With Foresight, Kazakhstan Tweaks Its Constitution

Earlier this week, the government of Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed changes to Kazakhstan’s constitution that would decentralize power away from the president. The changes would grant greater power to the legislature and government ministers. The legislature is to be given more power over the ministers, and the ministers will be granted administrative powers that were previously reserved for the president. While decentralizing his own power may seem a surprising move for a leader who is usually regarded as a dictator, it is widely believed that Nazarbayev is doing so with a future political transition in mind.

The location of Kazakhstan in the center of Eurasia

Kazakhstan is a vast country located on the steppes of Central Asia. It has the largest landmass of any landlocked country, and contained within its great expanses are valuable deposits of natural resources. The most significant of these are oil and natural gas, which have fueled a boom of modernization and development in the post-soviet country. As a result, it has a much higher GDP per capita than its Central Asian neighbors, all of which were also constituent republics of the USSR until 1991. Like many its Central Asian neighbors, however, Kazakhstan’s totalitarian roots have contributed to the rise of a de facto one-party state. Nazarbayev has been Kazakhstan’s president since before its independence, and since then he has ruled the country with an iron grip.

One of Kazakhstan’s aforementioned Central Asian neighbors is Uzbekistan, whose history closely mirrors that of Kazakhstan besides one key difference. It, too, was a Soviet Republic until 1991. It, too, developed an authoritarian dictatorship. In fact, it is considered even more corrupt and repressive than Kazakhstan. The key point at which the modern histories of Kazkahstan and Uzbekistan diverged occurred in September of 2016. It was then that Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, passed away.

Because Karimov had led Uzbekistan since its independence, just as Nazarbayev has led Kazakhstan since its independence, his death gave rise to an unprecedented situation: Uzbekistan’s first political transition as an independent nation. Because Karimov had maintained such stranglehold on political power, there were fears that his death could give rise to a dangerous power vacuum. Analysts voiced concerns that such a power vacuum could lead to political unrest, and, considering the Karimov government’s hard-line opposition to radicalism, some even worried that the Muslim-majority nation could become a haven for Islamist extremists in the event of a sudden decentralization. None of that came to pass, however, and the country experienced a relatively smooth transition of power as the ruling elite rallied behind the Karimov’s Prime Minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

The 76 year old Nazarbayev is less than two years younger than Karimov, so he likely paid close attention to the transition unfolding in his country’s southern neighbor. He knows that, eventually, his country will go through a similar transition, and he is likely keen on preventing a damaging power vacuum. As a result, he has been reshuffling key government positions in what analysts believe is an attempt to assemble an administration whose purpose is to guide the country through its future transition. The recent proposed constitutional changes, too, are viewed as an attempt to facilitate the country’s future transition. By weakening the presidency and strengthening both the legislature and ministries, Nazarbayev can create institutions that prevent a complete vacuum. He can create a state that is capable of functioning without an autocrat.

Throughout history, succession crises have again and again devolved into terrible chaos. Autocrats often act as the primary unifying figures of their countries while elites jockey for greater influence. Once the autocrat is gone, the elites have little incentive to maintain unity as they vie for the top spot. In Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya, this phenomenon engendered violent sectarian strife. In many African countries, it caused a circle of dictatorship that reduced the likelihood of future prosperity. In nearly every case, it gives rise to numerous challenges associated with the corrosion of state control, some of which were discussed in last week’s article about the fall of Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia. Considering the violent history of political transition, it is no longer surprising that Nazarbayev would weaken his own office. Why? Because what he is actually doing is weakening the office of his successor.

Crucial Elections to Follow in 2017

The numerous elections that took place in 2016 will likely come to be remembered as some of the most consequential in recent history. Many of last year’s elections will leave a lasting mark on the states of their countries, regions, and the world. Countless observers around the world reacted to the Brexit referendum and the United States presidential election with horror, and many will likewise view the coming of 2017 as a welcome riddance of the dreadful 2016. But like 2016, the year that lies ahead of us will bring more than a few elections that have the potential to continue disrupting the global political order. So which elections should you be paying attention to in 2017? Let’s find out.


In 2016, multiple African leaders attempted to extend their stays in power. Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo amended his country’s constitution to allow himself to run for a third time. Ultimately, he won the questionably conducted election. Burundi’s president also sought to amend his country’s constitution, as did Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda. In 2017, this trend is set to continue. While Kagame has already amended Rwanda’s constitution, his real test comes in August of this year when he will stand for reelection. If Kagame wins, as he almost certainly will, the defining trend of 2016 will stretch into 2017.

Another African country that is set to go to the polls is Angola. Despite being conducted under a de facto one-party state with weak democratic institutions, this election is nonetheless important because the current president of Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos, has promised to step down after 38 years in power. Not one to cede control easily, however, dos Santos has handpicked a former defense minister named João Lourenço as his successor as party leader. The question, then, is this: will Lourenço do the bidding of his predecessor, or will he forge a new path forward for Angola?


In 2014, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took the streets after their government introduced electoral reforms that would affect the 2017 election of Chief Executive, the Special Administrative Region’s highest office. The reforms effectively required that any candidate for Chief Executive would have to be approved by the central government in Beijing. Hong Kong’s democratic culture has become increasingly incompatible with the mainland’s one-party rule since the former British Crown Colony reunited with the People’s Republic in 1997. This incompatibility flared once again when 5000 marched in a pro-democracy protest on New Year’s Day. As a result, the election this March, whose procedures caused so much controversy in 2014 and are once again beginning to draw ire, is likely to be very tense.


