Mahathir Mohamad and Hugo Chavez: A Study in Comparative Politics
It recently struck me that a surprising number of parallels can be drawn between Mahathir Mohamad and Hugo Chavez. After careful consideration, it seems to me that there has to be a reason for this large number of similarities. It may be that there will always be a niche in geopolitics for an anti-Western authoritarian populist, for it seems that Chavez has done a pretty good job of filling Mahathir's shoes once the latter retired.
The most obvious similarity, perhaps, is that both have a habit of denouncing the West as imperialistic and neocolonialist in nature. Both also love to pile the blame for the world's problems on the West. Both associate themselves closely with despots; Chavez is buddies with Fidel Castro, while Mahathir's best friend is apparently Robert Mugabe.
Both have a habit of destroying their country's institutions. Mahathir amended the Malaysian Constitution as a habit, changing it perhaps as often as he changed his underwear. He also had a great deal of fun castrating the country's judiciary by publicly sacking the country's top judge simply because he refused to rule in favour of Mahathir's party. Chavez, on the other hand, has replaced his country's identity with a new one that is centred around a Chavez-based personality cult. After his recent electoral victory, Chavez announced he would be amending his country's Constitution to eliminate the few democratic safeguards left standing in his way, such as that pesky Presidential term limit.
Both have campaigned on populist grounds at home and abroad, presenting themselves as an advocate of the poor and downtrodden. Mahathir claimed he would uplift the Malays and put them on par with other Malaysians. Chavez claimed he would uplift the poorer Venezuelans and put them on par with the rest of the country. Meanwhile, both stand up for the interests of developing nations which they view as oppressed by the geopolitical establishment.
At the same time, both essentially lived off the largesse of oil. For a great deal of time, Malaysia's main resource has been petroleum. Every excess, every wastage, can be tolerated simply because of our (seemingly) never-ending supply of black gold. This is what allowed Mahathir to get away with his reckless "development" policies and megaprojects. (They aren't called the Petronas Twin Towers for nothing.) Similarly, the only reason Chavez has any credibility and legitimacy within his own country is that he is viewed as one who can appropriately dole out the country's oil revenues to poor Venezuelans. Indeed, the largest issue in the last election was the issue of handouts of oil revenue - the opposition candidate attacked Chavez's policies as wasteful, and proposed a debit card for every Venezuelan that would have an amount equal to that person's share of Venezuelan oil revenue credited to it, eliminating the bureaucracy Chavez established.
Both men will be remembered poorly by history. Domestically, both men have sowed the seeds of their respective countries' failure. Their destruction of their countries' institutions means that neither has the necessary framework to guarantee the rule of law. Instead, both countries end up governed by a rule of the strongman - might makes right. Whoever holds the pursestrings holds power. At the same time, by focusing their attentions on the short-term and finite oil revenue, both men have done their countries a disservice by promising a prosperity that is only a temporary facade. By failing to provide incentives for their countries' economies to succeed in the long run - indeed, both men have essentially built economies on massive state-linked companies whose actions are governed not by the market but by the government, which is a recipe for failure in the global market - they have ensured economic ruin for their nations.
Meanwhile, although their criticisms of the powerful geopolitical establishment have won them accolades, for all their noise, they have accomplished little. Perhaps Mahathir drew attention to the problems of the Balkans, yes - but how did he solve anything? How has Chavez solved anything by railing against the West? Men should be measured by not how large a goal they set, but by how much of that goal they can achieve. By any yardstick, both men have not succeeded in achieving their goals (unless their sole aim is to make a lot of noise and upset a lot of powerful people without actually changing anything).
And, of course, both men have been tremendous hypocrites. As many domestic observers have noted, Mahathir muzzled the press during his tenure as Prime Minister, but once out of power, complained that his successor muzzled them too much. Both Mahathir and Chavez claim to stand for freedom and equality, but have turned a blind eye to oppressive regimes such as those run by Mugabe and Castro. (Whatever you may think of Cuba's socialist policies, it is undeniable that it is - at the very least - an extremely authoritarian state.) Both men criticise the West to no end, while ignoring tragedies on similar scales to those perpetuated by the West simply because they were perpetuated by some third world despot instead, whom they feel a sense of "solidarity" with.
Perhaps most insidiously, both men claim to want peace and an end to imperialism, but have sown the seeds of war and colonialism in their own countries. By setting up their economies for long-term failure through massive state enterprises, they have ensured that once these economic giants collapse (and they will, believe me, considering the effect being a public monopoly tends to have on a typical firm), their countries' economies will be easy prey for foreign multinationals - and isn't this just the kind of neocolonialism both men have been endlessly denouncing? Similarly, they have sown the seeds of discord, because if there's one thing that's guaranteed to cause some kind of internal friction, it's an economic disaster. Since both men have primed their countries for economic disaster, they have also primed them for some sort of future war - whether it will be an internal civil war or some external conflict remains to be seen. (The tense ethnic situation in Malaysia doesn't help matters for Mahathir's legacy either.)
Have both men contributed anything positive? Oh, yes, they have given their countrymen 15 minutes of fame. But this short-lasting fame is useless as long as both Malaysia and Venezuela cannot progress, and remain bound to their state-controlled and petroleum-dominated economies. In the first place, if your leaders are known for men who can make a lot of hot air, but can't even stop the West from carrying out its neocolonialist agenda, hwo can you be proud of them?
The parallels between Chavez and Mahathir are striking. It is a bit of a surprise to me that few people seem to have caught on to these parallels just yet. After all, at the very least, the fact that both men have this habit of making shrill and ineffectual noises about the geopolitical domination and imperialism of the West should have attracted the notice of someone. Perhaps I am just a little too delusional, but it seems to me that the similarities between Chavez and Mahathir are as clear as the difference between light and day. Perhaps most sadly, these similarities do not reflect brightly on either man, or on either of their respective countries.