Abe’s Assassination, Johnson’s Resignation and More

Abe’s Assassination, Johnson’s Resignation and More
Then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers a question during a press conference in Tokyo, March 14, 2020 (AP photo by Eugene Hoshiko).
The news of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s assassination yesterday was shocking on a number of levels. First, for reasons specific to Japan, given that gun violence is almost nonexistent in the country, and political violence, though it occurs, is exceedingly rare. Second, because of the ways in which national leaders, even in democracies, take on the trappings of divine incarnation, making an assassination akin to deicide. Abe no longer held office, but as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and in the absence of a convincing successor, he still possessed the aura of leadership. It’s easy to forget, too, that prior to Abe, the office of Japanese prime minister had become a revolving door, with five men occupying the position in the five years separating the end of his first premiership in 2007 and the beginning of his second in 2012. Two more have held the job since he stepped down in 2020. But Abe not only brought stability to the office, he navigated a challenging period—both domestically and internationally—effectively, if divisively. He stabilized Japan’s economy, bolstered its alliance with the U.S. and positioned Tokyo to assume a greater role in Asia’s political and security affairs, particularly with regard to countering China’s rise. But his pursuit of “normalization” with regard to Japan’s military posture proved controversial at home, while his nationalism and repeated provocations with regard to Japan’s wartime past alienated regional neighbors. For Japan, nevertheless, as for any country that loses a national figure to senseless violence, Abe’s assassination is a national trauma.

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In a totally different register, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned this week as Conservative Party leader. The move sets up a succession process that, when completed, will result in the new party leader automatically becoming prime minister. For weeks, if not months, Johnson’s departure had been seen as inevitable by almost everyone but himself, and if he had already survived a leadership challenge in early June, it nonetheless left him badly damaged. Johnson was finally brought down by yet another revelation that he had lied about what he knew and when he knew it, this time about the past history of sexual assault by a loyalist at the time Johnson appointed him to a high-ranking parliamentary position. For the Conservatives, Johnson’s highly developed talent for self-inflicted damage, combined with his seeming ability to avoid any accountability for it, had long since begun to outweigh his usefulness as a figure able to both unite the party’s divided factions in the post-Brexit period and win elections. The nonstop succession of scandals left him wounded and weakened, easy prey for the hungry and ambitious figures that fill the Tory ranks. But if his political demise comes as a relief, it also creates a vacuum at the top that none of his aspiring successors seems clearly able to fill. Here are some recent WPR articles for more context on Japan after Abe Shinzo and the U.K. after Boris Johnson:

This Week’s Highlights

Petro Is Heading for a Showdown With Colombia’s Armed Forces. In Friday’s briefing, Joshua Collins and Daniela Díaz explained why Colombian President-elect Gustavo Petro’s plans to radically reform the country’s armed forces and police are setting him on a collision course with the military command.
  • Petro has promised to reform to Colombia’s military and police forces, which have a checkered history of human rights abuses, corruption and even ties to criminal groups, immediately upon taking office. But to effect the structural changes he has promised, Petro will need to overcome resistance not only from political opponents, but also from the military and police forces themselves. Former military personnel say that a confrontation is inevitable, particularly given Petro’s past as a former guerrilla, which causes the military to view him with deep suspicion. 
  • Petro’s planned reforms include placing Colombia’s police, which currently operate under the Ministry of Defense and answer directly to the military chain of command, under civilian control within a newly created government department. He also plans to place police officers accused of wrongdoing under the jurisdiction of civilian, rather than military courts, which have historically been very lenient toward security personnel and operate outside of public scrutiny. And he has promised to dismantle ESMAD, Colombia’s infamous riot police force, which became a focal point of protests demanding police reform after its personnel killed dozens and wounded hundreds of people during protests in 2019, 2020 and 2021. 
  • In addition to the sweeping reforms to police and military command structures, Petro has promised to fully implement the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC, launch new peace talks with other criminal armed groups and end the “War on Drugs.” His proposals have sparked outrage among some in the military. Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, Colombia’s highest-ranking officer and a strong critic of Petro during the election campaign, announced his resignation last week. And while fears that military commanders might not recognize Petro as president have so far proven unfounded, an antagonistic relationship with Colombia’s security forces could well complicate Petro’s plans for peace and his ability to rein in growing violence in rural areas.
  • The U.S., as Colombia’s closest ally and historical partner during both the civil war and the militarized War on Drugs, is in a unique position to help Petro implement human rights reforms and encourage the faltering peace process. Doing so would go far to redeem a U.S. legacy that includes supporting military forces with a checkered human rights history. A key aspect of Petro’s reforms is to change the civil war-era mindset by which the Colombian military and police have been trained to seek out and exterminate an “internal enemy,” which they often conflate with civil society. Whether he finds a partner or an adversary in the armed forces remains to be seen. 
Another High-Stakes Presidential Election Has Kenya on Edge. And in a briefing on Wednesday, Meron Elias examined what’s at stake ahead of the upcoming Kenyan elections in August.
  • No matter how it turns out, Kenya’s upcoming presidential election will usher in a transition after President Uhuru Kenyatta’s two terms in office. Two figures have emerged as the main contenders to succeed him. Raila Odinga, a long-time opposition leader turned insider, has secured Kenyatta’s support as he stages his fifth bid for the presidency. Odinga will face Deputy President William Ruto, Kenyatta’s erstwhile ally who, despite a falling-out between the two in recent years, has fashioned a political base founded on a promise to more fairly redistribute the benefits of economic growth. 
  • While Kenyan elections are generally high-stakes affairs, the country has come a long way since 2007, when claims of electoral fraud in a context of fraught ethnic relations led to serious violence, which lasted until February 2008 and left over 1,000 people dead. Kenyatta and Ruto were both indicted at the International Criminal Court for the role they allegedly played in inciting the violence. Now, although intra-elite relations in the ruling party are severely strained, social tensions—including between ethnic groups—are at a low ebb. If anything, the public mood regarding the elections seems to be one of indifference, and voter registration among the youth has been remarkably low. 
  • The country has enacted far-reaching institutional changes following the 2007-2008 post-election crisis. These include a new constitution adopted in 2010 that introduced a devolved system of government, helping to lower the zero-sum stakes of national-level elections by distributing power and resources around the country more evenly. The country’s judiciary is strong and enjoys high public trust, meaning a losing candidate is more likely now to turn to the courts, rather than the streets, for redress of any grievances. Despite these welcome reforms, however, the risk of instability this year is still nontrivial. Since both camps command substantial bases, there are concerns their differences could be a destabilizing factor as elections grow near.
  • Among the risk factors for destabilization are Kenya’s security forces, which suffer from low levels of public trust and could be coopted in a partisan manner. The electoral commission also appears to be weak and ill-prepared. Key domestic stakeholders have time to take mitigating measures: Kenyatta, Ruto and Odinga should lower the volume on inflammatory rhetoric and commit to peaceful campaigning; Ruto and Odinga should publicly pledge to accept the result of the election, no matter who wins; and leaders of electoral institutions should resist interference by partisan actors. Given the country’s importance in regional politics, making sure the election goes smoothly should be a high priority both in Kenya and among its many international partners.

This Week’s Most-Read Story

Mexico Is Paying the Price for AMLO’s Failed Energy Policies. And in this week’s top story by pageviews, James Bosworth looked at the damage Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s energy policies are doing to the country’s environment, its trade relations with the U.S. and its climate change commitments.
Lopez Obrador’s push to favor state enterprises and punish the private sector might be forgiven if the state were running its new energy system effectively and transparently. It is not. Billions of dollars are being spent to build a new refinery at Dos Bocas in Lopez Obrador’s home state of Tabasco, even though most of Mexico’s current refineries are running below 50 percent capacity. An effort to improve capacity at existing refineries has been understaffed and underfunded, barely managing to keep up with ongoing maintenance, let alone upgrade the system. AMLO has blocked new offshore exploration by private companies, but Pemex lacks the technology to do it, meaning oil production will likely decline in the near future.

What’s On Tap

And coming up next week, we’ve got:
  • A column by James Bosworth on why centrist candidates have such a hard time making it into the second round of Latin American presidential elections.
  • A briefing by Nora Brito on how recent protests coupled with political paralysis have put Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso in a Catch-22.
  • A briefing by Franz-Stefan Gady on what military analysts should learn from their failure to accurately predict the Russian military’s performance in Ukraine.
  • And an in-depth article by Alena Epifanova on the dangers of the “splinternet,” and why it’s still a long way off.

Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @Judah_Grunstein.

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