Wednesday, 24 December 2014

10 Sexiest World Leaders of 2015

It's time again for that most hallowed of Brush Talk traditions: the annual Top 10 Sexiest World Leaders contest!

All in all it was a rough year for many of 2014's Top Ten. Of the previous ten, four (Bratušek, Tymoshenko, Yingluck, and Touré) have since been put out to pasture (some democratically, some otherwise), and Haitian President Michel Martelly's days in the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince may be numbered, with ongoing protests and a corruption probe threatening his tenure. Meanwhile, Mexico's guapo president Enrique Peña Nieto has lost a great deal of lustre over his country's declining press freedom, a recent mass kidnapping of students in Iguala and frequent gaffes, while Italy's young premier Matteo Renzi faces an uphill battle against his country's old guard.

This year's list features an almost entirely new lineup from previous years. While Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is still a hottie, after two years atop the sexy list it was time to move on from the Kingdom of Bhutan. And while Albanian prime minister Edi Rama continues to charm, most recently taking steps to improve his country's long frictious relations with neighbouring Serbia, we decided it was time for fresh blood. Except for Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who is simply too glamourous and wonderful to leave off the list. She makes the Top 10 for the third straight year.

It should perhaps be mentioned that when we're talking about 'sexiness' we're not simply talking physical attractiveness. Nope, we may be shallow here but we're not that shallow. Our contestants are rated on a totally non-objective range of criteria, including looks, fashion sense, personal charm and magnetism, and, wherever possible, competence in their line of work. Also, pains have been taken to assure that all regions of the world are adequately represented, although this has never proved to be a problem in these posts. So without any further ado, here is our Top Ten International Political Hottie list for 2015!

1. Helle Thorning-Schmidt

Why HTS again? Well, in addition to being arguably Europe's most glamourous sitting head of government, Denmark's Gucci-toting, Obama-selfie-snapping PM has a lot to show for her three years in office. Under her leadership, Denmark has emerged as one of Europe's best-performing economies, with an unemployment rate half the eurozone average, the lowest youth unemployment rate in the EU, and a global ranking of fourth in 'ease in doing business' (best in Europe). The country also continues to lead by example in combating climate change, with Denmark now on course to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Of course Give-em Hell Helle hasn't been without her controversies. Obama selfies aside, the centre-left leader has antagonized many on the left in her country by clashing with teachers' unions, cutting corporate taxes, and overseeing the proposed sale of Denmark natural gas consortium DONG Energy shares to Goldman Sachs. Up for reelection in 2015, she currently trails behind Lars Løkke Rasmussen of the centre-right Venstre Party. But with an impressive list of achievements under her designer belt, Gucci Helle still enjoys substantial support - and is certainly not to be discounted.

2. Xavier Bettel

Luxembourg? Really? C'mon, I thought we were sticking with real countries here! Well, aside from having roughly similar sizes and populations, the postage stamp-sized Grand Duchy of Luxembourg also shares a certain va-va-voom factor with the similarly liliputian Kingdom of Bhutan. Instead of a smoking hot Dragon King, Luxembourg has as head of state the dashing Grand Duke Henri, who has presided over this curious vestige of the Holy Roman Empire since the death of his father Jean in 2000. But while the Grand Duke might be a looker, no man has of late been turning heads in the tiny country like its dreamy head of government, Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who in December 2013 became only the third openly gay world leader in modern history.

So how is Bettel faring thus far as Luxembourg's PM? Hard to tell. Luxembourg remains the second wealthiest country in the world by per-capital GDP (trailing only Qatar), with it and Singapore the only non-oil-based economies in the top five. Moreover, the Luxembourg Tax Avoidance Controversy that dogged his predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker appears to have had little impact on his popularity. And in August of this year the country was treated to the PM's wedding to longtime architect partner Gaultier Destenay. That and, well, how hard can it be to govern a place as small and placid as Luxembourg? Well, giventhe spectacular implosion of Iceland (a country with a population even smaller than the Grand Duchy) in the global financial crisis, that the political fallout that ensued, perhaps it's not as easy as it looks.