Iran is also preparing to hold polls for its highest elected office, that of the President. While many in the West view Iran as an ultra-conservative theocratic pariah, most don’t realize that it has a large reformist bloc within its government. In fact, the current president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, is a moderate, and the Iran nuclear deal would never have passed if the government had been controlled by more conservative lawmakers. In 2017, however, Iran’s moderates are under threat. First of all, their promise of immediate economic gains following the removal of Western sanctions failed to live up to the hype. Furthermore, one of Iran’s former presidents and arguably the most influential figure behind the Iranian moderates, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, passed away last week. As a result, Rouhani and the moderates have lost a crucial ally, weakening their prospects for the May 2017 elections and increasing the likelihood of an Iran that is once again isolated from the international political scene.


Of all the elections that will be affected by the trends of 2016, none will be more heavily influenced than those in Europe. The very same forces that gave rose to Brexit and Trump are still on the rise across Europe, and they have been empowering far-right nationalist parties who will be seeking electoral gains in 2017. The Netherlands, France, and Germany are all holding crucial elections, and each could have a significant effect on the fate of not only their own countries, but the European Union as a whole.

In the Netherlands, the anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic Party for Freedom is riding on the momentum of the very same backlash against globalization that helped boost Trump and the Leave campaign. In France, Marine Le Pen’s ultra-nationalist Front National is widely expected to advance to the second round of the presidential election. In Germany, Angela Merkel will struggle to remain in power after her openness to refugees proved wildly unpopular with the German people. At a time when far-right parties are actively advocating for the dissolution of the EU, the outcome of these elections will determine the future of the organization. Like the elections of 2016, they will, in many ways, force voters to choose between two conflicting worldviews: one of internationalism and another of nationalism.

Ultimately, as much as we may want to make 2016 disappear forever, the forces that affected elections last year will continue to do so this year. In Africa, a handful of authoritarian leaders will continue attempting to use flawed elections to gain legitimacy. In Asia, rival factions in Hong Kong and Iran will continue to quarrel. In Europe, national elections will be fought between internationalists and nationalists. As consequential as 2016 was, 2017 will likely be the same. For this reason, we must diligently follow each of these elections. They will come with implications for everyone, not just those who are casting the ballots.

China’s New Economic Power is a Weapon in Old Disputes


A month ago, the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, visited Mongolia. Despite years of repressive communist rule, more than half of Mongolians consider themselves Buddhist. The primary sects of Buddhism followed in Mongolia are descendants of Tibetan buddhism, meaning the Dalai Lama has visited numerous times to connect with his followers. This time, however, was different. Why? Because of China.

After the fall of the Qing dynasty at the dawn of the 20th century, Tibet had existed as a de facto independent state. Once the Communist Party consolidated control over all of China, however, it turned its attention towards Tibet. In 1950, it began a campaign to absorb Tibet into the People’s Republic of China, and in 1959 the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India. Since then, he has continued to advocate for greater Tibetan autonomy. As a result, China has embarked on a campaign to discredit him as a separatist.

The 14th Dalai Lama

It’s no surprise, then, that China wasn’t happy with the Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia, but that has never stopped Mongolia from welcoming him before. After this particular visit, however, the government decided to give into China’s demands and announced that the Dalai Lama would never again be welcome in the country. So what changed?

This time, Mongolia can’t afford to anger China. A few years ago, Mongolia’s economy was booming as a result of its rich mineral deposits. But since global commodity prices have nosedived, the country has struggled to repay its debts and has received a credit downgrade. As a result, it is seeking a $4.2 billion dollar loan from China. Furthermore, China accounts for a huge majority of Mongolia’s imports and exports. Leveraging its economic advantage, China closed a major border crossing with Mongolia and froze talks regarding the terms of the loan deal. Ultimately, the Mongolian government decided that its economy was more important than its religion. So the Dalai Lama is no longer welcome in Ulaanbaatar.

São Tomé and Príncipe

The location of São Tomé and Príncipe in Africa

The government of São Tomé and Príncipe, a small island nation off the west coat of Africa, has decided to shutter its embassy in Taipei. Before Wednesday, São Tomé and Príncipe was one of 22 countries that recognized the Republic of China, based in Taiwan, as the legal successor of the Qing Dynasty. Now, that number has dropped to 21. The rest of the world recognizes the People’s Republic of China, based in Beijing, as the successor of the Qing Dynasty.

Although most people believe Taiwan, an island of the east coast of China, is an independent nation, its status is actually quite a bit more complicated. Following the fall of the Qing dynasty, a republic was established in China. The republic, however, was never able to successfully consolidate control over the entire country. First, power was concentrated in the hands of several regional warlords. Then, the Japanese invaded the country. In the meantime, a civil war was being fought between the Republic of China and the Communist Party of China. Eventually, the Communist Party of China began to triumph. As a result, the leaders of the Republic of China fled to Taiwan and established a government there. Since then, they have claimed to be the legal representative of all of China, not just Taiwan.

The Republic of China only controls Taiwan, the purple island on the far right side of this image. But it claims to control all of this.

Thus the government of Taiwan does not lead an independent country; rather, it is a government in exile that claims to represent all of China. Because of this, a country cannot diplomatically recognize both the government of Taiwan and the communist government of China. By recognizing Taiwan, a country is at the same time delegitimizing the People’s Republic of China. So when São Tomé and Príncipe declared that it would sever ties with Taiwan, what it is really doing is switching its allegiance from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China.

Doing so is not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, island nations in the Pacific often switch sides depending on which government seems more likely to grant them development aid. So like Mongolia’s recent decision, the reason for São Tomé and Príncipe’s decision is economic.

