The power behind the thrones: 10 political movers and shakers who will shape 2020 | World news


The role of Dominic Cummings in plotting and facilitating Boris Johnson’s drive for power has focused attention on the influence exerted by behind-the-scenes advisers and confidants who have the ear of prominent politicians.

Powerful men and women around the world all have personal counsellors, trusted aides and backroom mentors. Then there are the “insiders” – string-pullers, fixers and manipulators with ambitions of their own. Few become well-known, although Cummings’s notoriety is by no means exceptional.

For example, American presidents rely heavily on confidential advisers. Ronald Reagan employed some oddball figures, such as Col Oliver North of Iran-Contra scandal fame. He even consulted a personal astrologer, courtesy of his wife, Nancy.

Donald Trump, a political neophyte, turned for help to similarly inexperienced people, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and theFox News TV host Tucker Carlson, who personally persuaded him not to bomb Iran last June.

The broader point is that leaders rely to a surprising degree on the advice of often unelected, unaccountable, and sometimes shady individuals who may decisively shape their ideas and direct their actions.

Here we look at 10 of the world’s less-known, most influential movers and shakers – the people who exercise power from behind the throne.

Vladislav Surkov and Russian president Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Zuma Press/Alamy

Vladislav Surkov Russia

The “grey cardinal of the Kremlin” is an enigmatic figure. On paper, Surkov is a presidential adviser with responsibility for eastern Ukraine. But his influence reputedly extends much further. He rose to power with Putin in 1999 and was deputy prime minister until 2013. As the Kremlin’s chief ideologist, he coined the term “sovereign democracy” that underpins Putinism – an ostensibly open political system controlled from the top. Surkov, who has a theatrical bent, is seen as a skilled practitioner of the black arts of post-truth politics, including stage-managed social movements, influence campaigns, and fake news. Among other projects, he helped launch Nashi, the government-approved national youth activist group. He is also an intellectual chancer who pushes the boundaries, as shown by his risky suggestion this year that Putin himself was dispensable because Putinism is “the ideology of the future”.

French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye.

French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye. Photograph: Ed Alcock/The Guardian

Sibeth Ndiaye France

Ndiaye is employed by President Emmanuel Macron to explain government policies as chief spokesperson with cabinet rank. But since her promotion in April, she has become a symbol and leading advocate for the inclusive, tolerant and generous France that Macron promised when he was elected.

Born in Dakar, Senegal, and a naturalised French citizen for the past three years, Ndiaye has been attacked by the far right over her choice of brightly coloured clothes and occasional afro hairstyle.

A former conservative minister, Nadine Morano, mocked her “circus outfits”. “Am I the target of racism? Yes, obviously, ” Ndiaye said recently. But as the first black woman to be spokesperson, she has also become the critical public face of Macron’s bid, after a year of street protests, to get back in touch with the country, “He wants the second half of his term to be focused on proximity with our compatriots,” she says.

Ajit Doval.

Ajit Doval. Photograph: Hindustan Times/Getty

Ajit Kumar Doval India

Popularly known as India’s “real-life James Bond”, Doval is national security adviser to the Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi and reputedly his most trusted security and foreign affairs aide.

Doval has become a cult figure in some quarters thanks to his background in intelligence-gathering, counter-terrorism and counter-espionage, including in Kashmir, Punjab and north-east India. According to some accounts, he lived under cover in China, Myanmar and Pakistan. When he feared identification as a Hindu due to his pierced ears, he had surgery to maintain his disguise, or so the story goes.

Doval has been criticised for his hawkish views, known as the “Doval Doctrine”, especially on Kashmir, where he played a key role in the imposition of direct rule from Delhi earlier this year. He has argued that personal morality has no place in international relations.

Stephen Miller.

Stephen Miller. Photograph: Tom Brenner/Reuters

Stephen Miller USA

Miller is a below-the-radar White House operative whose biggest achievement may be surviving the purges that brought down higher-profile figures such as Steve Bannon and John Bolton.

Yet the youthful Miller, 34, whose official role is senior presidential adviser with responsibility for immigration, appears to have Donald Trump’s ear – and to share his prejudices. He is said to have played a crucial role in formulating Trump’s ban on migrants from Muslim countries and in the policy to build a wall on the US-Mexico border.

Opponents accuse Miller of being a closet white supremacist who promoted xenophobic, anti-immigrant and white nationalist views when he worked for former Alabama senator Jeff Sessions. A group of Democrat senators demanded his resignation this month. “Simply put, Mr Miller is unfit to serve in any capacity at the White House, let alone as a senior policy adviser” they said. Trump ignored them.

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

Photograph: AP

Mohamed Hamden Dagalo Sudan

The sinister face of Sudan’s revolution is also the man who could yet undo it. Known as Hemedti, he heads the feared Rapid Support Forces (RSF), linear heirs to the Janjaweed paramilitaries who led the genocide in Darfur in the early 2000s.

