Poland, The World Order, and A Tale of Two Donalds

In 1795, Poland was wiped off the map. Partitioned between Prussia, Russia, and Austria, the country would not reemerge for over a century. 98 years ago from yesterday, the First World War ended and Poland reemerged as an independent state. As a result, November 11 is celebrated as Poland’s National Independence Day. This year, however, Poland’s government did not laud the country’s independence. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the country’s governing party, the Law and Justice Party, instead lamented the loss of sovereignty to the European Union. Meanwhile, tens of thousand of Polish citizens took to the streets of Warsaw. They set off flares, shouted ultranationalist slogans, and carried banners. One banner read “God, Honor, Fatherland,” and another read “Death to the enemies of the fatherland.”

In recent years, Poland has lurched far to the right. It has cultivated nationalism and rejected internationalism. It is riding the very same wave that has led to the election of Donald Trump in the United States, Brexit in the United Kingdom, and the shift in public opinion throughout Western Europe. Contrary to what many in the United States believe, it is impossible to escape this wave by fleeing to Canada. The people of Poland, Europe, and the world, too, appear to be rejecting the very foundations of the post-WWII global order.

Ever since Law and Justice took power last year the Civic Platform Party, once led by a man named Donald Tusk, Poland has turned sharply away from the European Union and towards authoritarian nationalism. It has gutted the country’s highest court, strengthened its grip on the media, promoted “traditional” catholic values, encouraged nationalism and xenophobia, rejected refugees, and taken a strongly eurosceptic position. Yet economically, it is not right-wing as imagined by most Americans. It is a strong proponent of the social safety net and opposes cuts to welfare spending. Thus its platform can be described a fusion of right-wing ultranationalism and left-wing socialism.

This same recipe is taking the world by storm. Donald Trump won the US presidency with the same formula, appealing to “America first” white nationalism while also pursuing protectionist and pro-welfare policies. Brexit, too, followed this formula, combining little-Englander nationalism with the economic concerns wrought by globalization. France’s FN, whose Marine Le Pen is set to be one of the country’s presidential candidates in 2017, is also staunchly protectionist while at the same time encouraging a resurgence in French nationalism. Political parties that merge left and right in a rejection of international integration have sprung up across The West.

While this ideology may seem like an honest expression of the alienation of the working people, it is in truth an insidious affront to the very ideals upon which the post-WWII global order was built. To see why, one needs not look any further than the Second World War. One of the most important effects of the Second World War was that it taught the lesson of how democratic systems of government come crashing down. When the global financial system crashed in 1929, economic insecurity skyrocketed. When faced with economic adversity, the population responded by blaming outsiders and retreating into nationalist tribes. Lower living standards made the people susceptible to grandiose promises to restore prior glory. The ability to recognize nuance was destroyed by fear, anger, and oversimplified narratives. As a result, Germany’s “national socialist” party would lead the world into a dark cloud of genocide and war.

Out of the ashes of Europe rose a new western order based on the ideals of international integration and multiculturalism. Leaders convened to ensure that the lessons of the Second World War would be learned and its horrors never repeated. Leaders promoted economic growth and created welfare states to ensure that citizens would never become so economically downtrodden that they felt compelled to blame scapegoats. They promoted globalization and economic integration to make countries dependent on one another and therefore more likely to cooperate. They embraced a multicultural society as a rejection of the racist horrors of the Second World War. Today, the champion of these values is the European Union, and Poland’s loudest cheerleader for these values is former-Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the European Union has spread its model across Eastern Europe. Poland transitioned to democracy, became a member of NATO in 1999, became a member of the European Union in 2004, and has has seen some of the greatest gains of any country following the fall of communism. Like the rest of The West, Poland has enjoyed relative stability and prosperity under the guidance of the post-WWII order. International dependence has meant that no major war has broken out between global powers, international trade has opened up markets and enabled economic growth that has lifted millions into the middle class, and international interaction has meant that the world has become far more tolerant towards individuals from different backgrounds and nationalities. The benefits of this system were so apparent to the Polish people that, in 2011, they re-elected a Prime Minister for the first time. That Prime Minister was Donald Tusk, and he is now the President of the European Council, one of the most important bodies of the European Union.

Yet the events of yesterday indicate that millions of Polish citizens have now rejected the international global order. And as of earlier this week, so too have millions of American citizens. Across Europe and the United States, the far-right is once again wedding nationalism and socialism. At no time since the end of the Second World War have these two ideologies been so closely intertwined. And at no time since the end of the Second World War has the international integration that ushered in stability and prosperity been so threatened.

The all-important question, then, is whether this rejection is temporary or permanent. Is it the desperate dying breath of an old ideology of division, or is it the violent awakening of a new chapter in the international state of affairs? In order to ensure that this new wave of illiberalism does not threaten the stability and progress enjoyed by The West since the end of the Second World War, European leaders must not let their continent go in the same direction as the United States. Now that the enforcer of the current global order has abandoned it, it us up to the leaders of the European Union to position itself as the global defender of international integration and cooperation. Donald Tusk, meet Donald Trump. You may have lost Poland to this movement, but it is not too late to save Europe and the world. Good luck.


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.

The ICC Is Not Racist

The Brexit storm has battered the European Union. Since the United Kingdom voted “leave” in June, international observers have wondered whether other members will follow suit. The stability of the organization has been called into question. So far, however, no other European country has shown any sign of following the lead of the United Kingdom. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is not so lucky.

Over the course of the last two weeks, three countries have announced their intentions to leave the ICC, and it is likely that many more “exits” lay ahead. It started with Burundi, which last week decided to withdraw from the organization. It was followed a few days later by South Africa and the next week by the Gambia. Of the 124 countries that signed the Rome Statute—the document that established the ICC—dozens, all of them in Africa, have expressed interest in leaving.

An mass exodus of African nations would be a major blow to the ICC
This map shows the member states of the ICC. Countries in green are members; countries in red are not. A mass exodus of African nations would be a major blow to the organization.

At this point, you may be wondering what exactly it is that the ICC does. The International Criminal Court is the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal. Its job is to prosecute individuals accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide, and its function is similar to that of the Nuremburg Trials following the Second World War, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia following the Yugoslav Wars, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda following the Rwandan genocide. The ICC was established in 2002 as the international community recognized the need for a permanent tribunal.

Since its foundation, however, it has come under increasing criticism from African governments. Last January, the ICC was widely criticized during the summit of the African Union. During the summit, the President of Kenya submitted a proposal that the AU develop a roadmap for a mass withdrawal from the ICC. Later, in May, Uganda’s president called the ICC “a bunch of useless people” during his inauguration, causing a number of Western diplomats to abruptly walk out of the ceremony. Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president who currently has a warrant for his arrest issued by the ICC, attended the inauguration ceremony. According to the ICC, he should have been detained—but he was not.

If dozens of countries are considering withdrawing, the level of animosity must be extreme. But why? Why is the organization so hated by African leaders? According to its detractors, the ICC is a racist organization. To date, it has issued arrest warrants for 39 individuals. All of them have been Africans. This has many African leaders asking why the ICC has not investigated activities of the United States and United Kingdom in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, the court has been accused of anti-Africa bias, racism, and even neo-colonialism. Leaders have gone so far as to accuse it of acting as a Western tool for meddling in domestic African affairs.

Are these accusations fair? Well, a little bit. But not very. It is certainly fair to criticize the court for lack of involvement in continents besides Africa, but to call it neo-colonial or racist is unjustifiable. For one, five of the eight African countries that were brought before the court were self-referred, meaning their governments willingly sought the assistance of the court’s institutions. Furthermore, the court seems to recognize its problematic focus on Africa. Of its ten current preliminary investigations, six involve countries outside of Africa—including one that is investigating the role of the United Kingdom in Iraq. It’s also important to consider that many of the the non-African countries that the ICC would normally investigate are not part of the organization. The United States never ratified the Rome Statute and is therefore one of these countries that cannot be prosecuted.  Finally, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, is from the Gambia. Thus the court is not composed of Western officials going after African officials as is often portrayed. Rather, it is composed officials from around the world going after justice on every continent.

