Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The transformation of dictatorships

What is Hugo Chavez up to?

Today the Venezuelan parliament formally passed a bill that will give President Chavez the power to unilaterally decree laws without any sort of legislative approval. The bill, which was unironically titled the "enabling act," signals the effective transformation of Venezuela from a one party-dominated ultra-populist pseudo democracy to some manner of outright autocracy. Chavez' move can be seen as particularly authoritarian precisely because it is so thoroughly unnecessary. It's not like he's had a hard time getting laws passed prior to this.The President's allies already hold every single seat in the legislature, and often approve his bills unanimously. All the opposition parties boycotted the last parliamentary election because they figured it would be crooked. This may have been the case, but they probably wouldn't have won anyway.

In the west, our perception of dictatorship is usually something inherently undesirable- something we can fight in a war or something citizens can flee to our countries from. But in reality, most dictatorships are usually quite popular at first, as they arise to resolve previously unresolvable domestic problems. Because they fix elections we assume that they couldn't win a mandate on their own, but this is not necessarily the case. It is only once dictators stay in power for too long and become bloated and sadistic under their own sense of unaccountability do their former backers begin to loose faith, and the public imagination begins to regard them as wicked. If someone had shot Hitler, Stalin, or Mao fairly early on in their careers there can be no doubt they'd be remembered in much fonder terms today.

It's a challenge, because the temptation is high to want to nip dictatorships "in the bud" before they have a chance to develop into something more sinister. Yet the bud phase is when they are strongest, with the most supporters most likely to put up the strongest fight.

Castro Brothers celebrate anniversary

Earlier in the day Senor Chavez met with Fidel Castro, a man who is presently in the "photographic proof is needed to confirm that he is still alive" phase of his dictatorial career.

Last month the CIA predicted that Castro would likely die within the next 30 days, but now that new photos have surfaced showing Chavez hanging out with a "visibly healthier" Fidel, US officials are now claiming that they "don't actually have any idea what the status of his health is." Castro is 80 years old right now. I remember because he's the same age as Queen Elizabeth- the two were only born three months apart.

Exactly six months ago today Fidel temporarily stepped aside as President of Cuba, allowing his younger brother, Raul (seen here) to act as president on his behalf. Along with being acting president, the younger Castro is also first vice president of the Council of State, first vice president of the of the Council of Ministers, second secretary of the Communist Party, minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, and maximum general of the army. So he has his fingers in a lot of pies.

Christopher Hitchens said that General Raul's ascension to the presidency will more or less signal Cuba's transformation from a sexy revolutionary regime to a very unglamorous, run-of-the-mill Latin American junta state.

Monday, January 29, 2007


As long as we're talking about kings, there was an interesting little profile in the New York Times the other day about Michael the First of Romania, "the last living head of state from World War II."

He has quite the interesting life story. Ascending to the throne at age five, he was initially sidelined by his country's fascist government. By the time he turned 22 he was old enough to know better and backed a coup to depose Romania's infamous pro-Nazi prime minister, Ion Antonescu, installing a pro-Allied government in his place. For this the Western Allies rewarded Michael by handing his country over to Stalin, who in turn installed a Communist regime that ended the monarchy.

Today the 85-year-old Michael lives in Switzerland and occasionally goes back to Romania for brief visits, now that the commies are gone. He hopes he'll be restored one day, but that seems rather unlikely.

Michael is unusual among living deposed monarchs in that he is actually a fairly popular individual who people generally respect. Not enough to go through the hassle of restoring the monarchy, but a quiet reverence all the same.

There are a handful of other deposed monarchs kicking around the world, but they are all generally controversial figures, if not outright unpleasant and actively disliked.

King Constantine the Second of Greece (born 1940) gave royal approval to a military coup in 1967 that put an end to a series of faltering interim governments and installed a right-wing dictatorship. A few months later he felt guilty and tried to promote a counter-coup, but the generals quickly put that down and Constantine was forced into exile. The Greek people never forgave the King for his incompetent meddling, and when democracy was restored they voted overwhelmingly to permanently make Greece into a republic. He now lives in London.

Czar Simon the Second of Bulgaria (born 1937) has a life story that is sort of similar to Michael's. He became Czar in 1943, at age six, after his father was poisoned by the Nazis. Bulgaria tried to stay neutral in the war but the country was eventually invaded by the USSR and the monarchy was abolished in favor of a pro-Stalin puppet regime. Exiled, Simon was raised in Spain and dreamed of one day becoming a politician. When the commies left, he returned to Bulgaria and fulfilled his dream, founding a political party. He was elected prime minister in 2001, but then lost his bid for re-election in 2005.

Mohammed Zahir Shah of Afghanistan (born 1914) became king at age 19 after his father was assassinated in 1933. He repeatedly clashed with the government of the hardline prime minister Mohammed Daoud Khan, and in 1973 Khan changed the country into a republic so he would no longer have to share power with the monarch. The King moved to Italy where he lived for almost 30 years. Then in 2002 when the Taliban were deposed he returned to the country with American backing. Some Afghanis regard him with nostalgia, as a symbol of a more peaceful time. Others think he's just some doddering old geezer. Regardless, Afghanistan is too much of a tribally-divided society to consider restoring a monarchy, as that would implicitly entail placing one tribal group symbolically "above" the others.
I think there are a number of factors explaining why you don't see monarchies abolished as much these days as you used to:

1- All western monarchical countries (ie: Europe and Japan) have democratized their systems of government to the point where the king or queen is entirely powerless, and thus politically uncontroversial. Most of the European monarchs who were deposed in the 20th Century were singled out because of their unwanted meddling in the affairs of the civilian government.

