election : peru 1990 / 1992

Illustration of ballot box in pink and white. Box says "election"
illustration by iggdeh

by Amy Obermeyer

In the lead-up to Peru’s presidential election in the spring of 1990, sitting president Alan García was deeply unpopular. García, who was ineligible for reelection, represented Peru’s center-left, social democratic Aprista party. Like much of the region, Peru was still in the grips of the Latin American debt crisis that first hit in 1982. Rampant inflation was everywhere. García’s populist government had initially managed to stave off the disaster, but by 1988, García’s measures were no longer succeeding and by 1989, inflation was at 2000%. Furthermore, as economic conditions worsened, the brutality of the Maoist insurrectionary group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) increased, and so too did the brutality of the state’s response. In January 1989, García’s popular approval, once as high as 90%, had fallen to 9%. Among the electorate, distrust for political parties in general was at an all-time high, and the successive failures of two centrist governments—García’s and that of his predecessor, Fernando Belaúnde Terry—from the two major centrist parties, coupled with a voter preference for centrist policies, left a marked void in Peru’s political landscape. 

October 1988 : Luis Alva Castro, the country’s sitting second vice president, assumes the role of leader of the Aprista party following president García’s resignation from this position, ultimately leading to his candidacy on the Aprista ticket. Given the sitting president’s low approval ratings, no one expects Alva Castro to win the first round. However, Alva Castro’s strategy will come to bank on Peru’s mandatory run-off rule, which demands a run-off when no one candidate achieves a majority of the vote, coupled with popular resistance to his opponent Vargas Llosa’s extreme neoliberal platform. Alva Castro aims to be second in the first round of the election, and to consolidate the votes of the other candidates in the second round.

5 June 1989 : Eminent novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, perhaps best-known for his novel La ciudad y los perros, translated into English as The Time of the Hero, announces his candidacy under the banner Fredemo, short for Frente Democrático (Democratic Front), Fredemo represents a coalition of three parties unifying economically liberal and socially conservative groups under a single candidate. Fredemo and Vargas Llosa embrace neoliberal principles, advocating for an “economic shock” that includes large-scale privatization measures.

September 1989 : The leftist coalition Izquierda Unida (IU) undergoes a major schism after disagreements as to whether to welcome more centrist parties into the coalition. Alfonso Barrantes, the former mayor of Lima and supporter of moderate inclusion, leaves the IU to run under a separate ticket, Izquierda Socialista (IS). Before the schism, Barrantes leads early polls for the 1990 presidential election, buoyed by the support of working-class voters in both rural and urban areas. Barrantes had placed second to García in the 1985 election, withdrawing after the first round to avoid a run-off election. In a move designed to turn popular sentiment against Barrantes, the IU nominates Henry Pease García as its candidate. Pease had worked alongside Barrantes during Barrantes’ mayorship. Pease and Barrantes have few ideological differences, and voters largely view the split as a personal conflict.

5 October 1989 : Alberto Fujimori, president of the Universidad Nacional Agraria (National Agrarian University) and host of a television show called Concertando, founds his party, Cambio 90 (Change 90) with little fanfare. Cambio 90 is just one of many so-called partidos pitufos (smurf parties) in Peru’s political landscape and it initially receives little press coverage. Although Fujimori’s party lacks a specific platform, in the popular imaginary, he comes to be widely perceived as a centrist. His campaign motto is “work, honesty, and technology.”  

8-11 March 1990 : In the weeks leading up to the election, a major nationwide poll places Fujimori in the low-single digits. The polls from this week are the first to even include Fujimori.

8 April 1990 : As predicted from the outset, no one candidate receives a majority of the vote, and the election goes to a run-off. Vargas Llosa emerges as the leader in the first round, receiving 27.6% of the vote. Meanwhile, Fujimori places second with 24.6% of the vote, a result that would have been unthinkable a month prior. Vargas Llosa’s party gains 40 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, holding 62 seats out of 180. The Aprista party loses half their seats, but retains 53, while the left loses nearly two-thirds of its seats, with the now-separated left parties together maintaining a scant 23 seats. Cambio 90 holds 32 of 180 seats, nowhere near a plurality, let alone a mandate. Getting legislation passed will require coalition-building and compromise.