Over the past few years, China has poured billions of dollars into Africa. It has granted loans, bought land, and built infrastructure. From Nigeria to Ethiopia to Kenya, it has funded massive projects across the continent. São Tomé and Príncipe has benefitted little from China’s massive injection of capital, probably because of its recognition of the Republic of China. So in shifting its diplomatic ties, it is likely attempting to gain a piece of the People’s Republic’s bountiful pie.

Old Beefs, New Bounties

For decades, the People’s Republic of China has been one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Now, it is second behind the United States. When the leaders of the Republic of China crossed the straight to Beijing, China was an agrarian society steeped in crushing poverty. When the Dalai Lama left Tibet, it had yet to develop into a great power. It had nuclear weapons and massive population, but for years its poverty held it back. But times have changed. Now that China has made progress in development, it has become a powerhouse. Smaller nations like Mongolia and São Tomé and Príncipe can no longer afford to stand up to an economic empire. Beijing is fully aware of its newfound power, and it’s using it gain an upper hand in old disputes.

Korea’s Mythical Woman of Steel

43,000 people took to the streets of Seoul on Saturday demanding that their president, Park Geun-hye, tender her resignation. Her approval rating has plummeted to an unprecedented 5%, the lowest ever recorded by pollsters in South Korea. On Thursday, Ms. Park appointed a new Prime Minister after she dismissed her old one. Dozens of aides have been let go. Rumors swirl regarding Ms. Park’s fecklessness, corruption, and even involvement in a pseudo-christian cult. What on earth is going on?

It’s all part of a scandal that is taking the South Korean government by storm. A few weeks ago, it was discovered that one of Ms. Park’s oldest and closest friends, Choi Soon-sil, has been manipulating the President for her own personal gain. Ms. Choi has apparently advised Mr. Park on classified issues of the state. She is also accused of using her closeness to the president to extract 70 million dollars in donations from corporate giants like Samsung and Hyundai. The scandal began when it was found that Ms. Choi’s daughter was given preferential admissions treatment at a prestigious university, apparently as a result of her mother’s relationship with the President. The Korean people are infuriated that a shadowy, unelected figure was able to wield so much influence over Ms. Park. That such a thing could even occur may seem unbelievable. Considering Ms. Park’s history, however, it becomes a bit more understandable.

Park Geun-hye is the daughter of Park Chung-hee. The elder Park is a monumental and controversial figure in modern South Korean history. He ruled the country for 18 years, from 1961 to 1979. During that time, South Korea underwent one of the most miraculous economic miracles in human history. Before the Korean war in the 1950s, South Korea was already one of the poorest countries in Asia. After the war, it was even more devastated. By the time Park Chung-hee was assassinated, however, it had become an industrial powerhouse. Today, its vast wealth has propelled it to its current place as the world’s 11th largest economy. Yet such progress came at a steep cost.

In order to develop his country, Park Chung-hee repressed it. Opposition was severely restricted, and the government can be described as nothing less than a dictatorship. In 1974, a North Korean sympathizer attempted to assassinate Park Chung-hee. He missed. Instead, he hit his wife, Park Geun-hye’s mother. Suddenly, the younger Park was, at the age of 22, thrust into the national spotlight, effectively assuming the role of first lady to a controversial dictator. Five years later, in 1979, Park Chung-hee’s assassinator did not miss.

This was a tumultuous time in the life of a young Park Geun-hye. As she simultaneously assumed a range of new responsibilities while coping with the loss of her mother, a mysterious man named Choi Tae-min approached Ms. Park and claimed that he could pass messages to her deceased mother. Besides being a controversial figure with cult connections, Choi Tae-min is also the father of Choi Soon-sil. Thus as Ms. Park grew close to the elder Choi, she also befriended his daughter.

Ms. Park and Ms. Choi remained close until today, when their relationship has come under immense scrutiny. The intrigue and opaqueness of the situation has given rise to a tremendous amount of speculation—the media has spread rumors of extramarital affairs and cult practices, and it has portrayed the president as little more than a puppet to a ruthless manipulator. In the midst of conflicting lies and what appears to be a coverup that runs deep into the administration, Koreans have little idea what they can believe and who they should trust. The people are in a state of shock. But should they be?

Ms. Park’s autobiography is entitled “Steeled by Despair, Motivated by Hope.” According the Washington Post, part of her appeal is “the sense that she had already given her life to the country.” Both her parents were slain for Korea. She lost her family to the country, and she rose to the occasion to become acting First Lady. She never married, instead pursuing a career in politics. She is an aloof, disconnected figure, and the history of her life is deeply entwined with the history of the country. As a result, she is seen as an almost larger-than-life figure.

But over the past few weeks, that persona has come crashing down. Her steely impregnability has been revealed to be little more than a façade. It has been discovered that the vulnerability that characterized her youth has persisted until the present. Why, though, is such a revelation so shocking? What more can be expected of someone with Ms. Park’s background? She suffered, her friend helped her, and she has continued to seek out advice. Granted, she did so irresponsibly and probably lied about it, but irresponsibility and lies are hardly surprising from politicians, and past Korean presidents have shown that the Korean political system is far from immune to corruption.

Park Geun-hye did something immensely stupid. But doing stupid things is one of the few things that every single member of our species can relate to. No cult-of-personality or mythical persona can change that. So the media should stop sensationalizing this scandal, because it is the sensationalization of Park Geun-hye that makes it so shocking in the first place. We mustn’t let ourselves be surprised to discover that our leaders are only human.