Besides the fact that the court’s activities offer a blow to the argument of racism, so too does the uncomfortable fact that many of the worlds existing crimes against humanity occur in Africa, and a handful of African leaders are running from their responsibility for these crimes. Burundi offers a prime example. When the president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced that he would run for a third term despite a constitutional ban on doing so, he brought his country to the brink of civil war. Hundreds were killed and hundreds of thousands fled their homes. Now, Nkurunziza’s government has withdrawn from the ICC. Whether crimes were committed by the government, rebel groups, or individuals is beside the point. Thanks to the decision of the Burundian government, the victims of the recent violence will forever remain without justice. While leaders may claim to be leaving the ICC over racism, a subconscious (or maybe conscious in some cases) instinct of self-preservation may also be affecting their judgment.

Africa remains the world’s least developed continent. As a result, a handful of countries are or have recently been marred by some degree of violence. And a few of the perpetrators are most certainly still in power. Thus we can come to a simple conclusion: the ICC is heavily involved in Africa because more ICC member-states are plagued with violence in Africa than ICC member-states on other continents. To many, such an assertion would be seen as racist. But it isn’t. It’s simply true.

Not everyone is buying the narrative of racism. The government of Botswana, one of Africa’s most democratic countries, has repeatedly voiced its support for the ICC. And Fatou Bensouda, unlike the government of her home country, is not going to turn a blind eye to justice. As she put it, “We say that the ICC is targeting Africans, but all of the victims in our cases in Africa are African victims.” While it may not be fair that the ICC has not pursued more cases outside Africa, African leaders are still responsible for committing war crimes, and they should still be punished for doing so. The international community should not let empty accusations of racism from African leaders prevent it from honoring its duty to African victims.

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.

Why Ethnic Fissures are Undermining Ethiopia’s Developmental State

Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country and its fastest growing economy. By aggressively pursuing a state-led model of development similar to that of China, Ethiopia’s government is attempting to maintain an annual growth rate of around 10%. This, in theory, should be lifting millions out of poverty. Yet the ethnically-charged violence that has plagued the country over the last few weeks paints a far bleaker picture. This violence, which is caused by a feeling of disenfranchisement among Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups, is indicative of the cracks that are starting to appear at the foundation of the country’s developmental state.

For months, the Oromo people–Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group–have been protesting against the government in Addis Ababa. The protests began last November with a plan to expand the capital region into Oromo territory. Feyisa Lilesa, an Oromo marathon runner, crossed his arms in protest as he took second place in the Rio Olympics. He told the press that “The Ethiopian government are killing the Oromo people and taking their land and resources.” On October 2, an anti-government protest was held during a religious festival in the Oromia region. 52 protesters were killed when security forces opened fire. In the meantime, protests have spread to the Amhara region, home to Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group. In light of these protests, the government declared a state of emergency last week that gives the already powerful government even greater authority.

Ethiopia is divided into 9 regions–each is dominated by a certain ethnic group.
Ethiopia is divided into 9 regions. Each is dominated by a certain ethnic group.

One of the government’s primary fears is that recent protests are endangering its developmental program. Like in many East Asian countries during the 20th century, the state exercises enormous influence over the economy. It is following a model under which the state pours investment into certain key industries, and the results have been positive so far. As protesters target assets owned by foreign firms, however, there are fears that foreign investments will dry up. So if the government is pursuing a form of development that has served countries like South Korea and China so well, why are the people protesting? Well, there are historical and economic factors that mean Ethiopia’s model of the developmental state has caused major resentment among the Oromo and Amhara people.