Many attribute Fujimori’s rapid rise in large part to perceptions of elitism on the part of Fredemo. Vargas Llosa is widely seen as the candidate of the wealthy, mostly white elite in a country wherein whites make up only 5.9% of the population. These beliefs are buttressed by Fredemo’s advertising campaign, which dominated election spending and employed international marketing firms. It is said that some of them don’t even speak Spanish. Fujimori’s largely word-of-mouth campaign and his ability, as a professor of agriculture, to relate to rural peasants play a large role in his rapid ascent. Lacking a specific platform facilitates Fujimori’s assembling of a disparate coalition consisting of indigenous rural peasants, Protestant and Pentecostal Christians, small business owners, and informal sector workers. Fujimori’s status as a child of immigrants helps his political outsider appeal, and his Nisei 1 accent helps him connect with voters, many of whom speak Quechua rather than Spanish as a first language. One of his campaign slogans is “a president like you.”

3 June 1990 : One week before the election marks the first debate between the two front-runners Vargas Llosa and Fujimori. Vargas Llosa’s critiques of Fujimori’s vague platform does little to stem the tide of popular sentiment. Vargas Llosa describes the “great proposal” of his own party as “privatiz[ing] the public sector.” In addition to the economic shock proposal, Vargas Llosa also proposes a plan to transition peasant coca farmers to new crops, a policy supported by the US, who had also offered to train Peruvian soldiers in anti-trafficking jungle warfare. In the debates, Fujimori in turn pledges to resist privatization and foreign intervention. In response to Vargas Llosa’s “great proposal,” Fujimori argues that “apply[ing] shock during a period of inflation serves only to make the problem worse.” He promises that a specific platform is forthcoming, but it never seems to materialize.

10 June 1990 : Fujmori wins the run-off election with 62.32% of the vote. Despite polls suggesting a much closer race, there is an over twenty-point margin separating Fujimori and Vargas Llosa. Hoping to stave off the blatant neoliberalism Vargas Llosa offered, the candidates vanquished in the first round had largely thrown their support behind Fujimori. 

28 July 1990 : Fujimori is inaugurated as president of Peru. His cabinet appointments lack any ideological or political consistency. 

8 August 1990 : Fujimori announces austerity measures similar to those he decried in the debates, measures that collectively come to be known as “Fujishock.” As a result, the cost of staple foods quadrupled and gasoline prices rose to 30 times their previous prices. Unrest breaks out, and Fujimori deploys police and the military to respond to the turbulence. Reports suggest the state forces fired into crowds. In the chaos, four are killed, twelve are wounded, and thousands are arrested. 

3 June 1991 : In light of the ongoing economic crisis and insurgent activity, Fujimori strikes a deal with congress to pass Law 25327, which grants emergency powers allowing him to rule more or less by decree in a number of key areas for a period of 150 days. Due to the split nature of congress, he is unable to pass much of his proposed legislation by typical channels. Fujimori issued a vast number of decrees, including 126 in just the final month of the 150-day period. Many of these decrees exceeded the boundaries of presidential powers allowed by congress.

5 April 1992 : Fujimori appears on national television to announce that he is “temporarily dissolving” congress and “reorganizing” the judiciary, an act known as the autogolpe, or self-coup. He deploys the military to block lawmakers from gathering, and soldiers tear gas a group of senators who nevertheless attempt to hold a session.

Given the small number of seats held by Cambio 90, Fujimori had been unable to get the congressional support needed to enact the liberalizing reforms demanded by the IMF in exchange for aid—although he claimed the coup had been necessary to rid the state of corrupt, deeply-entrenched interests. Foreign governments initially balk and refuse to recognize Fujimori’s new government, but his willingness to cooperate with the IMF and with  anti-drug efforts ultimately causes a change of many hearts, especially that of George H.W. Bush. Polling suggests that 71% of Peruvians supported Fujimori’s dissolution of congress and 89% supported his reorganization of the judiciary.

13 November 1992 : General Jaime Salinas leads an attempted counter-coup with the stated aim of restoring democracy. The attempt is aborted at the last minute and Salinas ends up jailed.