Kyrgyzstan’s Missing Constitution

The Kyrgyz government has lost its constitution. No, not figuratively, but literally. While debating whether or not to hold a referendum that would amend the current constitution, they discovered that no one actually knew where the original version of the document is stored. The presidential administration had assumed that the original was held by the Justice Ministry, and the Justice Ministry had assumed that the original was held by the presidential administration. So the government of Kyrgyzstan seems to have found itself in a humorous situation. Yet the context in which this discovery was made—the debate over possible changes to the missing constitution—is by no means a laughing matter.

Yesterday, when it was realized that the constitution was missing, the Kyrgyz parliament voted to hold a referendum on December 11. The purpose of the referendum is to seek popular approval of proposed changes to the current constitution. These changes would weaken the office of the president and strengthen the office of the prime minister.

Kyrgyzstan is governed by a political system under which the president is the head of state and the prime minister is the head of government. In practice, this means that the president is already much weaker than in other central Asian states where the leader is free to exercise autocratic power. Unlike the autocratic political systems of its neighbors, the Kyrgyz political system was completely redesigned in 2010 with the objective of preventing the rise of an dictator.

The reason that Kyrgyzstan weakened its presidency in 2010 was that it had recently experienced months of ethnic violence following the ouster of its previous president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has seen little progress and has remained impoverished. In 2010, the people became disillusioned by what they perceived as the increasing authoritarianism and corruption of the Bakiyev administration. As the cries of the protesters grew louder, Bakiyev tendered his resignation and fled to Kazakhstan. His supporters in the southern Kyrgyzstan became infuriated. This infuriation was heightened when the new interim government appealed to the sizable Uzbek minority of southern Kyrgyzstan. As a result, the Kyrgyz and Uzbek inhabitants of the region turned against each other, resulting in catastrophic ethnic violence.

The ethnic violence was concentrated around the southern city of Osh.

It was in this context—of violent ethnic instability—that the 2010 constitution was promulgated. Bakiyev had previously expanded his own powers in 2007, prompting accusations that he was turning towards authoritarianism. Thus in 2010, a constitution was drafted that would prevent the same thing from happening again. The 2010 constitution created a semi-presidential system under which the president was limited by the power of the parliament and prime minister. In 2011, Almazbek Atambayev was elected the president. Since then, the country has been free from the violence that brought it to the brink of civil war in 2010. 

Why, then, after years of stability, is Kyrgyzstan again fiddling with its constitution? And why would it weaken an already weak office? Well, it turns out that the answer to the first question goes a long way in explaining the second. Next year, Kyrgyzstan will hold a presidential election. That is why the changes are being made now. Atambayev is not allowed to run for a second term, but he is allowed to become prime minister. As a result, his opponents assert that he is attempting to strengthen the powers of the prime minister so he can take up that role after he leaves the presidency.

The same trend has been seen in Russia and Turkey. When Vladimir Putin was barred from running for president in 2008, his closest political ally, Dmitry Medvedev, was elected president. This meant that, behind closed doors, it was Putin who continued to pull the strings as prime minister until he was eligible to run for president again. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was prime minister, he was the most powerful politician in Turkey. When he was forced into the presidency, however, Turkey transitioned to a presidential system.

Thus Atambayev’s opponents accuse him of going in the same direction as the autocratic Presidents of Kyrgyzstan’s central Asian neighbors. Instead of becoming an autocratic president, however, they accuse him of trying to become an autocratic prime minister. Despite the fact that the prime-ministership was originally strengthened to weaken the pre-2010 presidency, a further weakened presidency would create a prime-ministership that approaches the power of the pre-2010 presidency. Atambayev, however, has denied that he will attempt to become prime minister.

Kyrgyzstan and its autocratic neighbors
Kyrgyzstan and its autocratic neighbors

In truth, the changes to the constitution will likely have little effect on Kyrgyzstan’s political culture. Why? Because the proposed changes are meant to facilitate the very same political jockeying that characterizes the current system of government. According the Freedom House, “political parties [in Kyrgyzstan] are primarily vehicles for a handful of strong personalities, rather than mass organizations with clear ideologies and political platforms.” Thus Kyrgyzstan’s political system is dominated by a group of individuals who are all vying for the top position. It is based on a mutual recognition that the power of the leader is limited in order to give everyone a chance to become the leader. Whether that leader is called the president or the prime minister is of little consequence to whoever reaches the top.

The reason that the distinction between president and prime minister matters lies with the parliament. The difference between a president and a prime minister is that a president is elected by the people while a prime minister is appointed by parliament. Thus the true function of the constitutional changes—and the reason why it is backed by a healthy majority of the parliament—is to take the power of choosing the leader out of the hands of the people and into the hands of the political elite. Since the semi-presidential system is designed to open the top spot to every ambitious politician, the political elites want to mitigate the risk of a violent political fight by bringing that fight out of the streets and into the chambers of parliament.

The post-2010 political system was not intended to save the people from a dictator; it was intended to save the political elite from a dictator. As a result, the changes are not likely to usher in an autocracy. They are, however, likely to facilitate the political elite’s game of thrones. Thus it’s no surprise that Kyrgyzstan’s parliament only discovered that its own constitution was missing when they tried to change it. Kyrgyz politicians are motivated and limited not by a constitution, but by their own ambitions and and the competing ambitions of their opponents. For that reason, they don’t really care about what’s written in the constitution until they see an opportunity to achieve their own political aims.