2- There is no real precedent for how to "politely" remove a monarchy. As mentioned, most monarchs deposed in the last century were kicked out on bad terms, with strict laws being passed shortly thereafter that banned the royal family from ever setting foot in their former realms again. If, say, Britain was to become a republic tomorrow, it would seem excessively cruel for the British government to order the royals out of the country. After all, they themselves have done nothing wrong... they're just part of a bad institution. But if they stayed, the legitimacy of the new republican government would be undermined, since presumably the media and tabloids and general public would still focus on the affairs of the princes and princesses- even if they no longer legally held such titles. So what can you do, really? Many socialist European politicians find this dilemma to be more of a hassle than it's worth. This is why, for example, Sweden still has a monarchy.

3- Outside of the west (ie: the Middle East) monarchs who are in currently power are very authoritarian leaders who have successfully established a regime of oppression to quickly crush any opposition to their rule. The monarchy is the government, not merely a "part" of it.

In short, to survive a monarchy has to be either entirely democratic (and thus powerless) or entirely authoritarian. Monarchies have to pick one of the two choices and evolve permanently in that direction. A monarchy that tries to be sort of authoritarian and sort of democratic at the same time is a monarchy that is bound to fail. This is what our friend in Nepal has recently learned.

Then of course, there is the distinct debate over Commonwealth monarchies, like Canada, Australia, Jamaica, etc. But that's for another time.

The surviving monarchs of Europe.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Will Nepal go republican?

The horrible civil war in Nepal came to a formal end in late 2006, when the Nepalese government and communist rebels finally came together and signed a UN-backed peace agreement. Under the terms of the deal, the Commies were given a quarter of the seats in the Nepalese parliament and a special interim government of "national reconciliation" was sworn in.

For years the communists had been engaged in a bloody uprising to overthrow the government of Nepal and establish a communist state, as Marxists tend to do. Their main villain was the autocratic King of Nepal, this monstrous, zombie-looking old man who assumed the Nepalese throne in 2001 after his psychotic nephew murdered the rest of the royal family. Frustrated with his government's inability to wage an effective war against the Marxists, in 2005 the King fired the civilian cabinet and prime minister, assuming all executive powers for himself.

But this was not popular, since you cannot destroy freedom in order to save it. Communist and anti-Communist alike were soon brought together by their mutual hate of their oppressive king. He was forced to bring parliament back, and they expressed their gratitude by voting to strip him of all political power.

Under this new government of national reconciliation the King is no longer even recognized as "head of state." That title has instead been transferred to the Prime Minister. So the monarch is now in some sort of weird legal limbo. In June the Nepalese people will elect members of a special constitutional convention who will in turn decide whether or not the country is to formally become a republic.

But the signs are looking strong that the monarchy is permanently on the way out. According to a story in the Associated Press today the Nepalese finance ministry is going to take the King's portrait off all of the country's banknotes.

If Nepal does become a republic it will be the first country to abolish a monarchy since the Island of Mauritius separated from the British crown in 1992. Runner up is Fiji, which separated from the British crown in 1987. Because I, as a Canadian, live under the British crown as well, I know that legally we are supposed to consider Queen Elizabeth to be several different, distinct monarchs, rather than just some sort of imperial mother hen we all share. I don't think many history books will record 1987 as the day the "Fijian monarchy" ended, however.

The last real monarchy to be abolished was the Iranian one, following the 1979 Islamic revolution that deposed the Shah.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Figurehead in trouble

For at least the last year or so the President of Israel, Moshe Katzav, has been at the heart of a number of swirling rumors about his sexual promiscuity. But the accusations not simply embarassing, Clinton-esque shenanigans. A number of Israeli women have actually come forward claiming they were raped by the president and obsessively stalked, though the exact details of the charges have not yet been made public.

Regardless, this undeniably looks bad from a PR perspective, so there have been numerous calls for President Katzav to resign. Like many presidents, he is immune from prosecution so long as he stays in office. He's tried to compromise on the matter by suggesting he may take a temporary "leave of absence" but this cop-out has pleased no one.

Today the Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, called for Mr. Katzav to resign, echoing recent polls which have over 70% of Israelis wanting him to step down.

The President of Israel is a largely useless figurehead position which many Israelis have advocated abolishing over the years. His only real duties are ceremonial, but Mr. Katzav hasn't been doing many of those lately cause no one really wants his blessing anymore.

If Mr. Katzav resigns- or is impeached- the speaker of the Israeli parliament will become acting president. Right now the speaker is Ms. Dalia Itzik, and if she takes office she will become the first female president in Israeli history. Mr. Katzav is the first president in Israeli history to be born outside of either Europe or Israel, having immigrated from Iran in 1950. He was also the first right-wing president, and together he has repeatedly alleged that these two facts have made him a persecuted outsider, earning the ire of the political establishment.

Albert Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel in 1952 but he refused. They stuck his portrait on the Israeli five dollar bill anyway.


The committee of the Israeli legislature charged with addressing the Katzav situation has narrowly voted to temporarily allow the president to step down. This will help him escape the scandal spotlight, but does not affect his overall immunity. Quipped one dissenting lawmaker, "The decision taken today is a prize for a man accused of rape. [...] Instead of finding himself behind bars, this man charged with rape gets a prize of continuing to serve as president."

Ms. Itzik is now Acting President of Israel for three months. But she is only "acting for" Katzav, and thus not full acting president. What's the difference?

Someone is "acting for" an individual when that individual is still legally holding office, but is temporarily not able to exercise the powers of said office, for whatever reason. Vice President Cheney was "acting for" Bush on June 29, 2002, when the president underwent a sedated colonoscopy. Prime Minister Olmert similarly "acted as" prime minister of Israel for several weeks following Ariel Sharon's debilitating stroke and subsequent coma. In Canada Prime Minister Harper's recent cabinet shuffle was formally ratified by a justice of the Supreme Court who was "acting for" the Governor General, while she was on vacation. "Acting for" leaders usually hold office for such brief periods of time they are rarely recorded in official chronologies.

