One bad year for incumbents




Every incumbent ruler around the world should say a prayer. The year 2024 looks to be a big Waterloo for rulers all the way from North and South America to Europe to the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Imagine, one incumbent prime minister and his political party were thrown out of office last week in their party’s  biggest defeat in 118-years.  As we wake up this Monday morning, we are likely to hear that another president who took a gamble and called early parliamentary elections has lost big time and could be in for three years of uneasy “cohabitation” with his far-right opponents.

Yet another, this time conservative, clerical regime held run-off elections at the weekend, forced on it by the death of its president in a helicopter mishap. A reformist candidate was elected, throwing a spanner in the works for the conservative clergy. One president narrowly survived a military coup, had the offending General arrested, but his ruling party is still set to go down to defeat in elections. One president, touted to be the world’s most powerful, is about to be driven out of his re-election race altogether because of a disastrous debate performance and a growing public feeling that he is too old to serve a second term. Yet another, this time African, president has demonstrators in his cities’ streets demanding his resignation even after he  made many policy concessions. And then there is one leader whose countrymen believe that he is fighting an interminable war because if he ends it, elections will be held, voters will throw him out, prosecutors will pounce on him on corruption charges and throw him into jail.

2024 is the worst year in recent memory to be an incumbent ruler anywhere. When Rishi Sunak became Britain’s first ever Asian Prime Minister two years ago, there was much gloating and back patting across Britain’s former colonies. One 1990s edition of Time magazine had the headline, “The Empire writes back.” It was about the effect that colonizing so many peoples around the world had on the English language. Rishi Sunak’s rise was like “The Empire rules back,” a post-colonial payback for Britain appointing Rajs, Governor Generals and Commissioners all around  the world.

The  Brits could not produce a successful premier of their own in 17 years. Labour prime minister Gordon Brown went down in electoral flames in 2010. Tory PM David Cameron followed suit six years later after voters voted Leave in his gamble with a Brexit referendum. Mrs. Theresa May, who took over, struggled for three years to get the House of Commons to pass a Brexit agreement with the EU, in vain. British newspapers had banner headlines such as “DISMay!” when the Commons kept striking down her negotiated deals. When she called an election for June 2019, the opposition Labour Party rolled out a banner proclaiming, “June is the end of May.” Disheveled and disorganized former London Mayor and Brexit champion  Boris Johnson, who succeeded May, was kicked out because he and his staff held parties when all other citizens were in strict Covid 19 lockdown. Liz Truss lasted only  three months as prime minister in 2022, and in came Sunak, who last Thursday held his Indian billionaire heiress wife’s hand and strolled out of 10 Downing Street the way President George Herbert Walker Bush walked out of the White House in 1993.

In last Thursday’s British elections, opposition Labour Party grabbed 412 seats in the 650-member House of Commons, an outright majority and a gain of 214 seats. The governing Conservatives lost 252 seats and were down to 121, the biggest slide in the party’s history. Several Cabinet ministers lost their seats, including former prime minister Liz Truss. Scottish National Party grabbed 9 seats, after a loss of 38, thus pushing their secessionist agenda to the backwaters, for now. While the new prime minister Keir Stammer has an extremely comfortable working majority in parliament, he is not a colourful or forceful politician in the mold of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair or David Cameron, not to mention Winston Churchill.

As people in France and around the world wake up on Monday morning, they will learn whether, for the first time ever, the far-right, anti-immigrant National Rally led by Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella has grabbed a majority in the French National Assembly, will anoint the next prime minister and cabinet and will throw President Emanuel Macron’s colourful and flamboyant presidency in reverse gear. It recalls to mind what happened in 1985, when French President Francois Mitterrand’s Socialist Party lost parliamentary elections and he had to do what Frenchmen called “cohabitation” with his arch rival, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. During  the 1986 football World Cup finals in Mexico City, when the French team won a crucial match, their coach made a joke out of his country’s political squabbles. He told reporters that he received messages from both the President and Prime Minister; “while the President congratulated us on our victory, the Prime Minister wished us success in our future match.”

