“The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” growled Charles de Gaulle, but French history would have been very different if he had died in 1940 (no Free French government, probably a Communist take-over attempt when France was liberated in 1944) or even in 1960 (no quick exit from Algeria, no Fifth Republic). There are a few people whose absence would really make a difference.
Two such people seem to be hovering on the brink of death at the moment, though we have no trustworthy medical information about either one. In each case, their death could open the way to civil war. One is Thailand’s King Bhumibol; the other is Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez.
King Bhumibol has spent most of the past two years in hospital, and few Thais expect him to live much longer (although this is never discussed in public). When he goes, the crown will probably pass to somebody who takes sides in the ongoing battle between “red-shirts” and “yellow-shirts” that has divided Thailand, and has already caused many deaths, over the past few years.
There is an election due in Thailand on 3 July. Opinion polls suggest that, as before, a majority of Thais will vote for the party of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Some ninety red-shirts, the mostly poor and rural supporters of Thaksin, were massacred by the army in a confrontation in central Bangkok last year, and the army may try yet again to reject a pro-Thaksin election outcome.
Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was once close to Thaksin and probably still secretly supports him, but he is a playboy who is neither loved nor respected by the public. His mother, Queen Sikirit, sympathises with the yellow-shirts, and is rumoured to be angling for the army’s support to make her regent when her (estranged) husband Bhumibol dies, rather than letting the crown prince have the throne.
If the two royals were to align themselves publicly with the opposing sides in a struggle for the throne after Bhumibol dies, they would substantially raise the probability that Thailand could stumble into a full-scale civil war. Whereas if Bhumibol can hang on for another year the dispute may be settled at the ballot boxes, with the army grudgingly accepting a restoration of the normal democratic order. He may not be utterly indispensable, but he is pretty important for Thailand right now.
And then there is Hugo Chavez. He is not exactly the “dictator” of Venezuela, as US propaganda often calls him (he has been elected a number of times in free elections), but certainly he is a “strongman” in the classic Latin American style. He comes from the army, he once led an attempted coup, and he is a full-time demagogue. The only difference is that he is a strongman of the left. And he may be dying.
The official story is that Chavez was in Cuba on 9 June, in a private meeting with Fidel Castro, when he suddenly fell ill. Cuban doctors were called in, and immediately operated on him for a “pelvic abcess.” But he is still in hospital in Havana two weeks later, virtually incommunicado.
If Chavez does recover, he might lose the 2012 presidential election anyway. He will have been in power for fourteen years by then, and the mere passage of time has seriously eroded his power base. He has improved the lives of the poor, but a government with an oil income of bazillions of dollars that cannot even produce enough electricity to keep the lights on is bound to lose popularity.
Should Chavez die now, however, there might not even be a 2012 election. His elder brother AdÃ¡n, the governor of the state of Barinas, reminded everybody that although the socialist government won power through the ballot box, “we cannot forget, as authentic revolutionaries, other methods of fighting.” And the army, whose senior ranks have been stuffed with Chavez loyalists, might well back a “revolutionary” seizure of power.
On the whole, then, it would be better if Chavez survived and came back to Venezuela, only to lose the election honestly next year. Like King Bhumibol, he is the indispensable man for the next little while. After that, if all goes well, he can die whenever he wants.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries