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Here’s Daddy!

Mejía's campaign to regain power in the Dominican Republic reflects global trends toward populism, machismo and the propensity to cling to power

Daddy (Papá) is Hipólito Mejía, who wants to be president of the Dominican Republic. Llegó Papá! (Here is Daddy!) is his campaign slogan. His promise to the voters is that Daddy will give them what they don’t have and have never had. The elections are in May, and Mejía, who already was president between 2000 and 2004, may be re-elected despite the fact that during his tenure the country suffered a disastrous economic crash .

The world doesn’t much care about what happens in the tiny Caribbean country. Yet, sometimes events in tiny counties that are largely ignored by the media illustrate broader global trends. Indeed, Mejía’s campaign, and its slogan, reflects currents that are appearing elsewhere. Populism, machismo, the propensity of presidents, though democratically elected, to cling to power, and the voters’ readiness to re-elect them even if their record is disastrous, can be increasingly seen around the world, from Russia to Italy and from Thailand to Ecuador.

Populism. With loudspeakers blasting his slogan and announcing his arrival, Hipólito Mejía visits poor neighborhoods handing out food, TVs and clothing... Like populists everywhere he tries to lure voters with gifts, and promises - regardless of their consequences or viability. Though all candidates resort to demagoguery - and in fairness its worth stressing that Mejía's opponents do the same - true populists go further, promising things they know cannot be delivered. Once in power, populists need to control the state’s coffers. This is why they intensely dislike checks and balances, and disdain legislators, judges, journalists and the opposition. While it flourishes in poor countries, it is hardly unknown in rich ones. Consider, for example, the rhetoric of Sarah Palin and other Republicans in the United States, or the ascent of populism in Europe.

Sexism. If Hipólito Mejía is “Papa", Silvio Berlusconi is the "Papi" whose “bunga-bunga” sessions are now the stuff of legend. Though Berlusconi’s sexism eventually led Italian women to take to the streets in protest, that of Putin still seems to charm the Russian ladies and polls show that despite recent public protests against him, his popularity among women is still high. The Russian leader cultivates his image as an alpha male and his pictures as a bear hunter, biker, fighter pilot, and bareback rider have enjoyed as much publicity as Lenin’s mummy. Hugo Chávez also stars in this department. Once on television he announced to his then wife that, when he got home that evening, he was going to “give her what she had coming.” On another occasion he opined that Condoleezza Rice was “in need of a man,” calling on his ministers to volunteer for the task of “making Condoleezza happy.”

Re-election. Power is addictive; democracy is an antidote to prevent rulers from hanging on forever. Even so, some democratically elected presidents will go to any lengths to hang on, or make a comeback. Hipólito Mejía’s passion for re-election is no different from that of Sarkozy, Putin and Berlusconi. Laws may prohibit re-election, but laws can be changed. Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador all changed the rules so that they could remain in power. The same happens in Africa and Eastern Europe.

Re-electing bad presidents. Daniel Ortega has just begun his third mandate in Nicaragua, which he achieved thanks to his decision to violate the Constitution and the power that allowed him to do so. At his inauguration he was enthusiastically applauded by visiting heads of state like Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In all three cases, statistics from international organizations show that during their mandates their respective countries have backslided. Yet all three have been re-elected. The case of Berlusconi shows that the propensity to re-elect leaders with a bad track record is not the monopoly of poor countries.

Here is Mama! A woman may derail the plans of Mejía, who had been leading in the polls – until, that is, the current first lady, Margarita Cedeño (the country’s most popular political personality) decided to run for the vice-presidency. Now Danilo Medina, the government’s candidate and Mejía’s rival, has climbed to first place. Some 25 percent of those who plan to vote for him say that they will do so “because of Margarita.” And this is another Latin American trend that I hope will become a global one: there are more and more women climbing to top positions of power.

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