22 November 1992 : Elections for the so-called Democratic Constituent Congress are held. The congress’s stated aim is to write a new constitution. Many major parties abstain from participating in the election in protest. Fujimori’s party wins 44 of 80 seats. 

4 September 1993 : The Democratic Constituent Congress, convened by Fujimori, presents a new constitution to the voting public. Under the new constitution, Fujimori is able to seek reelection, which had been prohibited by the previous. It also gives him the authority to dissolve congress and removes congress’s role in confirming high-ranking military officers and ambassadors. Treason becomes a capital offense.

31 October 1993 : A popular referendum on the new constitution is held and the constitution is approved 52.2% to 47.7%. In a shift from the 1990 election outcome, Fujimori’s constitution is more popular in urban Lima than in more rural areas.

Postscript  : To the surprise of many, Fujimori remained popular despite his undermining of Peru’s democracy. On the heels of the January 1995 Cenapa War with Ecuador, Fujimori was reelected decisively with 64.3% of the vote in the first (and only) round. One of his first acts following reelection was to sign a bill into law that granted amnesty to police and soldiers accused of human rights abuses between 1980 and 1995. The state’s harsh tactics toward Sendero Luminoso had left many casualties in its wake. According to 2003’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission findings, the state was responsible for at least one-third of the 70,000 casualties, at least 75% of those indigenous Quechua speakers, in the conflicts between Sendero Luminoso, Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (MRTA), and the state. Other subsequent studies have placed the percentage even higher. Around this time, Fujimori earned the nickname “Chinochet,” a play on the name of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the word “Chino,” widely used in Peru for all individuals of East Asian descent. Fujimori is said to enjoy the nickname.

In 2000, despite the regulations in the very constitution that Fujimori’s party promulgated, Fujimori ran again for reelection. With Fujimori coming in at just under 50% of the vote, the race went into a run-off with challenger Alejandro Toledo. Toledo boycotted the election due to allegations of fraud, and Fujimori countered by making voting mandatory. Toledo suggested his voters spoil their ballots, and ultimately almost one-third were declared invalid. In the second round, Fujimori won by a landslide. However, in September of 2000, a video was leaked showing the head of Peru’s national security agency bribing a congressman. On 20 November 2000, as a result of the scandal, Fujimori faxed his resignation from Japan. The legislature refused to accept, instead impeaching him.

Following his reelection to a second term in 1995, Fujimori headed a large-scale forced sterilization campaign that ultimately sterilized over 200,000 mostly indigenous women. This campaign garnered international support from the UN, the US, and Japan among others. In 2007, Fujimori was convicted of abuse of power and sentenced to six years. While awaiting trial, he had announced plans to run for office in Japan. In April 2009, Fujimori was further found guilty of human rights abuses for his roles in ordering the La Cantuta and Barrios Altos massacres, which combined had left 34 dead, and was given a sentence of 25 years. Later that same year, he was found guilty of embezzlement, and in a fourth trial, also in 2009, he was likewise found guilty of bribery. 

Fujimorism remains a potent force in Peruvian politics. A 2005 public opinion survey conducted via the University of Lima found Fujimori retained a 45.6% approval rating.  In 2011, Fujimori’s daughter Keiko Fujimori ran for the presidency and made it to the run-off, where she lost to Ollanta Humala by less than 3% of the vote. Rudy Giuliani was one of her campaign’s advisors. In 2016 she ran again, and was again runner-up in the run-off election, this time losing to Pedro Pablo Kuczynski by only half a percent. Her Fujimorist party, Fuerza Popular, had nonetheless managed to win the majority of seats in congress, which they held until the 2020 election. In 2018, she was arrested as part of the Odebrecht Scandal that rocked Latin America, and she is currently awaiting charges. 

election : kenya 2002 . . .

illustration by iggdeh

by Murage Macharia

Kenya was established as a republic in December 1964 after gaining independence from British colonial rule, and Jomo Kenyatta was elected Kenya’s first president. In 1969, Kenyatta transformed the new nation into a one-party state, leaving the Kenya African National Union (KANU) as the sole party that won all parliamentary seats through 1997. Kenyatta died in office in 1978, and Daniel arap Moi—then vice president—continued the presidency, becoming the country’s second president.

