Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Short, bespectacled gentleman placed in charge of Asian nation

The Japanese got a new Prime Minister yesterday. Yasuo Fukuda was appointed leader of the ruling Liberal Party on Sunday, and was then officually confirmed to office by a vote of the parliament on Monday.

Fukuda was the longtime chief secretary of the cabinet under the fomrer Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, which is a very important job in the Japanese system. So his promotion was widely anticipated.

Other than that, uh... the news reports say he's a "moderate," and he was the son of former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, who ruled for a couple years in the 1970's.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sierra Leone

Not much in the news lately. It's been a slow couple of weeks. So I'll just ramble on a bit about Sierra Leone, a country I've been studying a bit recently.

They got a new president last Monday. Longtime opposition party leader Ernest Bai Koroma was sworn in a few weeks after he achieved a solid victory over the ruling party candidate.

Sierra Leone is a former British colony in Africa with a predictably turbulent and tragic political history.

The country achieved independence in 1961. Its first prime ministers were two brothers, Sir Milton Margai and Sir Albert Margai. Then in 1967, Sir Albert, the younger one, lost his bid for re-election to Siaka Stevens and his "All Peoples' Congress" Party. It was the first time in history that an African government had lost a bid for re-election. People hoped it would also be the first peaceful transition of power.

Sir Albert didn't want to give up power, though, so he asked the army to stage a coup to keep himself in office. But the army had plans of their own. They did the coup, but exiled Sir Albert.

A counter-coup later deposed the army, who has governed for about a year. The democratically-elected Mr. Stevens was installed to the office he had rightly earned.

But then Stevens turned into a tyrant. He removed Queen Elizabeth as head of state and made himself executive president, ending Sierra Leone's record as the longest-running black African country to remain under the British monarchy. He also banned all political parties and suppressed most civil liberties. Not a particularly violent regime, though, which by Sierra Leone's low standards means Mr. Stevens is now remembered as a gentle statesman.

Stevens resigned in 1986 and his vice president replaced him. In 1992, just as the country was starting to liberalize, the new guy was overthrown by the military, and once again a junta government came to power.

The new military regime lasted much longer than the first one, from 1992 to 1996. The presidency was abolished and all power was concentrated in the hands of a "Council of State" headed by Captain Valentine Strasser.

As the years went on, the nation spiraled into death, turmoil, and civil war. The military regime was incredibly harsh, and backed roaming militias who kept the citizenry in line with random kidnappings, torture, and public executions. Charles Taylor, the kleptocratic dictator of next-door Liberia, made things worse by funding a terrorist group known as the Revolutionary United Front in an attempt to destabilize the regime for his own power interests. The RUF was well-known for recruiting child soldiers, which earned the scorn of much of the world.

In 1996 Captain Strasser was overthrown by a more moderate captain named Julius Bio, who announced a return to democracy. Free elections were held, and the newly-elected civilian president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah quickly moved to sign a peace treaty with the RUF, and end the fighting.

But then, sigh, President Kabbah was overthrown a few months later by rebel officer Major Johnny-Paul Koroma, who was a supporter of the RUF. He tried to bring back military rule, but by now much of the world had tuned into Sierra Leone's plight. The UN security council and most African states in the region slapped harsh sanctions on his regime and refused to recognize it. Defeated, Johnny-Paul soon agreed to step down and restore President Kabbah.

Tony Blair then deployed 1,500 British troops to Sierra Leone to defend Kabbah and the capital city from further rebel insurrections. The Brits in turn trained the police and a restructured army, purged of trouble-makers. For this, Mr. Blair is much beloved in the country.

The restored Mr. Kabbah remained in power until this month, when elections were held to pick his successor. Though far more legitimate than the military kooks before him, Kabbah was generally regarded as corrupt and incompetent—not the strong leader many had hoped for. So now we have Mr. Koroma in power, and he promises to do things differently.

We'll see... we'll see.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Prime Ministers Wrap-up

Heir Made Apparent

President Putin of Russia fired his Prime Minister today. Mikhail Fradkov had been in power since 2004, but will now be replaced by Victor Zubkov (seen on the right), the obscure director of some sort of anti-corruption department. The move has been analyzed as Putin's last-minute attempt to groom an hier. Presidential elections are scheduled for this coming March, but Putin has so far declined to endorse any of the declared candidates.

The Prime Minister's office is a natural stepping stone to the presidency. If Mr. Putin resigns before his term ends, Prime Minister Zubkov will automatically become president. Being the incumbent president as well as Mr. Putin's choice will make him virtually unbeatable in a popular election. Putin, a former prime minster, was himself catapulted to power through the exact same process, back when Boris Yeltsin resigned prematurely in 1999.

No one really knows who Mr. Zubkov is, which will likely have all the world's intelligence departments scrambling to do research in the next couple of days. The main thing we know is that he's a loyal friend of Putin's from way back, which brings with it obvious conclusions.

The Russian Prime Ministership is not a strong post, and the men who hold the office are appointed by the president to help guide his legislative agenda through the parliament. Rather akin to the Prime Minister of France. Putin was much better at managing his PMs than Boris Yeltsin. In his 1999 to 2007 term, Mr. Zubkov will be only Putin's fourth. Mr. Yeltsin went through nine, including a botched attempt to appoint himself PM.

