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Dmitry and Brian

Things in Russia played out very predictably last week. On May 7, Dmitry Medvedev, the former pipeline CEO and presidential aide who Vladimir Putin had christened his chosen successor, was sworn in as Russia’s new president. The day after, the Russian parliament ratified former President Putin as the country’s new Prime Minister, in a vote of 392 to 56. Putin was out of power for only a few scant hours.

The press likes to stick with certain comfortable narratives when it comes to talking about Russian politics. One of the main ones right now is that Putin is a power-mad tyrant in the making, and that President Medvedev is destined to be little more than a figurehead in Putin’s new term. That may very well be the case (and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest it will be) but it’s still worth noting that Mr. Medvedev is a very powerful and important man in his own right, and the idea that he and Putin could share power, or even fight, is not entirely out of the question.

Medvedev was trained as a lawyer, and spent most of his career in politics as a behind-the-scenes legal adviser, counseling various politicians—including Putin, whom he has known since the early 1990’s. Ever since Putin was a mere municipal politician he’s been one of the great man’s most trusted advisers, serving as chair of his re-election campaign in 2000, and chief of staff from 2003 to 2005.

As is common in today’s Russia, Medvedev has simultaneously served in a number of corporate roles while also serving as a key government insider. He has a long history of involvement in natural resource companies, including oil, gas, and timber. Most famously, he’s been serving as CEO of Gazprom Inc., Russia’s government-owned gas monopoly, for the last eight years. That was an enormously important job, as so much of Russian politics, economics, and foreign relations are bound up in the country’s oil affairs. Gazprom recently founded its own media coporation as well, so Mr. Medvedev’s been a relevant player in presiding over the Russian state’s increasing control of the press.

Medvedev is interesting for his cynicism, however. As something of an outspoken capitalist, he’s long championed greater free-market reforms in the former Soviet Union, and has criticized the creeping tide of cronysim and statism. He’s even been critical of his own company’s monopoly, and doesn’t seem to view his own professional life—with its considerable overlap between business, politics, and media—as an ideal model for the future.

He contrasts with Putin’s Kremlin establishment in that he’s still a bit of an idealist who believes the post-Soviet future offers opportunities, as opposed to a darkly pragmatic realist like Putin, who believes Russia’s main interests lie in just consolidating the status quo and keeping the state strong and united.

How long a leash will Putin be willing to give him?

Until this week, the longest-serving prime minister in Europe was Patrick Bartholomew Ahern. Bertie, as he is better known, was elected Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland in 1997, and proceeded to serve three full terms in office—making him the country’s longest serving ruler since Eamon de Valera, the republic’s legendary founding father.

Irish politics are famously dull and unambitious—this is largely a product of Ireland’s post-independence fascination with isolationism and naval-gazing. In Ireland, the role of government is to manage the state, and not much else. This is why you don’t ever hear much about Irish statesmen or great Irish political trends—Irish politicians could generally care less about being relevant outside of the bureaucracy, let alone outside their country’s borders. Of the world’s major industrialized, English-speaking nations, Ireland is probably the one that is most easy to ignore. Which is unfortunate, because on some level we all really want to care about Ireland.

Ireland has two main political parties, both of which are basically left over factions from the Irish civil war of the late 1920’s. As such, it’s hard to say what they really stand for. Both are fairly liberal-centrist, and both are free-market. Both also have unpronounceable Galiec names, one is Fianna Fail (which means something to the effect of “Aweome Irish Soldiers of Destiny”) and Fine Gael (“Irish People are Awesome”). As is increasingly the case in western Europe, elections are really more about choosing which faction of politicians you trust to “run the country,” rather than a specific philosophy of governance.

The Finna Fail people were the party of de Valera, and have run the republic for most of its existence, with only brief one-term breaks here and there. No Fine Gael prime minister has ever served for more than a single term in office.

The last guy was John Bruton, who ruled from 1994 to 1997. His government was tainted by a bribery scandal, however, so he went down to defeat and Fianna Fail took power under Mr. Ahern (the ruling party in Ireland usually changes as a result of scandal). As Prime Minister (or Taoiseach as the Irish sometimes call it when they want to pretend to speak Gaelic), Ahern presided over a period of tremendous economic growth for Ireland, as well as closer integration into the EU establishment. Working with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, he was also a key player in the Northern Irish peace negotiations of the late 1990’s, which saw, among other things, the republic finally agree to acknowledge the soverignity of the British-controlled part of the island.

A pragmatic and skilled leader—but also bland and unideological—Ahern was one of those world leaders who defined a generation in his country while also failing to leave things much different than when he started.

In accordance with established custom, in his final months in office, Mr. Ahern’s government became tainted by a high-profile financial scandal, and he agreed to step down for the good of his party. On April 9 Brian Cowen was elected by Finna Fail to replace him, and was formally sworn in as PM on May 6.

The new Prime Minister takes “career politician” to a new level. Elected to parliament at age 24 after his father died, he has done else nothing since. During the 10 years of the Ahern administration he served in every cabinet position of note, including health, foreign affairs, and finance. I’m sure he’ll fit into the prime minister’s job just fine.

***

The photo above shows Prime Minister Ahern giving a bushel of Irish shamrocks to President Bush on St. Patrick’s day earlier this year. For many years it’s been customary for the Irish leader to come to the White House on St. Patrick’s Day and give the US President some clovers, in a gesture of Irish-American friendship.

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What went on in February and March

Been a long time, eh. So much has happened around the world in the last three months, let’s just jump right into it. In an attempt to catch up where I left off, I’ll be jumping around a bit. In today’s catch-up session (pt. 1) we’ll look at the new leaders of Cuba, Cyprus, Italy, and Paraguay.

CUBA

The most major thing to come out of February was Cuba’s long-awaited formal transfer of power, as perennial “acting president” Raul Castro officially become full president and Fidel Castro officially became a run-of-the-mill retired eccentric.

Cuba’s a Communist prison-state, as we all know, and the hereditary succession of dictatorship through the Castro family is clearly a grossly undemocratic act consistent with that country’s generally tyrannical system of government. But still, it’s interesting to observe the constitutional formalities the country went through to pretend like this act of unabashed primogeniture was really some grand gesture of a glorious people’s democracy.