A full "acting" leader, by contrast holds office when the incumbent is completely gone, and full-time replacement is thus needed. For example, if the president dies or is impeached, someone has to be installed immediately afterwards. "Acting" leaders of this sort are recognized as the full head of state and occupy their office permanently, until the situation can be resolved (for example, with fresh elections or what have you). Sometimes you'll also see terms like "interim" or "caretaker" used to describe leaders of this sort.

Olmert is an interesting case study because he went through all three distinct phases. When Sharon had his stroke he was "acting for" the prime minister. Then Sharon was declared permanetly incapacitated, and removed from office. Olmert then became full "acting" PM. And then he won an election and now he's just a plain old democratically-elected prime minister.

Some countries don't like the idea of un-elected people exercising power, so they specifically limit the powers that an acting president who replaces an elected one can have. And some countries, like the United States, don't distinguish the two offices at all. People never refer to Gerald Ford as the "acting president" of the US, even though that's more or less all he was.

Becoming an "acting" leader is often the most exciting moment in the career of a generally sub-par politician. It gives a taste of power to dull individuals who would otherwise never enjoy it. Personally, I have always found it interesting that most countries assign the duties of "second in command" to a rather inconsequential office in the government, though presumably this is done to ensure that in times of crisis the acting president is not an overly ambitious individual.

Sometimes politicians don't like being saddled with the label of "acting" however. New Jersey had an acting governor named Richard Codey who served for over a year. He thought that was long enough to count as a "full" governor so he successfully lobbied the legislature to amend the state constitution. It now declares that any acting governor who serves for over sixth months will be recorded without the "acting" prefix.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Serbia and Madagascar

The calming down of Madagascar

Marc Ravalomanana, the President of Madagascar (pictured here) was sworn in for his second term on Friday. On Saturday he nominated General Charles Rabemananjara, the Army Chief of Staff, as his new prime minister.

Madagascar used to be home to one of the most unusual political situations in the world- a country with two presidents.

It started in 2001 when Mr. Ravalomanana won an election, beating the longtime dictator Admiral Didier Ratsiraka, who had been in power more or less continuously since 1975. But dictators do not go easily, and Mr. Ratsiraka refused to step down. And neither did the other guy. The extreme stubbornness of both men eventually resulted in them both declaring themselves president, and both forming governments. Said the Guardian at the time, "the impasse has left the island with two presidents, two cabinets, two central bank directors, two capitals - and one suffering population."

The madness of two governments continued for about a year, and there was something of a low-intensity civil war between the forces of the two presidents. Admiral Ratsiraka eventually gave up, and fled into exile in France. Ravalomanana was re-elected as sole president in December.

The re-fascisization of Serbia

Serbia is one of the world's newest countries; it broke up with Montenegro in June of last year. Yesterday the nation held its first parliamentary elections since independence.

Historically the Serbians have been a very difficult people to deal with, and their tendency towards extreme nationalism has caused a lot of problems over the last 100 years, from the murder of Franz Ferdinand to the wars of the late 1990's over the status of Kosovo. In recent years their ambitions had been curbed somewhat by the fact that they'd been forced to participate in mutli-ethnic states, first in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and then in the Federation of Serbia and Montenegro. But now that they're all by themselves, they can be as radical as they want to be, and no longer have to compromise with anyone.

And that's partially what seems to be reflected in the result of yesterday's election. The most votes went to the self-declared "Radical Party," who will now hold the plurality of seats in the Serbian reichstag. The party is described as being "extreme right," and was one of the parliamentary coalition partners of the late Sloban Milosevic during his time in power. People forget that Milosevic was democratically elected.

The Radical Party used to be led by Milosevic's vice president, but he was arrested in 2003 and is currently on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity. So now the acting leader is Milosevic's other vice president, Tomislav Nikolić (seen here). He will likely become the new prime minister of Serbia now, unless the other parties in the parliament form some sort of elaborate coalition to keep him out of power.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Last Queen of France

Here's a bizarre little story that has captivated the imaginations of two nations over the last week. Apparently, in 1956 the Prime Minister of France, Guy Mollet, traveled to London to meet with the British PM. The reason? The Frenchies were evidently toying with the idea of "merging" Britain and France into one giant super-nation. Including, according to the Guardian, "the possibility of the Queen becoming the French head of state."

But the plan was rejected for the lunacy it was. Quietly, it seems, for no one really heard about the matter until now. Mollet left office nine months later, and General De Gaulle came to power shortly after.

Obviously what makes the story so odd is that it contradicts everything we know about French pride. Previously, suggestions of merging France and England was something only the English ever talked about in moments of extreme opportunism. Like during the year 1940, when Churchill cynically offered the French government the opportunity to merge rather than face Nazi conquest. The French refused- obviously- seeing the Germans as the lesser of two evils. During the subsequent collaboratist Vichy government, pro-Nazi foreign policy would be justified as a way to undermine Britain imperialism.

Regardless, if Mollet's plan had gone through, and Elizabeth the Second had become Queen of France, she would have not been the first British monarch to enjoy such a title. Indeed, every single British monarch from 1337 to 1801 used the tag "King of France" as one of their many titles. The British did control some French land in the early 15th Century, but lost all of it following the conclusion of the 100 Years War. Their monarchs kept the "King of France" title anyway, just to be stubborn. The charade was only dropped after Britain and Ireland merged at the turn of the 19th Century.

The Current King

Presently, there are four men who all claim to be the king of France.

Henri the Seventh (born 1933) is the heir to the Capet family, them being the ones who got their heads chopped off during the revolution. He was born in Belgium, but moved to France in the 1950's after the French government abolished a law that had previously banned members of the exiled royal family from returning to the country. He's not particularly high-profile, but people generally know who he is, and the French tabloids enjoy covering the antics of his dysfunctional family. He tried to get elected to the European parliament in 2004 but failed.

