Sunday, October 28, 2007

Women on Top... [updated... and updated again]

... of the Realm that is. Or at least striving to.

In key elections around the world, female candidates are making strides and causing stirs among the general population in their countries.

Hillary Clinton - U.S.A.

In the race to win the ultimate prize, POTUS (President of the United States), Hillary has raised the biggest amount of campaign funds in the history of U.S. Presidential elections. The mainstream media in the States assumes that she is the Democrats' frontrunner from the very beginning, despite the many dissenting voices from within the party's rank-and-file members, who see her as playing too safe and being too much in the pocket of corporate America to be a true progressive, not to mention her much-maligned voting record on the war in Iraq, when she actually supported the motion to go to war. Within the blogosphere it is in fact very hard to find any keen grassroot supporters of Clinton, but nevertheless, money has been pouring in from all sides, (including surprisingly enough according to the New York Times, Fujianese Chinese immigrants from New York City's Chinatown).

The fact that she has had presidential ambitions from the very beginning is seen as both a positive and a negative - some pointed to her illustrious campaigning past when she was a bright young College student, when her passion and ideals were matched by her no-nonsense charms and keen intellect; others recalled her "two for the price of one" slogan in Bill Clinton's campaign, and have serious concerns about the idea of creating a Clintonite dynasty at the White House, which represented more of the "politics as usual" when many are desparately searching for a break with the status quo.

The most noise created about her in the U.S. media however, centred on her gender. Questions are continually being raised about whether America is ready for a female president (in a similar manner to the questions raised about whether America ia ready for a black president in Barack Obama's case). Such questions are not too bothersome if not for the fact that they are meant to be rhetorical, with the presumed answer being, No. The fact that such questions were even raised, points to the deeply conservative nature of Americans' psyche, in spite of all the protestations to the contrary about how sexually progressive Americans are and how much they respect women when compared to Muslim countries.

Benazir Bhutto - Pakistan

Another controversial female political figure, Harvard- and Oxford-educated Benazir Bhutto's recent return to the Pakistani political stage sparked major fireworks, literally, when suicide-bombers set off explosions right next to her tour bus as her convoy progressed through one of the major thoroughfares of Karachi, Pakistan's former capital city, in what was meant to be her triumphant homecoming after her eight years of self-imposed exile. The result was a bloody mess, with the deaths of about 130 people which shocked the nation.

Benazir Bhutto however is no stranger to controversy. She has impeccable political pedigree, being the daughter of the late Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who ruled the country from 1971 until 1977. Benazir herself served two terms as prime minister of Pakistan, in 1988–90 and in 1993–96. At the age of 35, she was the youngest and the first woman Prime Minister to lead a Muslim nation in modern age, and more importantly, her P.P.P. party was elected through proper democratic process, winning seats through securing enough popular votes rather than through coup d'etat as has been the modus operandi of the military government, from which the current President, Pervez Musharraf, got his job.

Thus the portrayal of Bhutto as the representative of all things democratic was not without justification, and during her terms in office she had instituted several progressive measures. For instance, during her first term, she started People's Program for economic uplift of the masses, and also lifted a ban on student and trade unions. However, severe governmental corruption was left unabated during her terms in office, and indeed, she and her husband were under corruption charges themselves, which led to her self-imposed exile in 1999 when her government was dismissed on renewed charges of corruption, economic mismanagement, and a decline of law and order. However, Bhutto maintained that the corruption charges against her were politically-motivated and without grounds.

