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Scrutiny
  
Can we have a quake?
Natural disasters interestingly have created huge political legacies (in some cases, destroyed them); an easy read on why some politicians perhaps desperately wait for a natural disaster to come back to power
29/04/2010

If Moses had the plagues to help him reserve his following, if Noah played to the end of the world tune to deliver his Ark to fame, then modern day politicians have had various brilliantly timed natural disasters to catapult up their political fortunes; and in some cases, even destroy them due to their lack of tactical intent. The more intelligent ones have used disasters to not only cleanse their corrupt and tainted pasts but to decimate opposition too. Presenting a cross-continent easy read correlation review.

On December 23, 1972 an earthquake in central Managua, in Nicaragua, helped reveal the social rifts of the Somoza family dictatorship, who reportedly embezzled a huge pie of the foreign aid. This quake became the key excuse for people (underpinned by Sandinista revolution) to come together to topple down the Somoza dictatorship. Likewise in 1976, in China, Mao’s successor Hua Guofeng converted the earthquake to his benefit. He popularised the Tangshan earthquake as a symbolic event and used it as an image-building exercise to eventually destroy the opposition’s hold in the region. During the same period, in Guatemala, the military dictatorship overlooked the rehabilitation of rural areas (and only concentrated on the capital city) after a major quake, and this led to one of the biggest uprisings in the country’s history. Although in this case dictatorship was somehow able to crush the revolution using brute force, some years down the line, in 1985, the self help groups of Mexico ignited the independence movement post the infamous 1985 Mexico quake and succeeded in putting a full stop to the one party system of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional.

While tectonic shifts on the surface have done a lot to make or mar political fortunes, similar tremors below the sea level have been equally omnipresent on making or marring political fortunes. The tsunami, which occurred a few days before the eve of 2005, killed over 220,000 people in 11 countries across the Indian Ocean; but the way it fired up the destiny of Thailand’s embattled Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra is mind-boggling to say the least. For the uninitiated, the disaster happened a few months before the scheduled national parliamentary elections in Thailand. Thaksin – facing ignominious corruption charges – grabbed this opportunity. He did everything possible to make his voters believe that he was capable of handling the calamity. In the course of that endeavour, he denied the need for any international aid and executed a near-effective recovery plan. This bold effort of Thaksin decoded itself into greatly improved rating points.
His disaster reaction timing made him win the forthcoming polls too, despite his near to worse track record (He was overthrown a year later by military, but his party again won the elections in the post-coup elections). The tsunami also led to the concept of Wave Diplomacy in Indonesia. The tsunami reduced the city of Aceh, in the island of Sumatra, to ruins. Historically, Aceh had been at war with the government for almost 29 years, but thanks to the tsunami, the Indonesian government and the separatist groups cracked an unexpected peace agreement. Separatist rebel groups gave up their demand for independence as they didn’t want any destruction.

Even Peru’s quake came as a silver lining for the President-in-term, Alan Garcia. A devastating 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck Peru’s central coast on August 15, 2007, just a year after Garcia was elected as the president. The president spent four straight nights sleeping by candlelight in Pisco, the most affected region. He moved to an air force base in the vicinity of the quake’s epicentre, and had all his cabinet meetings there itself. This act of his paid him well instantly as his approval ratings skyrocketed like never before. Garcia’s approval ratings, which had dropped from 63% to 35% by the end of his first year in office, post his quake efforts reached a resounding 76%.

However, some – it’s quite evident – don’t learn. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005. Katrina almost destroyed the whole of New Orleans. George Bush, who had a golden opportunity to redeem his Iraq misadventures and his administration’s WMD lies, flopped without recourse. Not only was he unable to provide an immediate and effective response to the affected zones, his administration failed in various areas of post disaster work too. In January 2005, while Bush’s approval ratings among Republicans was 91%, it fell to 78% right after Katrina. And overall, across America, Bush’s ratings collapsed to 41% in October 2005 and a worse 38% in November 2005. Bush’s dismal ratings, for information, never recovered throughout his term – that is how long lasting the impact of one mismanaged disaster can be. But a Black man, it seems, is leading the learning curve pretty well.

The recent Haiti earthquake gave the US president Barack Obama a fantastic opportunity to shore up his crashing ratings. Obama had earlier implemented an extremely strict policy of banning immigration from Haiti and had called for deporting back all such immigrants. To start with, he has temporarily cancelled this deportation program (Around 60% of Haiti’s budget depends on foreign aid and thus they need the remittances of those 30,000 people who work in the US). Secondly, Obama has pledged $100 million and many US troops for post quake relief efforts. Obama’s approval ratings have mystically started improving as if on cue, from 46% before the quake to 50% (CBS News Poll).

Evidently, for politicians who understand the correlation coefficients well, natural disasters are boom times to build on popularity, but only through a committed and sincere focus on altruistic development. During such times, words matter, actions most. It’s a miserable irony that politicians have never understand that even poverty is a kind of natural disaster resulting in hunger, illnesses and millions of deaths globally.

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