Louis the Twentith (born 1974) is the rival claimant to the Capet dynasty. His side of the family claims that he is more legitimate than Henri the 7th for reasons which are too complicated and boring to get into here. He was born in Spain and now lives in Venezuela with his Latino bride. Sometimes he visits France. He's a cousin of the present King of Spain, but the Spanish royal family officially shuns him.

Napoleon the Eighth (born 1950) is the eighth successive Napoleon. Formally, he is Napoleon the first's great-great-great nephew. Politically, he is the most successful of the pretend-kings of France. He once served on a city council and is now trying to get elected to the French parliament.

Carlo Alessandro (1952) is an Italian man distantly related to Napoleon the first. The reason why he's Italian is because the Bonaparte family produced a lot of female heirs in the late 20th Century and they all married foreigners. The family of Napoleon VIII doesn't allow females to assume the "throne," but this side does, hence the conflict today. According to Regnal Chronologies, Carlo's aristocratic Italian family is most famous for the fact that they "once ran the post office of the Holy Roman Empire."

Thursday, January 18, 2007


I did not realize until now that I had my blog set to "not allow" anonymous comments. I've changed that now, so if you are keen to respond to something I've written here you no longer need to be a registered Blogger.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Presidential firsts

French Presidency to achieve some sort of milestone

On Sunday France's leading conservative party- the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire- appointed a man named Nicolas Sarkozy as their candidate for the 2007 French Presidential election. The French socialist party has nominated their own candidate as well, one Ms. Segolene Royal.

One of the two will end up as the next president, and the election of either one will be historic for France in some way. Mssr. Sarkozy, as the name suggests, will be the first French president from a non-French background. His father was an immigrant from Hungary. And of course if Ms. Royal is elected she'll be France's first woman president.

But regardless of who gets elected, the next president of France will still be important in a different way- he or she will be the first president born after the Second World War. France is the last of the G7 nations to achieve this milestone.

At present, Japan, Germany, America, Canada, and the United Kingdom are all ruled by men and women born after 1945. Italy had one baby boom prime minister (Massimo D'Alema, 1998-2000) but the current PM, Romano Prodi, was born in 1939.

American Presidency likely to do so as well

Senator Barak Obama
announced he wants to run for President of the United States today. If he gets elected he'll obviously be the first-ever African-American president. If you want to get technical about it, however, he'll actually be the first-ever mixed race president, as his mother was a white woman. Regardless, Obama would also be the first president born in Hawaii (and thus the first president born outside of the continental United States) and the first president with an immigrant parent since Andrew Jackson. Obama's dad was born in Kenya, which has made the senator quite a hero in that country.

Some of America's other leading presidential hopefuls would be interesting "firsts" as well.

If John McCain is elected he, like Obama, will be the first president born outside of the continental United States. But he'll also the first president born outside of the 50 States altogether. McCain was born in the colonially-occupied US Panama Canal Zone of Panama, back when that existed.

If Hillary Clinton wins, she'll be the first woman president, and the first First Lady to become president. This will make the US like most other countries with female leaders, in the sense that Hillary will have come to power partially through her connection to a male relative who was also president. Historically, most female presidents and prime ministers, as well as female governors, have tended to have a father or husband who was also head of state at one time.

If Rudolph Giuliani wins he will technically be the first non Anglo-Saxon president, as he is of Italian descent. Immigrant wise, he'd be less interesting than Obama, but he would still be the first president with immigrant grandparents since Woodrow Wilson.

And then there's good old Mitt Romney. He'd be the first Mormon president, a fact which every media report on him is required to observe in the opening sentence.

Romney has immigrant roots as well, but they are legalistic and complicated. Romney's father was born in Mexico to parents who were US citizens, but they themselves were evidently born in Mexico as well. In the late 19th Century Romney's great-grandparents exiled themselves south of the border to flee the United States and its anti-Mormon ways. The foreign-birth thing caused problems when Romney's father tried to run for president in 1968.

It's obviously early in the US election cycle, but I would say at the moment chances are high that America will elect a president hearty in "first" trivia.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Ecuador? More like Ecua-bore!

Rafael Correa was sworn in as President of Ecuador today. He's another left-winger, but a slightly more moderate one. So he wore a jacket, but no tie.

Señor Correa is something of a martyr figure in his own way. He used to be minister of finance under the old president, at a time when Ecuador's economic situation was very grim. The president, like many-a third-world leader, believed the solution was to implement sweeping neo-liberal reforms to the economy, with greater free trade, privatization, and co-operation with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Correa opposed this agenda, and was either fired or resigned, depending on whose supporters are telling the story.

Ecuador is easily one of the most unstable Latin American countries. Since 1996 there have been eleven presidents and one coup.

The President of Ecuador wears a sash that says "My power comes from the constitution," which I guess is something they feel the president should be reminded of.


Last week I talked about Daniel Ortega's inaugural guestlist. It seemed pretty impressive at the time, but now seems pitiful compared to the all-star cast Señor Correa was able to wrangle together. He got:

Left-wing presidents of Latin America:
  • Evo Morales, President of Bolivia
  • Lula Da Silva, President of Brazil
  • Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile
  • Rene Preval, President of Haiti
  • Daniel Ortega, President of Nicaragua
  • Alan Garcia, President of Peru
  • Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela

Conservaitve presidents of Latin America:

  • Alvaro Uribe, President of Columbia
  • Nicanor Duarte, President of Paraguay

Arab presidents:

  • Mohamed Abdelaziz, President of Western Sahara
  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran

Other celebrities:

  • Felipe, Crown Prince of Spain
  • Gerard Depardieu, legendary French actor

What a turnout! One guest was particularly controversial. Can you guess who? (Hint: it was not Gerard Depardieu)

Country for sale, by owner

This amusing story came to my attention the other day. I don't know if you've ever heard of "Sealand" before, but it's basically an abandoned WW2-era helipad-type thing located in the North Sea. In the late 1960's this structure was seized by a lunatic Brit and his various unattractive family members, who proceeded to proclaim the cement structure a "sovereign country" and themselves as its "royal family."

