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?

2 comments:

avi said...

Hey, I just picked up Who Hates Whom, by Bob Harris. What do you think of that book?

JJ said...

Not read it yet. Do you reccomend it?