The current government came to power in 1991 following a brutal civil war. After Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974, a communist junta called the Derg was established. Under the leadership of the Derg, insurgencies sprung up across the country. A massive famine in the 1980s caused millions of deaths. Eritrea’s war of independence and an invasion by Somalia further weakened the Derg’s hold on power. In this context, a rebel group called the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began to fight against the Derg in the Tigray region. Eventually, it became the dominant member of a coalition called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In 1991, the EPRDF overthrew the Derg and assumed its position at the head of the Ethiopian goverment–a role that it has maintained until today.

The TPLF domination of the EPRDF means that the government is dominated by the Tigray ethnic group–which constitutes only 6% of Ethiopia’s population. Thus the Oromo and Amhara–which make up around 34% and 27% of the country, respectively–have little representation while the Tigray are extremely powerful. Now let’s connect the dots. If development is largely driven by the state and the state is dominated by the Tigray, this means that the gains from development have disproportionately benefitted the Tigray while the Oromo and Amhara have remained steeped in poverty.

That dynamic–under which one ethnic minority largely controls the economic trajectory of the country–is the fundamental structural problem of Ethiopia’s developmental state. It is a significant reason why Ethiopia is unlike South Korea, China, or Taiwan, and it presents an existential threat to the country’s path of development.

Like in Ethiopia, the almost miraculous development of the Four Asian Tigers and China occurred largely at the hands of authoritarian leaders and their cronies. Because general population benefitted from rising standards of living, however, the people allowed the status quo to continue enriching their countries even though it disproportionally benefitted the upper class. But in Ethiopia, the upper class is not just a group of politically well-connected individuals. It is a group of politically well-connected individuals who all belong to the same ethnic group. That is a recipe for ethnically-charged resentment, and it is why protests are sweeping across Oromia and the Amhara region.

Many of the Oromo and Amhara protesters are calling for a representative democracy that will grant them independence from the Tigray elite. Yet a democracy would completely undermine Ethiopia’s developmental state, as the heavy hand of the government is a necessary part of its model of development. If the Tigray elite wishes to continue with its authoritarian developmental vision–and it should, because it has made significant progress so far–it needs to end the marginalization of the Oromo and the Amhara. While it does not yet need to transition to democracy, it does need to show the people that wealth is not just open to the Tigray. It needs to construct a powerful Oromo and Amhara elite that can buy into Ethiopia’s current economic and political model alongside the Tigray. If the elite can overcome ethnic boundaries, the people will follow. Otherwise, resentment will continue to mount, and the entire developmental state will be at risk of destruction.

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.

Gabonese Elections: Why Democratic Institutions Do Not Always Mean Democracy

To understand the values that a nation wishes to convey to the world, take a look at its official name. The United States, for example, clearly values unity. So does the United Kingdom. The People’s Republic of China seems to embody the populist spirit of the Communist Party. The name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo indicates an affinity for democracy. The word that comes up most, however, is “republic.”

The world is covered in republics. People’s republics, democratic republics, socialist republics, Islamic republics, and federal republics. The word “republic” comes from the latin word “respublica,” meaning “entity of the people.” With so many republics, then, we must live in a world of democratic utopia. Not so, however. La République Gabonaise is, after all, the official name of Gabon, a small country on the western coast of Africa. An event that occurred on Friday, however, seems to indicate that it is more an entity of the family than an entity of the people.

The location of Gabon within Africa
The location of Gabon within Africa

Last month, the president of Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba, was re-elected. Jean Ping, Mr. Bongo’s opponent, lost by a tiny margin. After it was announced that Ping 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, Haut-Ogooué, 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.

