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.

Brazil

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.

Uzbekistan

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.

Gabon

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

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.

Conclusion

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.

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