The price of electing saviours in Latin America

ON JULY 1st Mexicans are set to elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador as their next president. Since they twice rejected him, in 2006 and 2012, by coalescing behind the opponent with the best chance of winning, that requires some explanation. Mr López Obrador is of the left, but he is a would-be saviour rather than a social democrat. Instead of a better future, he promises to return Mexico to a better, safer past of strong, paternalist government. He invites voters to trust in him, rather than in democratic institutions. As the last two contests showed, in normal circumstances he would not win.

.. But Mexicans are not looking for politics as usual. Under the outgoing president, Enrique Peña Nieto, they suffer rampant crime and corruption, and mediocre economic growth. Each day 85 people are murdered. Voters “want blood”, in the form of systematic punishment of corrupt politicians

.. Many think that centrist politicians have failed them and that things cannot get any worse.

.. Brazilians are in a similar mood ahead of their election in October.

.. one of the front-runners in the opinion polls is Jair Bolsonaro, a crudely authoritarian, misogynistic and homophobic former army officer. Brazil, unlike Mexico, has a run-off vote; Mr Bolsonaro may well figure in it but is unlikely to win it.

.. A recent poll found that 62% of respondents aged 16-24 would leave if they could.

.. It is not the first time Latin Americans have turned, in an emergency, to would-be saviours. In 1990 voters in Peru found one in Alberto Fujimori, an obscure former university rector. A political outsider, he was elected when his country faced a terrorist insurgency, hyperinflation and economic meltdown. When he sent tanks to shut down the congress two years later, polite society was appalled but ordinary Peruvians cheered. Mr Fujimori won a second term in 1995.

..Or take Venezuela. The collapse of the oil price in the 1980s and 1990s weakened a stable social democracy, hollowing out its welfare state, causing bank failures and exposing corruption. In anger, Venezuelans turned to an army lieutenant-colonel, Hugo Chávez, who had led a failed coup ..

.. As the oil price surged again, he became a popular hero. But long before his death in 2013 he had propelled his country towards its current feral state of corruption, brutality and penury.

.. Colombians in 2002 were suffering the tightening grip of the FARC guerrillas over much of the national territory as well as a recession and a banking crisis. They normally chose moderate presidents, but they elected Álvaro Uribe, an intense conservative who promised to be “the first soldier of Colombia” and to double the size of the security forces.

Mr Fujimori and Mr Uribe saved their countries, but in both cases there was a dark side. Mr Fujimori governed as a dictator and resorted to systematic bribery. Mr Uribe appointed officials with links to right-wing death squads.

.. When voters choose candidates they normally wouldn’t, the negative consequences are long-lasting. In Venezuela, Colombia and Peru these include political polarisation.

.. This lasting polarisation is what may face Mexico and Brazil. It is the high price that countries pay when the political establishment fails in its most basic functions of protecting the lives of citizens or preventing the pilfering of public money. When that happens, it is hardly surprising that voters look elsewhere. But the problem with saviours is that, sooner or later, countries have to try to save themselves from them.

 

 

Behind the Silence of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi

In deciding not to challenge the military’s campaign against the Rohingya, Nobel laureate is channeling the Buddhist majority

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate, democracy activist and Myanmar’s main civilian leader, met with a senior diplomat last year and told a cautionary tale about how Muslims had come to dominate another southeast Asian state, Indonesia, after centuries in the minority.

Ms. Suu Kyi spoke about her country not wanting to face such a situation, according to a person familiar with the discussion. Muslims were already in the majority in some areas, she added, though they make up just 4% of the total population.

.. Her reticence is a tactical decision, according to people in her inner circle. Ms. Suu Kyi worries that speaking more forcefully would antagonize the military, which once ran the country and still wields considerable authority, and jeopardize her goal of achieving a full democracy after years of struggle.

Yet it also seems to be driven by the extent to which Ms. Suu Kyi channels the historical grievances and concerns of her largely Buddhist country. There is a palpable fear here that the spread of a Muslim minority could unravel Myanmar’s fragile ethnic and religious balance. Many view the Rohingya as intruders from Bangladesh intent on pushing Islam’s frontier eastward.

 .. When a visiting diplomat raised the issue of the Rohingya with Ms. Suu Kyi in 2013, she admonished: “Please don’t call them Rohingya. They are Bengali. They are foreigners,” according to a person with knowledge of the conversation. The term “Bengali” is often used in Myanmar to describe illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The person also recalled that Ms. Suu Kyi complained the international community underestimated the threat Buddhists faced from Muslims in Rakhine State.
.. She has repeatedly stopped short of criticizing soldiers for setting fire to Rohingya settlements.
.. Antipathy to the Rohingya, who live in Myanmar without citizenship or the right to vote, goes back decades. Some Rohingya say they were the original inhabitants of the coastal strip along western Myanmar, before Buddhist ethnic-Rakhines settled there.
.. During World War II, Rohingya sided with retreating British forces while many local Buddhists took up arms with the Japanese in hopes of gaining independence, inflaming tensions between the two communities that have lingered to this day.
..  what Myanmar military strategists call the “Four Cuts.” Developed in the 1970s against the country’s rebel armies, it involves sweeping through civilian areas to deny insurgents food, funds, recruits and information. The general later described the operations as “unfinished business” dating back to World War II.
.. The crisis is raising questions about whether the push among Western nations to restore ties with Myanmar, a resource-rich nation in a strategically important region bordering China, was justified.
.. The constitution which Myanmar’s army drafted in 2008 grants it control of the defense and interior ministries, the administrative backbone of the country. Soldiers are guaranteed a quarter of the seats in the parliament, enough to veto constitutional changes.
.. Ms. Suu Kyi is barred from being president because she has foreign-born children.
.. Many human rights activists and some diplomats now believe Ms. Suu Kyi may have been better suited as an icon of the opposition than a mainstream politician.

Desmond Tutu spoke for many of Ms. Suu Kyi’s admirers when he wrote that “if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is silence, the price is surely too steep.”

.. “What was described as strength and steadfastness is now being called inflexibility. But it’s really the same person if you look at her closely over years,” said one diplomat who knows Ms. Suu Kyi well.

.. “A parody of democracy is infinitely worse than dictatorship,” she told one diplomat, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
..  She has struggled to build trust with the insurgent armies, many of which regard the Myanmar military as the real power.
.. Ms. Suu Kyi seized on an analogy used by an audience member comparing the government to a parent, with ethnic armed groups as its children. A person with knowledge of the exchange said she urged camp-dwellers to tell the armed groups: “Listen to your parents.”
.. Ms. Suu Kyi has also expressed reluctance to provide the Rohingya with citizenship, saying it would only encourage more Muslims to come from Bangladesh.
.. “She is binding herself to the military because both sides understand they have to hang together,” he said. “For all her rhetoric past and present, her leverage on the military is nil.”