Thursday, June 28, 2007

New Chiefs

Prime Minister Brown. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Let's all get used to saying those phrases, since as of yesterday the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the Right Honorable J. Gordon Brown.

There's no formal or public inauguration ceremony in the UK. The transfer of power is actually quite informal.

Prime Minister Blair woke up, and went to parliament. There was one final session of "question period" where the members were able to ask him some departing questions. When that ended, he was then driven over to Buckingham palace, where he met with Queen Elizabeth, and informed her that he was resigning the office of Prime Minister, effective immediately. Now a private citizen, Blair left the place and went to his summer cottage in the British countryside.

The Queen then phoned Gordon Brown, who has been leader of the Labour Party (which holds the majority of seats in the parliament) for the last little while. She asked him to come to the palace, and he complied. Meeting him in the throne room, the Queen told Brown that based on his leadership role in the parliament she was officially appointing him Prime Minister. And thusly it was set.

Queen Elizabeth has participated in this secretive ceremony 11 times since she came to the throne in 1952.

And the rest...

Mr. Brown's ascension (or rather Mr. Blair's departure- who knows how long Mr. Brown will rule for) will obviously go down as one of the most important stories of the year. But other people were coming to power too! We can't forget them!

Like Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi, who became the Supreme Chief of the Islands of Samoa on June 20. A respected statesman and career politician of over four decades, he was elected unanimously by parliament.

Mr. Efi is the son of Tupua Tamasese Mea'ole, a man who very briefly served as Samoa's joint Head of State before dying in office in 1962, leaving the recently departed Chief Malietoa Tanumafili the Second to rule alone until his death in 2007.

Mr. Efi also served as Prime Minister from 1976 to 1982. Though he comes from an elite tribal family, Efi will be the first republican ruler of Samoa. Following Chief Malietoa's death, the country ceased to be a monarchy and the job of Supreme Chief became an elected position. Mr. Efi will serve a five year term, ruling in a largely symbolic capacity until 2012.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Palestine and Peru

Coup in Palestine

It was coup against coup this week in the Territories of Palestine. Or something.

The Palestinian lands are governed as a constitutional republic, with a strong president and a prime minister chosen from an elected legislature. It used to be a one-man show under the late Mr. Arafat, but the western powers pressured him to liberalize, and thus a democratic constitution was cobbled together.

But the democracy backfired rather spectacularly last year, as we all know. The Hamas party, which is an openly terrorist organization that vows to wage perpetual war against the filthy Jew, was elected to a majority in the Palestinian parliament. President Mahmood Abbas was thus forced to honor the will of the voters, and appointed Hamas leader Ismail Haniya as prime minister.

But Palestinian politics is not terribly sophisticated, and bi-partisan cohabitation between executive and legislative branches was not embraced as... maturely as we may have hoped.

Earlier this week Hamas thugs took control of the President's office in the Gaza Strip and filed through his belongings in a comical manner. The President himself fled to the West Bank, and on June 14 he announced that Prime Minister Haniya was being fired for insubordination. Abbas also dissolved parliament and declared martial law, with himself henceforth ruling by decree. The next day he hastily appointed Salam Fayyad as the new PM. Mr. Fayyad is an American-educated diplomat who had previously been finance minister in the Hamas government, even though he himself was not a member of the party.

But Haniya has not accepted his firing. According to a Hamas spokesman:

“Lawfully, the Haniya government is still the legal Palestinian government, and it will continue its activities in all areas and will remain in power until the formation of a new government by the Palestinian legislative assembly.”
So now we have a good old fashioned case of feuding regimes! President Abbas is stuck in the West Bank and Haniya is stuck in the Gaza Strip, but both claim to be the sole ruler of all of Palestine. Of course this kind of thing tends to happen in any politically polarized nation where the nation's territories are so ridiculously geographically divided, as we see on this map:

If trends continue we might end up with two Palestines. A house divided against itself cannot stand, someone once said.

Fujimori back in the news

Now here's an interesting story.

The most successful immigrant politician in world history is probably Alberto Fujimori. His parents were both immigrants from Japan who immigrated to Peru in the 1930's. Despite being a racial minority, Alberto became a very successful politician, and in 1990 was elected President. But he was crooked and wicked and ruled as a tyrant.

In 2000 there was a crooked election, which Fujimori claimed to win, but the public rejected. There were big protests, and Fujimori fled Peru and went to Japan, faxing his resignation to the Congress from Tokyo.

Fujimori never returned to Peru, largely in order to escape legal persecution for various crimes committed during his time in office. Now, apparently, he wants to run for a seat in the Japanese Senate.

