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Simon Baker, POOL/AP
King George Tupou V of Tonga

Is Absolute Power on its Last Legs?

August 12, 2008 08:58 AM
by Liz Colville
Several nations long ruled by monarchies are abandoning them, many in favor of democracy. Other dictatorships have weakened. But a few strongholds of absolute power do remain.

Absolute Power Shows Signs of Wear

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Many countries long seen as oppressed have been freed recently from the dictatorial grasp of their leaders, indicating that absolute power as a governing practice is waning around the world.

Some leaders, like the king of Tonga, have given up their powers in the name of democracy. Others, like Saddam Hussein of Iraq and King Gyanendra of Nepal, were forcibly removed from power, leading to parliamentary systems in both countries’ cases.

But as long-held absolute power structures are abandoned in several key places, many countries remain in transition, with the future of the countries’ ruling structures hanging in the balance.

In Cuba, Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as president, has imposed reforms that have heralded economic change for the island nation. The Cuban reforms center on agriculture, and are helping to “allow more privately run farming,” according to the BBC. But the BBC report on Raul Castro’s first months in office concludes that no one should “expect the state to give up its overwhelming control over the lives of its citizens any time soon.”
Italy also finds itself in something of a transition after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s reelection, which so far has been marked by a targeting of the country’s gypsy, or Roma, population, according to the Atlantic Monthly. And in July, Italy passed new legislation that “grants political immunity to the incumbents of Italy's four most powerful positions: the posts of prime minister, president and the speakers of the two parliamentary chambers,” France24 reported. Critics say the bill, which was “vigorously opposed” by Berlusconi’s left-wing opposition, gives the Prime Minister a “get out of jail free” card.

African countries like Gabon and Sudan continue to be ruled by one long-standing leader. Omar Bongo of Gabon is the longest-serving nonmonarchical leader in the world, having been in office for 40 years.

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir is at the helm of a regime widely believed to be responsible for the displacement and death of millions of people in the country’s Darfur region. The International Criminal Court sought the arrest of al-Bashir in July of this year on war crimes charges directly related to the conflict.

Background: Several Key Dictatorships and Their Demise

The new king of the island region of Tonga, George Tupou V, came into power in 2006, succeeding his late father. But prior to his official coronation in August of this year, Tupou announced that he would “surrender his role in day-to-day government affairs,” handing over power to the nation’s prime minister.

For Nepal, the government change came involuntarily. In May of this year, King Gyanendra was dethroned following the election of the country’s Maoist government, which gave the king 15 days to vacate his palace. Nepal’s previous king, Diapendra, slaughtered several palace members in 2001, a move that “helped pierce the mystique” of the dynasty, according to the Associated Press. It is alleged that his successor, Gyanedra, was involved in that mass murder.

In Europe, the end of the Cold War marked a new era of democracy. Notably, Romania was relieved of its rule by Nicolae Ceausescu, the Communist dictator in power for 24 years. He and his wife were shot by a firing squad in 1989. The Ceausescus were convicted of “genocide and undermining the national economy among a series of other offences,” according to the BBC’s On This Day feature on the deaths.

Opinion & Analysis: Dictatorships in the Shadows

The effects of Cyclone Nargis on the tiny country of Myanmar provided a rare glimpse into an oft-forgotten nation ruled by dictatorship. The devastation also showed a stark contrast to China’s response to its own disaster, the Sichuan earthquake, writes Simon Jenkins in the Guardian. Unlike China’s government, the military regime in charge of Burma keeps the country under wraps, believing that publicity and aid “is a greater disaster than any hurricane. It suggests incompetence and impotence.”

Berlusconi’s new immunity from prosecution is hardly his only policy to have fueled accusations of dictatorial grandeur. The country’s marginalized gypsy population, the Roma, have become a victim of Berlusconi’s regime, according to The Atlantic’s blog, The Current. Berlusconi has called the group “clandestine immigrants and criminals,” and his interior minister has called for registration of the Roma,” which carries “overtones of the registration drives that eventually allowed for the persecution of Jews and Gypsies in the 1930s,” The Current writes.

Prior to the end of Tonga’s ruling democracy this month, the island nation suffered from considerable unrest, with riots protesting monarchical rule and, subsequently, a weakened economy. The country was offered aid by Australia, New Zealand and China, and many citizens immigrated to those countries. But in The Australian in 2006, Gaurav Sodhi wrote that what Tonga needed most was for its democratic movement to be encouraged—not for the country to be given money.

Reference: Dictatorship, monarchy

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