The Philippines After 100 Days of Duterte

On June 30 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was elected the 16th president of the Philippines. That means that this Saturday, 8 October 2016, marks his 100th day in office. Over the course of these past 100 days, Duterte has become controversial as a result of his incendiary statements and support for extrajudicial killings of drug users. By examining why Duterte managed to pull off a victory last summer, it is possible to identify an important force that has defined domestic and foreign policy of his first 100 days in office.

He has compared himself to Hitler, stating that he would be happy to massacre millions of drug users. He has called Barack Obama a “son of a bitch” and has told him to “go to hell.” He has threatened to turn away from the United States and towards China and Russia. He has called Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, a “fool.” For such a crass candidate to be elected, it is natural to postulate that perhaps his opponents had even greater flaws. Let’s see how he stacks up to his opponents, many of whom were leading in the polls for much of the race.

At first, Jejomar Binay was the favorite. He had been the Vice President under former president Benigno Aquino III. He was the first to declare his candidacy and as a result held first place in early polls. Over time, however, his candidacy began to unravel in the face of corruption allegations. His performance in the polls began to waver, and once his popularity started falling it never stopped. He finished 4th place in the election.

Of all the candidates, Grace Poe performed the best in the early polls. Although she is a member of the senate, she is considered more of a political outsider than Binay. She has been a member of the senate only since 2013 and ran as an independent. As election date neared, however, Duterte overtook Poe in the polls. While she continued to lead against the second place candidate, Mar Roxas, she nevertheless lost to him narrowly to take third place.

Like Binay, Mar Roxas is a member of the political establishment. He was one of the most experienced candidates. He was the nominee of the Liberal Party, which is led by Aquino. As a result, he is viewed by many as a “traditional politician” who sacrifices principles and authenticity in order to win votes. For that reason, he trailed the less experienced Poe in the polls for much of the race. Nevertheless, he surpassed her to win second in the race. His reputation as a traditional politician, however, still kept him from taking first.

Besides Binay’s corruption, there appears to be little wrong with these candidates. Poe and Roxas were both qualified to be President, and neither approached the abrasiveness of Duterte. Thus Duterte’s victory cannot be explained by the shortcomings of his political opponents. So what does explain it? It turns out that the explanation while be quite familiar to readers in The West.

An analysis of polling shows that the “traditional politicians”–Binay and Roxas–were not popular with the people. Poe and Duterte, on the other hand, were seen as freer from the constraints of traditional politics. Duterte, with his outlandishly apolitical remarks, even more so than Poe. As a result, he won the trust of 91 percent of the Philippine people. Sound familiar?

This narrative is one that is playing out across The West. The people are rejecting establishment candidates in favor of apolitical politicians. Voters punish political experience and reward honesty. Just as in the United States, where Hillary Clinton is seen as untrustworthy and Trump’s unapologetic hyperbole gives him an aura of authenticity, Duterte’s rejection of the political orthodoxy gave him an advantage over his opponents. So if Duterte’s appeal is largely based off of his outsider status, how has this affected his first 100 days in office?

The Philippine claims in the South China Sea mean that cooperation with the United States is much easier than cooperation with China
The Philippine claims in the South China Sea mean that cooperation with the United States is much easier than cooperation with China

Duterte has delivered on his single biggest issue–his war on drugs. Tens of thousands of drug users and dealers have been arrested, and roughly 3600 have been killed. Thus Duterte is not all bark; he has shown some bite as well. Yet some of his most controversial statements should be taken with a grain of salt. The Obama administration, for example, has largely downplayed his threats to pivot towards China and Russia. Especially considering Philippine interests in the South China Sea, the alliance between the Philippines and the United States remains as important as ever. Thus while Duterte may be in favor of pursuing more independent foreign relations, much of the political and military establishment is against any significant changes.

Clearly, Duterte’s outsider status has had a significant effect on his domestic policy. But while his unorthodox ways have dented the Philippines’ international reputation, it is precisely in international affairs that establishment ideas continue to reign supreme. Thus the first 100 days of Duterte have seen many of his outlandish promises fulfilled domestically, but the unpopularity of his incendiary remarks within the foreign policy establishment means that the damage to international relations is more to reputation than to actual diplomatic ties.

From South America to Africa to Asia: Insight From Political Change

All across the world, this week has been a tumultuous one. Presidents have been toppled in two countries, and protesters have taken to the streets to demand the same in three others. From South America to Africa to Asia, leaders are struggling to hold back some of the most fundamental forces of political change–partisanship, popular disapproval, and death. The countries in which these political changes occur paint a telling picture of how these fundamental forces work.


After barely holding on to her presidency in a narrow re-election victory in 2014, Dilma Rousseff has finally been forced out of the Planalto. While she was suspended back in May, she was officially impeached this week as The Senate decided 61-20 that she was guilty of breaking budgetary laws. Towards the end of her presidency, Ms. Rousseff became massively unpopular as she weathered an sweeping corruption scandal and increasingly poor economic conditions. Considering the widespread dissatisfaction with her presidency, widespread relief seems to be an expected result of impeachment.

The truth, however, is more complicated. While many of Ms. Rousseff’s opponents support the impeachment, many Brazilians feel that it was simply a partisan political move. They feel that Ms. Rousseff’s successor, Michel Temer, will be equally corrupt but will not face the same level of judicial inquiry. Many who opposed Ms. Rousseff’s presidency nevertheless believe that the impeachment is an affront to the democratic will of the people. Thus opinion is starkly divided over the matter.


Like Brazil, Uzbekistan lost a president this week. Unlike in Brazil, however, the former president of Uzbekistan did not succumb to political forces. Instead, he succumbed to his own old age. Islam Karimov, who had ruled the repressive central Asian nation with an iron fist since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, died this week after suffering a stroke. Karimov, who was 78 when he died, leaves a mixed legacy. While he has been praised for his harsh stance against Islamist extremists, his government has been condemned for its authoritarianism, disrespect of civil liberties, its violent criminal justice system, and its support of forced-labor in the cotton industry.