The way the Republic of Cuba works on paper is like this. There is a legislature called the “National Assembly of People’s Power” which is elected by the citizens once every five years. The assembly in turn elects, from amongst its members, the President of Cuba and his cabinet. For the last several decades, Castro has always been re-elected to the National Assembly, and re-elected as president immediately afterwards, along with all the other assorted Castro family members and octogenarians who make up the Cuban cabinet. Indeed, everyone is always reelected to everything in Cuba, because there is only one legal political party and all members of the National Assembly always run unopposed.

This year, however, Castro shocked the world by announcing that he would not run for reelection to the National Assembly, a gesture which would in turn mean he could no longer be appointed to another term as president-for-life. So Cuba’s January election came and went without Fidel’s participation, so then on the “new” legislature’s first sitting on February 24 the People’s Power chamber unanimously chose good old Raul Castro to be the nation’s new caudillo.

Despite being the younger Castro brother, Raul is still 76, and thus his presidency will be like a fast-forward version of Fidel’s that more or less skips right to the end, with the death predictions and constant speculation as to “what comes next.” If Raul dies, what would literally come next would be Jose Machado, the man Raul chose to be his vice president. He’s 77. I’m not sure how many people would have to die before Cuba got a leader who doesn’t predate the Great Depression.

CYPRUS

The Republic of Cyprus got a new president in February, too. Demetris Christofias is his name.

Cyprus is a member of the European Union, yet this has always been a bit awkward since the country is still kind of embroiled in a bit of a low-level civil war it never really got around to resolving.

The Island nation has been controlled by most of history’s great empires over the years, mot recently the British, who took it from the Ottomans in 1878 and ran it until 1960. As a result of its previous colonization by both the Greeks and the Turks, Cyprus’ less-than-a-million population is problematically segregated into Greek and Turkish camps, with the latter group being the minority. The Greeks always figured that the Cyprus island should join up with the rest of the Greek archipelago, but of course the Turks hate this idea.

The compromise solution, reached just after the British granted independence, was for the island to be neither Turkish nor Greek, but just Cypriot. So the island’s elites got together and formed a unity government and made an archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church named Makarios III their first president. But Archbishop-President-the-Third was soon seen as a bit of a wimp by his fellow Greeks, especially the various macho generals who were running Greece at the time. In 1974 the Greek junta successfully orchestrated a coup that deposed President III in the hopes that this would finally end the silly business about unity governments and get Cyprus united with Greece the way God intended. But the coup actually achieved the opposite affect when Turkey proceeded to invade the island five days later, in order to protect their people from the crazy new government that had just been installed.

As the 1970’s stumbled on all attempts at unity fell apart, and Turkey set up their own stupid little rebel government on the half of the island they had seized during the invasion. Cyprus now claims to be two countries, a Turkish Republic and a Greek Republic, though it may be relevant to note that the only country that recognizes the independence of the Turkish Republic is Turkey, whose neutral judgment in the matter is somewhat questionable.

For most of the 80’s and 90’s the two halves of the island didn’t have much to do with each other, except perhaps issuing press releases describing how illegal the other one was. But then in the early 2000’s both Turkey proper and the Greek part of Cyprus decided they wanted to join the EU, and the Europeans proceeded to put a lot of pressure on all involved parties to finally resolve the weirdness of the Island’s situation once and for all.

Greek Cyprus was in fact able to persuade its way into the EU in ’04, and since then the ball’s been in their court to prove they can bring the Turkish rebels back into a single Cypriot unity government for the entire island. They elected a pro-unity government in 2003, but they guy who led it, President Tassos Papadopoulos, ended up being a bit of a disappointment. He managed to negotiate a new constitution with the Turks and the UN, but then told his people to vote against it when it came to a nation-wide referendum after he decided it was actually a pretty bad deal, in retrospect.

So Papadopoulos failed at his attempt, and on Feburary 17 of this year the Greek Cypriot voters threw him out and elected a new pro-unity leader, Demetris Christofias. Mr. Christofias s the leader of the Cypriot Commmunist Party, and as such is much more of a “can’t we all just get along?” type than Mr. Papadopoulos, who was a fairly unapologetic Greek-rights-first hardliner. Since being sworn in, President Christofias has already had significant chats with the leaders of the Turkish rebel government, and pledges full-fledged negotiations to hammer out the specifics of unity within three months. Best of luck to him. It would be nice if we could tally up at least one victory to a Communist government.

ITALY

So things have stabilized in Italy quite a bit as of late.

To quickly summarize recent Italian political history, there is this flamboyant right-wing millionaire named Silvio Berlusconi. He was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, and lead a remarkably long-lived and stable government, at least by Italian standards. But then in 2006 he was thrown out and this other guy, a lefty named Romano Prodi, was elected in his place. But Prodi was a much weaker leader than Berlusconi, and after little more than a year in a half in office and two resignations, he finally resigned from politics earlier this year. In traditional parliamentary fashion, following his resignation an election was held in early April, and now Berlusconi is back in.

The stereotype is that Italian politics are comically unstable, and that their crazy parliaments feature way too many petty, feuding parties and are thus chronically unable to get anything done. And that’s true, to some extent, as I’ve discussed before. Certainly the foreign media never tires of dredging up the dull statistic of how there have been “60 governments in Italy since World War II” (though these numbers generally use the most liberal definition of “government” possible; using similar logic it could be argued that the Bill Clinton presidency constituted about four different American governments during his eight-year reign). But the trend has been changing a lot lately, largely due to Mr. Prodi and Mr. Berlusconi’s ability to craft large coalition parties to replace all the smaller, more ideologically pure ones. Following their leadership, Italian voters have been getting a lot more pragmatic, throwing support towards the center-right and center-left, and eschewing the radical fringes of either side. The country is now governed by something effectively resembling a three-party system, where as for much of the post-war period it’s been closer to a 12-party one.

