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.


Anonymous said...

Thought it was a Romanian in left behind?

Anonymous said...

Where did you read that Aden Adde was a Marxist? This is news to me.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the Left Behind guy is Nicolae Carpathia, who is Romanian. As I understood it, he was just supposed to be a charismatic leader and the antichrist to somehow show that internationalism is the work of the devil. I don't think it was supposed to be a reference to any historical figure.

Ron said...

This loser is now president,

Israel is sure showing to be on a slippery slope :S