With 30 million people, Uzbekistan is the most populous central Asian nation. After today, however, its future is uncertain. Mr. Karimov did not leave any clear successor. The most likely contender is Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev. This is, however, the first change in leadership in Uzbekistan’s history. The current situation has no precedent, and as a result the future is uncertain.


Following the re-election of its president, Ali Bongo, the central-African country of Gabon has been marred by violent protests. Mr. Bongo was elected in 2009 after the death of the country’s previous ruler and Mr. Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo. Omar Bongo had run Gabon since 1967, first under a single-party state and later after the introduction of multi-party democracy. When Ali Bongo succeeded his father, Gabon was rocked by protests similar to the ones that occurred this week. This time around, however, the protesters may have an even stronger case in their favor.

Jean Ping, Mr. Bongo’s opponent, lost by a tiny margin. After it was announced that he had lost, his supporters became livid–and for good reason. Mr. Ping had been leading up until the very end, when results for Mr. Bongo’s home province were counted. Statistics indicated a 99.9% turnout with 95% of voters in favor of Mr. Bongo. Considering the turnout elsewhere was only 59%, these statistics are unlikely. For this reason, protesters turned out in droves. The national assembly was set ablaze, 5 were killed, and 1000 were arrested. With billions of dollars in oil revenue spread extremely unevenly among Gabon’s small population, the people are right to be angry. While it is unlikely that they will unseat Mr. Bongo today, the tide may soon turn.


Venezuela, like Gabon, has enough oil to make its people vastly wealthy. But also like in Gabon, the people are suffering under extreme economic distress. The brand of socialism espoused by Nicolás Maduro, who has been president ever since Hugo Chavez passed away in 2013, has wreaked havoc on the Venezuelan economy. Price controls have caused a massive shortage of important goods. People are forced to wait in line for hours to buy food, and they are often met with empty shelves. For that reason, the Maduro government has grown less and less popular.

This unpopularity was clear last December, when the opposition won a majority in the legislature. One of its first acts was to call a referendum in order to hold new presidential elections. Maduro’s officials, however, have been accused of deliberately delaying the process. That’s why so many Venezuelans have taken to the streets. In fact, almost one million protesters marched in opposition to Maduro. Thus Maduro is struggling to maintain his place of power amid widespread populist disapproval.


In Brazil and Uzbekistan, leaders have fallen–one died a political death and the other a literal one. In Gabon and Venezuela, deeply unpopular leaders are struggling to hold onto power in the face of massive discontent. These political events offer significant insight into the current state of the world. We see leaders facing political threats, populist threats, and threats to their health. But if we look closer, we see something more.

Brazil is a democracy. Venezuela and Gabon have a mixture of democratic institutions and authoritarian ones. Uzbekistan is a full blown dictatorship. It just so happens that the threats facing leaders around are closely connected to the types of government under which those leaders operate. In democracies like Brazil, it is not uncommon for leaders to be unseated by a change in the political tide. In Gabon and Venezuela, however, leaders have entrenched themselves enough that the will of the people is not enough to remove them from office. Leaders can rig elections, so people have no choice but to take to the streets. In Uzbekistan, people do not even take to the streets. Repression is so severe that they are either to uneducated or too scared to resist. Thus political transitions either come as a result of a coup d’état or the death of a leader.

Clearly, the events of this week are not surprising considering the political environments in which they occurred. Politicians in democracies die at the hand of legislature or the ballot box, politicians in hybrid regimes die at the hand of populist uprisings and revolutions, and politicians in dictatorships die at the hand of death itself.

South Korea’s Saenuri Party Loses its Majority Despite a Fractured Opposition

Despite expectations that Wednesday’s legislative elections in South Korea would increase the majority of the leading Saenuri party, the party suffered a shocking defeat. Not only did it lose its majority, but it also narrowly lost its title as the largest party in the National Assembly to the Minjoo party. The result of the election is a major blow to South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, who is a member of the center-right Saenuri party and has come under criticism in recent years.

South Korea is, in many ways, a miracle. Today, it is one of the richest countries in the world. But when Korea was divided following the Second World War, it was one of the poorest countries in the world. Then came the Korean War, which wreaked havoc on the country. The war caused an estimated 2.5 million casualties and destroyed Korea’s already underdeveloped infrastructure. Yet the country has been transformed since then. While North Korea continues to battle famine, South Korea has become the world’s 11th largest economy, has become one of the most technologically advanced countries on Earth, and has developed enormous cultural influence overseas. The road to such enormous success, however, has not always been an easy one.

For decades, South Korea was run by autocratic dictators. While its economy developed miraculously, the progress came at the expense of democracy. It was not until the establishment of the 6th Republic in 1987 that the country’s citizens were finally granted the freedoms associated with a democratic system of government. Despite the success of today’s political system, the ghosts of the dictatorial past continue to haunt South Korean politics to this day. Park Chung-hee, for example, is a politician whose legacy certainly shapes South Korea today. He is still loved by many due to his instrumental role in South Korea’s economic development, but he is also despised by many others for his iron-fisted disregard for democratic principles. Park Chung-hee also happens to be the father of the current president, Park Geun-hye.

