Shaking it up | Monocle

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01 - Hiroshi Nakagawa

A young PM for Japan

Fast forward to Japan in 2010 and there’s been a radical change in government – a charismatic leader who’s closer to 40 than 50! No stranger to flashbulbs, microphones, podiums and the pressures of public attention, Hiroshi Nakagawa has attended two different finishing schools that have groomed him for the post of prime minister of Japan. From birth till age 14 he was a full-time diplomatic brat.

Born in Sapporo, he pinballed around the world with a father who was a foreign ministry favourite and did three- to four- year stints in Brasilia, Cairo and Ottawa. Returning to Tokyo to finish high school, he quickly dropped his oversized Gap attire and traded up to a wardrobe from Harajuku’s best labels. Weekends were spent with friends in Nagano playing in a band and snowboarding.

A chance modelling assignment for Brutus magazine prompted a call from Avex Records and before Nakagawa knew it he was in front of the label’s boss in Aoyama. From 18 to 26 “Hiro” was lead singer for boy band Complay before launching a solo career as “Hinaka”. While politics were always part of home life, he didn’t expect to find himself running for and winning a seat in Hokkaido and commuting back and forth to the National Diet Building.

“A friend asked me to help him raise the cultural profile for Sapporo and before I knew it I was helping him campaign and he won his seat for the Democratic Party of Japan,” he explains. “I decided I wanted to join him so I ran for the DPJ too.”

A party darling with a strong fan-base from his boyband days helped Nakagawa clinch not only the party leadership but also the keys to the PM’s residence and the title of Japan’s youngest-ever prime minister. Having won on a ticket that spoke proactively to a greying Japan (work longer, do more in the community, pass on traditions) and a new generation of young entrepreneurs (get experience abroad, start your own business, get big breaks for keeping manufacturing in the cities and environmental initiatives), Nakagawa’s been winning friends in Europe and Latin America while reassessing the country’s reliance on Washington.

02 - Bernard Kouchner

Act on impulse

“I do not have career anxiety,” Bernard Kouchner once told an interviewer. It is a good job, given the way France’s dashing foreign minister has set about redefining his country’s role on the world stage.
A firm believer in humanitarian intervention, Kouchner was one of the few French politicians to back the toppling of Saddam Hussein. He is also an outspoken opponent of Iran’s nuclear policy. “He is not a classic diplomat,” says Daniel Vernet, director of international relations at Le Monde. “He tends not to weigh his words before talking; he expresses himself impulsively.”

It has also helped raise France’s profile in the US, where talk is of a strategic partnership after years of mutual distrust. A breath of fresh air, then, or a liability? Time will tell. Perhaps Kouchner’s biggest challenge awaits. The question of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia looms and Kouchner, who was head of the UN interim administration in Kosovo (1999-2001), is seen as the right man in the right place at the right time.

03 - Anna Castello

London’s leading lady

Born in Turkey, raised in Singapore and a graduate of MIT, Anna Castello is an unlikely figure in UK politics – she speaks four languages and is not aligned to any political party. She started her career as a journalist with Reuters in Geneva and after a stint with the WHO in New York she moved to London with her boyfriend and son and returned to writing. Earlier this year her book Ground to a Halt, a scathing indictment of London’s politicians and businesses, became a bestseller and turned her into a sought-after commentator. After much encouragement, Castello decided to enter the race for mayor of London. Anna Castello’s also an unlikely figure in UK politics because she doesn’t actually exist.

On 1 May Londoners will go to the polls and they’ll be wishing for a figure with Castello’s pedigree. London needs a leader who can operate internationally, poach talent from around the world to mend the capital’s myriad problems, and turn it into a 24-hour centre bridging Asia and the Americas. If you know an Anna Castello, do put her forward when nominations open on 18 March.

04 - Bashar al-Assad

Man in the Middle

On 6 September 2007, Israeli Air Force F-15s destroyed something near Syria’s border with Turkey. While nobody, Syrian or Israeli, is saying what was hit, the raid adds to the formidable pressures on Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. On form, however, he’s likely to survive.

Since inheriting the presidency in 2000, Assad has displayed startling ruthlessness. His rule has seen Syria end its 29-year occupation of Lebanon, but he’s found ways to atone for this humiliation, amplifying Hezbollah’s presence and (if most opinion is correct) ordering murders of troublesome Lebanese politicians.

He has retained the secular character of his father’s dictatorship, but plays the Islamist card when it suits, allowing Syria to serve as a way-station for jihadis en route to Iraq. Despite this, he maintains the image of a relatively reasonable Middle Eastern leader for western consumption. As in his interview with the BBC’s Lyse Doucet.

Assad has kept himself alive and important – no mean feat in the Middle East. Few believe there can be any meaningful peace process in the region unless Assad is involved. The best way of seeing what he might do next is to ask what’s most likely to help him keep that status. “Someone in Assad’s position can never look weak,” says Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy think-tank. “Once he looks weak, he’s gone.”

05 - Marcelo Ebrard

Greening up the city

In his remaining five years in office, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has vowed to further improve life in this smoggy, crime-ridden megalopolis. If he’s successful, this firebrand of the left could mount a presidential bid in 2012.

In 2007, his first year of office, he legalised abortion and same-sex civil unions, evicted downtown street vendors, expropriated notorious drug-dealing fiefdoms and forced all city hall officials to cycle to work once a month.

Coming plans include overhauling drainage systems, building new prisons, installing thousands of close-circuit security cameras, bringing back neighborhood policing and expanding public transport. Ebrard’s office is also considering the legalisation of euthanasia. “They’re concrete things that can make small differences… and open people’s minds to voting for someone,” says local political analyst Allyson Benton. “If he carries on making good political decisions his star will continue rising and he will stand a good chance of running for the presidency,” says political analyst José Antonio Crespo of Mexican think-tank CIDE. Will Mexico have the most liberal city in Latin America? Stay tuned.

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