Returning to the front line

Although many focus on future policy planning, the way politicians recover from setbacks can define a career

On Friday 1 June, the French president’s office released a statement in which they announced they would “not comment on the course of American justice” and “respect the presumption the innocence”. The innocence being presumed was that of a man who had recently been arrested, forced to pay an enormous bail and surrender his passport for an alleged criminal sexual offence.

Returning to try to rebuild your life after such a setback would be hard enough in itself. If you were Dominique Strauss-Kahn, it would seem near impossible. But, incredibly, the French press are already talking about him manoeuvring back on to the track he was chugging down until he was detained on 15 May: organising a bid to be the Socialist presidential candidate for next year’s election.

It would be a stunning return to action but it is unlikely. Many think it more possible that he become openly involved with one of the current candidates’ campaigns. DSK will not be able to waltz back into the corridors of power; France’s outlook on ‘bedroom politics’ has changed permanently, whatever the final outcome of his case.

Recovering from this setback, (and there is no doubting there was a sexual element to the incident), will be difficult but big political personalities in Paris (especially those who have been seen to belittle the US in some way) hold a lot of strings with which to pull themselves back up.

For Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, the challenges are different. He is now back in Caracas after convalescing in Cuba following surgery to remove a pelvic abscess. Chavez revealed on 30 June that he had also undergone an operation for a cancerous tumour. Speculation has mounted over his position but Chavez himself simply called his health problems “a new battle that life has placed before us” and pledged to defeat them as though they were some irritating Western critics: “Forever onward toward victory! We will be victorious! Until my return!”

But will he be victorious? There are three main scenarios that have evolved from this medical setback:

1) He is too ill ever to come back properly and fulfil his energetic socialist agenda and has to leave power (although there are no similarly charismatic pretenders waiting in the wings)

2) He takes quite a while to improve and has to transfer power temporarily to his brother Adan Chavez or maybe vice-president Elias Jaua or Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro

3) He is fit and well and deliberately delayed his comeback in order to make his return to Caracas all the more triumphant (today, 5 July, is Venezuela’s bicentenary of independence from Spain)

Whatever their nature, it would be folly for politicians always to live in the future. How (if, at all) they overcome setbacks can be critical to their lives in the limelight.

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