Byline: David A. Graham
Date: 23 september 2009
Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva comes to the U.N. this week as arguably the world's most popular leader—Barack Obama thinks so, at least. Lula's popularity stems from the huge changes he has made to Brazilian society, especially in bringing greater socioeconomic equality, and stewarding the economy. But he isn't the only leader to reinvent his country's political and national culture in a relatively short time. Here are some postwar leaders who wrought drastic social, economic, or political change during their time in office.
Leader: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
Years in office: 7
Lula's own remarkable journey—from destitute childhood to labor rabble-rouser to "the most popular politician on earth"—parallels the momentous changes he has brought to Brazil as the country' first leftist president since a military dictatorship took hold in 1964. (Democracy returned in 1985.) His Workers' Party has strong support among the poor, a result of Lula's programs to correct entrenched inequalities in Brazilian society, including a minimum wage safely above inflation and a grant program for poor families. Unlike his fellow leftist and Venezuelan neighbor Hugo Chávez, however, his stewardship of the economy has weathered the financial crisis well. Brazil was only grazed by the collapse, and it no longer looks like the little sibling among its BRIC brethren, Russia, India, and China.
Years in office: 5
Kim is sometimes known as the Nelson Mandela of Asia, and like Mandela he received Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his work. For years the most prominent opposition leader against the authoritarian South Korean government, Kim ran for president twice and lost, during which time he escaped an assassination attempt and a death sentence. Yet in 1998, he made a Nixonian return to politics, overseeing the first peaceful transition from a ruling party to its opposition in South Korean history. He immediately addressed himself to pulling the nation back from the brink of catastrophe in the Asian economic collapse. Kim won the Nobel for reaching out to North Korea in the "Sunshine Policy" that opened up communication channels and allowed families on either side of the border to meet for the first time since the Korean War. He left office in 2003 and died in 2009.
Leader:Alvaro Uribe Velez
Years in office: 7
Colombia's president has seen his approval ratings shoot as high as 91 percent as he has scored repeated victories against the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, who had plagued the country for decades, taking over as the main agent of violence after the demise of the major drug cartels. The high point for Uribe was a dramatic rescue of 15 high-profile hostages in summer 2008. He has also worked to dismantle the right-wing paramilitaries who have alleged to have been condoned by his administration. These actions have made him so popular that his supporters were able to change the Constitution twice to allow him to run for a second, and—if a referendum greenlighted by Colombian legislators passes—possibly a third, term.
Years in office: 11
Thatcher wrested Britain's Conservative Party from former prime minister Edward Heath and then proceeded to wrest the nation out of the hands of the Labour Party, rolling back many welfare-state reforms instituted after World War II. As prime minister from 1979 to 1990, she privatized major companies, including British Petroleum and British Airways, while sharply reducing the power of trade unions. Just as influential in foreign policy, she rode a wave of popular support for the Falkland Islands War to her reelection in 1983; with her American analog, President Ronald Reagan, she helped to shape the final decade of Western Cold War policy. Although she was forced out of office by the deeply unpopular poll tax and questions about her Euroskepticism, the Conservative Party remained in power for another seven years, and her vision for Britain is still influential.
Country:West Germany, Germany
Years in office: 16
If any one person deserves credit for making Germany the economic and political powerhouse of Europe and the European Union, it's Kohl, whom former President George H.W. Bush once described as "the greatest European leader of the second half of the 20th century." He became West German chancellor in 1982, but he truly hit his stride at the end of the decade. With the Soviet Union crumbling, Kohl flew to Moscow to receive assurances that Mikhail Gorbachev would not object to reunification. Kohl then brought together East and West Germany, often over objections from both sides (and from Thatcher. East Germany was abolished in October 1990, and Kohl was reelected in the first unified German elections. Until his fall from power in 2000, he continued to advocate strong integration with Europe.