And for a while it was all quaint and adorable. They issued phony passports and stamps and made their own website and got into legal battles with the British coastguard and all the rest. But as the years went on, the royal family's interest in Sealand slowly declined and after a while no one was really spending much time there anymore. This is probably why the country caught on fire last year, and why they're so eager to sell it now. Just $977 million.

Friday, January 12, 2007

So who's running Bangladesh?

Bangladesh is on-record as being one of the most corrupt countries on the planet. According to Transparency International it's ranked 156th out of 163 on the global corruption scale, surpassed only by collapsed warzones like Haiti and Iraq.

This does not go unnoticed in Bangladesh of course, and over the years there have been attempts to cut down on the corruption. As elections were among the country's most corrupt exercises, in 1991 a reform was introduced to make Bangladeshi elections freer and fairer. To insure that the incumbent party would not commit electoral fraud and abuse the tools of government to keep themselves in power, it was decided that during the months leading up to a national election there would be no incumbent party at all. The Prime Minister would resign, and be replaced by an interim, non-partisan caretaker figure, who would in turn ensure that the government would be run in a completely neutral and peaceful manner during the election, and thus in a way that did not favor the ambitions of any one party over another. He would turn over power only when the certified winner of the election was sworn in.

But, sigh, now the main Bangladeshi opposition party is arguing that the incumbent party has managed to corrupt this process too, by stacking the caretaker regime with individuals loyal to themselves. Elections are supposed to be held in the next couple of weeks, but the opposition has already vowed to boycott the vote.

So the scramble has been on to appoint new, more neutral caretakers to run the government. Ones who can hopefully stop outraged partisans from rioting in the streets, which has evidently been happening a lot lately. A state of emergency was declared the other day.


The outgoing Prime Minister of Bangladesh stepped down in October. Under normal circumstances, the new caretaker is supposed to be chosen by bi-partisan consensus, but in this case the two parties could not agree. So the President of Bangladesh stepped in and made himself interim prime minister, but this did not go over well. Shockingly, the President is himself a politician, and one who the opposition argued was too closely aligned to the incumbents.

Heeding the cries, the prez. resigned as caretaker prime minister yesterday. The youngest retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court then became acting prime minister automatically, in accordance with the constitution. But he is apparently an old geezer who didn't want the job, so he resigned a few hours later (making him a new candidate for this page).

There was a hope that the perhaps the new prime minister could be someone really cool and heroic, who everyone would love. The president tried to talk the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, the famed Bangladeshi "banker to the poor," into taking the job, but he was wise enough to refuse.

So instead the President appointed the country's second-most beloved economist, a guy named Fakhruddin Ahmed (seen here). He's the former governor of the national bank, and is described by the Agence France-Presse as a "Princeton-educated former World Bank employee." For now, both parties seem to accept him. The elections remain delayed indefinitely, however.

"Dueling Divas"

An interesting thing about Bangladesh is that both of the the main political parties are led by women. Women who really hate each other. I particularly like this quote from a TIME magazine story on the country:

Three years ago former U.S. President Jimmy Carter tried to get the two women to shake hands, but neither could bring herself to even look at the other. At a service for Armed Forces Day two months ago the two women sat on a dais with 14 chairs between them. "God forbid that they should talk and work through some issues," says Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, editor of the Bangladesh Observer.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Who's the worst dictator to escape justice?

Little more than two weeks after Saddam Hussein's execution, another notoriously murderous former dictator has been dealt a stiff sentence for his bloody regime. At least in theory.

Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam was the communist dictator of Ethiopia for 17 years, from 1977 to 1990. He came to power following the assassination of the old dictator, who in turn came to power following the murder of the emperor. It's a shame that Mengistu is so forgotten today because he was easily one of the worst tyrants of the 20th Century. There were widespread purges of political enemies, a brutal civil war to suppress the nationalist ambitions of the now-independent state of Eritrea, as well as traditional communist mangling of the economy and agricultural sector, both of which helped to intensify the damage inflicted by one of Africa's worst famines. His overall death count is usually attributed at anywhere from the high tens of thousands to the low hundreds of thousands, and if you factor in the causalities from the famines, civil war, and forced relocations, he can easily be blamed for presiding over at least a million unjustified deaths.

Mengistu was deposed in 1991 by a rebel coalition led by Meles Zenawi, who remains Prime Minister of Ethiopia to this very day. Ethiopia is still not a very free country under him, but at least it's freer. His government put Mengistu and his inner circle on trial for crimes against humanity in 1994, but the proceedings were notoriously slow and bungled, and took 12 years to finish. Today Mengistu was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 2,000 political enemies in 1978.

But wait! As the Associated Press is quick to point out, the colonel is "unlikely to ever spend a day behind bars." This is because shortly after being deposed Mengistu fled to nearby Zimbabwe, where he was welcomed into a posh exile by that country's Marxist dictator, Robert Mugabe. In the years since then Mr. Mugabe has steadfastly refused to extradite Mengistu to face trial, and still refuses to do so, even now that Mengistu is a convicted felon. As Human Rights Watch quipped, "one dictator is protecting another."

Why I don't like Wikipedia

As an aside, I would like to point out just what a raging double-standard in the popular culture there seems to be when it comes to the damnation of dictators. There are some dictators we all remember and hate, while others we quickly forget, or never cared about in the first place.

