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23 December 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 11:12am

How 2020 played out for the world’s leaders

From Brazil to Belarus, the Covid-19 pandemic intensified political trends around the world.  

By Ido Vock, Jeremy Cliffe and India Bourke

Abiy Ahmed’s fall from Nobel grace, Ethiopia

On coming to power in 2018, Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed vowed to tackle the country’s ethnic divisions by forging a sense of national unity. But his decision last year to dissolve the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the party that had dominated politics since the 1990s, and replace it with a more broad-based alliance, the Prosperity Party, angered the ruling party of the northern Tigray region.

This September, the Tigray regional government defied Abiy by holding elections during the coronavirus pandemic – sparking a series of events that culminated in war. By November, hundreds of civilians were reported to have been killed and tens of thousands forced to flee. Abiy has since declared the conflict over, but reports of atrocities committed during the conflict have marred his reputation as a liberal darling. His receipt of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, for his work in securing peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea, now appears premature.

[Read more: Ido’s November report on Ethiopia’s crisis]

Jacinda Ardern’s Kiwi Miracle, New Zealand

At the start of 2020, it looked as though Jacinda Ardern, 40, could lose the New Zealand general election, then due in September ,and become a one-term prime minister. Her Labour Party lagged behind its conservative National Party challenger in a succession of polls. But Ardern’s political fortunes were to be transformed. Her handling of the pandemic delivered Labour a landslide victory (with 50 per cent of the popular vote) and the first single-party majority since New Zealand’s proportional electoral system was introduced in 1996.

The country’s lockdown was one of the swiftest in the world and Ardern’s relatable personal style was credited with high levels of compliance (New Zealand’s remote location and low population density also helped). At the time of writing, the country’s Covid-19 death toll is 25. In her second term, Ardern is expected to turn to the unfinished business of her first, including her country’s lack of affordable housing and entrenched child poverty.

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[Read more: Jeremy’s October feature on Ardern’s unfinished business]

Jair Bolsonaro’s bread and circuses, Brazil

No major world leader, not even Donald Trump, has responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with as much buffoonish denialism as Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil’s hard-right president dismissed the pandemic as “a little flu”, mocked mask wearers, caught the virus himself, fired one health minister and saw the next resign, undermined lockdown measures and even flirted (incredibly) with using the military against his political and judicial opponents. The country has the third highest number of recorded virus cases and the second highest number of deaths.

That is without getting into the other aspects of Bolsonaro’s record, including the highest rate of Amazon deforestation in more than a decade. Yet his lurid culture war politics and his moves to claim credit for the $100 cash vouchers distributed to poor citizens (an initiative by Brazil’s Congress) help to explain why Bolsonaro now regularly enjoys net positive approval ratings. Though local elections last month saw wins for centrist candidates over right-wingers backed by the president, re-election for Brazil’s president in 2022 cannot be ruled out.

[Read more: Jeremy on the tragedy of Bolsonaro’s Brazil, from June]

Zuzana Caputova, the masked woman, Slovakia

Early on in the pandemic, while some global leaders were playing down the dangers of the virus and insisting it would soon disappear, Slovakia’s first female president made a statement – a fashion statement. Caputova appeared in public wearing face masks that perfectly matched her dresses. Caputova’s style was a thing of substance: an instruction for the public to take the new virus seriously.

After Covid-19 cases soared over the summer, the government decided to test everyone over the age of ten. But when scientists spoke out against the logistical and technical challenges of the suggested approach, Caputova again sided with science and called for a rethink of the plan.

[Read more: Postcards from Planet Covid]

Giuseppe Conte’s improbable survival, Italy

When the West’s first major outbreak of Covid-19 struck Italy in February, it hit a country whose technocratic prime minister had taken office in 2018 with no prior experience of holding political office and was already on his second coalition government after the collapse of the first in 2019. Yet Giuseppe Conte, a legal academic and political independent by background, saw his popularity soar over the spring; a reward, despite the terrible death toll and scenes from hotspots such as Bergamo, for what was seen as calm and broadly sensible leadership in difficult circumstances.

The European recovery plan, whose biggest beneficiary will be Italy, was another boost and may not have been possible had the country been under less credible leadership when the crisis struck. A severe second wave and government divisions over how to use the recovery fund have taken some of the shine off the prime minister in recent weeks, and it is unclear how long the coalition government (between the centre-left Democrats and the populist Five Star Movement) will last. But Conte still ends 2020 with higher approval ratings than he had at the start of the year.