Ironically, despite the alienation of the fringe, the new Berlusconi government could actually end up being one of Italy’s most ideological. The basic reason is that in any country where there are fewer parties it’s easier for one party to win a majority of seats—rather than merely a plurality—simply because there are fewer competitors. And this is exactly what Italy’s new conservative party was able to do, winning 344 of 630 seats to the liberal party’s 174 and the centrist party’s 132. So unlike past conservative leaders, who have presided over weak minority governments and had to cut pragmatic deals with their opponents, Prime Minister Berlusconi can afford to simply say “screw you” to the left and basically govern any which way he pleases, since he doesn’t need to lobby for their votes of support to get key legislation passed. It’s good news for political efficiency and good news for the right-wing reformists, but for Italy’s significant leftist community who basically view Berlusconi as an unstable lunatic poised to be the next Mussolini it may take some getting used to.

PARAGUAY

Paraguay is a fun country, but the people who live there probably don’t think so. They tend to have a lot of bad luck, politically speaking, and of all the countries in South America it’s probably the one that has enjoyed the least stability since embracing democratic rule in the late 80’s.

I’ll summarize the history of Paraguay quickly, just because it’s a darkly amusing story.

The country became independent from Spain in 1813, and initially their post-indepdnence constitution vested all executive authority in a two-man tribunal with rotating chairmanship. This was supposed to prevent the abuse of power, you see. That lasted about a year, then one of the members, Jose Gaspar Rodriguez, got tired of it and just proclaimed himself “Perpetual Supreme Dictator” (yes, this was the actual title) and proceded to rule the country unopposed for the next three decades. In power, Rodriguez was basically the Pol Pot of his time, and led a nightmarish Orwellian police state in which attempting to leave the country was punishable by death, and entering the country was punishable by life imprisonment in Paraguay.

He eventually died, thankfully, and the country went back to the two-man rule system. This time it lasted for three years before one of the guys proclaimed himself President-for-Life and ruled for 18 straight years. After that guy died his son took over. Junior, for his part, apparently thought it would be fun to go to war with Brazil, Argentina, and Urugauy simulatniously. Yeah, not so much. That war ended up killing an astonishing 95% of Paraguay’s male population, transforming it overnight into a tiny nation of mostly women. Thankfully most of the government (including the president) were also killed.

While the country slowly repopulated, a new dictatorship emerged under the rotating leaderships of two oligarchical political parties, the Liberals, who ran the show from 1880 to 1904, and the oddly named Colorado Republican Party, who were in charge from 1904 to 1940. Despite their lengths of rule, neither party had strong leadership, and in this era the average presidential term was about two years. It was in this period that Paraguay established its proudest political tradition—infighting.

There was a civil war between the two parties in the mid-1940s, and by 1947 the Colorado gang had emerged the victors. In 1954 a general named Alfredo Stroessner who was allied with the Colorado Party decided that he didn’t like the direction his party was taking so he overthrew the president and promised to return to the principles that had made the Colorado Party so great in the first place, whatever those were.

General Stroessner ended up being one of the longest-serving dictators in the history of the world, and ruled for 35 years. By 1989 he was 76 and fairly feeble, so another general from the Colorado party overthrew him. (But Stroessner still hung around for a long time. He lived to be 93 and only died in 2006).

Democratic rule was officially restored shortly after Stroessner was deposed, and you’d think the Colorado Party would have something of an unpopular reputation by now, but no, the Paraguayan voters kept electing it back to power anyway. Infighting was mostly to blame. The party switched leaders so often it was really more like multiple parties in one, and you never really knew what it was going to stand for from one day to the next, other than staying in power. It was a lot like the Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled Mexico for most of the 20th Century. Or the Canadian Liberals.

The post-Stroessner presidents were a colorful lot to say the least:

Andres Rodriguez (1989-1993); General who overthrew Stroessner, formally elected to power four months later. In 1993 Congress thought he was hanging around too long for someone who was supposed to be a “transitional” leader so they changed the constitution saying he could never run for president again, nor could any of his relatives. To take the edge off, they also made him senator-for-life, but he only lived for three more years so it wasn’t really that great of a deal.

Juan Carlos Wasmosy (1993-1998); first civilian president, approved laws banning the military from ever again getting invoved in politics. He had a weird and complicated relationship with the head of the army who was always trying to either overthrow him, or wrestle control of the Colorado party from him.

Raul Cubas (1998-1999); Wasmosy’s vice president, elected to replace him after his one-term ended. Despite being vice president, Cubas never liked Wasmosy and sympathized with the head of the army’s attempts to overthrow him. So when the general was found guilty of treason, he pardoned him. But Mr. Cubas’s vice president didn’t like that, and started calling for the president’s impeachment. The vice president was in turn murdered, and the suspicious timing of the killing forced Cubas into an early retirement.

Gonzalez Macchi (1999-2003); Speaker of Senate, assumed the presidency after Cubas fled. Hopes that he would provide a clean break from the past were qucikyl dashed once evidence began to circulate that he was engaged in all manner of corrupt doings, however. He survived a vote of impeachment in 2003, only to be face federal charges when he left office legally a few months later. He is currently serving a six year prison term for fraud and embezzlement.

Nicanor Duarte (2003-2008); from the reformist wing of the Colorado Party, he pledged to fix everything and end all the corruption. He didn’t.

And now, following the elections of April 20, Paraguay has an all-new president, Mr. Fernando Lugo. He’s a fairly remarkable fellow. For one thing, for the first time in 60 years, the president is not a member of the Colorado Party, but rather the Authentic Radical Party, a leftist coalition of labor unions and Indians that Mr. Lugo only threw together eight months ago. Lugo himself is a former Catholic bishop schooled in the ways of so-called “liberation theology,” which basically argues that Christ was the original Marxist and that socialism doesn’t have to be an atheist movement. So in other words, he’s one more notch in an ever-growing tally of leftist leaders in Latin America. Actually, at this point I think Columbia is the only right-wing regime left.

There’s going to be a lot of pressure on President Lugo to fix everything, because as a lefty outsider he is without the sort of original sin that has tainted every other Paraguayan leader ever. God only knows who the voters will turn to should he fail…

The Events of Jan and Feb

Cripes, it’s been a while, eh? I am overworked and underloved, but I’m still trying to keep on top of the news of the world. So let’s just skip the excuses and get down to what’s been happening.

