Getting away from it all in Asia

At a time of problematic politics on both sides of the pond, what will the impact be of Obama’s visit to South Asia and David Cameron’s trip to the Far East?

The coalition government in the UK has spent much of the last few weeks swinging the cutting axe at nearly every government department and it appears that now Cameron and his Liberal Democrat allies are for now, at least, having a change of scene. The one facing them at home is hostile and on 10 November thousands of students demonstrated violently in central London against the proposed rise in university tuition fees. Public reaction has also been negative to funding slashing of child benefit, housing benefit and the defence budget. The Church of England has raised concern over the impact on the poor from the specific benefit reduction and reorganisation that has been planned.

But Cameron and his coalition colleagues have been sipping wine and trying to secure trade deals on the other side of the world. They are not running away directly but the change of scene at a time of political unrest may well allow them a period of reflection to consider their changes. They can also catch their breath; the Government’s reforms have been rolled out continuously since the general election.

A couple of countries to the south, this week Barack Obama has chosen to spend the aftermath of the Democrats’ painful losses at the mid-term elections on 2 November meeting his old school-teachers in Indonesia. As the Tea Party basks in the glow of election success, Obama has been wooing Indonesia in a similar way to the way he courted the Muslim world in 2009.

Indonesia stands at a crossroads, geopolitically: it is the largest Muslim majority nation in the world and a massive regional player for ASEAN. It has large sway in its region through its seat on the G20 and in that sense is similar to Brazil as the most important partner in a regional club. The administration in Jakarta needs to ensure that its leadership does not become confused or stall as other local players look up to the major power and faltering on its part could lead to introversion and a failure to keep up with the interchanging pace of foreign policy discussion.

This latest outreach to the Muslim world by the US President seems to be an attempt to move policy discussion into the international sphere after such devastation domestically. Cameron and Obama are now moving on to the G20 and with the Cancun climate change summit coming up next month, both leaders will probably be quietly hopeful that they can ride out the current waves of protest and election defeat overseas.

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The politics of the presidenta

On Sunday 31 October, Dilma Rousseff became the president-elect of Brazil, replacing her mentor and supporter, the outgoing Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva. Modernists hailed the election of the first female Brazilian premier, and Rousseff became the ninth Latin American presidenta. But do female politicians in the Latin America have to rely on the support of men to get into power?

Machismo prevails across the Latin world but although men have dominated the political sphere, women have been increasing their presence over the last 40 years, since Argentine Isabel Martinez de Peron rose to prominence as the first elected female head of state in the Western Hemisphere. She was also vice-president during her husband’s third stint in the Casa Rosa. Argentina is no stranger to matrimonial politics and the current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, took over the presidency from her husband, Nestor Kirchner, in 2007.

But on 27 October he died suddenly of a heart-attack, leaving Cristina on her own, both maritally, and politically, for although he had stepped down from the presidency, Mr Kirchner still had a major seat at the top table, running the Partido Justicialista (Justicialist Party) behind the scenes while his wife shook hands with other world leaders.

Such was the force and influence of Kirchner that commentators rushed to point out that ‘Kirchnerismo’ passed with the death of Nestor and that the key aim for Cristina now would be to try to see out the rest of her term in office and reaffirm her political principles, goals and direction, all of which were thrown into disarray by her husband’s death.

Indeed, some critics argue that all the objectives she has outlined so far have been her husband’s policies, and that her challenge now is to show that she is not just a puppet and demonstrate that she can lead her nation without the support of her husband.

In the case of Brazil, a different sort of wedding has been the main reason for the success of Dilma Rousseff. The marriage is purely political but it has been a conjugal arrangement which Rousseff has flouted to the maximum, using her proximity to Lula (and his fanatical popularity) to carry her to victory in last Sunday’s electoral run-off.

Once again, just like Mrs Kirchner 3,000 km to the south, the case arises of a female president facing the challenge of defining herself to the nation and displaying distinct political objectives. Brazilians have been extremely pleased with the direction in which Lula has been taking Brazil and they have chosen a politican built in very much the same vein as the outgoing premier.

Moreover, the fact that the new incumbent of the Palacio da Alvorada is a woman means that she has an extra responsibility to use her new position to show to the world that Brazil can be as successful under uma presidente as it was under Lula. To her credit, Rousseff has already made it clear that social and sexual equality will be a flagship policy of her period in office. She is caught between maintaining the popularity of Lula and not being seen as purely an inexperienced pawn of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party).

She has acknowledged the rise in status of the Green Party, whose presidential candidate in the first round was also a woman – Marina Silva. Indeed, the fact that many first-round votes which Rousseff had expected to go to her in fact went to Silva necessitated a run-off a month later. Rousseff has accepted the need to follow a green agenda in power, a possible policy declaration which shows that she has already recognised the challenges which a popular Green Party, led by another popular female politican, could create for her in office.

But these two Latin giants have not been the only countries where females have flexed their political muscles and over the years Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have all elected female heads of state. From 1999-2004 Panama was led by Mireya Moscoso although her waning popularity towards the end of her term affected her chosen successor, Jose Miguel Aleman, and he failed to follow her into office, showing that the ‘Lula’ affect has not always been the case. In addition, Michelle Bachelet was in power in Chile until earlier this year when she was defeated by Sebastian Pinera. And the current president of Costa Rica is Laura Chinchilla.

The majority of these women have run on centre-left manifestoes and have been leading campaigners of social reform. But often the closeness of ties to men means that there are inevitable restrictions to navigate. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner lost a pillar of political support when her husband died and Dilma Rousseff cannot spend her whole presidency invoking her mentor; she has to continue Lula’s popularity while carving out her own policies to carry out which can define her as a separate success in her own right, not just one who basked in the glow of a former, male president.