Special to The Public Record

Changing The Guard: Executive Transitions in 2010

Doris Leuthard speaking during the session 'Threats to the Global Trading System' at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 26, 2008. Photo/Flickr

A year of transitions began with Doris Leuthard becoming the President of the Swiss Confederation on New Year’s Day and ended with the swearing in of Willi Tevali as Prime Minister of Tuvalu on December 24, 2010. Between those two events another twenty-six executive transitions occurred around the world.[i] Where did these changes take place? What were the circumstances of the incumbents leaving office? How did their replacements come to power? What can be said about the new leaders?

The answers to these questions provide some of the most important information about the political climate in the countries concerned. Turnover or the lack thereof, among the top leadership in a state is one of the best indicators of the nature of a political system. Routine transitions according to recognized and institutionalized processes are usually associated with a degree of social and political stability. Irregular transitions suggest just the opposite.

The twenty-eight new leaders who came to office last year represent twenty-six countries with Kyrgyzstan and Tuvalu having experienced two transitions. Nearly an equal number of executive changes occurred in Europe (9), Latin America (8), and the Asia-Pacific region (8). Only three took place in Africa and none in the U. S. or Canada.[ii] Political changes in four of these states, Tuvalu, Barbados, Suriname, and Solomon Islands, are not likely to have much international significance in that they have a population of less than a million.

Most of the incumbents who left office in 2010 did so according to institutionalized processes which included term limits (7), not seeking re-election (5), normal parliamentary politics (5), and losing a re-election bid (4). Death ended the careers of three executives. In two instances the causes were natural (Umaru Musa Yar’Adua of Nigeria and David Thompson of Barbados). The third death was that of President Lech Kazynski of Poland who did in a plane crash.

Changes in the nature of the political system brought about the departure of Sekouba Konate of Guinea and Roza Otunbayeva of Kyrgyzstan. General Konate relinquished office to a newly elected civilian government. Otunbayeva transferred executive authority from her position as president to a prime minister as a result of a constitutional change to a parliamentary system. She remained as chief of state. This was the second of the two transfers in Kyrgyzstan.

Only two the incumbent executives left office in an irregular process. President Mamadou Tandja of Niger was ousted in a military coup. The first governmental change in Kyrgyzstan involved Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s resignation and exile in the face of a popular uprising.

The means of acquiring power in 2010 were at least as institutionalized as the processes of leaving office. Twenty-six of the twenty-eight new leaders were elected either directly or through a recognized parliamentary procedure. Only in Niger did the changing of the guard clearly violate the accepted norms of transitions. There a mid-level officer, Salou Djibo overthrew the government in the year’s only military coup.

Kyrgyzstan’s first transition is somewhat more difficult to categorize. The popular uprising leading to the ouster of President Bakiyev was violent and thus irregular. However, his successor Roza Otunbayeva, a former cabinet member, appears to have been the consensus choice of the leaders of the opposition.

Two characteristics of this group of leaders are noteworthy. Most are new to their positions and a large number are women. Twenty-four of the twenty-eight had never held the top office in their countries. The first two exceptions to this generalization are Victor Orban (Hungary) and Maatia Tofa (Tuvalu) both of whom served previously as prime minister. Almazbek Atambayev of Kyrgyzstan, the third, held the position of prime minister for a few months in 2007 but at that time the president was the effective chief executive.

Finally, Suriname’s Desire Delano Bouterse had at least eight years’ experience as the de facto leader of his country. He became Chairman of the National Military Council following a coup in early 1980 and held that position into the late 1980’s even though there was a president. In spite of having been sentenced in absentia by a Dutch court to eleven years in prison and a pending trial in Suriname, he was elected president in August, 2010.

One fourth of the new chief executives are women. Five of them, Julia Gillard (Australia), Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica), Roza Otumbayeva (Kyrgyzstan) Iveta Radicova (Slovakia), and Kamla Persad-Bissessar (Trinidad and Tobago) are the first women to hold the top office in their countries. Two others, Doris Leuthard (Switzerland) and Mari Kiviniemi (Finland) had female predecessors.[iii]

By any standards 2010 was a year of peaceful and regular transfers of executive authority, but that was not the case with two incomplete elections last year. The first round of the Haitian presidential election was marred by two-thirds of the candidates alleging fraud. A specific charge was that the government backed candidate had not made the run-off as originally certified by election officials.

The situation in Ivory Coast at the end of the year was even more problematic. Virtually all participants and observers agree that opposition leader Alassane Outtre won the October election defeating incumbent Laurent Gdagbo who has been in power since 2000. Gdagbo has refused to relinquish his office in spite of international recognition of Outtre as the new President. The controversy has resulted in a number of deaths in Ivory Coast as well as a large number of refugees fleeing to neighboring countries.

2011 began positively with Brazil and Switzerland routinely swearing in new chief executives on New Years’ day. The situation in Tunisia was less than regular. Popular protests including a number of deaths forced longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile. WikiLeaks disclosures about the corruption of the president’s family and regime fuelled the protests. Unfortunately this may have been the only way to bring about a change given that Ben Ali had been in power for nearly a quarter century.

Donn M. Kurtz II, Ph. D., taught political science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette from 1969 until his retirement in 2007. He lives in Grand Coteau, Louisiana.


[i] The two principal sources for changes in leadership are the CIA publication World Leaders https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/world-leaders-1/index.htmland and  Zárate’s Political Collections (ZPC) “© Copyright ZPC, Roberto Ortiz de Zárate, 1996-2010”.

[ii] I follow the BBC’s designation of world regions.  See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/.

[iii] Both Switzerland and Brazil elected female heads of government in late 2010 but because they were not sworn in until January 1, 2011 they are not included in this tabulation.

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