I would be cautious if I was the Japanese.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Elections and Deaths

First Israel

You may recall my coverage of the tribulations of the former President of Israel, Mr. Moshe Katzav. Plagued by scandal, Mr. Katzav stepped into a permanent state of suspension from his political duties, which led to the rise of Ms. Dalia Itzik as Israeli's first female president (albeit an "acting" one).

Well the Katzav/Itzik term is coming to a close now, which means a successor needed to be chosen. And chose they did. Yesterday the Israeli parliament voted 86 to 34 to make Shimon Peres the next president.

The 83-year-old Mr. Peres is the longest-serving politician in Israeli history, and one of the most famous and successful as well. He has served in virtually every job of note over the last four decades. His resume is as follows:

Member of Parliament- 1959-present
Absorption Minister- 1969-1970
Transportation Minister- 1970-1972
Information Minister- 1972-1974
Defense Minister- 1974-1977
Acting Prime Minister- 1977
Interior Minister- 1984
Prime Minister- 1984-1986
Foreign Minister- 1986-1988
Finance Minister- 1988-1990
Foreign Minister- (second time) 1992-1995
Prime Minister- (second time) 1995-1996
Defense Minister- (second time) 1995-1996
Regional Development Minister- 1999-2000
Foreign Minister- (third time) 2000-2002
Vice Prime Minister- 2006-2007

Despite this impressive track record, Mr. Peres has something of a reputation as a political loser in Israel. He succeeded to the office of Prime Minister on three separate occasions, following resignations or assassinations of incumbents. But every single time he got the job he ended up being thrown out shortly after by voters, once the time came to run for re-election. In the year 2000 he similarly attempted to run for the Israeli presidency, but lost to Mr. Katsav, in a defeat that marked the first time a left-winger had lost the vote in decades.

But now Mr. Peres has finally won vindication, and his first-ever national mandate. He will take office on July 15.

Peres' ascension to the Israeli presidency means that the world will now have three Nobel Peace Prize winners serving as heads of state. Mr. Peres won the prize in 1994 along with with (cough) Yasser Arafat for negotiating the Olso Accords. Who are the other two? Read this post.

Second Belgium

Guy Verhofstadt has tenured his resignation as Prime Minister of Belgium. The move came, according to the Associated Press "one day after a general election in which conservatives — led by Christian Democrats — dealt his Socialist-Liberal coalition a stunning defeat."

Belgium is a very complicated country, politically speaking. Two years ago I went there and visited their parliament and collected lots of free brochures explaining how their system works.

The country is basically two countries in one, a French region and a Dutch region. The terms the Belgians use to describe these regions and their people can be confusing, since they rarely use the terms "French" and "Dutch." Here is the guide:

And here is what the country looks like, when divided ethnically:

These two regions are very independent from each other, making the idea of a "pan-Belgian" national identity or national interest a source of much debate. Politically, Belgian voters elect parties that represent both their ethnic community and their political ideology, but never simply the latter. So there is a French conservative party, a Dutch conservative party, a French socialist party, a Dutch socialist party, etc etc. Over eight parties in the parliament in all, at any given time.

King Albert the Second is the constitutional monarch of the country, and following an election he formally appoints a politician to negotiate a coalition government from among the mess of political parties. They say the likeliest coalition at this point will be a conservative-liberal alliance between the parliament's centrist and right-wing parties. The government will in turn be likely headed by the happy man on the right, Mr. Yves Leterme, leader of the conservative-Dutch party. The Dutch part of Belgium is bigger, so for the last three decades the PM has always been Flemish.
One must morn the defeat of Prime Minister Verhofstadt, though, if for no other reason than it means we will no longer be able to enjoy his delightfully quirky "Guy 4 Kids" page, which features cartoons of the Prime Minister as an anthropomorphic rabbit-

Only Half-Decent President in Somali History Dies

Somalia clearly has been, with all due respect, a bullet-riddled hellhole for quite some time now. But there was a time- a very brief time- when it was a semi-livable place.

Adan Abdulle Osman was a nationalist politician when Somalia was still ruled by the British and Italians. He lobbied hard for independence, and when that day came in 1960 he was elected as independent Somalia's first president. He was a Marxist, however, and tried to push Somalia down a course of closer relations with the Communist world. Despite the fact, Osman remained a democrat. In 1967 he ran for re-election but lost to the pro-western candidate, Abdirashid Ali Shermarke. Osman stepped down gracefully in defeat, something very, very few African leaders of that era were ever willing to do. Two years into Mr. Shermake's presidency a rebellious Marxist general named Siad Barre staged a coup, and it's been downhill since then.

