First Past the Post: December 28


East and South Asia

Former constitutional judge Kim Yong-jun will head the transition committee of incoming South Korean president Park Guen-hye.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari marks his emergence into Pakistani politics on the fifth anniversary of the assassination of his mother, Benazir, and is using the nation’s judiciary as a foil.

The Narendra Modi for prime minister bandwagon moves on quietly.

Cacique democracy in the Philippines (h/t Tyler Cowen).

Bloomberg examines the ‘princelings’ of the Chinese Communist Party (with a seriously awesome graphic).

Shinzō Abe’s new Japanese government will review the plan to phase out Japan’s nuclear power by the 2030s.

North America

U.S. general Norman Schwarzkopf, who led the United States-led mission to free Kuwait from Iraq in 1991, has died.

The United States prepares to jump off the so-called ‘fiscal cliff,’ with only meager hope resting on the U.S. Senate to broker a deal.

Latin America / Caribbean

The government of Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner gets a setback from the country’s constitutional court in its media-empire fight.


Rebels are threatening the capital of the Central African Republic, and the U.S. embassy in Bangui has been evacuated.

A summit between Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan and former president Olusegun Obasanjo in advance of 2015 elections?

South African president Jacob Zuma is in the doghouse for some impolitic remarks about whites and pets.

In Ghana, the New Patriotic Party prepares for its day at court.


Spain’s Bankia is once again in trouble.

The Vatican indicates it will back a new Italian government headed by technocratic incumbent Mario Monti.  Here’s the link to the piece in the Vatican’s daily newspaperL’Osservatore Romano. [Italian]

Belgium’s king, Albert II (pictured above with EU president Herman Van Rompuy), warns against populist scapegoating.

Russian president Vladimir Putin indicates he will sign a bill banning the adoption of Russian children by U.S. parents.

Middle East

The liberal secular opposition’s leaders — Hamdeen Sabahi, Amr Mousa and Mohammed ElBaradei — will now be apparently investigated for treason by Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood-backed president, Mohammed Morsi.

Iran’s only female government minister has been dismissed.


First Past the Post: December 27


East and South Asia

The victim of a Delhi gang rape — an incident that has angered much of India — has been transferred to Singapore for medical treatment, although she’s quickly becoming the Mohamed Bouazizi for women’s rights throughout South Asia and beyond.

Delhi police may have detained and assaulted women who attended the anti-rape protests.

Sumit Galhotra on the increasing violence in India for journalists covering the anti-rape protests throughout the country.

Tim Duy on the monetarization of fiscal deficit spending in Japan (but really with consequences for central banking globally).

Shinzō Abe was sworn in yesterday and announced his (right-leaning) cabinet.  The full line-up.

Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari may be gearing up to hand over leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party to his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

A potential alliance between former Indonesian president Megawati Soekarnoputri and current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in advance of 2014 elections?

North America

Former U.S. president George H.W. Bush’s condition is worsening, and he’s currently in intensive care.

In defense of Michèle Flournoy as U.S. defense secretary.

Latin America / Caribbean

Estimates for Paraguayan GDP growth in 2013 are 10.5%.  [Spanish]

What happens on January 10 if president Hugo Chávez cannot be present in Venezuela for his inauguration?

Coca licensing in Bolivia.


Former South African president Nelson Mandela goes home from the hospital.

Kenyan justice minister Eugene Wamalwa backs deputy prime minister Musalia Mudavadi for president after Mudavadi’s departure from the Jubilee coalition.


The ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children is approved by Russia’s Senate.

A group of centrists backing technocratic, pro-austerity prime minister Mario Monti is taking shape.

On the eve of an election year, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union holds a 41% to 27% advantage over the Social Democratic Party, a seven-year high, according to a new Forsa poll, though Merkel’s coalition partners, the Free Democrats win just 4% and the German Greens win 13%. [German]

Middle East

The defection of Syria’s commander of military police seems like a material development.

Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, showing humility, calls for unity after pushing through referendum on Egypt’s new constitution.

Potentially harsher charges for former Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Likud doesn‘t necessarily want an alliance with Tzipi Livni.

Despite Capriles win, regional elections a setback for Venezuelan opposition to Chávez


With so much going on in world politics, namely the Japanese and South Korean elections earlier last week and the holidays, it’s been easy to sidetrack the gubernatorial elections throughout Venezuela last Sunday — but that doesn’t diminish their importance.Venezuela Flag Icon

As you probably know by now, it was a good day for Hugo Chávez and the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela).  The chavista left won 20 out of 23 races, leaving them with more regional power after Sunday than before and the various opposition groups with five less governors.  And Chávez is still alive, as of today, following surgery in Cuba, although, perhaps troublingly, his vice president Nicolás Maduro has now assumed key economic powers in the country.

The opposition held onto the second most-populous state, Miranda, where the current governor, Henrique Capriles, recently lost the October presidential race to Chávez by 9% as the candidate of the opposition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) — though it doesn’t quite seem so, it was actually the best performance by an opposition challenger against Chávez in his 13 years in power, in stark contrast to the previous near-comical attempts to defeat Chávez.

Capriles, in the Dec. 16 race, faced Chávez’s outgoing vice president Elías Jaua, and despite Jaua’s somewhat lackluster campaigning skills, Jaua had the full force of the PSUV and the Chávez government behind him.