SERBIA

Perhaps the biggest political hotbed of the last month or so, Serbian politics has been consumed (as usual) by the issue of Kosovo, and the region’s separation from the rest of the Republic.

As I blogged about last year, Kosovo is a small province located in the southern region of Serbia, and is considered to be the “historic capital” of Serbian national culture and history. Problem is, it’s no longer very Serbian at all. 90% of the population now consists of Albanian Muslims, who are hated and dislike by Serbia’s orthodox Christian majority.

On January 8 Hashim Thaci, a former anti-Serbian guerilla leader who is now head of Kosovo’s largest pro-independence party, was sworn in as Prime Minister after winning 37 of 120 of seats in the provincial parliament, and forming an anti-Serb coalition government.

But then, two weeks later, on January 20, Tomislav Nikolic won the plurality of the vote in the election for Serbian President. This was greeted with a great deal of horror in the west, and understandably so. Mr. Nikolic is an ultra-nationalist radical who once served in the government of the genocidal Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic. And indeed, the whole reason d’être of Serbian nationalists is to keep their country unified and pure, no matter how many people need to be ethnically cleansed along the way. After having been part of a government that waged an active war against Kosovo’s nationalist ambitions in the mid 1990’s, there were fears that history could soon repeat itself, should Nikolic assume the post that Milosevic himself once held.

But luckily Serbia is one of the many European countries that does two rounds of voting in presidential elections, to ensure that the winner gets elected with a majority. So on February 3 Mr. Nikolic faced a run-off against runner-up Boris Tadic, Serbia’s incumbent, moderate president. Tadic narrowly won (51% to 49%) and everyone gave a sigh of relief.

But Serbia is much like Quebec, in that even the so-called moderate politicians are quite intense in their nationalism. President Tadic opposes Kosovo separation too, but he’s ruled out violence as a way to deal with it.

On Sunday, February 17, The Kosovo parliament passed a motion unilaterally declaring independence from Serbia, something everyone had seen coming a mile away. The United States and European Union welcomed the world’s newest country, but Russia and Serbia remain angrily opposed.

It’s unclear what will happen now. Russia and Serbia say they will not accept the so-called independence of the so-called Kosovo Republic, and will fight to prevent the country from getting a seat in the UN, the World Bank, the Red Cross, or anything else.

But still, compared to what we’ve seen in the past, a war of uppity passive aggression against Kosovo still marks tremendous progress for the Balkan region.

GUATEMALA

On January 14 Senior Alvaro Colom was sworn in as President of Guatemala. He is the latest lefty to assume control of a Latin American country.

Guatemala holds the dubious title of presiding over one of Latin America’s longest-running civil wars, which began in the late 1950’s and only formally ended in 1996, after the signing of a peace treaty. As in most cases, the war was generally fought between a right-wing military government and Marxist guerillas, both of which slaughtered each other with reckless abandon.

Since 1990 the country has been more-or-less democratic, though there was a coup in 1993 (though it was one of those mild coups where the army just forces the president to resign and backs a new civilian coming to power).

Today, with this new president in charge, Guatemala has now achieved another historic first. The last time a leftist ruled Guatemala was back in 1951, when Jacobo Arbenz was president. He was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup after certain wealthy fruit companies in the United States duped President Eisenhower into believing Arbenz was a Communist. I realize it’s very faddish to go around declaring CIA-backed this and CIA-backed that, but the Arbenz coup is really one of the most brazen cases in which the US government quite properly did actively depose a foreign leader. Eisenhower himself admitted as much in his memoirs.

But President Colom is no Arbenz, who although not an out-and-out communist, was at least quite a radical socialist. A career businessman and bureaucrat who only recently got into partisan politics, Colom sees himself as much more of a pragmatic moderate, eager to befriend both Bush’s America and the Chavez-and-friends fringe bloc. As one of the poorest countries in the neighborhood, Guatemala needs all the help it can get, be it cheap oil from Venezuela or easy visas to the US.


CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

The Central African Republic is one of my favorite countries. When I was fairly young I read a great book about the place called “Dark Age” by Brian Titley, and I’ve followed their political developments closely ever since.

Originally a colony of France, the country was ruled by a number of French-backed dictators after achieving independence in 1960. The most absurd of these was of course the infamous Jean Bokassa, a jolly cannibal who proclaimed himself emperor in 1976 and blew about a third of his country’s GDP on a coronation ceremony.

The French invaded and deposed him in ’79, and the country very slowly began to embrace democracy in the aftermath. A coup in 2003 brought the current president, General François Bozizé, to power, and though he continues to rule as a dictator he has brought in free and fair parliamentary elections, increased the rights of citizens, strengthened the legal system, and reformed a lot of the country’s other stagnant political institutions. But he remains an uneducated general in charge of an extremely poor country, so his life is still pretty hard.

There have been a number of strikes in the last month crippling two of the countries’ major employers- government bureaucracy and mining. In response to a worsening domestic situation, General Bozizé fired his prime minister on January and installed an unknown math professor named Faustin-Archange Touadera in his place. Despite democratic advancements, the CAR is still run largely as a cliquey oligarchy at the executive level, in which the president surrounds himself with random flunkies he appoints on personal whim with little regard for what parliament wants.

The CAR is one of several countries that are unlucky enough to share a border with the Sudan. In a situation that is rather similar to what is going on in Chad right now, Sudanese soldiers and refugees are presently streaming back-and-forth across the Darfur-Central African Republic border, which has the CAR government worried about their own political and social stability. There is talk that the European Union might send some peacekeepers to help the country secure its borders.

I hope they get this Sudan thing solved soon. The fact that the ever-Darfur situation is increasingly pulling other countries into its orbit just goes to show how very few conflicts are ever truly “isolated” in this day and age.