Japan Resumes Proud Tradition of Instability

Junichiro Koizumi was Prime Minister of Japan from 2001 to 2006. He was popular and charismatic, and was re-elected a couple of times, staying in power for a total of five-and-a-half years. The longest-serving Prime Minister since Eisaku Sato, who ruled for seven years from 1964 to 1972.

The cutthroat nature of Japanese party politics, coupled with the culturally-ingrained Japanese impulse to resign whenever anything goes wrong, has ensured that Japanese PMs tend to have very brief shelf lives, as I have chronicled on this chart here: http://www.filibustercartoons.com/japan.htm

As you can see, there have been 25 in all since 1948, with 10 of those serving a year or less.

When Koizumi resigned last year, the all-powerful and always-in-power Japanese Liberal Party appointed cabinet minister Shinzo Abe to replace him.

Japanese prime ministers are not extremely powerful figures- a deliberate result of Japan's anti-authoritarian post-war constitution. More than anything else, they act as a voice and a face for the government-of-the-day. That's why Koizumi-san was so popular, he was a great communicator and a lovable man.

True power in Japan lies with the party bosses. Even though the Liberals have been in power more or less continually for the last five decades, their vast party is a mess of competing factions and interests, and any PM has to walk a delicate line to appease them all. They all make their conflicting demands, and the prime minister can either formulate some compromise, or get non-confidence voted out of power and give someone else a shot.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago there were elections for the Japanese Senate, and the Japanese Liberal Party lost its majority there in a stunning upset. This was of course shameful for Abe-san, so people called on him to resign.

And yesterday he announced that he would. Almost exactly one year in power. The Liberals will now have to scramble and find someone else for the job, though when precisely the transition will take place is not currently known.

Other Prime Minister Dies

A while ago I mentioned that John Compton, the Prime Minister of Saint Luca, had a stroke, and was incapacitated. Well he sadly passed away earlier this week. The Governor-General promoted Stephenson King, who had been running the small Caribbean county as acting prime minister since May, to full prime minister.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Who's running Bangladesh Part II

Things have really gone to pot in Bangladesh since I last covered the affairs in that country back in January.

To summarize quickly, Bangladesh has a quirk in their constitution where the prime minister is supposed to resign immediately before elections to make way for an interim PM, who is in turn supposed to preside over the government during the election cycle and thus prevent corruption.

After much in-fighting, Fakhruddin Ahmed was eventually appointed interim PM. He was a distinguished technocrat who was supposed to provide calm, neutral governance so elections could be held. But unfortunately he's turned into a bit of a tyrant over the last few months.

Although to be fair the country he inherited was hardly stable. Following the political breakdown that resulted in his appointment, Bangladesh was crippled with partisan strikes and political riots. Everyone was accusing each other of corruption, and the looming election looked like it was destined to be a violent nightmare.

Ahmed declared a state of emergency shortly after taking power, and the army pledged loyalty to him. Partisan activities were banned, and the leaders of both major political parties were arrested, as were numerous student activists and other political agitators. And of course the elections were cancelled, which in turn meant parliament was suspended indefinitely.

The president of Bangladesh, Iajuddin Ahmed (no relation), has been rather sidelined during all of this. But now he's in the news because his term was scheduled to end on Wednesday. In the Bangladeshi system the president is elected by parliament, but since there's no parliament, there can be no election. So President Ahmed said "fine, I'll just hang around then."

The interim Prime Minister says he still plans to hold elections before 2008, but the clock is rapidly ticking. And with everyone and everything of political relevance either banned or in jail, it's hard to see how the country is in any sort of shape for a democratic exercise.

The interim Prime Minister and his army backers.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Jamaica, land we love

In the last couple of months I've often made particular notice of women leaders coming to power. But of course coming to power is only one side of the equation. Being kicked out of power is all part of the equality game, too!

Just ask Mrs. Portia Simpson-Miller, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, who was booted from office in an election yesterday.

Jamaica, many people are surprised to learn, used to have white Prime Ministers until very recently. See, check out this gallery (click to enlarge):

Mr. Patterson was the first black PM, and ruled the longest as well, from 1992 to 2006. When he resigned, his political party, the People's National Party, appointed Ms. Simpson-Miller, a longtime cabinet minister, to replace him as leader of the PNP, and thus automatically PM as well.

The new female PM was initially popular, but her party has been power for such a long time that people are starting to get sick of it. The election results now say that the PNP and Ms. Simpson-Miller have very narrowly gone down to defeat. The PNP only won 28 seats in the 60-seat parliament, while the opposition party, Labour, won 32.

The leader of the Labour Party will now become Prime Minister, in conjunction with the British parliamentary protocol Jamaica follows. His name is Bruce Golding and he's been in the political scene for a while now. Jamaica, much like the United States, has a rather rigid two-party system. Mr. Golding is perhaps best known for trying to found a third party to break the deadlock. But that failed, of course, so in 2005 he decided to just take over the Labour Party and became its new leader (the first black to lead that party too, I should note).

He remains a reformist at heart, though, and during the election he promised to make all sorts of dramatic revisions to the Jamaican parliamentary system in order to make it more accountable and democratic. As a fan of parliamentary reform, I am keen to see how well he is able to make out.