This may change in the coming days, but as I write this Colonel Mengistu's article on Wikipedia is rather pitiful. It's short, incomplete, and superficial. Only 2,000 words in all. By contrast, when we look at the article for the late General Pinochet of Chile, we see an article over 3,700 words long, with lots of historical background, political analysis, footnotes, links, pictures, etc. In addition, there are several other 2,000+ word articles on the site detailing other aspects of Pinochet's dictatorial career, including his 1973 coup, "Chile under Pinochet," and his subsequent arrest and trial.

Now if we consult a notoriously fair and balanced source of information, such as the "Wonderful World" segment of Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, we can see that Pinochet is at most responsible for the death of 5,000 Chileans. Comparatively speaking, this makes him a rather small fish in the global context, and an especially small fish compared to someone like Mengistu who murdered upwards of three times that number over a shorter period of time.

Yet in the popular culture and the popular imagination of much of the world, it is Pinochet who is remembered as this uniquely horrible monster- one of the worst dictators of all time. In his later years people hated Pinochet so much he couldn't even travel freely because every country in the world wanted to arrest him.

Far be it for me to engage in shallow partisan bashing, but I honestly believe that this particular phenomenon is all the left's fault. Left-wingers always had a particularly intense animosity towards Pinochet for mostly ideological reasons. They hated the fact that he deposed a socialist, they hated that he was an ultra-capitalist right-winger, and they hated that he was supported by Nixon and Kissinger. As he embodied a lot of things the leftist set wanted to rally against, Pinochet's evils became greatly exaggerated for partisan reasons.

The left-wing obsession with Pinochet continued years after he left office, and it continues to play out to this day in sites like Wikipedia, where critics from the United States and elsewhere slavishly seek to research, chronicle, and document every single obscenity perpetuated by his regime. The western media played along with much of this as well, and as a result today the "conventional wisdom" raises us to believe that Pinochet was one of the worst tyrants of the last 100 years.

Pinochet was a egotistical sadist whose regime committed many vicious crimes- of that there can be no doubt. But he will ultimately be little more than a footnote to history, one of many Latin American military despots presiding in an era rife with them. Mengistu was one of many African despots, but his regime was uniquely gruesome, and- in the words of his own country- genocidal on a scale that was extreme even by continential standards. It is an insult to our collective morality, as well as his victims, that we will never recognize him as such.

News relating to Austria

In less polemic news, Alfred Gusenbauer was sworn in as Chancellor of Austria today. He's yet another European social democrat presiding over a weak coalition government resulting from an indecisive election.

Austria is the only country other than Germany that has a "chancellor" as their head of government. Here we see Herr Gusenbauer being ratified by the country's figurehead president.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A good day for the left in Latin America

Chavistas March Forward

Hugo Chavez was sworn in for his third consecutive term as President of Venezuela today.

One of his first major announcements following the inauguration was a call for legislators to amend the constitution so he can run again. Under the present Venezuelan constitution the president is limited to a maximum of three six-year terms. Chavez wants "unlimited" terms, so he can stay in office well beyond his current 2013 deadline. He also wants the Congress to give him the power to enact laws without their consent, or in other words, rule by decree.

People accuse Chavez of being a communist tyrant in the making, and gestures like this don't do much to disprove it.

Chavez has also promised to further entrench socialism in his second term, with the first gesture being the complete nationalization of the country's telephone and electric companies. But these are matters for the higher-brow political commentators to discuss, so we won't get into it here. If you are interested in reading a critique of Chavez from a Venezuelan perspective, I encourage you to read the fine blog "Caracas Chronicles" which offers highly readable commentary on Venezuelan politics (in English!).

Sandinistas too

Chavez did not have much time to get settled after his swearing in, however. He had to high-tail it out of Venezuela and head over to Nicaragua, where his friend was getting sworn in as president of that country. Chavez showed up late, but the Nicaraguans were nice enough to delay the entire ceremony for him. Which just shows where the affinities of the new regime rest.

The new president of Nicaragua is actually the old president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega. His election in November was one of the most dramatic and controversial political comebacks in history.

In 1979 Ortega led a broad-based coup against the regime of the former Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza. Though Ortega himself was a Marxist, his junta was initially non-partisan, and consisted of a variety of high-profile anti-Somoza dissidents. But as the years went on Ortega consolidated more and more power for himself (he upgraded from "junta co-ordinator" to president in 1985 and wrote a new constitution in 1987), and moved the Nicaraguan government in a radical leftist, Cuban-style direction. This prompted the breakdown of his alliance, and eventually led to full-on civil war between Ortega-led Marxist militias (the "Sandinistas") and armed gangs of political dissidents (the "Contras").

This being the Cold War, the United States backed the dissidents, while the Cubans and Soviets supported Ortega's people. Thousands died in the violence, and under pressure Ortega held presidential elections in 1990, which he lost to one of his former junta members, Violeta Chamorro.
Ortega did not go quietly into the night, however. He restructured his Sandinistas into a democratic political party and led an effective political opposition to the Chamorro government, and her two successors. The Sandinistas held the plurality of seats in the Nicaraguan parliament for much of the 1990-2006 period, which ensured continued influence in the lawmaking process. Ortega himself contested every presidential election, and though he was never successful, he remained a popular figure and always had a strong showing.

Then in November of 2006 Ortega's dream finally came true, and he was narrowly elected back to the presidency with 38% of the popular vote.

All this puts the Bush administration in a weird place. Nicaragua and the US are now close allies, but how do you justify friendly relations with a president whom Republicans previously spent untold millions trying to overthrow? Mainstream observers are now playing up Ortega's newfound "moderation." Since 1990, the man has slowly evolved towards the political center, becoming less of a Castroite Marxist and more of a pragmatic social democrat. He seems to have had something of a religious awakening as well. A few months ago his party supported a super-strict anti-abortion bill, with terms far harsher than anything that even the most fanatical Republican could ever hope of getting away with.