ITALY
In first world news, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi resigned for the second time in his short one-and-a-half year tenure on January 24, after losing a vote of confidence in the parliament.The left-wing Prodi had faced a similar crisis of confidence last February, but was persuaded to stay in office a bit longer and tried to cobble together a new coalition of support from Italy’s badly multi-divided parliament.This new coalition broken down in January of 2008, when one of the political parties backing Prodi dropped out. Prodi then asked for a vote of confidence, and of course he didn’t get one, so he resigned. When one reads the history of his recent political moves, it seems rather like Prodi wasn’t particularly interested in being Prime Minister anyway. After this latest defeat, he has said he is now finished with being Prime Minister and will not run again.

In response to Prodi’s resignation, the President of Italy, who is supposed to act as a referee in times of instability in the Italian political system (and is thus a very busy guy) appointed Franco Marini, the head of the Italian Senate to be the new interim PM. But Marini said that there’s now way he can govern the country in this current era of polarization and turmoil, so he stepped down as well.

The President has now dissolved parliament and called for new elections.

BELIZE

Belize is a small, narrow country on the eastern coast of Central America. It’s an interesting place, historically, because it was one of the only nations in Latin America to be colonized by the British, instead of the Spanish. Until 1974 it was called by the name of “British Honduras,” and Elizabeth II is still head of state to this day.

In contrast to their more rambunctious Latin American neighbors, Belize has been a very stable democracy for most of its independence.

Their most recent parliamentary election was on held on February 6, and resulted in a massive majority for the center-right United Democratic Party, which won 25 of 31 seats. Their leader, Dean Barrow, was sworn in as Prime Minister two days later.

Mr. Barrow is a career politician and longtime cabinet minister of the sort that is common in British parliamentary systems. He’s also the country’s first black Prime Minister. Belize is a pretty ethnically diverse country, and past PMs have been white, Latino, and mixed race.

It will be interesting to see how Prime Minister Barrow gets along with President Colom, who we met earlier. Guatemala and Belize remain trapped in a weird 17th Century style land dispute with each other, with Guatemala claiming to own most of Belize’s territory (they only recognized that Belize was even an independent country in 1993).

Fun trivia fact! Prime Minister Barrow’s son, Jamal Barrow, is the American rap star “Shyne.” A former ally of P.Diddy, he is currently serving 10 years in the Woodbourne Correctional Facility of New York on an attempted murder charge. Shyne maintained he was just trying to protect J-Lo from some haters.
 

The Weirdest Country in Europe

Europe has a lot of weird countries with a lot of weird political systems. San Marino, for example, is governed by two “captains regent” who wear sashes and funny hats. Andorra’s nominal head of state is the President of France, except in that country he is considered their “co-prince,” along with an obscure Spanish priest (who also rarely visits). And then you have your charming little principalities like Monaco, Luxembourg, and Lichtenstein which are ruled by small, quirky royal families with odd titles.

Strange, yes, but  in many cases the weirdness is largely superficial. All these wacky people are largely figureheads, and don’t actually have much to with how the countries in question are actually governed in practice. Under all the folderol, they are just ordinary, albeit small, countries with run-of-the-mill parliamentary systems of government that none of us would have trouble recognizing.

The exception to this is the Confederation of Switzerland, which actually does have a political system that is one of the world’s most functionally unique. Indeed, it is really quite a difficult country for political scientists to categorize, because the way they govern themselves stands alone, in open defiance of all the various grand theories on how national governments are supposed to be organized.  

Switzerland  is basically a collection of German city councils that didn’t want to join the Holy Roman Empire, or any of the other German confederations that came after it. To ensure their sovereignty, in the 13thCentury the little city-states thus pooled their armies and joined up in a loose union which more or less survives to this day.

Because of this strong founding  focus on preserving what Americans would describe as the “states’ rights” of its members, early on in Swiss history it was decided that the best way to govern the Federation would be through some model of consensus decision making. The idea of having a strong central government was denounced, as was putting too much power in the hands of a single ruler—or later, political party.  

Since the dawn of the 20thCentury every parliamentary election in Switzerland has basically yielded identical results, with the four largest political parties, the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, the People’s Party, and the Radicals, collectively winning a two-thirds majority; seats divvied up with roughly equal parity. The four parties then form a coalition government together, and split up the cabinet positions equally. In Swiss political lingo they call this the “magic formula” and the Swiss are taught to think of this as being the most natural and ideal form of government. You can get into into a weird chicken and egg type discussion about whether Swiss voters consciously vote to preserve this magic formula or whether the magic formula is preserved to reflect the will of the voters.

In what is perhaps the Swiss system’s greatest compromise of all, the presidency of Switzerland rotates between the cabinet ministers every year, so every party gets a chance to have one of their own be leader for a short period. In practice, however, the presidency is largely useless. The cabinet holds all power collectively, and the Swiss constitution weirdly even declares that it is the cabinet, and not the president who is the federation’s “head of state.” When the cabinet makes a decision it is likewise portrayed as one which is made by consensus. Their votes are never made public and members never criticize each other publicly, lest their behaviors imply that they are not operating with a single mind.   

Of course, we all know that collective management never works in practice, be it in a hippie commune or a nation-state. Certain dynamic personalities always come to dominate the decision-making process, and amass more power for themselves at the expense of others.

In Switzerland, one such domineering personality is Mr. Christoph Blocher. Because of the Swiss dislike of hierarchy, he’s not formally anything, just a member of parliament. But he’s still come to dominate the country’s political life in a big way as of late.

Other countries often imagine Switzerland to be some sort of utopia, and their famous neutrality in foreign affairs often seems inspiring. But the dark side of the Swiss culture of isolationism is a profound dislike and distrust of outsiders, and it is these latent feelings upon which Mr. Blocher has hitched his political career. A member of the People’s Party (SVP)—the most conservative faction of the four-party elite—Blocher is an extremely wealthy businessman who has used his personal fortune to back a variety of isolationist and xenophobic causes to considerable success.

Throughout the last three decades he has headed a string of “no” campaigns in successive Swiss referendums, opposing proposals for Switzerland to join the UN, the EU, and sending troops to international peacekeeping missions, among others. His political party has likewise made significant gains since he started becoming politically active; in the last decade the SVP has more than doubled its share of the popular vote. Blocher himself first won a parliamentary seat in 1980, and was appointed to cabinet in 2004.