As a member of Saenuri, Ms. Park has come under criticism by much of the left. She is accused of taking after her father and weakening South Korea’s democracy. Before she was even elected, a scandal occurred in which it was discovered that Korea’s National Intelligence Service posted over a million messages online in support of Ms. Park during the 2012 presidential election. The government was also criticized after forcibly dissolving a far-left political party after its members were found guilty of sympathizing with North Korea. Finally, last year, thousands of South Koreans took to the streets in protest of a law that required all history textbooks to be approved by the right-wing government.

With so much controversy surrounding Ms. Park’s government, it may come as a surprise that Saenuri was expected to triumph in Wednesday’s election. Yet the opposition was considered too divided to unite against Saenuri. The center-left Minjoo party, which is the party that won the most seats in the National Assembly, recently underwent a split. Before December of last year, it was known as the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD). But it was divided when a faction of the party formed the People’s Party at the beginning of this year. The People’s Party is less left-wing than Minjoo and was formed partially due to its leader’s disdain of a system in which two parties dominate the National Assembly.

The split between Minjoo and the People’s Party explains why many analysts predicted that Saenuri would increase its majority. They assumed that the People’s Party would draw voters away from Minjoo, making both weaker. In a way, that did happen. While Minjoo is now the largest party in the National Assembly, it leads Saenuri by only one seat. Neither holds a majority thanks to the People’s Party.  Yet it is clear that the controversies surrounding Saenuri have weakened the party to the point where it could not even stand up to an onslaught from a fractured opposition. Propelled by young and urban voters, the balance of power has clearly shifted from the right to the center-left. As a result, it is unlikely that Ms. Park will be able to succeed in passing any significant initiatives during her last two years as president.

The results Wednesday’s election certainly came as a surprise to many. To the older generation that remains nostalgic of the growth under Park Chung-hee, they were a disappointment. To the younger generation that has grown tired of Park Geun-hye’s right-wing policies, they were a delight. To a People’s Party that was tired of two-party dominance, they were a success. With no party holding a majority, the People’s Party will likely be able to swing quite a few votes. That means that those votes will likely be much further to the left than they were before, but it also means that Minjoo’s place in this National Assembly will be weaker than Saenuri’s in the last.

Htin Kyaw: The First Democratic Leader of Myanmar in Decades

Htin Kyaw was sworn in as the president of Myanmar on Wednesday. As a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), his inauguration marks an important step forward in Myanmar’s transition from a repressive military dictatorship to a democracy. It is tempting, with the ascension of a democratically elected leader, to celebrate a triumphant end to this transition. Yet the realities in Myanmar are complex, and the country still has a long way to go.

Myanmar, located in Southeast Asia and bordering Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand, is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Decades of dictatorship and economic mismanagement have left the economy in tatters, and ethnic conflict has plagued parts of the country for years. The wounds of the past went untreated until 2011, when the military junta announced that it would renounce power and transition to a civilian government. At the same time, Myanmar, which had been crippled by stringent economic sanctions, was opened to the global economy.

The Location of Myanmar in Southeast Asia
The Location of Myanmar in Southeast Asia

The roots of the decades-long political and economic stagnation lie in the military junta founded in in 1962 by Ne Win. In a military coup d’état, he established his own government and began to promote economic policies known as the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” This model, which advocated Burmese self-sufficiency, closed the country to the global economy and propelled millions into poverty. When, in 1988, failed monetary policies rendered the currency worthless, the people decided that they’d had enough. Millions took to the street in protest.

As a result of these protests, Ne Win’s dictatorship was overthrown and replaced by another military dictatorship that was based on an organization called the “State Law and Order Restoration Council.” At the same time, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma’s founder Aung San, returned to her country. In response to the political chaos, she founded the NLD and became an active leader of the organized pro-democracy movement. The NLD secured an electoral victory in 1990, but the results were dismissed and Ms. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. She later went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar, and today she is arguably the most powerful person in the country.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi

In 2011, the military junta decided to transition the leadership of the country to civilian rule. They drafted a “roadmap to democracy, freed Ms. Suu Kyi from house arrest, and held elections. Although this roadmap set Myanmar on a path to civilian rule, the military was careful to retain significant powers for itself. It drafted a new constitution in which twenty five percent of the seats in the legislature are reserved for military officials, and many powerful ministries of the executive branch are controlled by the military as well. The constitution also contained a provision that prohibited politicians whose children hold foreign passports from holding the presidency. Considering Ms. Suu Kyi has two British sons, it is generally accepted that this provision was included to prevent Ms. Suu Kyi from becoming president.

Because the NLD boycotted the 2010 elections in response to what it considered unacceptable electoral laws, it was not until last November that its popularity was tested in democratic elections. Ms. Suu Kyi led her party to a resounding victory. Winning 86 percent of the contested seats in the Hluttaw, Myanmar’s parliament, it has secured the majority that is needed to appoint the president. Not only does this represent a major victory for democratic politics in the country, but it also indicates that the people of Myanmar have rejected the dictatorship in favor of democracy.

Had Ms. Suu Kyi been allowed to become Myanmar’s president, she, not Htin Kyaw, would have been sworn in on Wednesday. But regardless of who holds the title, it is Ms. Suu Kyi who will truly be in charge of the country. She is the leader of the NLD and has already declared that any presidential appointee will answer directly to her. In fact, she promised that she would be “above the president.” The appointment of Htin Klaw, a trusted friend and loyal ally to Ms. Suu Kyi, certainly fulfills this promise. In fact, Ms. Suu Kyi has already taken considerable official power. She has become the head of four ministries, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education. Also, the Hluttaw passed a motion today that created a new position for Ms. Suu Kyi that is quite similar to that of a Prime Minister. Thus it is clear that, despite Htin Klaw’s inauguration, it is Ms. Suu Kyi who is truly in charge in Myanmar.

