Monday, December 3, 2007

A Tale of Two Elections

Two elections of note happened while I was traveling. First, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez put on the ballot socialist "reforms" and a constitutional change that would have ended Presidential term limits. By a respectable margin, his power grab failed. "Bravo" to the Venezuelan people.

To be fair to Chavez, he did the smart thing in response. Having been handed a lemon, he made lemonade. He claimed that his acceptance (for now at least) of the public will in this matter demonstrates that he is a democrat, not a dictator. He is, perhaps, smarter and therefore more dangerous than we had estimated in the past. Clearly his power is not yet absolute.

The second election was a parliamentary election in Russia where Putin's party won by a large margin. The Western press takes a very dim view of the fairness of this election. I daresay it was no more corrupt than many Chicago mayoral elections.

What the Western press does not report is Putin's popularity with many Russians. The other DrC and I were in Russia earlier this year. We chatted with a number of young and not-so-young Russians about Putin. They were uniformly impressed with his energy, fitness, and relative youth. They see an enormous contrast between his vigorous style and the boring, cautious style of the elderly Soviet leaders.

The Western press takes a dim view of Putin's willingness to drag down the "oligarchs" as the hyper-wealthy in Russia are called. On the other hand, Russians think this is great stuff. Russian oligarchs are no more popular at home than the robber barons were in the U.S. of an earlier day. Enthusiasm for Putin is similar to American enthusiasm for President Teddy Roosevelt, an energetic and feisty trust-buster. Does that mean he is actually a good guy? History will make that judgment. In the meantime, he could easily win honest elections with his very real popularity.