Capriles’s win — by a relatively narrow 51.83% to Jaua’s 47.82% margin — makes him the highest-ranking opposition governor in Venezuela, and the fact that he’s held on to the governor’s office in Miranda, despite a hard-charing effort from the PSUV, means that if Chávez dies or retires in office anytime soon (a question that’s on everyone’s mind following yet another surgery for the cancer-stricken Chávez), Capriles will be the natural candidate to contest any impromptu presidential race — which would take place within 30 days.  No one else in the opposition has the same level of name recognition or could so quickly mobilize a national campaign apparatus.

Notably, Capriles’s rival for the opposition presidential nomination, the governor of Venezuela’s most populous state, Zulia, Pablo Pérez lost his reelection bid, ending a 12-year run for Pérez’s Zulia-based Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT, a New Era).  Although Pérez was favored to win the race in Zulia, he lost to the man who held the governor’s office in Zulia from 1995 to 2000, Francisco Arias Cárdenas, with a strong assist from Chávez and his federal government’s spending program for Zulia, the federal Corpozulia program.  It’s the brightest jewel for the chavistas, given that they have not won a gubernatorial race in Zulia since 1998 when Chávez took office, despite the fact that Chávez has won a majority in Zulia in every presidential race, including in his race against Capriles, even if by a relatively narrow 53.34% to 46.27%.  Cárdenas won the gubernatorial race by an even more narrow margin of 52.22% to 47.68%,

Capriles widely defeated Pérez last February for the MUD presidential nomination, but Pérez could have been a fierce challenger for a future presidential election.  So, ironically, although the Zulia race is a huge loss for the opposition to Chávez, it’s rather a boost for Capriles, personally.  Furthermore, as Furthermore, as Juan Cristóbal Nagel at Caracas Chronicles notes, the Miranda campaign showed that Capriles, despite his overwhelmingly positive campaign for president, has the grit to attack an opponent.

In the third-most populous state of Carabobo, Henrique Salas Feo lost his reelection bid to former parliamentary speaker Francisco Ameliach, the PSUV’s candidate by a lopsided 55.73% to just 43.61% for the incumbent.  Given that the Salas family has ruled Carabobo since 1989 (except for four years), however, the loss is seen as less of a statement about the opposition forces than about fatigue with the Salas family.

Capriles’s largest competitor for the opposition’s standard-bearer, however, was reelected as governor of Venezuela’s fourth-most populous state, Lara.  Henri Falcón, who won election in 2008 as the former mayor of Barquisimeto and a PSUV candidate, albeit a fairly independent candidate who failed to embrace fully the chavista label, and in 2010, he founded his own party, Patria Para Todos (PPT, “Fatherland for All”), fully cutting his ties to Chávez and the PSUV.  Falcón faced a tough race against Luis Reyes Reyes, Lara’s governor — and a one-time mentor to Falcón — from 2000 to 2008, and from 2008 the deputy leader of the National Assembly.  His win, with a robust 53.87% to just 45.86% for Reyes, gives Falcón a strong platform to enter national politics, especially given the time to continue developing a national profile.

If Venezuela faces a new presidential campaign anytime soon, Capriles would certainly have the edge.  But if Chávez serves his full term, somehow, Falcón might well be the favorite opposition candidate by 2018.

Although there remains some question of fraud in Bolivar state, the only other opposition win was in Venezuela’s most sparsely populated state, Amazonas, longtime governor (since 2001) Liborio Guarulla won reelection with just over 55% of the vote, despite the PSUV’s opposition.

So where does this leave the opposition? Not nearly in as bad shape as you might expect.  Despite the loss of Zulia state, which is certainly unlikely to transform into a chavista stronghold anytime soon, it could have been worse.  Of the opposition’s three strongest potential candidates for president, two emerged unscathed, and Pérez may well survive to run again in 2016, and some of the defeated candidates, such as Salas, were not quite exactly the best role models for a dynamic opposition in any event.

As Nagel also notes over at Caracas Chronicles, abstentions in the gubernatorial races exceeded 50%, more by far than any recent election — presidential, parliamentary or otherwise (in contrast, in October, less than 25% of voters abstained).  So the result may have more to do with voters tuning out after nearly a year’s election battle between Chávez and Capriles than voters rejecting the opposition.

First Past the Post: December 26


Welcome back after a wonderful Christmas break.

It’s been a busy stretch for world elections and world politics over the past couple of weeks, and I’ll have thoughts on Egypt, Venezuela and other countries soon, with some other thoughts on world politics as we close the books on 2012 and look to 2013, where key elections await in the first quarter in Israel, Italy, Kenya and elsewhere.

As usual, thanks to all of my readers — please share the word, and a happy holidays to all!

* * * * *

East and South Asia

Shinzō Abe and the Liberal Democrats take office in Japan today — a coalition government with the Buddhist New Kōmeitō party.

Fumio Kishida will serve as Japan’s new foreign minister.

Former trade minister Banri Kaieda will become the new leader of the now-vanquished Democratic Party of Japan, largely from the most critical elements of the DPJ.

The gang rape of a woman in Delhi has finally caught the attention of India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh, who addressed the nation earlier this week.

Is India the worst nation in which to be a woman?