Suicide bombings aside, the reactions to her return to Pakistani politics were muddled by her secret talks with President Musharraf, whose troubled presidency led him to strike a deal with her to come back to Pakistani politics, with the likely effect of basically having Bhutto contesting his own job. By colluding with Musharraf, some saw this move on Bhutto's part as a sell-out of her democratic ideals, and a confirmation of her corrupted nature in their eyes; others see this as a necessary and brave step for her to bring democracy back to Pakistan, bravery that was proven when she came out with confidence and defiance after the Karachi bomb blasts. Either case, now that she is back in Pakistan, the only loser is Musharraf - she is no longer beholden to him, and as long as Musharraf wants to be taken seriously as a democratic leader rather than as a militarily-imposed lame duck who is himself losing the support of the military, he cannot force her out again, at least not in public. His strong condemnation of the Karachi bombings demonstrated this dilemma he found himself in. So far, Bhutto has outsmarted her male opponents, again. [Scroll to see Update below]

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner - Argentina

"Don't cry for me Argentina" The movie and musical on the life and times of the former Argentinian first lady, Eva Peron (left), has warmed audiences the world over to this legendary female political figure. It is a potent legacy that Cristina Kirchner (right) is tapping into, even as she officially tries to distance herself from it. For Cristina herself is the wife of the incumbent Argentinian President Nestor Kirchner, who stepped down to allow her to run for the current presidential election, bequeathing her with a country that is enjoying impressive levels of economic growth compared to its other Latin American neighbours.

Unlike Hillary, who tries to assert her masculinity in a male-dominated U.S. presidential race, Cristina's nearest political rival is another female candidate, Elisa Carrio, an "obese chain-smoker" whose image is poles apart from Cristina's ultra-glam image. At 54, she could easily pass for late 30's/early 40's, and has the kind of effortless personal charisma that compares well with the legendary Evita. Despite her "botox face", Cristina has been described as politically-accomplished, a Peronist senator with serious diplomatic skills that have been said to smooth over her husband's political career in his dealings both at home and abroad. Like Bill and Hillary, Cristina and Nestor were also college sweethearts, and both went on to become political power couples.

With a huge lead in the polls - a comfortable 25% between her and her nearest rival - Cristina is set to become the first female elected President in Argentina's history. Her sources of support came not only from the descendents of Eva Peron’s descamisados (“the shirtless ones”), but stem in large part from her husband's economic track record, whose government engineered an economic recovery for Argentina at a time when other Latin American countries are languishing. Her success at gathering electoral support is precisely because she represented economic continuity and stability and advocated a "no change" policy, in stark contrast to both Hillary and Benazir who are trying to present themselves as change agents for their countries.

While it would be interesting to see if any of the above women will eventually come out on top [scroll to see Update below], it would be a tragedy if the Presidential elections in these countries came down to a candidate's gender, rather than his/her credentials for doing the job well. It is of course hugely inspirational to see women in positions of power, but it is how she uses her authority and privilege that would be the test of stateswomanship*. Would any of these women be another Elizabeth or Wu Zetian, who managed to achieve stability of the realm in spite of their ruthless struggle for power? Or would they be like the Empress Dowager of China, who caused the beginning of the end of the state that she once held in the palm of her hand?

* Of course, here in Ireland we already have a female president - in fact, we have two successive female heads of state since 1990: former President Mary Robinson (1990 - 1997, left) and the current President Mary McAleese (1997 - present, right).

Both have law backgrounds and both concentrated their terms in office on humanitarian work, since the Office of the President in Ireland is a non-political one (such a delineation in the roles of the President and the Taoiseach - the Prime Minister - was made famous when Mary Robinson defended herself for her handshake with the Sinn Fein Party leader Gerry Adams in 1993 by reiterating that the gesture was non-political. In any case, history has proved that engagement and dialogue were far more effective in defeating terrorism than repression and violence, at least in the case of Northern Ireland). Former President Mary Robinson was particularly much loved by the Irish public, and who went on to become the UN Commissioner for Human Rights (1997 - 2002), and who remains active in public life through her work with the voluntary sector. In fact, it was the popularity of Mary Robinson as the first female President of Ireland that caused all three major parties to put up female candidates for the subsequent Irish presidential election in 1997, proving that, if done well, a female head of state could be a trailblazer for other women to follow in her footsteps.

Image credits: Various stock photographs from Google image search.