Osman lived in Somalia for the remainder of his life, eventually emerging as a critic of the Barre regime, a crime for which he would be imprisoned until the dictator's death in 1995.
Osman himself died on the eighth, at 99 years old. Whether or not people agreed with his politics, it was hard not to look on his presidency as a time of stability, pride, and optimism for the country and its future. Adjectives which have been in short supply ever since.

Austrian Nazi Statesman / UN Bureuacrat Dies As Well

Also dying this week as Kurt Waldheim, one of the most controversial political figures of the 20th Century. I'll just summarize his life.
Kurt was an Austrian, born in 1918. In 1938 his country was annexed by Nazi Germany, to the delight of most Austrians. As a young patriot, Waldheim joined the Austrian branch of the Nazi Party, then was drafted into the German Army.
Waldheim rose to the rank of ordnance officer and served under the infamous General Alexander Lohr, who led the Nazi campaign of terror in Yugoslavia. Several thousand Balkan Jews were deported to death camps during this period of German occupation.

When the war ended Waldheim tried to distance himself from his Nazi past in order to help his political career. When the matter was brought up, he began a policy of lying, and claimed that he was never in Yugoslavia, having dropped out of the army in 1941.

The post-war Austrian government gave him a string of diplomatic jobs, including Ambassador to Canada. In the 1960's he was elected to the Austrian parliament as a conservative, and in 1968 the chancellor appointed him minister of foreign affairs. He served the position with distinction, then resigned in 1970 to run for President. He lost, but then shortly after he put his name forth to run for Secretary General of the United Nations.

Waldheim was elected as UN Chief in 1971 and served until 1981, at which point his bid for a third-term was vetoed by the Chinese government who wanted a non-western Secretary General.

Kurt returned to Austrian politics after leaving the UN. He ran for president again in 1986 and won. By this time, however, people were starting to get more and more suspicious about Mr. Waldheim's personal history. He released his memoirs in 1980, "The Challenge of Peace," but a lot of people who knew him as a young man began to come forward and claim that some parts of his autobiography were clearly dishonest, particularly anything about his role in the Nazi military. It became a big media scandal.

The Austrian government eventually established a commission to investigate the President's Nazi past, and in 1988 they concluded that Waldheim clearly had been in Yugoslavia during the war, and almost certainly knew about the atrocities that were being committed under General Lohr. There was no evidence that the President himself was a war criminal, however.
This controversy gained world-wide attention, and many countries were deeply embarrassed for having supported or defended Mr. Waldheim during his tenure at the United Nations. During his presidency Austia was largely shunned by much of the world, and he was never invited to any summits or state visits. Except in the Arab world, where he was popular. Take that as you will.

Waldheim left the presidency in 1992, and spent the rest of his life trying to apologize and clarify. He was a complicated figure, and much of his life will forever remain a mystery now that he's dead. His life brought forth a number of debates about guilt, historical guilt, and especially guilt-by-association. He was never an evil man, but his attempts to do good were always haunted by a past he could not escape, no matter how hard he tried.

There is a series of popular Christian novels called "Left Behind" in which an ambitious Austrian politician rises through the ranks to become President of Earth, and is then revealed to be the anti-Christ. He is clearly based on Waldheim.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Prime Ministers Round-up

Time for another edition of "Prime Ministers Round-up" where we look at the various inconsequential men who have recently become powerless prime ministers of their nations.

Prime Minister Paramanga Ernest Yonli of the Republic of Burkina Faso resigned on June 3. The move came a day after parliamentary elections in that country dealt a blow to his party's standings, and increased the standings of the ruling "Democracy and Progress" party. I am not sure how Mr. Yonli became Prime Minister in the first place, but he'd been in power since 2000.

On June 4 the longer-reigning President of Burkina Faso appointed the nation's Ambassador to the United States, His Excellency Tertius Zongo, as the new prime minister. According to the Associated Press:
The decree appointing Zongo as prime minister, read on national television, provided no further information.

On June 7 Seyni Oumarou became Prime Minister of Niger. The old Prime Minister, Hama Amadou, was impeached by a non-confidence motion in the parliament on August 31. Mr. Amadou's government was accused of embezzling millions of dollars from the education budget to line the pockets of certain cabinet ministers. So he had to go.

The parliament then put forward a list of names for possible replacements, and the President of Niger appointed his favorite, who turned out to be Mr. Oumarou, the former "minister of equipment." I wonder what such a minister does..

Lastly, in an event I should have recorded much earlier, the Prime Minister of the Caribbean isle of St. Luca, Sir John Compton, had a heart attack in May sometime, and was hospitalized in New York City. Stephenson King, the Deputy PM, has been acting Prime Minister ever since. It's quite sad, because Mr. Compton was only elected in December, so he hasn't had a chance to do much.

That's all I can report for now, unfortunately.