The People’s Republic of China has opened the world’s longest high-speed rail from Guangzhou, near Hong Kong in the south to China’s capital, Beijing (see above).

BusinessWeek anoints the Jim Cramer of China.

South Korean lawmaker Yoo Il-ho will serve as chief of staff for the transition team incoming presidential administration of Park Guen-hye in South Korea.  Here’s more on the transition.

Makhdoom Ahmed Mahmood has been appointed the governor of Punjab, the most populous province of Pakistan.

North America

In a Christmas Eve piece, Foreign Policy examines the chances of former U.S. senator Chuck Hagel — a Republican from Nebraska — to become the next U.S. secretary of defense.

‘Monsieur’ John Kerry’s French connection.

Latin America / Caribbean

Americas Quarterly examines the relationship between Brazil and Africa.

The year in Brazilian politics.

Snap elections could take place in Guyana, Grenada and Barbados in early 2013.

Venezuelan vice president Nicolás Maduro claims to have had a 15-minute conversation with president Hugo Chávez, who is said to be recovering from surgery in Cuba.


Updates on the recovery of former South African president Nelson Mandela.

Starting point for Kenya’s March 4 presidential election.


UK prime minister David Cameron’s popularity is on the wane, now more than halfway through what should be a five-year government.

Outgoing technocratic Italian prime minister Mario Monti won’t run in his own right in February’s elections, but he will serve as head of a coalition government if asked and he will provide an agenda during the campaign for what he believes Italy should do next.

In Greece, Alexis Tsipras of SYRIZA is leading polls and campaigning hard against the coalition government and austerity.

Is German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble planning his own post-election austerity regime for Germany late in 2013?

Middle East

Egyptians have apparently confirmed the hotly disputed constitution with nearly 64% of the vote after the second round of voting in a referendum finished Saturday.

With former foreign minister and Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman being questioned by police over an ongoing scandal, Tzipi Livni may be Benjamin Nethanyahu’s choice for foreign minister after Jan. 22 Knesset elections, accordingly to sources.

Centrist Yair Lapid mocks Netanyahu’s red-lines graphic to emphasize the plight of the Israeli middle class.

Modi’s Gujarat victory sets platform for national ambitions in 2014


Votes were counted yesterday from two regional state elections in India — in Gujarat, on the west-center coast of India, with 60 million people, and in the much smaller Himachal Pradesh, a much smaller Himalayan state that borders Tibet, with just six million people.India Flag Icon

But in some ways, December 20 was the first day of campaigning for the national election — likely to be held in 2014 — to control India’s Lok Sabha ( लोक सभा), the 552-member lower chamber of the Indian parliament.

The upshot of the elections is that Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi (pictured above) has been reelected for a third consecutive term, and his victory has invariably made him the frontrunner to be the prime ministerial candidate of the Hindu nationalist and conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) in 2014, when the BJP hopes to national power for the first time since its stunning 2004 election loss.

Modi had done nothing to dispel the notion that he wants to become prime minister during the campaign, in which Modi, quite novelly in Indian politics (and to my knowledge, world politics), appeared simultaneously at rallies throughout the state using a hologram version of himself.

Even in his victory speech, when he addressed supporters not in the local language, Gujarati, but the more nationally recognized Hindi language, he seemed to indicate that he was turning his eyes toward a national audience.

Modi, if he does lead the BJP in 2014, will not face the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, but likely Rahul Gandhi — the son of the Sonia Gandhi, the president of Singh’s Indian National Congress (Congress, or भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) and of the late former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and also the grandson of the late former prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Although some other BJP chief ministers appear ready to back Modi, he still faces obstacles — 2014 is far away, and the BJP chief minister of Madhya Pradesh since 2005, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who has also been a member of the Lok Sabha since 1991, will be seeking his third consecutive term next year.  Madhya Pradesh lies in the heart of central India, with an even larger population (75 million) than Gujarat and which also has an economy better than India’s average.

Furthermore, Raman Singh, who has been the BJP chief minister of the less-populous (25 million) but industrially vital east-central state of Chhatisgarh since 2003, will also seek his third consecutive term in 2013.

At the national level, the chief minister of Bihar state, Nitish Kumar, remains decidedly cold about running with Modi in 2014.  Kumar leads the Janata Dal (United) party (JDU), which holds just 20 seats in the Lok Sabha, but is the second-largest member, after the BJP, of the National Democratic Alliance in the Lok Sabha that stands as the united opposition to Congress.  The JDU lies more to the political left of the BJP, and it’s been strongest in Bihar and Jharkhand in the far east of India.  Kumar, whose party is also more secular than the Hindu-based BJP, has worked to appeal to Muslims, which comprise 16.5% of the population in Bihar.  He has threatened to pull the JDU out of the alliance with the BJP if it nominates Modi as its prime ministerial candidate.

But for now, let’s take a closer look at the results, announced yesterday, in Gujarat:


Going into the election, the BJP controlled 117 of the 182 seats in the Gujarati regional parliament.  Modi held onto most of those seats, despite a nationalized campaign that brought Singh and both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to campaign against him, and despite rumblings from elements within Gujarat to Modi’s right and Keshubhai Patel, who preceded Modi, serving in 1995 and from 1998 to 2001.  Patel formed a new party, the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP), which won two seats, and likely stole away enough votes from Modi’s BJP to allow Congress to win a few more seats in the election.