[Read more: Jeremy’s July essay from post-first wave Italy]

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s gathering storm, Turkey

For Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 2020 was a year of swagger abroad and struggles at home. It began with Turkey sending troops into Libya, in a move that helped turn the tide of the country’s civil war in favour of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord. It also saw mounting tensions with Greece and Cyprus over gas drilling rights and enthusiastic backing for Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Yet such adventurism has left Turkey isolated (the idea that Erdogan is pursuing a coherent “neo-Ottoman” strategy gives his opportunism too much credit). The US and the EU have imposed sanctions and Turkish-Russian rapprochement is piecemeal and transactional.

Domestically, Erdogan’s cultural nationalism (moving in July to convert Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque) is a mask for the country’s economic woes: over the past year, the lira has plunged while inflation and interest rates have soared. New efforts to coordinate Turkey’s fragmented opposition could spell a difficult 2021 for the country’s president.

[Listen to: Jeremy and Emily’s July discussion of Erdogan’s Turkey with British-Turkish writer Elif Shafak]

Tsai Ing-wen’s triumph, Taiwan

Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, started 2020 on a high note. A landslide re-election victory in January saw her triumph over a candidate who favoured closer ties with Beijing. That early success grew as the government mobilised rapidly against Covid-19 and delivered one of the world’s most impressive responses. Despite not closing schools, shops or restaurants, Taiwan has, to date, recorded just seven deaths from the virus and its economy is expected to be one of the few in the world to grow this year.

The US health secretary, Alex Azar, has praised the “open, transparent, democratic nature of Taiwan’s society and culture” in response to its performance during the pandemic. Others have noted the island’s technological prowess – and its enthusiasm for open data as much as open government. As the global trade wars continue to unfold in 2021, support for both these trends looks set to keep Tsai firmly centre stage.

[Read more: Jessie Lau on why the Taiwanese are thinking more about their identity]

Xi Jinping’s war on dissent and difference, China

We cannot know for certain how Xi Jinping’s 2020 will be remembered, but perhaps it will be recalled as a year of crackdowns. In June, China imposed a new national security law over Hong Kong, effectively making it legal for Beijing to target anyone in the region deemed to be a dissenting voice. The country also extended its network of detention centres in Xinjiang, where human rights groups say at least a million ethnic Uighurs have been detained.

The country began the year by covering up the coronavirus outbreak and insisting there were no new cases. There is an argument to be made that China’s handling of the pandemic reflects well on Xi, but that there was a global pandemic at all, combined with ongoing human rights abuses, exposes the failures of his leadership.

[Read more: Ellen Halliday’s October report on how China has abused Uighur women for decades]

Carrie Lam’s hollow throne, Hong Kong

Once seen as a hard-working and unassuming bureaucrat, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam is now arguably the territory’s most despised leader in modern history. Handpicked by Beijing, she has become little more than its pawn, presiding over the calamitous demise of the territory’s highly prized freedoms. A new national security law introduced in June has criminalised most forms of protest and resulted in the stepping up of arrests.

Many pro-democracy supporters now face jail, while others have fled abroad, vowing to continue the fight however they can in the face of the worsening crackdown. Lam has not escaped unscathed. Her government took a battering in 2019’s local elections, boding ill for the Legislative Council Elections scheduled for next September, while US sanctions against the territory have targeted her personal financial assets. Lam may have vowed in a recent speech to restore order after “chaos”, but the future of Hong Kong looks unremittingly bleak.

[Read more: India’s November interview with pro-democracy activists Nathan Law]

Alexander Lukashenko’s shattered illusion, Belarus

The autocratic Belarusian president is used to winning elections with an unlikely 80-plus per cent of the vote. He is less used to mass protests against such results, which have unfolded almost every week since the official results in August saw him reinstalled for a sixth term. But a combination of brutal repression and the cultivation of the security forces’ loyalty has so far allowed Alexander Lukashenko to maintain his grip on power.

His challenger, the charismatic Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, continues to agitate from exile in Lithuania. Even though her immediate routes to the presidency appear limited, she has been recognised as the legitimate leader of Belarus by some countries, and has shattered Lukashenko’s aura of invincibility.