In last year’s parliamentary election was his grandest moment yet. He threw a lot of money behind a campaign to make the election all about immigration—specifically, why Switzerland needs less of it.

Switzerland is already a very difficult country to immigrate to, but due to its small population it is still quite reliant on foreign labor. 20% of its population is foreign-born, most of whom are not citizens and can be—and are—easily deported. Still, there are a great many Swiss who dislike having any foreign workers around at all, especially the Muslim ones. As is the case in most of Europe, there is a growing fear that Muslims are simply a dangerous and un-assimilateable people who threaten the white Christian majority’s safety, culture and way of life.

Blocher openly played on these fears, using slogans and ads that many have criticized as being quite blatantly racist. There’s this one infamous poster in particular that shows three angry white sheep kicking a black sheep out of their little posse… But anyway, the strategy paid off handsomely for his party. The People’s Party ended up winning 29% of the popular vote in the 2007 parliamentary election, giving them 62 seats in the 200-member Swiss national assembly. This may not sound like much, but it was actually the biggest one-party sweep in nearly 88 years.

This of course ruined the magic formula, which is based around keeping the parties equal. Since the SVP now controlled  a clear plurality of seats they boldy demanded to get another seat in the cabinet, which the other parties refused to concede. So on December 13, the People’s Party made the shockingly unprecedented decision to abandon the coalition government altogether, and sit in the parliamentary opposition. The next day the parliament likewise rejected Mr. Blocher’s bid for re-election to cabinet.

On January 1, 2008, the Swiss Federal Council assumed office for the first time without a member of the SVP. The Radical Party Minister Pascal Couchepin became president for the calendar year, a position he had previously held for the duration of 2003.

The country is now essentially governed what amounts to an anti-SVP, anti-Blocher alliance. This hyper-partisan breakdown has in turn provoked a great deal of nationalistic weeping that Switzerland’s much-beloved model of “consensus government” is starting to break down in favor of the dreaded “adversarial” system that the rest of the world uses.

Mr. Blocher welcomes this, because he thinks the consensus model was a bit of a scam anyway. Far from being a shining example of egalitarian collective-rule, he portrays the system as little more than a bunch of out-of-touch political elites making bad policy through groupthink.

In the next election it seems reasonable to assume that Mr. Blocher and the SVP will openly ask voters to elect his party to power, and make populist arguments about how nothing will change unless control of the government’s agenda can be wrestled from the entrenched magic formula gang.

Top 10 Head of State Stories of 2007

I thought I’d launch Head of State Update‘s bold new online presence with a look at a selection of what I believe to be 10 of the most consequential, interesting, or troubling world leader-related developments of 2007.

10. The President of Israel finally resigns

Sometimes you just have one of those presidential terms. The sad decline and fall of Israeli President Moshe Katsav was certainly one of the more interesting stories of the year, if only because it resembled something of car crash in slow motion.

Just to recap, a bunch of the president’s former staffers came out of the woodwork in the summer of 2006, spreading all sorts of nasty allegations about the president’s busy hands. But it wasn’t all just Monica-esque chicanery, there were also serious allegations about sexual assault and even outright rape.

When this stuff came public, President Katsav reacted with a range of emotions varying from anger to paranoia. First he tried to ignore the charges, then dismiss them, then openly confront them. Either way, he refused to heed the growing chorus of voices demanding him to resign, largely just to keep himself in a state of political immunity for as long as possible.

Things got worse in January of 2007, after the Israeli parliament unsuccessfully tried to impeach him. In the aftermath, Katsav was put into this weird state of legal limbo, in which he was said to have been “suspended” from his job but still in office, a compromise which pleased no one.

Once his lawyers were able to wrangle together a decent plea bargain with his accusers, Katsav finally stepped down in June. House speaker Dalia Itzik took over, meaning Israel briefly got its first female president, before the respectable elder statesman Shimon Peres was finally elected as a permanent replacement in July. A dignified ending to an embarrassing farce that went on for far too long.

 

9. Nepalese monarchy abolished

The world will lose a royal family in 2008, the first time in over three decades that this has happened. And really, it couldn’t happen to a more deserving crew. The royal family of Nepal has been a decidedly declining brand for many years now, and their disapperance won’t be widely mourned.

History may ultimately load much of the blame for the fall of the Shah Dynasty upon the shoulders of the lunatic Prince Dipendra. After all, had he not had the insane urge to murder most of the royal family in 2001, his sadistic uncle Gyanendra would have never succeeded to the throne and proceeded to turn the country into a tyrannical absolute monarchy—greatly exacerbating the tensions of the nation’s already fiery civil war in the process.

Republicanism, once the fringe ideology of Nepal’s Marxist movement, has now earned mainstream support among all parties in the country, as the civil war draws to a close and the politicians seek to create a new constitution of national unity. King Gyanendra was stripped of his powers and title of “head of state” in January of 2007, and in December the Nepalese parliament formally voted to become a “federal democratic republican state”.

The final details are still to be hammered out in a constitutional assembly in the spring of ’08, but it’s clear that the country will be better off without the crown.

 

8. Bangladesh’s acting PM crushes democracy in order to save it

Bangladesh enters 2008 with the odd paradox of a government that is an interim dictatorship. January will mark the second-year anniversary of the coming to power of acting Prime Minister Fakhruddin Ahmed, an outwardly unassuming bureaucrat who was supposed to only hold office for a  few weeks, then hand over office to a permanent, elected replacement.

Ahmed quickly came to the conclusion that his country was too crooked to have elections, however, perhaps a reasonable conclusion considering that Bangladesh consistently tops the charts as the world’s most corrupt nation. But his prescription for solving this cultural problem has been decidedly heavy-handed to say the least. Martial law has been imposed, all political parties have been banned, parliament has been suspended, and buckets of leading politicians- including two former prime ministers, have all been jailed.

Ahmed’s thesis is that if he simply does enough arresting and banning, he can sideline the forces of corruption and stabilize the country, and only then hold genuinely free and fair elections. It’s a complicated gamble and tough medicine, but Ahamed has the army’s backing and thus can stay in power as long as he wants. For now.

