populous state. Zulia, in Venezuela's far west, is home to almost four million people. Its state capital, Maracaibo, is the country's second largest city. The opposition has run the state government for the last 12 years, establishing a vast network of local leaders who speak the language of patronage.

Pérez has run a more traditional, typically populist, yet surprisingly unfocused campaign. He entered the race late, and his main message has veered from promising to decentralize government to unifying the opposition in a single party and to getting tough on crime.

Recent polls have put Capriles far ahead of Pérez, with some suggesting that the former leads by a ratio of two to one.

In the first world, you'd call that a done deal. But in Venezuela, nobody's using the term. Even though Pérez lacks message discipline, he has assembled a fearsome coalition, one that includes his own New Era Party (UNT), as well as the old, pre-Chávez political machine run by Acción Democrática.

The Pérez people know how to get out the vote. In an unprecedented open nationwide primary, there's no way of predicting how big a role that could play. It could even be a game-changer.

On a recent trip to Maracaibo, I was impressed with the quality of UNT's organization. Activists all across the state know exactly who their voters are, and are psyched to get them to the voting booth this Sunday, opinion polls be damned. A last-minute endorsement for Capriles by one of their rivals, former mayor Leopoldo López, has been interpreted in the Pérez camp as Caracas' elite "ganging up" against the Zulia candidate.

Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado, the one outright conservative in the race, is running a distant third. But Machado has gained some momentum thanks to a forceful debate against Hugo Chávez during his State of the Union speech. The consensus in Maracaibo is that her gains come at Capriles's expense, and at Pérez's benefit.

Yet while Pérez's UNT party is strong in Zulia, it is weak in the rest of the country. That is where he will have to rely on the old parties to carry the load.

Sunday's primary will answer an interesting question for Venezuela's opposition: How big a role do party-machine politics play 13 years into the Chávez era?

If, as the polls suggest, the machine candidate is crushed, it may be the last gasp of the legendary Acción Democrática -- the party that governed Venezuela for 30 of the last 53 years -- and its storied get-out-the-vote machine. A big win for Capriles would be a victory for message over mobilization.

Regardless of the outcome, Venezuela's opposition is poised to rally around the victor. Pérez and Capriles are on friendly terms, and both have vowed to support whoever wins. Let's see if they can make good on their pledge.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images