The InternationaList: June 6, 2009

A New Deal for India's Masses
By Jason Overdorf and Sudip Mazumdar
Most prime ministers in India spend their first 100 days struggling just to keep their jobs. But Manmohan Singh's surprisingly deci-sive victory last month has pundits calling for—and offering up—a slew of ambitious agendas. Still, perhaps the most audacious program has come from Singh himself. While it includes many long-delayed, business-friendly reforms like selling stakes in state-owned companies and improving the electric grid, the real surprise is that Singh, an unassuming economist, now has his eye on another prize: revolutionizing governance in India's rural hinterland. Singh aims to do this by channeling money and decision-making power through village-level elected officials, which he believes will act as a New Deal–type stimulus program, putting money in the hands of the people most likely to spend it. Just as audacious is a right-to-information act and a few new laws that he will use to throw a spotlight on India's often corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and judges. Of course, India's obstructionist state employees have outlasted many prior attempts at reform. Yet Singh—comfortable with economic arcana and fully backed by the powerful and popular Gandhi clan—seems in a uniquely strong position to make his first 100 days really count.

Trojan-Horse Politics In France
By Tracy McNicoll
Paging all turncoats: Nicolas Sarkozy plans to reshuffle his cabinet soon, and is once again looking to the opposition to fill some slots. Over the past two years, the conservative French president has offered plum jobs to leading socialists—a tactic Sarkozy calls ouverture ("opening") but his critics call dirty pool. The president has already won some high-profile defections, and five out of 38 current cabinet members are socialists, including Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. The strategy is not without its problems. Sarkozy loyalists resent being passed over, and conflicting ideologies have made for some awkward moments. But the president seems focused on the benefits, namely spreading dissent among his political opponents. And his tactics are working—rumors are already flying about who will defect next. Meanwhile, though Sarko's tactics may have many opponents at home, they've already found an admirer across the Atlantic: Barack Obama, who has offered choice posts to various Republicans, provoking similar turmoil in the GOP. Call it l'ouverture or bipartisanship, few politicians can resist the seductive, universal language of power and promotion.

Italy's Teflon Don
By Barbie Nadeau
Italy's billionaire Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been doing a lot of bragging lately. And why not? He's the most popular democratic leader in the world, with an approval rating of more than 75 percent. This standing Òis a record high,Ó he crowed recently. It's particularly remarkable given the myriad charges against him, from accusations of corruption to multiple rumored affairs, including one with an 18-year-old underwear model. Of course, it helps that the P.M. dominates Italy's media—between his private holdings and state programming, he controls 80 percent of all television. Independent pollsters put his approval rating lower, between 40 and 60 percent. Still, that's shockingly high, given his shenanigans. Apart from his media control, Berlusconi's image is burnished by popular crackdowns on crime and immigration, and it helps that opposition parties are in disarray. And then there's the famous Italian appetite for la dolce vita—which may include support for politicians living the dream.

China's Ghost Writer
By Mary Hennock
In designing the "bird's nest" Olympic stadium, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei helped create an architectural icon for China. Yet now he's living under police surveillance. His crime? Running a blog that lists the names of kids who died in poorly built schools in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In the crackdown ahead of last week's Tiananmen Square anniversary, China's censors deleted Ai's blog without explanation. "The state tried so hard to make [the victims] vanish," says Ai. He began his list in March, frustrated by government inaction. By May he'd gathered 5,010 names and enough publicity to prod the government to compile its own tally of the dead. But Ai says, "You cannot just give us numbers." Now the blog has been wiped from servers, and Ai could face arrest, though he says he's "ready" for that. And while Beijing may have squashed one digital irritant, with Internet use doubling annually, the virtual realm could prove too vast and fast for China to control.

Secret Poll Shows Voters Turn Against Ahmadinejad
By Mazier Bahari 
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—Holocaust denier, nuclear aspirant and the West's favorite bugbear—may soon become the ex-president of Iran. According to recent government-funded polls seen by NEWSWEEK, some 16 million to 18 million Iranians say they plan to vote for his main rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, on June 12—compared with just 6 million to 8 million for Ahmadinejad. If the polls prove correct, that will sweep Mousavi to victory in the first round of voting. This is a tidal shift from just four weeks ago, when public polls showed Ahmadinejad ahead by 50 percent, and the turnaround has shocked the country's political elite.

Perhaps they shouldn't be so surprised. Ahmadinejad's recent antics have dismayed Iranians from all walks of life. His government has responded to the global recession by hiking salaries for state employees and doling out cash to those who attend his speeches, fueling inflation and creating resentment. Meanwhile, the political theatrics that made Ahmadinejad a household name worldwide now seem to be working against him. Many of Mousavi's supporters are first-time voters who have avoided politics till now—but plan to show up on June 12 to vote against Ahmadinejad, whom they've come to regard as reckless and endangering their country's international standing.

Even Iran's Revolutionary Guards and members of the country's vast intelligence apparatus seem to have come around to this position: a large majority of them also plan to vote for Mousavi, according to the government poll. The older members of this cadre remember Mousavi's time as prime minister during the savage 1980–88 conflict with Iraq, when he successfully managed the wartime economy. In interviews, military and intelligence officials also complain that Ahmadinejad's erratic economic and foreign policies have made the country less secure.

Alarmed by the poll, Ahmadinejad has gone into a crouch. Though his allies still insist he'll win, in the past few weeks the president's campaign has become secretive and withdrawn. His usually media-friendly advisers have turned off their cell phones and barred staffers from talking to reporters. Ahmadinejad has resorted to personal attacks on his rivals, even questioning the authenticity of Mousavi's wife's Ph.D. An adviser close to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—long Ahmadinejad's most stalwart ally—says that even Khamenei has begun to distance himself from the president. Last Thursday, Khamenei took the unusual step of chastising candidates who engage in dirty politics. The target of his comments was clearly Ahmadinejad, who had the night before accused Mousavi's allies of corruption.

Mousavi, for his part, has tried to emphasize his politesse and maturity. When Ahmadinejad questioned his wife's credentials, Mousavi merely smiled and said, "Mr. Ahmadinejad's comments are so odd that one doesn't know how to react." He may not, but if the polls are right, then voters do.