When fierce democratic pluralism swept across Africa in the late 1980s, Moi restored multiparty politics in 1992. Amid an outcry of election rigging, he won that year’s elections, as well as the 1997 election. In 2002, he declared that he would retire from the presidency and groomed Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Jomo Kenyatta, to lead KANU and take over the presidency. However, Uhuru Kenyatta was to face fierce competition from Mwai Kibaki, who campaigned on the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) party—a coalition of several small parties—promising new constitutional reforms and an end to government corruption. The outline below details the events that led to a new constitution and a new era of democracy in Kenya.

3 December 2002 : Mwai Kibaki is involved in a near-fatal car accident while heading to Nairobi after holding campaign rallies in the eastern region. He is flown to London where he seeks treatment for two weeks before returning to continue his presidential campaign.

27 December 2002 : Elections are held. Kibaki wins a landslide victory, ending Daniel arap Moi’s 24-year rule and KANU’s four decades in power.

29 December 2002 : Kibaki is sworn in as the third president of Kenya. At the inauguration, he stresses his opposition to government corruption, promising that “government will no longer be run on the whims of individuals.”

February 2003 : Kibaki convenes a group of delegates to oversee the drafting of a new constitution. Through public hearings and memoranda, public views are collected, after which the delegates begin debate and ratification of the draft.

15 March 2004 : A proposed new constitution known as the Bomas draft is released. This draft proposes wide-reaching changes to the structure of government, land reform, religious courts, and presidential power, including the sharing of power between the president and a newly created post of prime minister.

August 2004 : Fearing the loss of power, senior government officials—most of whom had been governing since Moi’s era—amend the Bomas draft. The new amendments provide for an executive president and a nominal prime minister appointed by the former. These amendments lead to widespread opposition, civil unrest, and the resignation of several senior members of Kibaki’s coalition.

January 2005 : Kibaki starts a nationwide campaign for the amended Bomas draft constitution. The draft is distributed to everyone in the country to read. The opposition is skeptical of the amendments made to the Bomas draft and see them as a ploy by Kibaki to exert dictatorial authority since the amendments disproportionately vest power to the president. Further, because Kibaki so vigorously promoted the new constitution and based his election campaign around it, many voters will use the approaching referendum merely as a means to voice their approval or disapproval of the Kibaki government.

21 November 2005 : Kenya holds its first-ever national referendum on a proposed constitution. Voters take to the ballot. After a contentious review process, 58% of voters reject the proposed new constitution in what is seen as a protest against President Kibaki.

23 November 2005 : Following the rejection of the draft constitution, Kibaki dismisses his entire cabinet and deputy ministers, stating that he needs to reorganize his government to make it more cohesive and better able to serve Kenyans. Kenyans and the opposition overwhelmingly approve of Kibaki’s decision, since the government had been embroiled in corruption exposés for a long time and the decision to dismiss the cabinet was seen as long overdue. 

27 November 2005 : The opposition, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) led by Raila Odinga, calls for nationwide demonstrations to pressure the government for new elections since Kibaki has failed to deliver on his campaign promises—i.e., to end corruption and introduce a new constitution. Kibaki outlaws all demonstrations in support of new elections.

7 December 2005 : Kibaki announces his new appointments for his cabinet and minister positions. A large portion of the appointees turn down the job offers, citing Kibaki’s failure to consult with all parties in the coalition regarding the make-up of the new cabinet.

9 December 2005 : Kibaki swears in the new cabinet, comprised mostly of his closest political allies.

26 January 2007 : Kibaki states his intention to run for re-election under a new political party, the Party of National Unity (PNU), a coalition of smaller parties that supports his re-election. His main opponent, Raila Odinga, runs for election with the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). At this time, opinion polls show support for Odinga at 17%, but by December 2007, he has 45% voter support as compared to Kibaki’s 43%.

27 December 2007 : National elections are held.

29 December 2007 : Vote tallies show Odinga in the lead, and the ODM party declares victory for Odinga. However, as more results are announced throughout the day, the gap between Kibaki and Odinga narrows. With almost 90% of the votes counted, Odinga’s lead shrinks to 38,000 votes.