The protesters also had good reason to protest Bongo’s presidency. He was first elected in 2009 after the death of the country’s previous ruler, Omar Bongo. Omar Bongo had run Gabon since 1967, first under a single-party state and later after the introduction of multi-party democracy. During Omar Bongo’s tenure, oil was discovered in Gabon. Billions of dollars worth of oil revenue began flowing into the country. It did not flow evenly, however. It went straight to the top, with  the Bongo family and its allies became vastly wealthy through corruption. It is no surprise, then, that Ali Bongo was elected president in 2009. He is Omar Bongo’s son, so he had the support of almost endless funds and a deeply entrenched political establishment.

That brings us to what happened this Friday. As a result of these massive electoral disparities and questionable results, Jean Ping challenged the election in court and called for a recount. The court decided on its verdict this Friday. It decided that there were, in fact, irregularities in the vote. But it did not see a problem with the results of Haut-Ogooué. Instead, it nullified the results in 21 polling stations, giving Mr. Bongo an even larger lead. Why would it make such a decision? Well, courts are supposed to be independent from a country’s administration in order to prevent conflicts of interest. In states like Gabon, however, leaders like Omar Bongo spent decades building autocratic political systems in which the interests of everyone point in the same direction: the maintenance of power by the current elite. Thus the court, whose members can be appointed and dismissed by the president, has been filled with partisans who are loyal to the Bongo government.

But Gabon isn’t exactly an oppressive dictatorship. Unlike in Equatorial Guinea, the oil wealth has improved conditions for many. Unlike in North Korea, it has no cult of personality. Unlike in Eritrea, it has little forced labor. Over the course of the last year, fraudulent elections have occurred in Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, and the Republic of the Congo. Yet unlike in these countries, opposition candidates in Gabon were allowed to campaign freely, there was little voter intimidation, and voter participation was high. Is it unfair, then, to claim that Gabon fails to put the “public” in “republic”?

Despite the fact that Gabon maintains some democratic institutions, such a claim is not unfair. Why? Because the preferences of the people had absolutely no bearing on the results of the election. While Gabon is not a traditional dictatorship that uses heavy-handed tactics to ensure complete concentration of power, it is most definitely a soft dictatorship that cultivates a believable façade of democracy while maintaining power in less sinister ways. This distinction between hard and soft dictatorship is an important one.

Take the comparison of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, for example. Their cultural, economic, and political histories are remarkably similar, resulting in two autocratic political systems. The two countries are located right next to each other on the map. Both were dominated by the Fang and related ethnic groups. Both were colonized by European powers and gained independence in the 1960s. Both discovered valuable oil reserves, resulting in a massive influx of wealth. Both have autocratic leaders who concentrate much of the wealth and power within a tight-knit circle of friends and family. But the path that Gabon has taken is decidedly less sinister.

Equatorial Guinea’s early post-independence history was marked by mass deportations, a country-wide system of forced labor, economic collapse, widespread political assassinations, and a reign of terror by president and his paramilitary organizations. A third of country’s population fled. The elite of Equatorial Guinea, centered on the family of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, maintains power with sweeping oppression. Opposition is harassed to the point where it is practically nonexistent. Thus Obiang handily won recent “elections” with over 90% of the vote. The Gabonese government, on the other hand, has never relied on terror to control its people. In recent decades, a healthy opposition has been allowed to develop. That is why the recent election was so closely contested. But to win the election, all that was required of Bongo was relatively minor manipulation of the results and a loyal court to uphold the fraudulent results. That is the difference between a soft dictatorship and hard dictatorship. In Equatorial Guinea, terror pervades political life and democratic institutions are nonexistent. In Gabon, democratic institutions are allowed but they are simply ineffective in the face of the loyalties that Bongo has built within the government.

Soft dictatorships are certainly not as bad as hard ones. They allow decisive action to be taken without the level of oppression seen elsewhere. The gulf states, for example, have channeled their oil wealth to develop massive prosperity despite a lack of democracy. These kingdoms and emirates, however, are not attempting to paint themselves as something that they’re not. By claiming to derive legitimacy from their people, governments like the one in Gabon are lying to the world. If they truly believe their system of government is more effective than democracy, they should not brand themselves a republic. The world is covered in republics in name only. But make no mistake. The existence of democratic institutions is not all that is required to make a democracy.