Although Modi would probably have liked a wider victory — expectations spun wildly out of hand that he could win 130 to 150 seats, although that was never incredibly likely — it’s nonetheless a very strong win after more than a decade of incumbency for Modi personally and two decades of incumbency for the BJP, especially in a country that isn’t incredibly kind, electorally speaking, to incumbents (as the BJP learned yesterday in Himachal Pradesh).  Continue reading Modi’s Gujarat victory sets platform for national ambitions in 2014

The next U.S. treasury secretary will be more important to world affairs than John Kerry


Now that we’ve gotten the excitement about the nomination of U.S. senator John Kerry out of the way, we’re still a long way off from knowing who will succeed Timothy Geithner as U.S. president Barack Obama’s treasury secretary.


Although in terms of protocol, Kerry will undoubtedly remain the top American diplomat, the next U.S. treasury secretary will be just as important — if not more important — than the incoming U.S. secretary of state, and he or she may well have a greater hand in setting foreign policy, given the precarious nature of the U.S. economy.

Although the most recent GDP estimates show that the economy grew at a 3.1% pace in the third quarter of 2012, growth in 2011 was around 1.7%, and any number of global factors could topple even an otherwise impregnable recovery.

Consider all of the key international issues on U.S. president Barack Obama’s agenda over the next four years:

  • the ongoing eurozone crisis and the destabilizing blowback to the U.S. economy from a eurozone breakup or further recession, unemployment and depressed aggregate demand in the European Union;
  • in the world’s second-largest economy — China — a new leader in Xi Jinping will face a slowing economy and a renminbi currency that remains elevated in value vis-a-vis the U.S. dollar;
  • in the world’s third-largest economy — Japan — a new leader in Shinzō Abe will embark upon a massive public spending binge in a country that’s set to become the largest external holder of U.S. debt (supplanting China, which held that role for a decade, and which has seen its own U.S. dollar inflows from export trade slow over the past four years);
  • Obama will want to leave office having concluded the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious trade and cooperation agreement among various North American, South American and Asian countries;
  • as the United States transitions from a net energy consumer to a net energy producer in the coming decade or so, foreign policy in the Middle East will become relatively less important as the United States becomes less dependent on Arab oil; and
  • for the first time in a generation or more, ‘investment’ and ‘boom,’ rather than ‘AIDS,’ ‘civil war,’ ‘famine’ and ‘genocide’ are more applicable to sub-Saharan Africa, taken as a whole — there remain major problems, but for the first time, the narrative of ‘cheetah’ economies from Nigeria to Ghana to Ethiopia has outpaced the narrative of horrors (like the ongoing violent morass in the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

All of that means Obama’s next treasury secretary — whether current chief of staff Jacob Lew, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink or someone else — will be at the forefront of the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the next four years.

Remember, too, that the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, has been more important than anyone else in the United States over the past four years in stabilizing the world economy after the 2008 financial panic, and his continued emphasis on expansionary monetary policy has implications that go far beyond the U.S. economy.  His term ends in 2014, and he’s indicated he won’t stay on for a third term; minds have been known to change in Washington, but economic policymakers and investors alike will be keenly interested in the policy background and ideas of Bernanke’s successor — a choice that will likely be shaped with input from Geithner’s successor (and who may even be Geithner himself). Continue reading The next U.S. treasury secretary will be more important to world affairs than John Kerry

Five reasons why Kerry’s appointment as U.S. secretary of state is a slam-dunk

U.S. president Barack Obama is expected to nominate U.S. senator John Kerry today to succeed U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who will leave the U.S. state department as one of the most admired public servants in the United States, despite the grumbling over the 9/11 Benghazi attack.USflag

I’ve argued for a long time that the senior senator from Massachusetts is by and far the best choice for the position, and he topped my pre-election list of potential top diplomats; James Traub over at Foreign Policy made the case expertly shortly after Obama’s re-election:

John Kerry is Hillary Clinton in pants. (Yes, I know, Secretary Clinton also wears pants.) He came within a whisker of being president — much closer than she did — and thus enjoys the aura of the almost-commander in chief. He is, like Clinton, a kind of living embodiment of America. He is immensely solemn and judicious, like her, but, unlike her, immensely tall. He is a decorated veteran with the iron grip of the ex-athlete. His baritone voice bespeaks bottomless gravitas. The man looks and acts more like a secretary of state than anyone since George Marshall. As a casting decision, it’s a no-brainer….

It has to be very flattering to be so earnestly interrogated by an enormously tall man who was almost president of the United States.

But it’s not all his tall, lanky body or his distinctive granite jaw.  There are other substantial reasons to appoint Kerry, many of which emphasize Kerry’s role at the heart of U.S. foreign policy for over five decades: Continue reading Five reasons why Kerry’s appointment as U.S. secretary of state is a slam-dunk

First Past the Post: December 21

lord k'inich

East and South Asia

What will it take for Western governments to grant a visa to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi?

Full results from India’s regional state elections (more to come on those from Suffragio tomorrow).

Older voters swung the Dec. 19 South Korean presidential race to Park Guen-hye.

What comes next for former presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo?