30 December 2007 : The Electoral Commission announces Kibaki as the winner. Within minutes of the Commission’s declaration, Kibaki is sworn in in the night. Tribe-based rioting and violence—mostly directed at Kikuyus, Kibakis’s tribe—breaks out across Kenya. The government suspends live television coverage for several days.

1–5 January 2008 : The Electoral Commission chairman, Samuel Kivuitu, says that he had been pressured by the PNU and ODM leaders to announce results immediately, despite the urgings of foreign ambassadors to delay the results so that concerns about irregularities could be addressed. Widespread violence around the country continues. The attorney general calls for a recount and investigation into the election. Odinga asks for new elections. Kibaki dismisses the ongoing violence as a local problem that he will deal with amicably.

6 January 2008 : Upon Kibakis’ invitation, the African Union chairman John Kufuor arrives to help resolve the crisis. Kufuor meets separately with Kibaki and Odinga, whereby he suggests an interim coalition government and an inquiry into the Electoral Commission. Kibaki rejects this idea. However, Kibaki and Odinga ultimately agree to work with a panel of eminent African leaders—led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan—to resolve their differences. Kufuor leaves.

15–21 January : Supporters of Odinga hold nationwide rallies and boycott companies controlled by Kibaki’s allies. Working under Kibaki’s government orders, police kill at least 22 people.

22 January 2008 : Kofi Annan arrives in Nairobi to hold peace talks with Odinga and Kibaki. Annan meets with Odinga and convinces him to call off the rallies.

23 January–4 February : As the peace talks mediated by Annan continue, tribal violence escalates. It is reported that over 1,300 people have been killed and 600,000 displaced from their homes.

28 February 2008 : A peace deal resolution is reached to end the crisis. Kibaki and Odinga agree to form a coalition government, with Odinga set to receive the new position of prime minister, in which capacity he is to “coordinate and supervise government affairs.” The peace deal also calls for an urgent revision of the constitution.

April 2008 : The government and opposition set up a cabinet. The National Accord and Reconciliation Act is implemented, making Odinga the first prime minister in Kenya since 1964.

November 2009 : A new draft of the constitution is presented to parliament. The new constitution is designed to limit the powers of the president and devolve power to the regions approved of in the referendum. After minor modifications, the National Assembly and parliament approve the draft. Odinga and Kibaki support the new constitution.

4 August 2010 : A nationwide constitutional referendum is held, asking Kenyans whether they support or oppose the proposed new constitution. 68.6% of voters vote in approval of the proposed constitution. 

27 August 2010 : The new constitution is formally promulgated by Kibaki.


election : zimbabwe 2008

illustration by iggdeh

by Yana Makuwa

The Zimbabwean elections in 2008 arrived during total economic disrepair and a peak moment of national frustration with the government, which had been controlled by Robert Mugabe and his party Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) since the country’s independence in 1980. This nominally socialist party that won the right to Black-majority rule decades prior was faced in the 2000’s with resistance to the violent strong-arm tactics Mugabe used to establish single party rule, conduct unsuccessful land reforms, and retain power. Electoral resistance to the regime had been raised before, with a contested election in 2002. At that time, however, Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party remained in power with the support of the African Union (AU), despite condemnations of misconduct from international observers and the opposition party: the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which was founded in 1999 by members of Zimbabwe’s trade union alliances in opposition to a constitutional referendum giving powers to the government to conduct land reforms. The AU’s support in 2002 is one of several markers showing that at the start of the decade, despite corroborated reports of political violence and social upheaval, Mugabe’s hold on the presidency was strong enough that challenges to its legitimacy—however valid—could be easily put aside (especially by other national leaders whose power may have been more or less democratically established). However, by 2007, with the environment of corruption, the growing inflation escalating from 8,000% to 100,000% by early 2008, and unemployment reaching throughout the country, the citizens of Zimbabwe were increasingly desperate for a change in regime.