South Sudan: When Violence is Necessary, Peace is Nearly Impossible

Over the past few centuries, the world has made vast progress toward achieving higher levels of wealth and stability. As the world as a whole has advanced, however, the disparity between prosperous nations and impoverished nations has grown larger. Why? Because some regions have been left behind. Although the world has improved as a whole, some places have advanced only incrementally–if at all. South Sudan is one of the places that has seen the least improvement. Since its birth as the world’s newest country in 2011, it has been plagued with violence. On Friday, the number of refugees that have fled South Sudan passed one million.

The location of South Sudan within Africa

South Sudan was created as part of a peace plan. It has not, however, brought peace to the people of this war-ravaged part of the world. Since the decolonization of Africa, the region has been devastated by the First Sudanese Civil War, the Second Sudanese Civil War, and the South Sudanese Civil War. The peace deal following the first of these wars achieved autonomy for South Sudan; the peace deal following the second achieved independence; and peace deal following the third has already unravelled. Each war was resolved by a peace deal, but each peace deal failed to address the causes of war: a culture in which it is within the interests of the people and the politicians to remain prepared for war.

The First Sudanese Civil war began immediately before the independence of Sudan. It was driven by conflict between the northern and southern portions of the country. Before independence, the largely Islamic north had been administered separately from the less populous and Christian majority South. As independence neared, it became clear that the two portions of the country would be united under one government. As a result, the less populous and Christian south feared that it would be overwhelmed by the north. For this reason, southern leaders launched an insurgency. Neither the northern government nor the southern separatists could achieve an outright victory, resulting in a stalemate. Eventually, the warring parties signed a peace agreement in 1972 that attempted to solve the conflict with the creation of an autonomous region in the south.

For over a decade, the peace agreement held and Sudan remained relatively stable. In 1983, however, it fell apart. The president of Sudan at the time, Gaafar Nimeiry, declared the entire country an Islamic Republic and abolished the autonomous region. Naturally, the south once again feared marginalization by the north. As a result, it launched the Second Sudanese Civil War. The opposition, however, was fractured throughout the war. At first, it was led by Dr. John Garang, a member of the Dinka ethnic group who established the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and its political arm, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), in 1983. Over time, Garang’s policy of a united but secular Sudan fell out of favor with those advocating for the complete independence of the south. In 1991, a faction led by SPLA commander Riek Machar attempted to overthrow Garang. It failed to replace him, but it created a new militia that became known as the SPLA-Nasir.

As result of the split between the SPLA and the SPLA-Nasir, the Second Sudanese Civil War morphed into something far more complicated than a simple north-south conflict. In order to strengthen its position against Garang, the SPLA-Nasir exploited ethnic divisions. It drew most of its support from the Nuer ethnic group to which Machar belonged. This caused conflict with the Dinka ethnic group, the largest ethnic group the country to which Garang belonged. In 1991, 2000 ethnic Dinka were killed by Nuer forces loyal to the SPLA-Nasir in what came to be known as the Bor Massacre. To complicate matters further, the SPLA allied with anti-government militant groups in the north. At the same time, the fiercely pro-independence SPLA-Nasir somewhat paradoxically entered into strategic alliance with the government in Khartoum. Thus the north-south war had become a nationwide conflict with an opposition that was deeply divided along ethnic lines.

The Second South Sudanese Civil War officially ended in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The agreement was meant to end the conflict with South Sudan as well as various other armed conflicts throughout the country. It set a timetable for an independence referendum in South Sudan. This was held in 2011, and the people voted overwhelmingly for independence. As a result, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation on July 9, 2011. It was led by Salva Kiir, a Dinka who succeeded Garang as the leader of the SLPA following the latter’s death. Riek Machar was made the vice president. For a few years, the country was not officially at war. In 2013, however, the facade of stability crumbled. Kiir and Machar turned against each other, plunging the country into the South Sudanese Civil War.