Yet in spite of the victory for Ms. Suu Kyi and the NLD, obstacles remain. Reluctant to renounce its power completely, the military is still an extremely influential force in Myanmar. Due to its control of twenty five percent of the Hluttaw, the military will be able to prevent the NLD from changing the constitution. The Military’s control of very powerful government ministries also poses an obstacle to the NLD administration. Thus despite the NLD’s appointment of Htin Kyaw as president, it is not in complete control of the country. Rather, it is sharing power with the military. Hence the military still has the power to make or break Myanmar’s transition to democracy and economic renewal. So while the ascension of an NLD president is a strong indication that the people of Myanmar are eager to see a democratic future, we can only hope that the military is listening.


A Tense Week in the South China Sea

This week has seen a number of events connected to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, also known as the West Philippine Sea. With China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia all staking claims in the region, the Sea is no stranger to tense confrontations. This past week was no different, with a string of minor clashes highlighting the sensitive situation in the region.

To provide some background, the South China Sea is located, as the name suggests, to the south of China. Most of the sea, though, is quite far from China and is in fact much closer to other countries in Southeast Asia like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. The sea is of strategic importance, with many major shipping routes passing through the area. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, half of the world’s oil and gas shipments travel through the sea. And speaking of oil and gas, the sea itself has hugely valuable reserves of both, offering untold economic opportunity to whichever country controls it. Thus competition for control of the area is fierce.

Because international law grants control of the ocean to countries that control nearby land, most of the disputes are focused on atolls in the Spratly and Paracel island chains. Consequently, while it appears that China and Taiwan are nowhere near most of the sea, they justify their claims by asserting sovereignty of some or all of the islands in these chains. China, in an attempt to legitimize its claim to the entire sea, is constructing artificial islands and military installations on shoals in the region. This has provoked ire in the Philippines and Vietnam, who feel threatened by China’s escalating militarism. Thus the political situation in which the events of this week occurred is extremely tense. Now that the extent of the dispute is clear, I will briefly describe each of this week’s occurrences and explain their significance.

Arrests in Indonesia 

Last Saturday, a Chinese trawler was caught fishing off the coast of Indonesia’s Natuna Island, and eight crew members were taken into custody. While very little of Indonesia is located in the South China Sea, Natuna is located in its far southern reaches. According to the Indonesia, a Chinese coast guard vessel attempted to prevent the crew of the trawler from being detained for fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. The Chinese government disputes these claims, saying that the trawler was fishing in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.” Such a claim is certainly dubious, especially considered that the event occurred, according to The Guardian, only 4.3 kilometers of the coast of Indonesia.

The situation has escalated into a diplomatic spat between the two nations, as Indonesia’s foreign minister called a Chinese diplomat to discuss the issue on Monday. In the days that followed, China has demanded that Indonesia release its citizens and Indonesia has refused, reaffirming that it will prosecute the crew for its activities. An Indonesian official also rebuffed China’s justification of the issue, attacking the notion that “traditional” fishing grounds have any legitimacy in international law. The events of this week have been a turning point for Indonesia policies in the South China Sea, as it has, in the past, kept out of the dispute. But its muscular response to China’s provocations indicate that it is no longer willing to stand by as China expands into Indonesian territory.

Taiping Island

This week also marked a turning point for Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea. For decades, Taiping Island, the largest island in the Spratly chain, has been administered by Taiwan. But on Wednesday, Taiwan held its first media tour of the island. The purpose of the trip appeared to be an attempt to prove that Taiping is an “island” as opposed to a “rock.” Why is the terminology so important? It comes down to, like most disputes in the region, a combination of competition for resources and the intricacies of international maritime laws.

Besides Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam both lay claim to Taiping and the waters that surround it. In an attempt to get its way, the Philippines has brought a case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an international body that attempts to settle disputes between nations, that claims Taiping is simply a “rock” rather than an “island.” This distinction is important in international maritime law because of two concepts: “territorial waters” and “Exclusive Economic Zones.” Territorial waters are defined as part of a country’s territory and extend 12 nautical miles into the sea. An Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends 200 nautical miles from the nearest land, and only that country is allowed to use those waters for economic purposes. A “rock” is entitled to territorial waters but not an EEZ. An “island,” on the other hand, is entitled to both. Thus, because Taiwan wants to be able to claim an EEZ around Taiping Island, it flew the group of journalists there in an attempt to show that it is suitable for human life and is consequently an island rather than a rock.

“100 Chinese Boats”

In another provocative move, China appears to be encroaching on Malaysian territory as well as Indonesian. According to a Malaysian coastguard official, 100 Chinese fishing boats have been detected inside Malaysia’s EEZ. Malaysia has threatened legal action if the boats remain in its EEZ, and it has sent naval vessels to monitor them.

Malaysia’s response is indicative of the general political climate in the South China Sea region. By threatening to take legal action, it is sending a strong message that China’s bullying is becoming increasingly intolerable. But it has not taken, and likely will not take, any decisive actions to remove the Chinese fishing fleet from its waters. This is because China is still the primary trading partner of many countries in Southeast Asia. They know that if they provoke China, they will be suffer more than it will. Thus the countries in the South China Sea region are in a difficult place. On one hand, they cannot upset China so much that they hurt themselves. On the other hand, they cannot simply stand by as China pushes them out of what they are entitled to under international law. It is likely that, due to the challenging position facing these countries, we will see more and more weeks like this one. We will see more and more weeks with numerous confrontations occurring within only a few short days.