 

7. A new Turkmenbashi emerges

Turkmenbashi, the clownish, Orwellian dictator of Turkmenistan spent most of his political career as a punchline, rather than a figure of hatred. From his giant gold statutes to his random bans of whatever style of music happened to be annoying him that day, Turkmenbashi was truly God’s gifts to western journalists looking to fill up their “on the lighter side…” columns.

But despite his eccentricities, the man was a vicious tyrant, responsible for scores of arbitrary deaths, imprisonments, and torturings. His oil-rich fiefdom is also a highly relevant place in the great game of geo-politics, and with war continuing to wage in Afghanistan next door, Western powers have had to stay on his good side. His death in December of 2006 thus came as a bit of a shock, as it seemed hard to imagine Turkmenistan without the man who had basically crafted the entire state in his own image.

On St. Valentine’s Day, 2007 Kurbanguly Berdymukhammedov officially became the nation’s new president, a largely unknown man whose main accomplishment to date was serving as the dear leader’s personal dentist. He may or may not also be the dear leader’s bastard son; no one seems to have been able to independently verify that particularly juicy rumor.

Regardless, Berdymukhammedov’s installation marked an orderly transfer of power in a nation that could have spiraled into chaos when such a vital lynch-pin of society was removed. It remains to be seen whether or not the new boss will be any different than the old boss; he’s certainly shown little interest in democratic reforms and his dictatorship is only marginally less arbitrary and erratic than his predecessor’s. Turkmenistan remains a more important state than it gets credit for, however, and with Turkmenbashi’s veneer of goofiness finally removed from the equation, perhaps the country will finally be treated seriously.

 

6. Hugo Chavez rises and falls

If Hugo Chavez was a stock, 2007 would have been a roller-coaster year for investors. I would have advised to sell in early February, shortly after the Venezuelan parliament passed an enabling act allowing the President to rule by unilateral decree. Or possibly in May, after his government failed to renew the licence of Radio Caracas Television, one of the country’s most vocal opposition media outlets.

Investors hoping for even greater rises were bound to be disappointed, however. Chavez’ stock plummeted in early December when a dramatic overhaul of the constitution was narrowly rejected by voters in a referendum by a margin of 51 to 49%. The controversial package of amendments would have enshrined Venezuala’s new status as a socialist state, as well as handed Chavez the possibility of indefinite re-election to the presidency. With voters rejecting the proposals, however, Hugo must now step down by 2013.

For a man which such sky-high expectations and ambitions, the 2007 electoral defeat—his first ever—will prompt considerable soul-searching. Will El Presidente now resort to increasingly desperate gimmicks to consolidate his hold on power, or will he read the writing on the wall and agree to tone things down a bit? He’ll certainly be a man to watch in 2008.

 

5. Two unexpected political comebacks

Time can be quite a remarkable force in politics. 30 years ago, making the hysterically anti-Catholic Reverend Iain Paisley the prime minister of Northern Ireland would have seemed like a proposal on par with making Osama Bin Laden president of Pakistan. But a lot has changed since the 1970’s, and with “the troubles” having finally shown signs of permanently winding down, the Reverend Paisley has somehow managed to retool himself as a force of reconciliation and compromise.

After winning the 2007 parliamentary election, Paisely thus agreed to enter into a government of national unity with his long time political foes, and now heads a coalition government containing members of the IRA-allied Seinn Feinn party, which he has spent his entire adult life declaring to be the literal spawn of Satan. Since then, he’s worked slowly and steadily to negotiate outstanding matters of dispute between his country’s Protestant and Catholic factions, and may yet emerge, in the words of a Belfast Telegraph editoral, “as vital to Northern Ireland as Nelson Mandela has been to South Africa.”

Stranger still may be the return of Daniel Ortega as President of Nicaragua. A one-time Marxist guerrilla leader who the Ronald Reagan administration committed near-impeachable crimes to try and covertly overthrow, Ortega was quietly re-elected back to power in November of 2006 and officially assumed office in January of ’07.

Ironically Ortega—who is now a born-again Christian with social views to the right of the Republican Party—probably tops Washington’s list of least concerning Latin American leftists. Though the Sandinista leader still shows some glimmers of his former self, cozying up to Iran and Cuba, at best the small, irrelevant nature of Nicaragua makes Ortega little more than the boring second fiddle in a socialist symphony now led by much more domineering figures like Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. The President has never been a terribly popular figure in his own country anyway. Elected with only 38% of the vote, Ortega needs to focus on consolidating his own power at home before he can begin dreaming about revolutions abroad.

 

4. Belgium breaks down

It was not so long ago that Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper, now Prime Minister of Canada, fawningly described Belgium as a model of multi-ethnic stability that other Western nations could learn a thing or two from.

Flash forward to 2007, and the Economist is now running editorials describing the grand Belgian experiment as a failure, opining openly that maybe the country should just split up for the benefit of all involved.

The Kingdom spent half of 2007 without a functioning government, as the parliament remained in a permanent state of deadlock following a traditionally indecisive parliamentary election in June. No one was able to cobble together a working majority from any combination of the 11 political parties represented in the Belgian House of Representatives, despite months of round-the-clock negotiations that even saw Belgium’s normally apolitical king get involved.

In a nutshell, the problem is that “Belgium” in so much as it exists as a single country, exists mostly as a contract of convenience between two roughly equal-sized ethnic groups, one French, one Dutch, who don’t tend to agree on much. French-Dutch coalition governments have always been the norm, but now it seems that the two groups want to renegotiate the very foundations of the country itself, which has opened an enormous can of worms. How strong should the federal government be? What powers should remain with the provinces? What kind of bilingualism policies should be adopted? How about immigration?

Until these fundamental questions about what kind of country Belgium is supposed to be can be resolved, the politicians seem incapable of moving forward, as round after round of failed negotiations continue. Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who lost the 2007 election and should have left office by now, has now had his lame-duck term extended indefinitely as “interim” leader, and must now be starting to feel a bit like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

Will 2008 see Harper’s favorite marriage finally divorce?