The Bank of Japan moves toward the position of incoming prime minister Shinzō Abe.

Xi Jinping gives his full support to beleaguered Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying.

North America

Hoping for a boom in Nova Scotia (I have to say, I’ve seen no place more beautiful in autumn).

Spiegel mocks U.S. gun culture: ‘one nation under guns.’

Latin America / Caribbean

Ecuador’s top banker faked his economics degree.

Happy Mayan end-of-the-world day.

Assurances from Yucatán state governor Rolando Zapata. [Spanish]

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva will be investigated for his role in ‘mensalão‘ vote-bying scandal from 2005.


The United Nations has authorized an African-led intervention force in Mali.

Nigeria passes its 2013 budget.

Another small party in Ghana chides the government for irregularities during elections earlier this month.

Kenya’s Jubilee coalition is disintegrating.


Russian president Vladimir Putin’s 4.5 hour press conference.

Urban planning and politics in Moscow.

Without apologizing, French president François Hollande has recognized French’s profondément injuste et brutal colonialism in Algeria.  [French]

Polish president Bronisław Komorowski boosts Poland’s entry into the eurozone.

The pro-life view on Ireland’s new controversial abortion liberalisation law.

Middle East

Egypt’s top elections official steps down two days before the final round of president Mohammed Morsi’s impromptu constitutional referendum.

Bayit Yehudi, the party in Israel that’s most likely to gain seats in Knesset elections on January 22 is targeting English- and French-speaking voters.


First Past the Post: December 20


East and South Asia

The internet in North Korea.

Votes are being counted in Gujarat‘s recent election.

A profile of Hu Chunhua, the incoming Chinese Communist Party chair of Guangdong province.

Malaysian elections seem likely to fall next spring.

North America

Former U.S. ambassador to China and Singapore and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has some thoughts on the future of the U.S. Republican Party.

Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives hold a narrow lead against the NDP and the ruling Liberal Party (in third place) before what’s likely to be a spring provincial election.

Latin America / Caribbean

The incumbent advantage in Latin American elections.


How Algerians feel about French relations upon the state visit by French president François Hollande. [French]

Hollande’s not apologizing for France’s colonial history in Algeria.

Senegal will move to prosecute Chad’s former president, Hissène Habré.

An update on Sudan’s opposition.


Artur Mas will continue as the regional president of Catalunya.

Spiegel looks at the return of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Italy seems set to go to the polls on February 24, and technocratic prime minister Mario Monti seems likely to run.  [Italian]

The Dutch economy is expected to contract.

It’s not Christmas until Irish president Michael D. Higgins (pictured abovegives us his Christmas address.

Greece gets a credit rating upgrade for Christmas.

Russia’s Duma is considering a ban on adoptions by U.S. parents.

Middle East

Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, says the fall of Damascus is only a matter of time.

Tarek Masoud at Foreign Policy on the Egyptian referendum mess.


The story behind Australia’s 1996 gun control law.

Park Geun-hye becomes South Korea’s first female president


Back in July, I suggested that  Park Geun-hye (박근혜) of the Saenuri Party (새누리당 or the ‘Saenuri-dang’, the New Frontier Party) was defying gravity in her race for South Korea’s presidency, and I listed five reasons why:

South Korea Flag Icon

  • She’d rebranded her party from the Grand National Party into the ‘New Frontier’ Party.
  • She then led the Saenuri Party to victory in elections for the National Assembly in April despite the unpopularity of her party’s incumbent president Lee Myung-bak (이명박).
  • Even six months ago, she had already co-opted the message of the center-left on ‘economic democratization,’ chaebol reform and income inequality.
  • South Korea’s progressive opposition was largely divided.
  • Mixed feelings (including some nostalgia among older voters) about her father’s authoritarian reign from 1961 to 1979 largely neutralized potentially controversial family ties.

By the time South Koreans went to the polls yesterday, all of those factors contributed to her victory.

She has defeated Moon Jae-in (문재인) of the Democratic United Party (민주통합당, or the ‘Minju Tonghap-dang’) with 51.6% of the vote to just 47.9% for Moon, ending what was always a very close race — albeit one where Park always seems to hold a slight edge.

As we look ahead, all of those factors should equally inform us as to what to expect from Park — the first woman to become South Korea’s president — and her incoming administration.

By rebranding her party as the ‘New Frontier’ Party — and making clear that the new frontier would not include Lee (who narrowly defeated Park for her party’s presidential nomination in 2007) — and then running against Lee’s record as much as against her opponent, she neutralized one of the most significant impediments to her candidacy.  She reinforced the split during the spring legislative campaign — and, by the way, she’ll enter the Blue House with a very friendly parliament as well.  Moon, had he won the election, would have been hampered by a hostile Saenuri majority, but Park will find a largely pliant National Assembly — Saenuri legislators know that they would not have that majority without Park.  So she’ll wield significant power as president in order to push through her campaign agenda.

That agenda, frankly, does not appear dissimilar to the agenda Moon promised.  While the policy details have been less than detailed, Park’s campaign emphasized traditionally liberal themes, and that moderate agenda certainly helped elect Park yesterday.  If Park wants to avoid the unpopularity of her predecessor, she’ll have to produce legislative accomplishments, not only on chaebol reform, but also find a way to reduce Korean income inequality and, ultimately, she’ll probably need to be lucky enough to have robust GDP growth.