A good line summarizing the careers of both Chavez and Ortega can be found in this article by the UK Guardian:

Mr Chavez, a social democrat turned US-bashing communist revolutionary, had a plane waiting to whisk him to the Nicaraguan capital to congratulate Mr Ortega, a US-bashing communist revolutionary turned social democrat.
Trivia time

1. Ortega's homies

One fun thing about inaugurations is that they tend to attract a high-profile audience. Along with Chavez, Ortega managed to get a number of heads of state and almost-heads of state to attend his big to-do. Each guest projects his own symbolic relevance:
  • Felipe, Crown Prince of Spain- historic friendship, Felipe is the heir to the throne of the nation that originally colonized Nicaragua.

  • Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Alvaro Uribe of Colombia- ideological allies, showing left-wing solidarity across the continent

  • President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan- Nicaragua is one of about two dozen small countries that recognizes the government of Taiwan as the legitimate government of China. For this, the Taiwanese are eternally grateful.

2. Pinko tide

With Ortega now formally in power, the much ballyhooed leftist sweep of Latin America continues. Only a couple countries in that part of the world are still ruled by center-right parties, while all the most important ones remain firmly in the hands of left-wingers of varying stripes.

I've made a handy map which charts who's ruled by who, which you can see at the right here. The map will stay static for a little while, there aren't going to be any presidential elections in Latin America until the fall of 2007.

3. The end of neckties

For as long as there have been neckties there have been those who have denounced them as stuffy, uncomfortable symbols of snobbishness and corporate conformity. As more and more super-populist anti-establishment men continue to take power around the world, we are beginning to witness a rather interesting revolution in political dress.

At one time, it would have gone without saying that a Latin American president would wear a solemn suit and tie ensemble to his national inauguration. But Ortega just wore a loose white dress shirt and slacks, as you can see in the photo above. 30 years ago that would have been the height of disrespect, but today such under-dressing just shows off what a true man of the people you are.

Ortega will join the ranks of other notable non-tie wearing world leaders around the globe, including:

Monday, January 8, 2007

From the country of Borat...

The Prime Minister of Kazakhstan resigned today because the president had grown tired of him. In many authoritarian countries the prime minister is merely a lackey of the dictator, a sort of bureaucrat-in-chief with few political responsibilities other than enforcing the president's will. And Kazakhstan is no different. As the Associated Press tells us, the Kazakhstani president "regularly replaces his prime ministers as he tries to secure his position and balance interests of various powerful elite groups." In the 15 years since Kazakhstan separated from the Soviet Union they've gone through six prime ministers in all.

Only one president though. Since 1989 Kazakhstan has been ruled by Nursultan Nazarbayev (pictured here looking particularly radiant). It's the usual story, he used to run the local wing of the Communist Party when Kazakhstan was still a Soviet province, then when they broke away he seamlessly transitioned into the president of an independent country. Much like the late Mr. Turkmenbashi next door.

In recent years many of "the 'stans" have witnessed peaceful democratic revolutions which have deposed several of these former Communist czars-cum-presidents. There was the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, and most famously of all, the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. This democratic tide has proven to be something of a double-edged sword, however. As unrest sweeps the former Bloc, the remaining dictators are resorting to increasingly harsh clampdowns to ensure that the spread doesn't cross their borders. The rulers of Kazakhstan, along with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, can now legitimately justify the widespread jailing of dissidents and censorship of media in a way they never could before.

President Nazarbayev is expected to appoint a new prime minister shortly.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Turkmenistan in transition

Next to Kim Jong Il, there was no dictator the world loved to hate more than Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov. The grotesquely eccentric president of Turkemenistan was known across the planet chiefly for his panache for the absurd, building colossal golden statutes of himself, outlawing ballet, and renaming bread after his dead mother, among other things.

But now he's dead, and the party is over. In his place, the nation's former health minister, the painfully named Gubanguly Berdymukhammedov (seen at right) has awkwardly assumed the presidency. The constitution had to be changed twice to allow it, but that's the way Turkmenistan works.

Mr. Berdymukhammedov was deputy prime minister under Turkmenbashi (who was both president and prime minister, naturally) yet few people seem to have heard of him until now. Articles from western journalists that attempt to profile the man make liberal use of words like "unknown" and "mysterious," such as this one in Forbes, "Turkmenistan's new leader little-known."

Other than the fact that he was health minister for one of the world's most unhealthy nations, one thing we do know about the new president is that he managed to have a rather lengthy career in Turkmenbashi's cabinet without ever being fired or murdered. This suggests the former dictator must have had an unusually high level of affinity for him, and according to this blogger, people in eastern Europe are now gossiping that Berdymukhammedov may be Turkmenbashi's illegitimate bastard-child.

Anyway, Turkmenistan has now decided that they're going to go through the motions of a presidential election, tentatively scheduled for February 11. Along with Berdymukhammedov, five candidates from Turkmenistan's only legal political party have been approved. An opposition guy apparently wanted to run too, but it looks like they've taken care of him in a hurry.

Lest we get too excited, Radio Free Europe gives us a history of elections in Turkmenistan:

"Since gaining independence in 1991, Turkmenistan held one presidential election, in June 1992, when President Niyazov ran unopposed and officially received 99.5 percent of the vote."

Friday, January 5, 2007


So who's running Somalia?

Whenever Somalia is in the news, as it has been a fair bit recently, the media is always quick to inform us that the country "has no central government." Ever since the fall of the longtime dictator Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has been a mess of war, chaos, and anarchy.

But that doesn't mean the country has no politicians! There was an interesting editorial in the National Post today explaining how the region of Africa our atlases recognize as the single country of "Somalia" is actually governed by three distinct regimes.

