Recently, in a land better known for cricket, beaches and beer, rather than Washington DC-esque politics, political manoeuvrings resulted in the resignation of their leader. In Australia, Kevin Rudd recently toppled Julia Gilliard in a successful parliamentary leadership coup- three years after she had done that to him. Politics is not totally devoid of irony, as Mr. Rudd returns to the PM’s residence, this time with his work cut out for him, but still riding on his former popularity.
Given that the Labor Party he now leads is facing an election soon, the timing is not great. However, it is the result of endemic power struggles which often appear in democracies where there is opportunity and struggles for the top jobs, as they are chosen by either party or people. As Ms. Gilliard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister and a divisive figure, steps out of the limelight (but for how long?), she can be comforted in the knowledge she is not the first democratic leader to fall in such a way.
As the Berlin Wall fell, and the USSR collapsed rapidly, Mikhail Gorbachev was pursuing policies of perestroika, glastnost and greater openness with the West. Amidst the power vacuum as the old USSR collapsed, a Siberian gained in popularity and power. Whilst standing up for the government during the 1991 coup, and supporting Gorbachev vocally from a tank turret, Boris Yeltsin had other plans; the presidency. After the rapid events in Russia in 1991, Yeltsin became the first President of the Russian Federation before Christmas, having effectively toppled Gorbachev.
For Russia, though, outside forces and international issues played a part in Gorbachev’s fall; if Russia had not been in chaos, and if the economy had been better, it is likely that Gorbachev could have seen off Yeltsin. Ms. Gilliard can draw comfort from the fact that even a great elder statesman like Gorbachev is not immune from the same plotting that was her downfall.
More recently, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has successfully seen of threats to his power since elected in 2006. There have been not leadership challenges per se but moves to undermine his power base, to challenge him in motions of no confidence, and other political moves to force him out of 24 West Sussex Drive (the Canadian Prime Minister’s residence) . Indeed, since 2006, there have been several elections, mostly triggered by political events rather than a government seeking re-election after their term of office. Although quite unpopular in Canada, Harper has been returned to power each time.
A calculating political machine, seemingly more concerned with his own power base and Ottawa politics rather than Canadian interests domestically or internationally, he is still in power despite numerous political episodes. Most notably, in 2008, debates over the Budget deteriorated so much that the subsequent chain of events made Mr. Harper, put then Governor General Michaelle Jean in a very tricky constitutional situation concerning proroguing Parliament, over December 2008 and January 2009. Luckily, the situation was resolved- but in avoiding a motion of no confidence over his party’s budget, Mr. Harper nearly triggered a constitutional crisis.
Given Mr. Harper’s impressive track record in nimbly avoiding such challenges, Ms. Gilliard could learn from him.
More domestically, the Conservative Party here in the UK are no stranger to leadership challenges. Margaret Thatcher was removed aver 11 years not by people but by a successful leadership challenge using rarely- used party rules and procedures that placed a (relative) newcomer in No.10.
Subsequent party leaders have had to watch their backbenchers as keenly as the opposition benches, as leaders have come and gone quite frequently due to dissent, opposition and political manoeuvrings from their own party. At least Ms. Gilliard only had one main and expected opponent, instead of potential challengers appearing out of nowhere in her party. However, it only takes one main challenger or opponent to cause your political downfall – as Tony Blair found to his cost with Gordon Brown.
Although out of Australian politics for now, it would not be surprising if Ms. Gilliard made a comeback to the political arena at some stage, and ended up in a subsequent Cabinet or as Prime Minister again. It is not unlikely; but if she pulls it off, many Western democratically elected leaders will be watching and learning intently from her.
In the meantime, Kevin Rudd returns as Prime Minister in time to face an election. It just goes to show, that sometimes in a democracy the greatest threat to your power base is not the will, vote or voice of the people, nor a free press or an independent judiciary, not the opposition parties – but rather the people sitting on the same parliamentary benches just behind you, supporting you with their voice, but plotting against you with their minds.
Democratic leaders should bear in mind the old wisdom to ‘keep your friends close- but your enemies closer’- for unintentionally, that is what they actually do.
Guest Post contribution from: The Law Ninja.