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3. Turkey finds religion

The visionary but savage General Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey on one simple preconition—the outwardly religious should never, ever be allowed positions of political power. And for many years the Turkish armed forces and judicial system honored this commandment, banning, imprisoning, or overthrowing any politician who dared praise Allah a little too loudly or publicly.

Then in 2003 Turkey got an openly pro-Islamic prime minister, and in 2007 he cajoled parliament into electing a pro-Islamic president as well. The two highest offices of the Turkish state are now controlled by deeply religious men, who although nowhere near Ahmadinejad levels of passion, still favor a greater role for Islam in public life, including the legal system.

Turkey enters 2008 as a country torn by many competing interests. One can even make an analogy to the so-called culture wars of the United States. The liberal, secular political parties of the big cities are getting increasingly sidelined by religious, conservative ones whose base lies in the more rural areas. The President and the Prime Minister, for their part, have waged successful campaigns portraying themselves as democratic populists who are finally giving the people the kind of government that they actually want, rather than the kind that the elites think is best for them.

The West, however, has tended to overreact to the news of the Islamic victories, especially in Europe which has always disliked and distrusted Turkey. I would not be surprised if Turkey’s far-fetched EU bid is abandoned sometime in the near future, as increasingly religious Turkey and increasingly anti-Muslim Europe realize that their cultural differences are simply too big to overcome.

 

2. The West’s old warhorses are put out to pasture

Since the mid 1990’s, the western world has been dominated by a handful of larger-than-life leaders, chief amongst them Britain’s Tony Blair, France’s Jacques Chirac, and Australia’s John Winston Howard.

Among other things, all three were brilliant electoral strategists who were able to string out their political careers for far longer than the experts ever predicted possible. Chirac and Howard kept conservatism alive in countries deemed to be irreparably leftist, while Blair did the opposite, and transforming his left-wing Labour Party from conservative Britain’s perennial runner-up to the dominant political machine of the early 21st Century. Blair and Chirac likewise shared the skill for what the political classes now commonly refer to as “triangulation,” or superseding the traditional left-right dichotomy. Though nominally liberal, Blair’s Britain was able to cut government spending and promote an aggressive War on Terrorism, while the conservative Chirac led a remarkably leftist foreign policy, keeping George Bush’s America at arms’ length but America’s enemies on a first-name basis. 

In 2007 all three men left office, Chirac and Blair voluntarily through term limits and resignations, and Howard unwillingly, via electoral defeat. In 2008 it will be interesting to watch the careers of the leaders who replaced them, as all three successors represent a return to more traditional politics after a decade of highly experimental rule.

Britain’s Gordon Brown has already expressed an eagerness to wind down Iraq and cool relations with the United States, instead focusing more on domestic issues and the EU—traditional Labourite concerns. New French President Nicholas Sarkozy, though from the same political party as Chirac, has already done much to distance himself from his predecessor’s foreign policy, embracing a pro-American stance that has even earned the praise of Ann Coulter, among others. And lastly Kevin Rudd, the new Labourite Prime Minister of Australia who beat Howard in the November federal election, has already veered Australia sharply to the left, signing the Kyoto Accord on his first day in office, and promising to withdraw all Australian combat troops from Iraq ASAP.

Some pundits have been quick to view these developments as signs that the Blair, Chirac, and Howard experiments were ultimately unsuccessful, despite the men’s many re-elections (Chirac two, Blair three, and Howard four). It may be too soon to draw such conclusions, however. All three leaders greatly shook up their nations’ notions of “politics as usual,” and through their unique relationships with the United States and the Bush Administration each gave their countries new relevance on the international stage as players in the post-September 11 world order. Their long shadows will linger for years to come.

 

1. Putin to rule forever

Russian President Vladimir Putin was made Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for good reason. Russia has re-emerged as an unapologetic and self-confident global power under his reign, while a return to authoritarianism at home seems to have finally answered the great post-Cold War mystery as to whether or not Russia would ever become a truly democratic country.

With Russia and Putin becoming increasingly synonymous, all eyes were on the great man in 2007 to see how he would manage to weasel out of the annoying little technicality that is the Russian constitution, and somehow serve a third term in office. We got our answer in September, when Putin plucked some random bureaucrat named Victor Zubkov out of nowhere and basically informed the Russian people, “here, this man will be your new president.” President What’s-His-Name then declared that he would in turn appoint Mr. Putin as his new prime minister upon assuming office.

It’s a significant development because it in essence marks Russia’s return to the old Soviet-style system of government, in which titles and offices don’t matter much, but leadership does. As was the case in the time of Stalin, Kruschev, and Brezhnev, the state is now structured around the dynamism of a single individual, with all other organs of the state being reduced to mere rubber stamps charged with carrying out the leader’s “vision.”

The good news in all this is that Putin is a predictable, stable man who more or less has a clear set of agendas and interests that make it easy to understand why he governs the way that he does. The bad news is that his style of governance leaves a lot to be desired, and seems to be earning Mr. Putin far more critics than friends in the west. I personally see Putin as a man who is equally suited for the role of partner or enemy, and will embrace either role with equal relish. Putin will never be the lovable pal George Bush imagined him to be, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be the next Hitler, either.

 

And those we lost…

As a closer, I will just note in passing that 2007 was also a year of several substantial deaths.

Along with the deaths of the incumbent prime ministers of Tchad, Armenia, and St. Luca, we also witnessed the passing of several retired elder statesmen, including former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Austrian President (and UN boss) Kurt Waldheim, Luxembourg Prime Minister Gaston Thorn, French Prime Ministers Raymond Barre and Pierre Messmer, and Rhodesian leader Iain Smith. Then, of course, there was also the extremely tragic assassination of Bezanir Bhutto, a remarkable woman who may have otherwise been one of the top world leaders to watch in the coming year.

We enter 2008 with the world of the 1990’s farther away than ever before, symbolically, as well as numerically. Though I’m not cocky enough to make any big predictions, all I can say is that the world leaders of 2008 will continue this trend, and work actively to shape a new world order that challenges our assumptions of the past like never before.