[Read more: Ido on the bully of Belarus]

Emmanuel Macron’s balancing act, France

Emmanuel Macron has long argued that the EU should take on common debt, a concept at which most other member states balked. Yet the coronavirus crisis provided a new impetus for the French president’s federalising instincts. This summer he convinced the German chancellor Angela Merkel to agree that the EU should adopt common bonds for the first time, resulting in the €750bn recovery fund.

With less than a year left until Merkel is due to leave office, Macron’s recovery fund success has helped position him as Europe’s leader-in-waiting. Yet domestic challenges, from the economy to his hardline turn on identity and security, could cause mounting problems in advance of the 2022 presidential election.

[Read more: Ido’s July profile of Macron and his strategic balancing act]

Angela Merkel’s last hurrah, Germany

The German chancellor’s year began with the downfall of her protégée Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in early February and suggestions that Merkel herself might stand down before the election due in September 2021. But the pandemic changed everything.

At home, the chancellor’s calm communication and ability to broker agreements between the heads of Germany’s federal states is credited as a factor in the country’s comparatively low Covid-19 death rate. In Europe, she was decisive in agreeing an unexpectedly ambitious €750bn recovery plan backed by shared debt, and has concluded the year with a deal on the EU’s seven-year budget. Though Germany’s pandemic response has been rocked in recent weeks by soaring Covid-19 infections, Merkel’s position and popularity seem unassailable. Yet she will not seek a historic fifth term as chancellor at next September’s election, and the question of who will succeed her remains unanswered.

[Read more: Jeremy’s column from September on how to understand Germany’s successes]

Narendra Modi’s year of protest, India

On the one hand, no one in India seems to be able to challenge prime minister Narendra Modi’s grip on power. His party, the BJP, easily won this year’s election in Bihar. The adoption of Hindutva, an ideology that conflates cultural, national and religious identity, as government policy continues apace, and protests against it – such as at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi – were largely stalled by Covid-19. (Modi’s critics say the pandemic has also been used as a pretence to launch further crackdowns against dissent.)

On the other hand, Modi’s plan to shake up farming industry regulation has presented him with a new problem: though he says the changes would allow for greater modernisation and investment in agriculture, farmers fear they will drive down prices and put them at the mercy of large corporations. Tens of thousands have taken to the capital’s surrounding area to protest, garnering widespread support and forcing the government to enter into negotiations with protest leaders.

[Read more: Emily’s June report on the rise of a dangerous new nationalism in India]

Alexei Navalny’s fight back, Russia

The plan was not for Alexei Navalny to make it to Christmas. The FSB, Russia’s principal security agency, which had been trailing the opposition leader for years, allegedly poisoned him with the lethal nerve agent Novichok in August. Yet Navalny survived after being flown, while in a coma, to Berlin, where he has been convalescing since.

Far from eliminating a challenger to the Russian president Vladimir Putin, the security services were humiliated and the identities of the team tracking Navalny exposed. Navalny then discussed the failed poisoning in detail with one alleged team member, posting a recording of the call online. Navalny has, then, made the Russian security services appear bumbling and amateurish instead of terrifyingly omnipotent, more Mr Bean than James Bond.

[Read more: Ido’s profile of Russia’s opposition leader]

Nikol Pashinyan’s disastrous war, Armenia

Armenia’s beleaguered prime minister came to power in 2018 amid a wave of optimism and hope for democratic change. But a disastrous war with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which saw Armenian-backed separatists lose most of the territory they had controlled for nearly 30 years, has resulted in mass protests demanding Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation.

Whether Pashinyan survives politically or not, he will be remembered as the prime minister who lost Nagorno-Karabakh and reshaped the geopolitical map of the South Caucasus, forging a larger role for Turkey in Russia’s traditional backyard.

[Read more: Ido’s report from Azerbaijan, in the wake of the Nagorno-Karabakh war]

Donald Trump’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year, US

The outgoing US president spent weeks denying the Covid-19 pandemic posed a serious problem, and then months mishandling it (before, eventually, being infected himself). He tried to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and still lost; he appointed a third justice to the US Supreme Court, only to have the court refuse to hear a case that might have overturned parts of the election result. He is ending 2020 by deflecting suspicion away from Russia over a huge intelligence hack. Other than that, Trump had a great year.

[Read more: Emily on how Donald Trump’s self-interest could still hurt the Republicans in Georgia]

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