On North Korea, too, both candidates agreed that the next president should be more conciliatory to North Korea than Lee’s administration, but they shied away from advocating a full return to the ‘Sunshine Policy’ of the late 1990s and 2000s that increasingly seemed to South Koreans like a series of handouts in exchange for further aggression from North Korea.  So under Park, South Korea will likely retain its firm approach to North Korea, but with relatively more carrots than sticks.

In terms of the geopolitics of East Asia, Park — who assumed the role of first lady during her father’s administration at age 22 when, in 1974, her mother was assassinated by North Koreans — will certainly be no shrinking violet (get set for five years of hearing the phrase ‘the Iron Lady of Asia’).

Indeed, it’s a crucial time for East Asia, given that King Jong-un has been in power for only a year, Xi Jinping (习近平) only last month took over as general secretary of the Chinese Communist  Party (中国共产党) and is set early next year to become the president of the People’s Republic of China, and the hawkish Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) only last Sunday won Japan’s parliamentary elections, returning him to power as prime minister.  Park’s immersion in Korean politics since the 1970s and her perceived toughness (she once returned to the campaign trail in 2006 just days after an assailant slashed her in the face with a knife) also likely contributed to her victory yesterday. Continue reading Park Geun-hye becomes South Korea’s first female president

Time names Barack Obama Person of the Year. Is that too US-centric? version.indd

So Time Magazine’s decision to anoint a Person of the Year since 1927, for reasons unknown, holds a rapt audience among folks in the United States, myself included.

This year (oh the suspense!), Time chose U.S. president Barack ObamaUSflag

In those 85 years, of course, Time has chosen every U.S. president (except Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and poor Gerald R. Ford), and in recent years, it’s made some pretty silly decisions (‘You’), but even as recently as 2007, chose Vladimir Putin as its Person of the Year.

Indeed, over its long history, it’s identified many world leaders as Person of the Year — Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi in 1930, Ethiopian emperor Haile Sellasie in 1935, (controversially) Nazi German leader Adolf Hitler in 1939 and  Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1940, (less controversially) U.K. prime minister Winston Churchill in 1941 (and again in 1949), Iranian president Mohammad Mossadegh in 1951, West German chancellors Konrad Adenauer in 1953 and Willy Brandt in 1970, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1957, French president Charles de Gaulle in 1958, Saudi King Faisal in 1974, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1977, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978 (and in 1985),  Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, anti-Communist Polish Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa in 1981 and even the anti-Marcos Filipino president that toppled the Marcos family, Corazon Aquino, in 1985.

Many of those decisions were thoughtful and, perhaps, even courageous.  As a platform for highlighting key issues and illuminating the mechanics of how cultures, politics and economics shape our world, the ‘Person of the Year’ concept isn’t a bad one.  

But before Putin in 2007, you have to go back to 1987 and 1989, when reform-minded Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev was chosen twice.

Is it really true that Time can’t find anyone in the world (outside the United States, of course) in the past 25 years worthy to be ‘Person of the Year’ other than Russian autocrats?

Certainly, Obama’s reelection was an important moment with wide implications for world affairs, but is Time really being too US-centric?

Consider all of the other options:

  • German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has nudged and cajoled the eurozone to bailouts of Greece, Portugal and Ireland that have kept those countries in the eurozone, while centralizing more fiscal policy and banking policy decision-making powers in the hands of the European Union.  In doing all of this, she’s maintained or even gained in popularity in Germany.
  • European Central Bank president Mario Draghi, whose commitment to stabilizing the eurozone in no uncertain language last summer may well have turned the page on the eurozone’s ongoing crisis.
  • International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde, for assistance in cleaning up most of Europe’s economic mess and the rest of the world’s besides, all the while trying to initiate a discussion about balancing austerity with the need for higher growth.
  • Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood now controls the government of the world’s most populous Arab country in the wake of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak last year, and whose rule, above all over this week’s constitutional referendum, remains subject to increasing uncertainty and doubt among secular liberals?
  • Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas achieved recognition of Palestine as a state in the United Nations last month.
  • The incoming leader of the world’s most populous country, Xi Jinping, as the new general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.  Hell, Time could have chosen the entire new seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.
  • Time could have been timely — and creative — and chosen the four new leaders of four East Asian countries — Xi, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Japan’s incoming prime minister Shinzo Abe and South Korea’s incoming president Park Guen-hye, the latter two being elected just this week.
  • México, poised to overtake Brazil as the largest economy in Latin America in the 2020s, has returned the longstanding PRI to power under the leadership of new president Enrique Peña Nieto, who promises tax reforms, privatization and development of México’s oil industry and a new approach to drug violence and security.
  • Maybe even Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, who’s staked his presidency on peace talks with the longtime rebel guerilla group FARC?
  • How about Aung San Suu Kyi, who after years of house arrest is now serving in the parliament of Burma/Myanmar, with the once nearly-autarkic regime engaged in reforms to not only its economy, but human rights and democracy as well, garnering the re-establishment of relations with the United States?

U.S. power isn’t infinite, especially in the increasingly multipolar 21st century — and at some point, it’s a little ridiculous for Time to focus on Americans to the exclusion of those outside the United States.  Maybe it’s time to call it what it’s become — the Person of the Year Most Relevant to the United States.