Between the first-round vote won by National Rally and yesterday’s run-off vote, Macron’s party teamed up with strange bedfellows and dropped candidates all over the country in order to gang up against the far right. We will know by today if the gambit worked.  Macron’s gambit should be a lesson to all incumbents not to do things in a huff. A month ago when National Rally won the most seats in European Parliament elections, its 28-year-old leader Jordan Bardella challenged Macron to call parliamentary elections. Within minutes of the call, Macron did so, and is probably regretting it by now.

Unlike Macron, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s clerical rulers did not call presidential elections in a huff. They did so because President Mohammed Raisi was killed in a helicopter crash. Dozens of people wanted to run in the elections, but the country’s powerful Guardian Council disqualified most of them. After two rounds of voting, Masoud Pezeshkian, described by Western media as the only “reformist” among the mostly conservative candidates, won the election with 30.5 million votes or  53.6% of the total. He defeated Saeed Jalili, said to be an “ultraconservative.” Pezeshkian might not be the preferred candidate of the clerical Establishment, but he is no pro-Western guy either, because he immediately went to the burial site of Imam Khomeini and paid homage. Although the president-elect is said to support making concessions regarding Iran’s nuclear program in order to ease some Western sanctions  on the country, it is doubtful if he wants to change the country’s radical anti-Israeli and anti-US foreign policy posture, including massive support for Hamas, Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthis, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and more recently, providing drones for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

The biggest of all looming incumbent troubles right now is for President of the United States Joseph Biden. Imagine, for a man who has been ruling for three and a half years and has won his [Democratic] party’s primary election contest, to suddenly be told that he should drop out of the race just before the party’s national convention to ratify his candidacy. It is the biggest humiliation for a US President in recent memory, the first time an incumbent is forced out of a re-election race since President Lyndon Johnson in January 1968. LBJ made a televised speech saying, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” It was caused by the disastrous Vietnam War. Young anti-war demonstrators dogged LBJ’s every step, heckling, “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids have you killed today?”

Biden’s case is simpler than that. The problem is his age, 81, and the visible signs of its effect on his gait and his cognitive abilities. After his performance in the first debate with Donald Trump, when he sounded weak and unsure and easily lost his train of thought, his partymen believe he will lose the election and also pull other party candidates down to defeat, hence the growing clamour for him to drop out. So far he says he won’t, but could change his mind soon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be said to be placed squarely between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one hand there is severe local and international pressure, not to mention hints by Israeli Generals, for him to end the Gaza war, not start another war in Lebanon, and agree to a deal with Hamas at least to bring Israeli hostages back home. On the other hand, two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in his governing coalition threaten to bring down his government if he agreed to such a deal. Many say Netanyahu’s prolonging the war is because once it stops, he will face probes, almost certain defeat at the polls, prosecution for alleged corruption and very likely jail time. Plus, an international arrest warrant for the genocide in Gaza.

The trouble dogging incumbents this year did not spare even the world’s biggest clergymen. Just like the Iranian Ayatullahs ended up with a not-so-desirable presidential election result, Pope Francis, Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Jesus Christ, had a spat with a very senior officer of the church, former Vatican Ambassador to the United States Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. Last Friday, the Holy See announced that Vigano had been excommunicated from the church for schism, its most drastic punishment. The Vatican said Vigano had refused to “recognize and submit” to the authority of the Pope, and had rejected “communion” with members of the Catholic Church and its authoritative teachings.

Vigano had, in 2018, called on Pope Francis to resign, saying the Pope knew about allegations of abuse of trainee priests  carried out by former Archbishop of Washington, DC, Theodore McCarrick. A Vatican enquiry however cleared the pope of the allegations.  Vigano sounded to me like a Nigerian politician; he recently said Francis’ election to the papacy should be considered “null and void.”  He  accused the pope of “heresy and schism;” accused the pontiff of supporting what he called “climate fraud,” and also condemned the pope for “backing Covid-19 vaccines and for promoting an inclusive, immigrationist, eco-sustainable and gay-friendly Church.”  Phew! This is what  Nigerian political parties call “anti-party activity.” If even the Ayatullahs and the Pope are not spared, which incumbent is safe anywhere?

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