Many media outlets – including the readers of Crikey! – nominated Barack Obama as person of the year for 2008.  It will be hard work for him to retain that level of popularity through 2009, let alone four or eight years of Presidency.  However, the inevitability that he will fail to meet some of the inflated expectations shouldn’t obscure the fact that his ascendancy to the Presidency is a significant moment – for the USA in particular, but also for the world. 

While there’s little doubt he is the most globally significant politician of 2008, the widespread attention he’s received did make me wonder what other politicians there might be around the world who’s achievements could be considered comparable.

I don’t profess to be sufficient an expert in global politics to be aware of potentially comparable politicians in every nation, but I can think of two political leaders who achieved significant results last year, overcoming enormous odds to do so.  I’d be interested in any other examples readers might have of democratic heroics from recent years with real (and ideally positive) significance for a nation or region.

Someone whose achievements could have major long-term ramifications for our own region is Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim.  His electoral gains in 2008 are worthy of note, particularly given Malaysia’s electoral history.  Anwar went from the heights of Deputy Prime Minister and heir apparent to a long-term jail sentence on trumped up charges, combined with continued attempts to destroy his reputation.  But at last year’s elections, he managed to lead a Coalition so diverse it makes the various Liberals and Nationals across Australia look like clones in comparison, overcame a dodgy electoral system and hugely biased state run media to make electoral gains which pushed the ruling party to their worst result in the 50 years they have ruled since independence, and below the crucial two-thirds majority for only the second time in the country’s history.  His Coalition parties also picked up control of government in a number of states. He ended the year back in Parliament as Leader of the Opposition, but once again facing more trumped up politically motivated charges. There’s a long way to go yet, but if he does maintain this momentum and there actually is a change of governing party for the first time in Malaysia, it would likely have major flow on consequences the whole South-East Asia region.

One other example is from the Maldives.  They might seem too tiny a country to merit comparison with the planet’s ‘person of the year’, but I can’t help but admire Mohamed Nasheed’s efforts. He endured many years in jail for campaigning for democracy in his country.  He was an Amnesty prisoner of conscience in 1991 at age of just 24, and jailed a number of times subsequently.  To persevere through that and go on to defeat the 30 year incumbent in the country’s first ever multi-party elections can’t be lightly dismissed.

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