They are:

#1- The Transitional Federal Government of the Republic of Somalia is a gang of politicians, mostly western-educated and funded, who, in 2004, created a pluralistic, peaceful government-in-exile with the hope that they may one day assume full control of their country. The TFG has a 275-member parliament with appointed representatives of all of Somalia's major tribes.

In October of 2004 this transitional parliament appointed former warlord Abdullahi Yusuf as their president. He was inaugurated in Kenya, and finally went back to Somalia in June of 2005.

Initially the transitional government was regarded as a bit of a joke. The UN recognized it as the legitimate government of Somalia, but everyone knew they had little influence over the country itself. Very few countries have diplomatic relations with Mr. Yusuf's gang. Most are satisfied to just declare that Somalia "has no government" and leave it at that. Perhaps they are a bit fatigued. According to the CIA, the TFG is the 15th consecutive attempt at establishing an inclusive, interim Somali government since 1991.

Things have changed recently, however. Ethiopia invaded Somalia last month, and drove a gang of Islamist warlords, known as the Islamic Courts Union, out of the capital city. The Ethiopians back the TFG, and on December 30 President Yusuf was escorted into the capital as well. He hopes to stay as long as possible, and start consolidating control, but the historical track record of such endeavors is not good.

#2- Somaliland is not a theme-park, but rather the largest, and most successful independent regime operating within the former Somalia.

Before Somalia became an independent country in 1960, it was two separate colonies, one British, one Italian. The two regions had a tense relationship even after the merger, however, and following the political breakdown in 1991, the former "British Somaliland" declared itself independent.

There have been three presidents of this new "Republic of Somaliland." The current one is Dahir Riyale Kahin. Unlike the rest of the country, Somaliland is actually a fairly peaceful and cohesive place.
Freedom House notes that Mr. Kahim's 2003 election was declared to be "free and fair" by international observers. They also have a multi-party legislature.

But the international community believes Somali unity is what's most important, and as a result Mr. Kahim and his government are ignored by most of the world and have diplomatic relations with no one.

#3- Puntland is the other major centrally-governed territory of Somalia, but in contrast to Somaliland, it's a much more typical example of what you would expect a rebel-run territory to be like. In 1998 members of Somalia's Darod tribe declared their Puntland region to be an "autonomous state" within a unified Somalia, and since then it's successfully been governed more or less independently. Though I often think "independent from what?"

The President of Puntland is General Adde Musse. Their government is not democratic at all, and is controlled entirely by tribal elders and military warlords. General Musse is the second-ever president, the first one was Abdullahi Yusuf, who you may remember is now the leader of the transitional government. Yusuf ran Puntland like a tyrant, refusing to step down after losing an election, and using mercenary forces to stay in power. This is why he is a fairly controversial fellow today, and why some are skeptical as to whether or not he is truly the best guy to lead Somalia into a bright and sunny tomorrow.

State funeral watch

Marais Viljoen, the man who was President of South Africa from 1979 to 1984 died yesterday at age 91. If you've never heard of him before it's because he ruled during a period in which the South African presidency was a powerless, ceremonial office. The position was created in 1961 to replace the office of Governor General when the country separated from the British crown and became a republic. Mr. Viljoen is historically notable because he was the last president of this sort. In 1984 Prime Minister P.W. Botha dramatically overhauled the South African constitution, merging the positions of PM and President into a single, executive presidency which he then assumed himself.

Botha died last year, which means there are now only three living presidents of South Africa left, whom you can see at the right.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

The first fresh faces of two-thousand and seven

United States- Women edge closer to the presidency

Today is inauguration week in the United States, meaning various politicians of all stripes are being sworn into office.

Most notable of these is of course Nancy Pelosi, who is now America's first-ever female Speaker of the House of Representatives. Unlike many other countries, where the House Speaker is often an unknown, unimportant politician who does little more than call roll and tell people to sit down, in the US the Speaker is the de facto leader of the legislative branch. A deeply partisan figure, he or she is perhaps the closest thing the United States has to a Prime Minister.

As the first woman Speaker, Pelosi is now also the highest-ever ranking female in the US order of presidential succession, the legal list which chronicles in what order people assume the presidency following the death of both Bush and Cheney. Previously, the highest-ranking woman in American history had been Secretary of State Condi Rice, at position number four. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright was never in the order of succession because she was an immigrant, and thus banned from assuming the presidency.

Inauguration week around the world

A number of other leaders have come to power in the first few days of the new year, too.

Ban Ki-Moon, the former South Korean foreign minister, has now formally assumed office as Secretary General of the United Nations. He was sworn in on New Year's day.

So was Micheline Calmy-Rey, the new President of Switzerland. She is that country's second-ever female president, and may also win the prize for most garish hairstyle presently worn by a world leader.

The Swiss president holds office for exactly one year, and the job rotates between cabinet ministers. As the Swiss government prides itself on collective decision-making, the president is not a very powerful individual. "The first among equals" as they say. If you can speak French, check out President Calmy-Rey's new snappy website.

With Switzerland now under female-rule, the total number of countries with female leaders is now 13. According to my estimates, this is the most female leaders the world has ever had, but it's happened twice before. If one more comes to power, now that will be truly unprecedented.

So who's running Fiji?

The aftermath of Fiji's December 5th military coup continues to be worked out at the political level.

Yesterday, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who had been serving as the nation's military head of state since the coup, agreed to cede the presidency of Fiji back to Ratu Josefa Iloilo, the man he deposed.

CNN describes President Iloilo as "an ageing and ailing figurehead who is rarely seen in public." But true power will not rest with him, of course. In exchange for being restored, Iloilo agreed to appoint the Commodore (right) as Prime Minister, and he was sworn in today. "In all things, I will be a true and faithful prime minister," quipped the unelected military despot.

He's "called for" a return to democracy and free elections, but as usual, no specific dates have been given.