Photo credit to Nadav Kander for Time.

South Korean voters choose a new president

South Koreans voters are now at the polls to determine whether conservative Park Geun-hye (박근혜) of the Saenuri Party (새누리당 or the ‘Saenuri-dang’, the New Frontier Party), the daughter of former South Korean leader Park Chung-hee or progressive Moon Jae-in (문재인) of the Democratic United Party (민주통합당, or the ‘Minju Tonghap-dang’), the chief of staff to former president Roh Moo-hyun – will be its next president.South Korea Flag Icon

Turnout is reported to be running high, and we should know the next Korean president by noon ET.

In the meanwhile, be sure to read Suffragio‘s coverage of the South Korean election here.

First Past the Post: December 19

East and South Asia

Bookies aren’t as excited as pollsters about the BJP’s chances in Gujarat’s election (votes to be counted Dec. 20).

Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and his road to Delhi.

The South China Morning Post four-part series on Bo Xilai focuses on his, uhhh, torture chambers.

Rising Chinese Communist Party star Hu Chunhua will replace Wang Yang as the party chair of Guangdong province.

So can Shinzō Abe save Japan’s economy?

The Democratic Party of Japan will choose a new leader on Dec. 22.

Has Abe’s new government already reached an accord with the Bank of Japan for a 2% inflation target?

North America

An independent inquiry finds fault with U.S. state department in Benghazi attack.

Foreign Policy notes its top books of 2012.

Latin America / Caribbean

Troubling signs about the Argentine government’s fight to break up media group Clarín.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is recovering from surgery and a respiratory infection.


South African president Jacob Zuma has defeated deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe by nearly a 3-to-1 margin in the African National Congress leadership vote.

A profile of Cyril Ramaphosa, the man who will replace Motlanthe as deputy president.

More revelations about the Jubilee Alliance in Kenya.


Catalunya seems headed for a stable government and a referendum vote in 2014.

French president François Hollande goes to Algeria on the 50th anniversary of independence.

An ally of former rightist prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, economics spokesman Renato Brunetta, savages prime minister Mario Monti’s austerity, calls for lower taxes.

Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych cancels a trip to Moscow.

Middle East

Iraq’s Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, has had a stroke.

Amr Moussa warns not to continue Egypt’s constitutional referendum on Dec. 22.

South Korean presidential election features talk of chaebol reform from both sides


For South Korean economic policymakers, their worst nightmare lies just 400 miles away.

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After essentially four decades of massive growth (except for a blip following the 1997 Asian financial crisis), South Koreans worry that their hard-charging economy, which has propelled South Korea into the developed world, could end up like Japan’s — stuck in a lost decade (or two) of nearly zero-growth malaise.

While Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) will return as prime minister in an attempt to kickstart Japan’s economy with massive amounts of public spending after Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Japan, tomorrow’s South Korean presidential election has focused on economic issues that involving avoiding many of the mistakes that Japan made in the 1980s, with South Korean growth already slowing (it may be around 2% or 3% in 2012, historically very low for the Korean economy).

In particular, Japan’s economy in the 1980s relied heavily on keiretsu companies — the internationally known champions subsidized and coddled by the Japanese government.  South Korea, likewise, features many similar large government-championed conglomerates, known as chaebol in Korean.  The chaebol, chief among them globally recognized companies such as LG, Hyundai and Samsung, are highly centralized and still controlled in large part by the families that founded them in the mid-20th century.

But both major candidates — Park Geun-hye (박근혜) of the Saenuri Party (새누리당 or the ‘Saenuri-dang’, the New Frontier Party) and Moon Jae-in (문재인) of the Democratic United Party (민주통합당, or the ‘Minju Tonghap-dang’) — have advocated chaebol reform, often while simultaneously pledging to curb widening income inequality and expand ‘economic democratization,’ without really explaining how a more aggressive posture on chaebol reform would result in greater incomes.  It seems likelier that the widening income gap and relatively lower economic growth in South Korea has led many voters, especially small and mid-sized business owners, to look more disapprovingly on chaebol — in the same way small-business owners in the United States might scorn Wal-Mart and Amazon:

The chaebol touch almost every aspect of South Korean life. In the morning, Samsung Electronics salesperson Ellen Jeon leaves her home in Tower Palace, a complex in Seoul’s Gangnam district built by Samsung C&T Corp. She crosses the lobby to Starbucks, a franchise owned by a unit of retailer Shinsegae Group that’s run by Samsung Chairman Lee Kun Hee’s nephew. Wearing Tory Burch flats, bought at a Shinsegae department store, she carries her caramel macchiato to her Renault Samsung Motors SM5 sedan to drive to work.

Near her home is the Samsung Medical Center, where she bore her first son, a year after her wedding at the five-star Shilla Hotel, run by Chairman Lee’s eldest daughter. On her way to Samsung Digital City in the suburb of Suwon, she passes Shinsegae’s Jookjeon outlet, where her husband bought his first suit—a pinstripe from the Galaxy label of Cheil Industries: Lee’s second daughter is vice president. Naturally, Jeon and her husband both carry Samsung phones.