In July of 2013, Kiir dismissed his cabinet and removed Machar from the vice presidency. His moves were criticized by many as an attempt to consolidate his own power. In December of 2013, a group of Nuer soldiers mutinied and took over the headquarters of the military. Kiir accused them of staging a coup attempt led by Machar. The country once again fractured along ethnic lines.  Nuer soldiers across South Sudan rallied to support Machar, while Dinka forces remained loyal to the government. Violence continued until a peace agreement was signed in August 2015. It stipulated that Machar would once again be made vice president. In keeping with the pattern of history, however, the peace deal soon fell apart. Kiir once again reorganized the government to ensure its loyalty, and Machar once again was removed from power and fled the country. While the war officially ended in August 2015, the violence never truly subsided.

Although the South Sudanese Civil War is officially over, much of the country (in green) is still controlled by rebel militias.

Decades of civil war have normalized violence in South Sudan. Its residents have come to fear massacre, and its leaders have become used to working within the framework of rival groups backed by ethnically aligned militias. Decades ago, leaders used ethnic divisions to further their political aims. Now, they cannot achieve their political aims without appealing to these same divisions, and they cannot disarm without losing their leverage. The go-to way to increase one’s power became the establishment of one’s very own ethnocentric militant group. In the face of such widespread violence, the people have two options. They can either arm themselves or flee. Such is the culture that has developed in South Sudan. Violence is necessary for survival, both politically and literally.

Peace in South Sudan demands both political and social reform. As of now, war is within the interest of South Sudan’s leaders and its people. To end the war, reform must be achieved on such a scale that the political interests of the leaders and the interests of the myriad ethnic groups all align with each other and with peace. In the past, the leaders and the people have been conditioned to prepare for the next war in order to ensure their survival. As a result, it is within their interests to remain on war footing. It is only through a drastic reengineering of national interests, then, that the culture of violence will subside. How to achieve these drastic reforms, however, is as unclear to me as it has been to the architects of the numerous failed peace attempts of the past. That’s why, despite the fact that the Sudanese Civil War, Second Sudanese Civil War, and South Sudanese Civil War have all officially ended, refugee numbers are still rising. That’s why there are over one million refugees.


No Iranians in Mecca: A Boycott and the Balance of Power

This Friday marked the beginning of the Hajj. Every Muslim must live in accordance with five essential pillars, and The Hajj–one of these pillars–stipulates that every Muslim must make a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia at least once in their life as long as they are able to do so. Thus millions of Muslims from dozens of sects and countries converge on Mecca each year to fulfill the Hajj. This year, however, there will be a significant absence. There will not be any Iranians in Mecca.

If we look into the past to find why exactly Iran is boycotting the Hajj this year, there a few different dates that could be pointed out. Many would agree that the conflict began on January 2, 2016. Others would point to September 24, 2015. Others would go further back and single out February 11, 1979. Still more would go even further to June 8, 632. Most would agree, however, that his year’s Hajj has become the latest flashpoint in the increasingly tense cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

On September 24, 2015, a catastrophe rocked Mecca. Around 2,400 pilgrims were crushed to death in a stampede during The Hajj. Over 400 of those were from Iran. As a result, the Iranian government has been harshly critical of Saudi authorities. It has accused them of being unable to successfully administer The Hajj and protect foreign citizens. For this reason, it has barred its citizens from participating this year. Iranians were not the only foreign citizens who perished, however. Why, then, has Iran been more critical of Saudi authorities than other countries? Well, there some political reasons. Or religious ones, depending on who you ask.

