Sunday, October 28, 2007

Weird Countries

I read a lot of political and history books, but not a lot of fiction. But it doesn't matter, because reality is frequently much stranger than fiction anyway. When you study the politics of other countries you frequently come across stories that are so thoroughly bizarre they couldn't even pass as plots of a second-rate drug story paperback.

For example, imagine someone wrote a book in which a country was ruled by two identical twins, one of whom was president, while the other was prime minister. And they were both former movie stars. It sounds absurd, but that's the government of Poland I am describing, where two twin brothers, Lech Kaczynski and Jaroslaw Kaczynski controll both executive offices of the republic.

But not for much longer. Poland had parliamentary elections last week and the brothers' right-wing party was dealt a harsh blow. The moderate Civic Platform won 209 of 460 seats meaning they will now get to choose a new prime minister and undermine the powers of the president. It was an amusing era while it lasted.

Meanwhile, we have Argentina, where the president's wife was elected president yesterday. This hardly even seems like news. The entire Argentine political system is based around wives becoming president.

In the 1940's the country was ruled by Colonel Juan Peron, an extreme populist who had no coherent ideology other than giving "the people" (as defined by him) what they wanted. And the people liked him, largely because of his beautiful, shrewish wife Evita, who bossed him around behind the scenes. They made a musical about it, as I am sure you know.

Evita wanted to be president herself, so Juan tried to promote her to vice president so he could resign sometime down the line and let her take over. But she died of Cancer and the military overthrew him, so that plan never came to be.

Exiled in Spain for almost 20 years, Juan Peron met a nightclub dancer named Isabel and they married. Then the political tides began to turn in Argentina, and the political elites begged Juan to come back and be president again. By then it was 1973 and Peron was quite old, but he agreed anyway.

Desperate to reclaim his past success, Juan tried to present Isabel as the second-coming of Evita. But where Evita had been shrewd and intellectual, Isabel was ditzy and disinterested. She had absolutely no political experience and her interest in Argentina was little more than a natural outcome of being in the right place at the right time.

But Peron made her vice president regardless, and people went along with it. But then Peron died a year later, and Isabel became president, and the political and military elites began to second-guess turning a blind eye.

Isabel was overthrown after less than a year in office. It was a sad end to Latin America's first female president, and her downfall led to the rise of a very vicious right-wing military dictatorship that killed a lot of people and invaded the Falkland Islands, among other things.

In 1983 democracy returned to Argentina. The new presidents embraced radical free-market reforms in an effort to turn around the country's crumbling economy, which had been badly mismanaged by years of corruption and incompetence from the ruling juntas.

But for a number of reasons (look it up, I'm no economist) the reforms never really did what they were supposed to do. Unemployment, inflation, and corruption continued to thrive, reaching a peak in 2001 when angry Argentines took to the streets in protest over their worsening wages and increasingly worthless currency.

What happened next was sort of comically tragic. Sensing the president was likely to resign soon, the vice president resigned. Then, the president did. In accordance with the law of succession, the president of the senate then became acting president, but he resigned two days later. The Congress then appointed one of the state governors to be acting president, but that guy resigned as well after a week in office. The president of the senate then resigned again, in order to prevent becoming acting president again, and the presidency passed to the president of the House of Representatives. He resigned two days later, and the Congress appointed another governor to serve as acting prez. His name was Eduardo Duhalde, and he had the sanity to call for emergency elections.

In 2003 Duhalde lost, and Governor Nestor Kirchner was elected as Argentina's first non-acting president in several years. Kirchner was a fiery Peronist who wanted to return the country to the populist "third way" of the late president, and away from the free-market worship of his successors. During the last four years he's pursued an eclectic bunch of policies which have generally made him quite popular. He's been a strong proponent of persecuting former members of the military regime, and foreign policy wise he's taken a pretty consistently anti-American stance, that while not quite in Hugo Chavez land, has earned him a lot of the same praise from the left.

Kirchner surprised many when he announced he would not run for a second term. The nomination of the Peronist party he leads was instead given to his wife (and sitting senator) Cristina. Unlike Evita and Isabel, Cristina has been a successful politician in her own right. She's been in the game even longer than Nestor himself, in fact. The two are thus the ultimate power couple, with careers that feed off each other. Some pundits have even speculated that the two may be planning a "take turns" approach to the presidency, since Nestor could conceivably run for a non-consecutive second term in 2011 and then she again in 2015.

Would this sound believable if you read it in a romance novel?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Death in Burma

So the Prime Minister of Burma died. But don't get excited, it's just a co-incidence. It doesn't actually affect the depressing situation in Burma in any major way.

So Burma was a British colony, right? Then in the 1960's, shortly after becoming independent the new government was overthrown by this Marxist lunatic named General Ne Win. He was the sort of Robert Mugabe of his time, destroying one of the richest economies of the region with poorly conceived Communist-style reforms. He was also famously eccentric and believed in magic spells and UFOs and that lot. But I'm sure you've never heard of him because he wasn't "US-backed" and for some reason those dictators have sort of fallen through the cracks of the popular imagination, as I noted when Mengistu Haile Mariam was found guilty of genocide earlier this year.

But yeah, General Ne stepped down in 1981 and his military junta reshuffled itself, bringing to power the generation of generals who are in charge today. General Than Shwe became the head of state, or as they call the office in Burma, "Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council." His new government undid a lot of Ne's Marxist reforms, and renamed the country from "the Socialist Republic of Burma" to "the Union of Myanmar," but kept oppression levels just as high.