Regardless, it remains true that South Korea’s chaebol hold an outsized influence on the national economy — around 76.5% of GDP can be attributed to South Korea’s ten largest companies, and their leaders often play a cozy consultative role to Korean policymakers.  Incumbent president Lee Myung-bak (이명박), who remains relatively unpopular and tainted with corruption allegations, came to power in 2007 after a three-decade career at Hyundai, including as CEO of Hyundai Engineering and Construction, on a platform of business-friendly policy, not chaebol reform, and his promises of 7% growth from the trickle-down effects of a pro-business government have not come to fruition.

Former candidate, software entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo, took an even harsher line by promising to break up the conglomerates altogether.

Moon, in particular, has advocated reforming chaebol ownership to reduce the influence of the families that own them, reducing the family influence to that of a typical shareholder or top executive, and unwinding existing cross-shareholdings among the individual companies that comprise each of the chaebol.  But given that the National Assembly will still be controlled by Park’s Saenuri Party, it remains unclear whether Moon could push such a reform through South Korea’s parliament.

For her part, Park has discussed preventing the individual companies within each of the major chaebol from adding to their shareholdings in each other, though she wouldn’t go as far as Moon.  Park has also called for strengthening antitrust laws and increasing fines for violations of fair-trade laws.

But the surprising aspect of the debate is that South Korea has already taken aim at its chaebol — during and in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when the chaebol, which already suffered greatly during that crisis after years of mismanagement and bloat, were found to have shoddy accounting practices and to have engaged in bribery and corruption of South Korean government officials.

Continue reading South Korean presidential election features talk of chaebol reform from both sides

Roh Moo-hyun haunts Moon’s candidacy in Korean presidential race


Although the conservative Park Geun-hye has had to fend off challenges tying her to the worst of massively unpopular incumbent Lee Myung-bak and her father, Park Chung-hee (South Korea’s autocratic ruler from 1961 to 1979), it’s another former South Korean president who may represent the largest millstone in the Dec. 19 presidential race.South Korea Flag Icon

Moon Jae-in, candidate of the Democratic United Party (민주통합당, or the ‘Minju Tonghap-dang’), and a former chief of staff to Roh, has essentially no political identity separate from Roh.  He’s inescapably the heir to Roh, for better and for worse — for Roh’s supporters, Moon is an experienced champion of the policies Roh pursued; for Roh’s detractors, of course, Moon represents a return to the perceived incompetence and disappointment with Roh’s administration.

Park has had her challenges as the candidate of the Saenuri Party (새누리당 or the ‘Saenuri-dang’), the New Frontier Party — and formerly the Grand National Party — the party to which Lee belongs, but voters don’t associate Park with Lee because Park comes from a different wing of the party, has a vastly different management style and background, and, above all, she has campaigned as much against her opponent, Moon, as she has against Lee.  If anything, voters (especially older voters) associate Park’s candidacy with her father, who gained power in a coup in 1961 and pulled South Korea’s economy into the developed world until his assassination in 1979.  Voters will recall that Park (the daughter) was essentially South Korea’s first lady from 1974 onwards, when her mother was also assassinated.  Despite the economic strides that South Korea made in the Park era, it made precious little progress in the area of political rights or democracy.

The campaign for human rights and a more democratic South Korea during the Park years is, in fact, the defining experience of both Roh and Moon — Roh’s emergence in South Korean politics coincided with the rise of the ‘386 Generation,’ a new generation of political leadership educated in the 1960s that came to politics demanding for greater freedoms and democracy.  Moon, a human rights lawyer, was actually imprisoned in the 1970s for his activist efforts against the Park regime.

Fundamentally, the ties that bound Moon to Roh were forged during that fight — against Park’s father.  Park (the daughter) has recently apologized during the campaign for the abuses of her father’s administration, although her father’s legacy probably helps Park among many Koreans nostalgic for what seems to them a golden era of growth and prosperity.

That makes this year’s South Korean election — especially with the withdrawal of popular software entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo from the race in late November — very much a prototypical ideological fight between the two major forces in South Korean political life for nearly half a century.

As such, it’s worth reflecting on Roh’s administration, Moon’s role in Roh’s administration, and the scandal that led to Roh taking his own life by jumping off a cliff in May 2009, which tragically elevated Moon in the public eye.

Roh’s suicide came after what many believed were politically motivated allegations of bribery surrounding his family and associates, but those allegations never really touched Moon.  Nonetheless, his suicide elevated the pro-Roh faction within South Korea’s progressive scene, including Moon (shown above at Roh’s funeral), who served as counsel to Roh during the post-presidential investigation and who organized Roh’s funeral.


Roh came to office as a bit of an outsider — he served briefly as minister of maritime affairs and fisheries under Kim Dae-jung, hardly the best profile for a 2002 presidential run.  But his conciliatory approach to North Korea and his calls for a more equal relationship with the United States, especially following the acquittal of two American soldiers who hit and killed two teenaged Korean girls with an armored vehicle in an accident in June 2002.

Roh continued Kim’s ‘Sunshine Policy’ toward North Korea to somewhat less than great effect, and turned out to be more conciliatory to the United States than many expected back in 2002.

But the defining aspect of Roh’s presidency was the virulent opposition he encountered from conservatives.   Continue reading Roh Moo-hyun haunts Moon’s candidacy in Korean presidential race