Update [Sunday, 4 November 2007]:

The political fortunes of two of the above female political figures have markedly different turnouts since the above was posted exactly a week ago, proving the old adage that a week is indeed a life time in politics. Cristina Kirchner became the first female President of Argentina, completely conforming to popular pre-election expectations; whilst Benazir Bhutto returned to Karachi to visit her family, and shortly after President Musharraf declared Pakistan to be in a state of emergency, rounding up political protesters, opposition leaders, human rights activists and even judges. Bhutto can still move about freely as of this date, and denounced Musharraf's interventions as a "power grab". According to Indian news media, the emergency rule was prompted by Musharraf's wire-tapping of a Supreme Court justice' phone calls which revealed that a majority of judges are going to invalidate his attempt to stand for presidential election while holding onto the post of the Army chief. It is clear that Musharraf is realising that he has little chance of winning a general election even with Bhutto on side, and is reverting to the tried-and-tested tactic of might-is-right. There are talks that the originally-scheduled elections in the coming January would be postponed by a year at least, and the sight of a pregnant female protestor being pushed about by armed police added disgust to this disgraceful state of affairs. The clampdown on broadcast media is rather reminiscent of the Chinese Communist Party's behaviours during the fateful summer of 1989; fortunately, the Pakistani state injunction to not publish anything that might be critical or even potentially embarrassing to Musharraf has as of today been ignored by the newspapers, one of which boldly described this state-of-emergency done in the name of preventing terrorism as "Musharraf's second coup" in its main headline. Thus, it seems the only saving grace is that it is clear Pakistan has a much more vibrant civil society than China (it is also apparent that many of these activist groups are headed by articulate and battle-worn female leaders). I can only pray that, with Western scrutiny and Musharraf's preference for at least a veneer of democratic respectability (evinced by his Prime Minister's statement that Pakistan is still committed to democracy), that these protestors and activists would have no more harm come to them than very temporary stays in state jails before they are released again. Or am I again being a starry-eyed idealist?

[Updated again]

It turns out that I was indeed a stary-eyed idealist at the time of writing the above update. Benazir Bhutto's just been assasinated by gunshot by suicide-attackers today [27th December, 2007]. See my tribute post.

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At Sun Oct 28, 09:45:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger laichungleung said...

Clinton doesn't seem to stand for anything but I think I rather see her in the White House than anybody else. But between now and next November, plenty of things can happen so you never really know.

Great post.

At Mon Oct 29, 04:06:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Thanks! I also agree that Clinton has yet to show her backbone. I'm not too happy to see her garnering all these billions on the basis of blah really, and she seems to lack the courage even if she does have convictions, which is the most worrying part. She did well at the Youtube debate though, I'd give her that. Personally I'd be much happier to see Gore enter the race (but you'd already know that), he is doing the job of a true statesman even when he's forced out of his post by dirty tricks.

At Thu Dec 13, 04:11:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger Ed said...

Hi! Noticed you're linked to my blog. Are you a Chinese-Irish like me?

At Sun Dec 16, 08:54:00 p.m. GMT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh wow, you finally updated your blog(alright, I am two months past due...)!

Merry Christmas! :)

At Mon Dec 24, 06:14:00 a.m. GMT, Blogger 梁巔巔 said...

Hihihi~~~~ How are you lately?

Merry X'mas! ^^

At Mon Dec 24, 03:35:00 p.m. GMT, Blogger Snowdrops said...

Thanks for dropping by Ed, Augustine and Victor! And a very happy Christmas to you and your loved ones too! Sorry Augustine I haven't managed to update my blog again in the last while due to work schedules, but am so glad to "see" you here :) Ed, yes, I'm a Chinese-Irish too, I stumbled upon your great blog quite some time ago and just blogrolled you without asking - sorry about that (though actually I tended to do it all the time...). Victor, long time no "see", will go visit your blog in a mo to see how you're doing, and am going to do an update post myself on this blog now...

Thank you all for visiting :)


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