In 1990, under heavy international pressure, his junta held its first-ever democratic election, to chose a new parliament and prime minister. Aung San Suu Kyi, the elegant daughter of Burma's somewhat overrated independence hero, was elected along with her National League for Democracy party. But of course the junta was having none of this; they had only done the stupid election in the first place because they naturally assumed that their party, which I assume was called the National League for Killing You Bastards While We Take Your Money, would win a landslide. So the election was invalidated and Ms. San Suu Kyi became the big international superstar she is today.

The guy who died was named Soe Win, a longtime member of the junta who was promoted to the office of Prime Minister in 2004, after the old PM was fired and jailed for being too moderate. The key sticking point was the matter of negotiation with Ms. San Suu Kyi. The moderate faction of the junta favors talks while the hardline faction, which includes General Shwe, does not.

Prime Minister Win suffered from some mysterious disease that was probably leukemia, and was hospitalized a few months ago. So he basically missed his chance to be part of the big crackdown-on-protesting-monks fiesta that has dominated international headlines.
His death in a Singapore hospital this week was not unexpected. It's interesting though, because his absence probably has made it a bit easier for the junta to compromise. General Shwe now says he will in fact meet with Ms. San Suu Kyi. He probably hopes to just shut her up for a few years, but that's still something.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Some interesting developments, let's plunge in.


General Pervez Musharraf's grip over Pakistan has been slowly weakening over the last couple of months. People have been protesting his authoritarian rule more actively, and the demand for democratic reforms have been strong.

Musharraf came to power in a coup in 1999. In doing so, he deposed a guy named Nawaz Sharif, who had been elected Prime Minister in 1997. Sharif in turn came to power after Ms. Benazir Bhutto, the old PM, was removed from office due to gross corruption. They were both exiled after the coup, and as General Musharraf became more unpopular, both began to plot a political comeback.

Mr. Sharif's plan seems to have been the more poorly thought out. Last month he flew back into the country, smug and secure that he'd be greeted as a returning hero. Instead, minutes after he stepped into the airport, guards arrested him and sent him on the first plane back out.

Ms. Bhutto, in contrast, has been engaged in high-level behind-the-scenes negotiations with General Musharraf. And if recent reports are to be believed, they have paid off.

The parliament of Pakistan today voted to extend Musharraf's term as president for another four years. Ms. Bhutto's faction in the parliament boycotted, but did not oppose the vote, and regarded the extension of the General's term as legitimate. Musharraf has in turn agreed to resign from the army, stop wearing a military uniform, and drop all outstanding corruption charges against Bhutto.

Bhutto will return to Pakistan soon, and will run for another term as Prime Minister in upcoming elections. Musharraf has agreed to share power with her, if she wins.

So everything seems to be all rosy and lovely for the time being. Perhaps a glorious shining democratic future is in the works.
Here's a fun fact about Pakistan, though. No leader in the entire history of that country has ever served a full term in office. Not one! They've all either been overthrown, killed, or impeached.


I'll tell you one country that's not going to have a glorious democratic future, though- Russia!

Mr. Putin's term has expired, so he has to step down as president at the end of this year. Analysts were a bit flabbergasted that Putin was willing to go along with this. "Putin the tyrant respect term limits?" they said, "what madness is this!" I thought they were just being alarmist at first. Maybe Putin wasn't as autocratic as they say.

Then Putin appointed his friend, who no one had ever heard of, as Prime Minister a couple weeks ago. Okay, well that seemed a bit dodgy. It was obvious the new PM was being groomed to succeed Putin in the presidential election, just as Yeltsin had groomed Putin back when the latter was Prime Minister. But still, at least Putin was acknowledging that he wasn't going to be in power any more.

The conspiracy theorists finally got what they wanted this week, though. Putin was named leader of the "United Russia" political party, which dominates the Russian parliament. Putin then announced that he'd like to become Prime Minister again should a "decent, capable and modern person with whom I can work" be elected president and decide to appoint him. Hopefully you can fill in the rest of the blanks.

Boring formal updates

But it wasn't all cloak-and-dagger intrigue around the world. In the last few weeks there have been a couple mundane transfers of power.

The Republic of Mali, one of Africa's more stable and democratic countries had a parliamentary election in July in which the ruling party was turfed a new coalition was elected. The incumbent Prime Minister Ousmane Issoufi Maïga agreed to step down once the coalition got its stuff together. He officially resigned on September 27, and the next day the President appointed Mr. Modibo Sidibé as new PM. Sidbe is a longtime loyalist to Mali's popular head of state, President Amadou Toumani Toure. As is the case in most African nations, the Prime Minister of Mali is not a very strong or relevant office, and exists mostly to serve the president. Regardless, President Toure is now in a much stronger position having a loyalist in the PM's office and a sympathetic majority in the parliament.

The half-year terms of the two Captains of San Marino came to an end on October 1. The new captains are named Mirko Tomassoni and Alberto Selva. They shall hold office until April. I wrote about San Marino's kooky political system (and country) a few months ago.

At first I thought the President of Serbia died last week, but it turns out only the President of the Serb Republic died. Serbia is a country, while the Serb Republic is just a province in the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina. This is a subtle distinction which only political nerds like me would appreciate. Well, and the Serbian people, I guess.