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The List: Presidents for Life

Pervez Musharraf, Vladimir Putin, and Hugo Ch├ívez are merely the latest in a long line of strongmen who have used the trappings of democracy to stay in power. In this week’s List, FP takes a look at the world’s longest-serving “elected” leaders.

ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

Fidel Castro

Who: President of Cuba

Years in power: 48

Last elected: 2003, with 100 percent of the vote by the Cuban National Assembly, an elected body that selects the president

Freedom House rating for Cuba: Not free

Democratic credentials: Castro may claim that Cuban democracy is “a thousand times more serious and more honest” than its U.S. counterpart, but the Cuban electoral process is hardly a stellar example of freedom in action. No candidate in municipal or national elections is allowed to campaign for office, and nearly all forms of political dissent are banned. In the 2003 election, Cuban voters were asked to lend a shred of legitimacy to Castro’s dictatorship by electing members to the 609-seat National Assembly. To make things less confusing, only 609 candidates were allowed to run, and they swiftly rubber-stamped another term for el Comandante, who despite his recent bout of ill health, has vowed to outlast U.S. President George W. Bush in office.


PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images

Omar Bongo

Who: President of Gabon

Years in power: 39

Last elected: 2005, with 79.2 percent of the popular vote

Freedom House rating for Gabon: Partly free

Democratic credentials: The longest-serving leader in Africa, Bongo maintains tight control over the media and security forces. In 2003, the National Assembly, dominated by Bongo’s Gabonese Democratic Party, passed a number of constitutional provisions that removed presidential term limits and runoff voting. The last presidential election in 2005 was marred by fraud allegations after members of the security forces were allowed to vote two days before the rest of the general public.


KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images

Ali Abdullah Saleh

Who: President of Yemen

Years in power: 29

Last elected: 2006, with 77.2 percent of the popular vote

Freedom House rating for Yemen: Partly free

Democratic credentials: Since staging a military coup in 1978, Saleh has been president of the now-defunct Yemen Arab Republic (also known as North Yemen) and later of unified Yemen beginning in 1990. The presidential election in 2006 was the first time that Saleh faced a serious challenger for the top office. However, opposition parties voiced extreme skepticism at the vote. Observers from the European Union cited election problems such as voter-list tampering, police intimidation of opposition candidates, and the ruling party’s use of state funds to dominate campaign coverage. But ultimately, the monitors declared the vote to be free and fair, to the howls of Saleh’s opponents.


LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom

Who: President of the Maldives

Years in power: 28

Last elected: 2003, with 90.3 percent of the popular vote

Freedom House rating for the Maldives: Not free

Democratic credentials: Gayoom prefers a political system he calls “limited democracy,” in which presidential candidates are nominated by the national legislature. Fortunately for Gayoom, he’s the only candidate nominated. His government claims that keeping Gayoom in power helps foster economic development. But although the Maldivian economy grew an average of 7.35 percent annually from 1991 to 2006, the Maldivian people haven’t exactly gotten rich, with gross domestic product (GDP) per capita still a scant $3,900. In 2004, Gayoom signaled his willingness to soften his grip on power when he authorized the creation of a new half-elected, half-appointed body that will institute political reforms. But opposition parties cite the slow pace of reforms and continued harassment by government security forces as evidence that Gayoom isn’t willing to let go of the reins just yet.


PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images

Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo

Who: President of Equatorial Guinea

Years in power: 28

Last elected: 2002, with 97.1 percent of the popular vote

Freedom House rating for Equatorial Guinea: Not free

Democratic credentials: Africa’s wealthiest leader, with a net worth estimated at $600 million, Obiang came to power in 1979 by murdering his uncle and taking control in a coup. Authoritarian in the extreme, Obiang nominally allows the existence of opposition parties, a condition demanded by international aid donors in the early 1990s. Today, his vast oil wealth means he doesn’t really have to listen to anyone, least of all foreign donors. The 1995 discovery of oil made Equatorial Guinea Africa’s third-largest oil exporter, accounting for the country’s astonishing per capita GDP of $50,200, the world’s fourth highest. Unfortunately, little of that oil wealth is going to anybody but Obiang and his pals.


TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images

Hun Sen

Who: Prime minister of Cambodia

Years in power: 22

Last elected: 2003, when his party won 47 percent of the Cambodian National Assembly

Freedom House rating for Cambodia: Not free

Democratic credentials: In sole control since overthrowing his co-prime minister in a 1997 military coup, Hun Sen has the dubious distinction of actually losing an election rigged in his favor. But that didn’t stop him from clinging to power. Hun Sen’s party notoriously bought votes and intimidated the opposition in the run-up to the 2003 presidential election, but the tactics failed to win Hun Sen the necessary majority to keep him in office. Only his close ties to the security forces kept Cambodia’s leader from retirement. Then again, one must expect such cunning from a former member of the Khmer Rouge.

Copyright © 2004 & 2007 Ibrahim Mohamed! Inc. All rights reserved.e-mail:ibumohd@gmail.com

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