Hail and Farewell: Obama’s new nemesis

Hail and Farewell - A Global Diary

Mitch McConnell

He sees himself as Darth Vader, but his weapon isn’t a lightsaber. It’s a withering stare that chills your bones. And it is turned on President Barack Obama. Meet Mitch McConnell, majority leader in the Senate since the Republicans won control of Capitol Hill in mid-term elections. He now says “no you can’t” to the man who used to say “yes we can”.

McConnell was once described as having “the natural charisma of an oyster”. That was a little hard on the molluscs. The 72-year-old Washington insider is a legendary Kentucky deal-maker who revels in his role as in-house villain, using blocking powers to stall contentious policies. Obama’s response was to end the USA’s 50-year cold war with Cuba, enraging the Republican Right.

The Cuba deal owed much to stealthy diplomatic footwork from Pope Francis. But he reserved hobnail boots for the European Union, which – he told Europe’s Parliament – was like a haggard old woman, past her child-bearing days. Odd, from a 77-year-old celibate whose pews sigh with elderly ladies.  Unless his diagnosis was that a constipated system needed a sharp dose of political prune juice, perhaps. Would the EU survive it? 

Not if Nigel Farage has his way. The bloke-ishly charismatic, chain-smoking saloon bar patriot has transformed the cranky right-wing, anti-Europe, UK Independence Party into a potential game changer. Neither Premier David Cameron’s Conservatives nor Ed Miliband’s Labour Party can expect an outright majority in May’s election. Farage once vowed never to work with Cameron, but now says he’d do a deal with the devil to get his way. He could hold the balance of power.

Or it could be Alex Salmond, who quit as First Minister and Scottish National Party (SNP) leader after losing the referendum on independence from the UK. But the nationalist wave that swept the SNP to the edge of victory surges on, in what has become the neverendum. Salmond will now stand for the UK Parliament, pledging to back a Labour minority regime on the right terms – but not the Tories, at any price.

France’s woman to watch is Marine Le Pen, a charismatic cross between Joan of Arc and Edith Piaf, and leader of the far-right Front National, which triumphed in the EU elections. She challenged François Hollande, France’s least popular President in 50 years, who has installed two new cabinets in six months, to dissolve Parliament and call an election, so she could win and become his premier. No chance.

It would mean Hollande – already humiliated by the vengeful kiss-and-tell memoir of Valérie Trierweiler, his mistress at the Élysée, until his fling with an actress – would have had almost as many governments as girlfriends. Le Pen’s best hope is a re-run for the presidency in 2017 against her old foes Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, the former centre-right President who announced a comeback.

With Japan back in recession and his one-time miracle ‘Abenomics’ looking sick, premier Shinzō Abe called – and won – a snap election. But Israeli premier Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu’s gamble on a March poll looks risky as an anybody-but-Bibi movement gathers pace. A chastened Dilma Rousseff narrowly retained the Brazil presidency in a run-off against Aécio Neves – then shocked her Workers’ Party by adopting his tough economic policies.

There were mixed fortunes for surviving political dinosaurs. Egypt’s deposed President Hosni Mubarak, aged 86, was cleared on a technicality of overseeing police action that left 1,000 protesters dead in 2011. The reign of Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaoré ended as abruptly as it had started, when he tried to extend his term and was overthrown in a military coup, happily less bloody than that which secured him office 27 years earlier. 

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is fast-tracking his wife Grace to power. The former presidential typist – known as Gucci Grace for her line in bling – has been appointed leader of the Zanu-PF women’s league, after being awarded a doctorate by her husband. He also marked her dissertation. Mr Mugabe is 90. Grace is 42. Clearly, she doesn’t need a degree in arithmetic.

Finally, India’s new premier Narendra Modi, who is drawing huge international crowds – including 18,000 at a pop-style rally in New York – has appointed a Minister for Yoga. Very wise. A little deep breathing could come in useful if Modi Mania gets out of hand.


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