Here is the story of global politics in 2016, told through the mouths of our wise and glorious leaders.
30. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe: “I was dead, and I resurrected, as I always do.” Mugabe is African politics’ great survivor, literally. He is frequently declared dead by the local press. But he’ll be around bit longer. At 92, he is planning to run again in 2018 for an eight term.
29. Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum: “I don’t need a coup d’état or anything. But if the day comes, I will gather my people, I will unburden my heart to them. And after that…” Dostum trailed off. Rule No. 1 for putting an unreconstructed warlord in your government is keep him occupied. Otherwise, his mind may start wandering to thoughts of coups.
28. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari: “I don't know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.” Buhari wins the prize for most tone-deaf remark of the year, made in reaction to his wife’s comments about his selection of government ministers. The worst part: He said this while standing next to one of the most powerful women in the world, Angela Merkel.
27. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg: “There isn't some kind of global girlfriends network that wants to rule the world.” Solberg would love to see other prominent women join the world leaders club, but after the U.S. election—she spoke right before it—she’s even more right than she thought.
26. Chinese Finance Minister Lou Jiwei: “We need to recognize some political risks such as the presidential election in some countries and in major economies.” Credit to China: They certainly saw the potential of a rocky relationship with Washington coming, as this comment from October illustrates. But are they truly prepared for the degree of Trump’s break with tradition on Taiwan and other issues? 2017 will be busy for China watchers.
25. Chinese anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan: “Being red-faced and sweating will be the norm.” The anti-corruption drive has been one of President Xi Jinping’s most important tools as he cements control of the Chinese Communist Party, and Wang Qishan is driving it.
24. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban: “Unless we preserve Libya as one and stabilize it we cannot create the gigantic refugee city by Libya's Mediterranean coast.” As Europe’s slow-burning political crisis has unfolded, some leaders have seized the opportunity to try to remake the world as they would prefer it. In the case of Orban, a Hungarian populist, that apparently includes turning Libya into a giant refugee camp.
23. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko: “Europe still speaks with one voice, but there are also countries where the Russian accent is already too audible.” Ukraine’s embattled president saw the Putinization of Western politics coming a mile away.
22. South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan: “Let me do my job.” Lost in the noise of 2016’s global political cacophony has been the slow-motion meltdown of South Africa’s politics under the ruling African National Congress. The internecine fighting got so bad that allies of the president reportedly launched a politically motivated investigation into the sitting finance minister, who was ultimately cleared.
21. South African President Jacob Zuma: “I have spent a lot of time in jail. I am not scared of jail, I have been there.” True, Zuma spent time in jail under apartheid, but the current scandal is something else. Accused of influence-peddling, and forced to pay back money for illegal home improvements, Zuma still maintains a solid grip on his party and the presidency.
20. Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov: “It’s disappointing that even with all the facilities provided, you could not justify the trust of the motherland.” If there’s someone you don’t want to let down—as the Turkmen Olympic team apparently did this summer by failing to win any medals in Rio—it’s a president-for-life who erects 70-foot golden statues of himself.
19. South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo: “We still think they need time, but whatever the purpose is, the North is doing things at a rate that is beyond our imagination.” While South Korea has been undergoing a political explosion—the president has been suspended pending a court ruling on her impeachment—North Korea is hard at work on traditional explosions.
18. Austrian Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer: “No one would vote for me in the U.S.” Some Austrians did vote for the far-right Hofer—who thinks he is not far-right enough for Washington—but not quite enough to win him the largely ceremonial presidency. He lost this year, not once but twice, after the first vote was annulled.
17. Former Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva: “Only Jesus Christ beats me here in Brazil.” Lula, went from being one of the most popular leaders in the world to facing multiple criminal charges over corruption allegations that ultimately saw his selected successor, Dilma Rousseff, impeached. Brazilians may find out if his confidence is justified. He hasn’t been convicted of anything and is eligible to run again in 2018.
16. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad: “Your policy should be a mixture between your interests and how you reach your ends, but based on values. It cannot be only the end justifies the means, because for the criminals, ends justify the means, for thieves, for every illegal and immoral action, the end justifies the means.” Assad’s own values are clear.
15. Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves: “What's there to be nervous about?” Estonians might have good reason to be nervous about Trump—he has questioned the value of NATO, and one of his advisers, Newt Gingrich, called Estonia “the suburbs of St. Petersburg”—but at least one of their leaders is putting on a brave face.
14. Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi: “A cat on the motorway between Florence and the sea lasts longer than a government.” Renzi staked his leadership on a referendum on constitutional changes that would have reduced the frequent turnover in Italian governments. It failed, and Renzi resigned, having served just over 1,000 days in office.
13. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte: “I'd go around in Davao with a motorcycle, with a big bike around, and I would just patrol the streets, looking for trouble also. I was really looking for a confrontation so I could kill.” Duterte has made a lot of headlines for his blunt comments on his relationships with the U.S. and China and his drug war at home. But arguably none were as eye-opening as this moment, when he admitted to personally killing drug suspects.
12. Italian politician Beppe Grillo: “Those who dare, the stubborn, the barbarians will carry the world forward, and we are the barbarians.” In the wake of Renzi’s resignation, those “barbarians,” from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, have a serious shot at leading Italy sometime soon.
11. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: “There are so many pussies in your presidential campaign on both sides that I prefer not to comment about this.” A classic non-comment comment on one of the lewder twists in America’s election. Enough said.
10. Pope Francis: “I think the media have to be very clear, very transparent, and not fall into—no offense intended—the sickness of coprophilia, that is, always wanting to cover scandals, covering nasty things.” Well, we can’t all be infallible, can we?
9. French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen: “The time of the nation state has come again.” The question is whether it’s the National Front’s time as well. Le Pen, the far-right party’s charismatic leader, is the populist to watch coming into 2017, as she’s a favorite to get into the second round of the French presidential elections.
8. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi: "I know the forces up against me. They may not let me live. They may ruin me because their loot of 70 years is in trouble. But I am prepared.” One of Modi’s greatest political tests has been of his own making. He surprised the nation this fall by withdrawing certain currency notes from circulation in order to fight corruption. Despite pushback based on a rocky rollout of the demonetization program, Modi seems energized by the response.
7. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei: “‘Shake with your right hand, but hold a rock in your left one,’ as they say themselves.” When Iran’s supreme leader is quoting Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, you know 2016 has gotten weird. He was referring to U.S. policy on the Iran, which combines deal-making on the nuclear issue with continued sanctions in other areas. Iran’s big question for 2017: Which hand will Trump extend first?
6. British Prime Minister Theresa May: “Brexit means Brexit.” This bold tautology arguably won May the leadership of the government, since, in the immediate wake of the unexpected Brexit vote, it clarified that she would lead a government devoted to leaving the European Union. The trick, as we have all learned since, is that what actually leaving the EU entails is very much up for grabs. Sooner or later she’ll have to explain what else Brexit means.
5. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro: “The National Assembly has been transformed into a bastion of evil and bitterness, it is useless to the interests of our country and our people.” Maduro has all but gone to war with the opposition in Venezuela, who took over the legislature late last year. Maduro is arguably winning, having resisted efforts to force him out of office, but, with riots breaking out, average Venezuelans are definitely losing.
4. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: “I’m not the king, I’m only the president.” In the wake of Turkey’s coup, Erdogan has insisted that he is only following the will of the people. But he is hard at work enhancing his executive powers. This year, the president. Next year…
3. Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Is it really important who did this?" Putin’s claim that he doesn’t care who hacked the DNC is probably your best reason to care.
2. President Barack Obama: “The 20th century was a bloodbath.” Obama’s point was that nationalism was bad in the run-up to World Wars I and II. But the 21st century is no peach, either.
1. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump: “I alone can fix it.” Here’s hoping.
This article has been adapted from Matt Peterson’s weekly newsletter for Eurasia Group, Signal.
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