On January 2, 2016, the Saudi government executed a Shia cleric by the name of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. He was accused of inciting violence by the Sunni Saudi government, although most foreign observers believe his execution was merely a means to silence criticism. After al-Nimr, who was very popular in Shia Iran, was executed, Iranian protesters broke into the Saudi embassy in Tehran. As a result, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran. Thus it was in this state of heightened political tensions following the execution of al-Nimr that Iran has decided to bar its citizens from attending The Hajj.

Like Saudi Arabia, the United States also broke ties with Iran following an incident at their Tehran embassy. While the similarities shared by these two events may seem coincidental, they are, in fact, related. This is because the root of the political tensions that were inflamed by the execution of al-Nimr can actually be found even further back in history on February 11, 1979. It was on this day that Iran overthrew its monarchy and established an Islamic republic. Before 1979, Iran was like Saudi Arabia and the gulf states in that it was controlled by a pro-western monarchy. Revolutionaries derided this status quo, claiming the the Shah–the king of Iran–was a puppet of the west who was allowing the country to be contaminated by western culture. It is natural, then, that Saudi Arabia’s western-backed monarchy would feel threatened by this anti-monarchial and anti-western way of thinking. When this way of thinking came to power in Iran through the revolution, it legitimized an alternative to the Saudi model of government. As a result, a political rivalry was born.

Some, however, would argue that the roots of the Iran-Saudi Arabia go back even further. Back to June 8, 632. It was on this day that the prophet Muhammad–the founder if Islam–passed away. His death raised the question of who would succeed him as the religious and political leader of the Islamic world. Some supported Abu Bakr, who was one of Muhammad’s closest friends and confidants. Others believe that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin, was chosen by Muhammad as his rightful successor. This disagreement resulted in the first split of the Islamic world into its two major sects. Supporters of Abu Bakr eventually came to be known as Sunnis, and the supporters of Ali came to know be known as Shias. Iran is the most powerful Shia country while Saudi Arabia is the most powerful Sunni one. Because of this, many view the rivalry between the two countries as a continuation of the religious differences that have divided them for centuries.

Do we have our answer, then? Is Iran boycotting The Hajj this year because Muhammad’s death resulted in a succession crisis in 632? Well, it isn’t that simple. Whenever a conflict arises in the Middle East, the split between the Sunnis and Shias is often cited as its root cause. Despite its convenience, however, we should be wary of using this centuries-old religious conflict as a scapegoat. In reality, it is the power dynamic between the two countries that has resulted in Iran’s decision to boycott The Hajj.

Like the United States and the Soviet Union, Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a cold war. Just as those two countries emerged as the two global superpowers following the Second Word War, Iran and Saudi Arabia have emerged as the two most powerful countries in the Middle East, and each threatens the other. The Kings of Saudi Arabia fear a revolution like that which toppled the monarchy in Iran, and the mullahs of Iran fear a popular rejection of their anti-western ideology in the face of Saudi Arabia’s vast wealth and prosperity. By bolstering their own power and attacking the power of the other, the two countries are attempting to prove the legitimacy of their own model of government so that it will not be replaced by the other’s. The boycott of the Hajj is merely an attempt by Iran to delegitimize the Saudi government, and the prescence of religious conflict merely offers a way for each government to justify their conflict.

While the United States and Soviet Union may have justified their conflict with airy proclamations of protecting “freedom” from “tyranny” and protecting “the proletariat” from “the bourgeoisie,” what the leaders of both countries really wanted, whether consciously or subconsciously, was to guarantee prosperity for themselves. It is for this reason that they worked perfectly well together when united against the common threat of nazism and only turned against each other once both had developed a nuclear weapon.

In the same way, the leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia are using religious conflict to justify their political rivalry. The esoteric religious divisions between the Sunnis and Shias are not enough, in and of themselves, to cause conflict. It is the instinct of self-preservation among the leaders of the two countries that will keep the Shia-Sunni conflict alive, it is this instinct of self-preservation that will keep Iran and Saudi Arabia from working together until the interests of their leaders align, and it is the very same instinct of self-preservation that will keep Iranians out of Mecca this year.

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.