Robert Mugabe has been sworn in as Zimbabwe's president for a seventh term, following his resounding “victory” in yet another disputed election that extends his iron-fist rule over the southern African nation for another five years. Mugabe, now 89 years old, has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980 – virtually a lifetime ago, meaning that, with 62 percent of the country’s population under the age of 24, the majority of Zimbabweans have known no other leader.
Five terms as head-of-state* may represent a kind of political “record,” but it is not unprecedented, nor is it even exemplary. Earlier this year, a politician who lived more than 4,000 miles away from Zimbabwe -- in a vastly different country and culture, died -- but he, led his country for an extraordinary seven terms. Giulio Andreotti of Italy passed away in May at the age of 94 (ironically, the age Mugabe will reach should he finish his current term), after serving as Prime Minister of his country seven different times – but, given the endlessly chaotic nature of Rome’s politics, not consecutively.
Still, no other lawmaker dominated post-war Italy more than Andreotti – not even Silvio Berlusconi, who served a “mere” four terms as Prime Minister. Indeed, Andreotti’s career (which also encompassed terms as ministers of finance, treasury, defense and industry) virtually carved the narrative of post-war Italian political life.
Since the founding of the Italian Republic in 1946, 26 different men have held the position of Prime Minister – some for periods less than one month. On average, that means that each terms lasts about two-and-a-half years – suggesting that volatility and turnover in Rome resembles what goes on in a developing country like Pakistan rather than an advanced western state. But it’s more complicated than that – of those aforementioned twenty-six Prime Ministers, half of them (13) served multiple terms, including Andreotti, who tallied seven. Amintore Fanfani served six times, Aldo Moro and Mariani Rumor each served five times, and Berlusconi served four. (Of course, Moro, who was murdered by Marxist guerrillas, could potentially have served more terms in office had he lived).
Amazingly, in the post-war era, the prolific Andreotti does not even hold the record for most terms as Italian PM – technically, his mentor, Alcide De Gasperi, the founder of the Christian Democratic party, served eight terms as Prime Minister, between 1946 and 1953 in as many successive collation government. (He died in 1954). In addition, multiple terms in office does not necessarily reflect a politicians’ popularity nor success. Indeed, Italian government has been marked by a seemingly endless array of intrigue, fragile coalitions that usually collapse, accusations of corruption and operatic infighting. The result: a multi-decade history of unfinished terms and lawmakers who never seem to vanish from public view until they are dead.
Still, in the context of that bewilderingly complex political background, Andreotti’s career was rather extraordinary in Italy. Between 1972 and 1992, Andreotti was PM seven times – although his longest terms in office lasted less than two years. But he must be given some credit for his tenacity – his remarkable ability to rise to the top (if only for a short time) repeatedly in the boiling cauldron of Italian politics.
Binoy Kampmark, a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge and a lecturer at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, wrote of Andreotti after his death that he was a “creature of the Italian post-war scene, with its astonishing volatility and kaleidoscopic deals. Unlike his opponents, he proved astonishingly versatile.”
Moreover, Andreotti oversaw the evolution of Italy as a modern world power, a member of the G7 club of nations. A devout Catholic, Andreotti nonetheless moved Italian society more in line with the rest of secular western Europe. Under his terms in office, the government abolished Roman Catholicism as the official state religion; made religious teachings in public schools optional; lifted the ban on divorce; and even legalized abortion.
But Andreotti also holds the dubious distinction as the last Prime Minister belonging to the Christian Democrats – the party that dominated Italy for 45 years after the war. The party was disbanded in 1994 in the wake of revelations of massive corruption and cronyism at the organization's highest levels.
Like many senior politicians in his country, he was tainted by alleged links to organized crime – that is, he apparently protected mob activities in exchange for their electoral support. A Mafia informant once alleged that Andreotti even met with the “boss of bosses” of the Sicilian Mafia, a dreaded and homicidal maniac named Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina, in 1987 and exchanged kisses of respect. Andreotti faced many such accusations of corruption and was even tried twice after his terms in office -- he was acquitted each time.
However he was once convicted of the 1979 murder of a journalist named Carmine Pecorelli, who alleged that Andreotti had links to the CIA and was also somehow complicit in the death of Aldo Moro, The Pecorelli killing was deeply tied to Mafia activity, particularly another Sicilian mob boss named Gateano Badalementi, who (allegedly) ordered the murder to benefit Andreotti. (Andreotti was eventually cleared of the conviction by an appellate court).
Andreotti was a rather unlikely national leader – bland- looking, uncharismatic and uninspiring, But he was highly intelligence and boasted an acidic wit. He also had little patience with his many critics. “Apart from the Punic Wars, for which I was too young, I have been blamed for everything,” he once quipped.
Granted, Andreotti’s (alleged) links to corruption and violence pale in comparison to the horrors perpetrated by Zimbabwe’s military security forces under Mugabe -- but not even Mugabe can boast that he led his country for seven different terms.
*NOTE: Technically, Mugabe has also been elected seven times, although his first two terms (from 1980 to 1987), he served as Prime Minister, a position abolished in 1987.