29 March 2008 : Zimbabwean voters came to the polls after several months of campaigning against Mugabe from both independent Simba Makoni, who broke from the ZANU-PF ranks to run against Mugabe, and long-time opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC. Both Makoni and Tsvangirai ran largely on platforms of economic reform, speaking to the desperation of the people and a strong desire for change. Makoni stood in as a more middle-of-the-road option attempting to capture ZANU-PF loyals who nevertheless couldn’t deny the dire conditions, while Tsvangirai maintained a long history of challenge to the status quo. Initial assessments appeared to be favoring Tsvangirai, but official results were slow to come out, and would in fact be delayed for several weeks.

2 April 2008 : After official results were delayed, the opposition party, the MDC, announced their accounting of the elections with Tsvangirai as the clear winner with more than half of the votes, based on the parliamentary results, confirmed by the official Zimbabwe Electoral Commision (ZEC), which showed MDC winning 105 of the 207 seats, and the party’s own count of the still-delayed presidential votes. This announcement spurred celebration and enthusiasm among people who had felt held back by the regime for years. However, these outcomes were rejected outright by the incumbent party, with the government characterizing the MDC’s announcement as a coup that preempted the official announcement of the ZEC.

2 May 2008 : One full month later, with frustratingly minimal information on the count leading up to this point, the ZEC’s official results were announced. These results reported slightly under half the votes to Tsvangirai (47.9%) with Mugabe close behind. A small but significant percentage of votes to Makoni solidified his role as one of the critical figures in this election. Without his candidacy to split the votes, a majority would likely have been declared for either Mugabe or Tsvangirai. However, because neither of the frontrunning candidates received a full majority, a run-off election was called and scheduled for 27 June 2008.

9 June 2008 : Human Rights Watch issued a statement regarding the blatantly targeted political violence that began after the official election results were announced. Focusing on rural areas that the ZANU-PF party were surprised to have lost to the opposition, “war veterans,” officials and youths affiliated with the party, and the army together launched a campaign of beatings and killings, targeting not only individuals who may have voted for Tsvangirai but also threatening hospitals and medical workers attempting to treat the wounded, destroying property, and displacing thousands of people.

22 June 2008 : Tsvangirai announced his withdrawal from the election, due to the unchecked campaign of violence sponsored Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. In his letter to the electoral commission, he alluded to violence and suppression of his campaign prior to this election, and declared “The violence, intimidation, death, destruction of property is just too much for anyone to dream of a free and fair election let alone expect our people to be able to freely and independently express to free themselves. For this reason, my party and I have resolved that we cannot be part to this flawed process. For the avoidance of any doubt the presidential election question remains unresolved until such time a free and fair election is held.”

27 June 2008 : Elections were held despite Tsvangirai’s withdrawal and objections from independent observers and the international community. Mugabe won in a landslide, with roughly 85% of the votes.

After the election there was a period of negotiations attempting to establish a joint government between ZANU-PF and two factions of the MDC, which however largely amounted to stalled progress and failed attempts. Talks continued into the following year, with the uncertainty of control of power proving destabilizing for the nation and the region more generally. Eventually, buckling under local and international pressures, Tsvangirai agreed to join the new government as prime minister, with Mugabe remaining as president. The Zimbabwe Government of National Unity, as it was called, ultimately did very little to shift control of the country away from Mugabe and ZANU-PF. The joint government moved forward with virtually no acknowledgement of the violence that took place, with Human Rights Watch conducting a further report in 2011 on the impunity with which the government continued to treat its violence. The power that Mugabe was able to re-consolidate after the 2008 election continued to define the lives of Zimbabweans for years after, and the effects of his regime are being dealt with to this day.

election : austria 1986

illustration by iggdeh

by Lauren K. Wolfe

In June 1986, in a run-off election, former UN General Secretary Kurt Waldheim was elected president of Austria—amid accusations of war crimes. Waldheim’s campaign precipitated a long-delayed reckoning by the Austrian people with their role in the murder of millions during WWII. This is the story of the events leading up to that election.

1985 : Kurt Waldheim declares his intention to run for president of Austria, as a representative of the right-leaning Austrian People’s Party. In January of this year, his memoirs are published, in German and English translation. The book details his 40-year career in the diplomatic service since 1945, spent variously as Austrian Ambassador to the UN, Ambassador to Canada, Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and two terms as UN General Secretary (1972–1981). The memoirs touch only briefly on his military service during WWII, stating that he was drafted into the Germany army in 1938 and served on the Eastern Front, where he was wounded and then dismissed from service in 1942. He alleges to have spent 1942 to 1945 studying law in Vienna.

3 March 1986 : Two months before the election, journalist Hubertus Czernin publishes an article, “Waldheim and the SA,” in the news magazine profil. In it, facts about Waldheim’s military service—elided or omitted from his autobiography—are disclosed : Waldheim had been a registered member of the Nazi Student League as of 1938, as well as a member of the mounted corps of the Sturmabteilung, or SA, a Nazi paramilitary organization. In the days following, the international press picks up the story and the New York Times reports evidence that Waldheim had been attached as an intelligence officer to the German Army Group E operating in the Balkans between 1942 and 1945, during which period the brutal repression of partisan resistance and the mass deportation of Jews were both taking place. 

Waldheim’s response : 1. Denial : I was not a member of these organizations; someone else must have filled out this paperwork; I had no knowledge of any deportations or assassinations; I did my duty like thousands of others. 2. Accusation : This is a smear campaign coming from abroad. 3. Reverse Victim & Offender : “You tell me I’ve contributed to creating a lack of clarity? I cannot accept that. You are to blame for this situation,” he tells a television interviewer.

Austrian protestors popularize the slogan : “We don’t want a memory lapse for president!” 

24 March 1986 : The World Jewish Congress—an NGO with special consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council—challenges Waldheim’s narrative, producing new evidence of his presence in the Balkans, including a photograph of him at an air field in Podgorica, capital city of present-day Montenegro, in May 1943, with SS Lieutenant General Artur Phleps, who was posthumously adjudicated a war criminal at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. The WJC alleges that, as an intelligence officer whose duty it was to sign off on staff reports submitted by SS units tasked with organizing deportations, Waldheim’s response is both incredible and disingenuous. Records are produced detailing numbers of Greek and Yugoslav partisans killed and bearing Waldheim’s signature; Waldheim is directly questioned regarding this evidence. 

His response : 1. A “both sides” argument : It was a brutal war; many were killed on both sides. 2. The “desk criminal” defense : I don’t deny that many were killed, but my activity was a normal part of bureaucratic operations and had nothing to do with atrocities. 

Protest becomes international : In the US, protestors call for the UN to make public its files on Waldheim. 

25 March 1986 : The WJC holds its annual conference in Vienna. Leaders of the Austrian People’s Party respond, expressing a barely veiled anti-Semitism in their allusions to “international interference” in sovereign matters. 

Background 1985 : As the Cold War is beginning to thaw, Ronald Reagan visits West Germany, where he requests, in the company of then-head of state Helmut Kohl, to see the graves of not only conscripted soldiers but also SS officers at Bitburg Cemetery. Meanwhile, Walter Reder—a war criminal who commanded the Marzabotto massacre  in which hundreds of Italian civilians were murdered in reprisal for partisan attacks—is released from Italian prison after 33 years; Reder’s repatriation had been advocated for by all prior Austrian heads of state, irrespective of political party.

On the left : The question arises as to who precisely is welcome in Austria.

3 April 1986 : A televised hearing is held, on the question of Waldheim’s relative complicity or innocence. The hearing and the surrounding activity are a matter of international interest. Protestors demand Waldheim’s withdrawal from the presidential race. The Austrian People’s Party openly mobilizes latent anti-Semitic sentiment among voters, under the declared pretense of fighting against it. Increasingly, the presidential election appears as a referendum on Austria’s capacity to reckon with its past. 

One month before the election : The US Congress begins investigation into Waldheim’s involvement in the war. Waldheim responds by doubling down on the “both sides” argument. Functionaries of the Austrian People’s Party disavow publicly the concept of “collective guilt” in an effort to parry the international movement to force a reckoning with Austrian involvement in Nazi atrocities. Photos of the deportations of Greek Jews from Thessaloniki, where Waldheim was stationed at the time, are discovered in the Balkans’ only war-era German-language newspaper and are widely republished; the WJC asks: Did Waldheim read his own reports? his own newspapers?

His response : A dog whistle : “A very small but very influential group, influential to the media” is responsible for this pressure to withdraw my candidacy. 

22 April 1986 : The US Congress holds a public inquiry into the WJC allegations that Waldheim covered up his past affiliation with the SA and may be responsible for war crimes. Congressman Tom Lantos, a Jewish emigré from Hungary, in questioning Waldheim’s son Gerhard, who represented his father at the televised hearing, alters the terms of the controversy from deception and credibility to facts and denial, stating that the deportation of Jews and the campaign against partisans were “the central fact of life in the Balkans. This was the pivotal development. This was the focus of activity.” 

In response : A flip of the script : It is strongly implied by representatives of the Austrian People’s Party after the congressional hearing that the WJC is engaged in a campaign of retaliation against Waldheim for his perceived anti-Israel policies as Secretary General of the UN. The word “scapegoat” is put into play. 

In fact : In 1975, the UN adopted resolution 3379 (XXX), which stated that—on the basis of prior resolutions affirming that doctrines of racial differentiation are “scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous” and noting also that “the racist regime in occupied Palestine and the racist regimes in Zimbabwe and South Africa have a common imperialist origin”—“zionism is a form of racial discrimination.”  

26 April 1986 : In a televised interview, Austrian journalist Hugo Portisch breaks down the international historical conditions that resulted in Austria’s peculiar internal postwar ambivalence, which lay at root of the scandal of Waldheim’s candidacy : The Allied Forces provided an out for those Austrians who were complicit in the atrocities of the Nazi regime, by facilitating the narrative that the Austrians were the “first victims” of the Nazis. This narrative itself had ambivalent motives. Indeed, Austrian citizens had first-hand experience of conscription, internment, political persecution, and material suffering. On the other hand, the sooner a state treaty was signed, establishing Austrian sovereign statehood, the sooner the Allied Forces could cease occupation. In the context of an emergent Cold War, the question became: What do you do with a Central European state that includes 550,000 registered Nazis? A state, moreover, that will be crucial in deciding the postwar balance of power in Central Europe, in the contest between Soviet and American influence? One answer : integrate them, enfranchise them. This meant that postwar Austrian political parties wound up vying for the votes of unregenerate Nazis, which had ideological as well as material effects—for instance on the failure of any resolution that might have provided reparations to Austrian Jews. Herein also resides the key to the cynical denial of “collective guilt” by Austrian People’s Party functionaries in the 1980s : The state of Austria is indeed innocent of atrocities for the reason that it did not exist at the time they were committed. Individuals alone must bear the guilt of their actions. And by this point, Austrians of the war generation had long been integrated, determined worthy of civil rights and protections. 

1 May 1986 : 600 intellectuals and public figures sign a petition calling for Waldheim to withdraw his candidacy. International opinion registers denial and refusal to accept responsibility as symptomatic of Austrian politics and Austrian culture. Protests continue. 

4 May 1986 : In a first round of voting, from a pool of four candidates, Waldheim receives the most votes but falls short of the requisite majority, with just 49.64%. 

Meanwhile : the US Congress conducts hearings on whether Waldheim should be put on the government watchlist; Waldheim supporters—civilians and party members—double down on the “both sides” / “all lives matter” narrative; and Czernin, whose earlier exposure of Waldheim’s military service record catalyzed the scandal, admits sardonically that Waldheim is “the perfect president for Austria—and that’s a shame.”

8 June 1986 : In the run-off election, Waldheim wins the presidency with 53.9% of the popular vote.


introducing the election : series

illustration by iggdeh

election : is a new series that will post weekly from election through the united states’ presidential inauguration. in it, we will be spotlighting notable past and present election scenarios from around the world. these descriptions are intended to contextualize election : united states 2020 and to unexceptionalize the state of democracy in the united states. each post will elaborate seeming irregularities and exceptionalities that can and do take place in and around democratic electoral procedures. against blind faith in the power of institutional procedure, the aim is to illustrate the opportunistic ways that ambivalences inherent in such systems are seized and exploited.