Hemedti was at the centre of the attempt to suppress the uprising that toppled Sudan’s long-time dictator, Omar al-Bashir, in April. He and his forces were blamed for killing more than 100 protesters in Khartoum in June.

But in subsequent power-sharing negotiations with the opposition, Hemedti emerged as deputy head of the transitional military council. Diplomats say Hemedti, whose family were camel traders and who enjoys the support of Saudi royals, hopes to become president. It’s feared his ill-disguised ambitions, and the weak leadership of the council’s head, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, could ultimately wreck Sudan’s transition to civilian rule.

German chancellor Angela Merkel with Peter Altmaier.

German chancellor Angela Merkel with Peter Altmaier. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty

Peter Altmaier Germany

Altmaier has been described as the most powerful man in Berlin. If that’s the case, it is because he has stuck close to Chancellor Angela Merkel, Berlin’s most powerful woman. Since entering the Bundestag in 1994, Altmaier has served as chief whip for Merkel’s CDU party, environment minister, head of chancellery, and economics minister, his current post. A centrist like his boss – though some on the right suspect him of liberal, Green-ish views – he helped Merkel manage the Greek bailout crisis and sustain her controversial open-door policy on Syrian refugees.

He does have views of his own: in 2017, unlike Merkel, he voted in favour of same sex marriage. As the end of his boss’s long reign approaches, Altmaier the confidential enforcer seems content to continue to pull the strings behind closed doors. His next crush? Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s choice of successor, whom he has endorsed.

Qassem Suleimani Iran

Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani.

Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani. Photograph: HO/AFP/Getty Images

The sinisterly handsome major- general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and commander of its Quds Force, is responsible for covert operations abroad. He is one of the most powerful figures in the Middle East following a decade in which Iran’s influence has spread.

Whether the issue at hand is Bashar al-Assad’s attempts to reassert control in Syria, the Houthi rebels’ proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, the arming of pro-Iran Shia militias in Lebanon and elsewhere along Israel’s borders, naval confrontation with the US in the Gulf, or the question of who governs Iraq, Suleimani is at the heart of the action, unseen, undemonstrative and apparently untouchable – the US and Israel have allegedly tried to eliminate him more than once. If anyone can stop Suleimani, it will be jealous mullahs in Tehran anxious to thwart his oft-denied political ambitions.

Ibrahim Kalin.

Ibrahim Kalin. Photograph: Emrah Gürel/AP

Ibrahim Kalin Turkey

Kalin is chief adviser and spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Given his impressive background as an academic and thinktank analyst, Kalin might just as well be called Erdoğan’s brain.

Turkey’s leader is widely viewed in Europe and the US as an impulsive, argumentative and authoritarian partner who is undermining Nato, in part by invading Syria and buying Russian missiles. It’s Kalin’s job to provide an alternative, more attractive narrative, and he does so with skill. In a recent article for Bloomberg, he turned the tables on Erdoğan’s critics. Turkey’s vital security interests in fighting “Kurdish terror”, seeking peace in Syria, settling the Cyprus question and rooting out coup plotters were not taken seriously by the west, he wrote. “Foreign policy is not a zero sum game… Turkey is as much entitled to protect its interests in the Middle East or Africa as are France or the US.”

China’s vice-premier Liu He at the White House.

China’s vice-premier Liu He at the White House. Photograph: Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Liu He China

China’s vice-premier and chief trade negotiator with the US had a fortunate start in life: he was a class-mate and close friend of Xi Jinping, the country’s all-powerful president, at Beijing 101 middle school in the early 1960s.

Following Xi’s ascent to the top of the Communist party, Liu, a Harvard-educated economist, was parachuted into the politburo in 2017. In a fast-paced world of rival party cadres, where a nod or a frown from the president can make or break a career, low-profile Liu has the inside lane. Xi once described him as “very important to me”. But he will need all the luck he can get if he is to prevent the trade dispute with Trump reigniting. This month’s partial agreement damped the issue for now, but Chinese goods remain subject to $360bn in US tariffs – and China’s economy is suffering.

Miguel Diaz-Canel.

Miguel Diaz-Canel. Photograph: Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty

Miguel Díaz-Canel Cuba

He is man with one of the world’s toughest jobs – navigating a future path for Cuba in the post-Castro era. Named as president earlier this year, Díaz-Canel is expected to succeed Raul Castro, the late Fidel’s brother, in the more powerful post of first secretary of the Communist party in 2021. That would make him the first Cuban leader who is not a Castro since 1959.

Yet Díaz-Canel, a party technocrat with a reputation for competence rather than brilliance, may lack the charisma and authority of his more famous predecessors. He also has to deal with their legacy, which includes a deteriorating relationship with the US. Donald Trump’s administration imposed new sanctions this year, and revived old ones, while vowing to vanquish the “troika of tyranny” – Cuba and its allies in Venezuela and Nicaragua. Díaz-Canel must show whether a backroom boy can lead from the front.


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