3. Joko Widodo

Given the fact that Indonesia is a) the world's fourth most populous country; b) the world's third-largest democracy; and c) the world's most populous Muslim country, it's remarkable how little media attention the country's 2014 presidential elections received. While John Oliver famously lambasted the US media for ignoring India's general election (before Prime Minister Narendra Modi became a post-election neoliberal icon), the Indian election was a relative global media circus next to Indonesia's, which went by practically without a murmur. That said, the Southeast Asian nation's 2014 presidential election was a refreshingly placid and uncontroversial affair, which, given the country's relatively recent history of violent coups, ethnic cleansing, communal violence and systematic kleptocracy, is a refreshing sign of a maturing democracy that has come a long way from the end of the ugly Suharto era.

Indonesia's newly minted president Joko Widodo, or 'Jokowi' as he is universally known, shares Modi's rags-to-riches story, but that's where the similarities between the two leaders ends. Whereas Modi's past is clouded by controversy and his present tinged with strident religious nationalism, the colourful former governor of Jakarta appears to be remarkably controversy-free, and his presidential campaign was one centred on pluralism and religious tolerance, earning him the ire of the country's Islamists and the support of just about everybody else in a country long fraught by religious and ethnic conflict. He has also pledged to grow the country's economy by seven per cent a year for the next three years while continuing to overhaul its strained infrastructure.

Aside from his humble background as the son of a village furniture maker, he is probably best known for his abiding love of heavy metal, most notably Metallica, Lamb of God, Slayer and Napalm Death, leading LoG frontman Randy Blythe to dub him the "World's First Heavy Metal President." And at age 53 he looks at most half his age. Guess metal really does keep you young!

4. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

Argentina's Iron Lady and Presidente de la República since 2010, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has perhaps been something of an oversight in the last two years' top ten lists - if for no other reason that she seems like too obvious a choice. Style-wise she falls into the same category as Denmark's governing glamourpuss, with whom she shares a love of designer labels and haute couture, but Argentina's cougar-in-chief's sexy points stem mainly from her status as a fierce, take-no-shit political warrior with few equals. While Argentina's inflation-ridden economy remains as wobbly as ever, the widow of former president Néstor Kirchner has proven herself to be a fighter equal to her late husband, taking on billionaire US hedge fund managers and British prime ministers with equal aplomb.

Of all of Argentina's leading lady's jousting matches, the most spectacular may have been her KO against the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known to the world as Pope Francis. While the current pontiff has made admirable, if tentative, steps towards softening the Church of Rome's hardline stance against homosexuality, it was the same Argentine cleric who took to the ring against Señora Kirchner on the issue of same-sex marriage in Argentina. She won, making Argentina the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage, and in doing so just might have helped push the Vatican's sexiest virgin in a more liberal direction. Gracias, Cristina.

5. Michelle Bachelet

Remaining in South America's Cono Sur, 2014 saw the return to power of another one of the continent's leading female political pugilists, Chile's Michelle Bachelet, after four years in opposition. While on the surface, the hippie chick-turned-political refugee-turned-bookish socialist politician might seem like the polar opposite to her Rioplatense counterpart, the Chilean president is no less of a fighter. In her first term as president, Bachelet wasted no time exorcising the country's Pinochet-era ghosts by refusing to grant the late dictator a state funeral following his death in 2006, and three years later opening Santiago's Museum of Memory and Human Rights - a museum dedicated to documenting the horrors of Pinochet's 16-and-a-half year dictatorship.

After four years out to pasture, Señora Bachelet appears to have lost none of her old fire. Her current legislative priorities include legalizing abortion in this longstanding bastion of conservative Catholicism (abortion remains banned under all circumstances in Chile) and educational reforms aimed at narrowing the country's still pronounced socioeconomic divide. At age 63, the guitar-strumming, poetry-loving physician remains one of South America's most eligible bachelorettes. Just be prepared to take a back seat to her three children and her beloved country.

6. Taavi Rõivas

Source: LinkedIn
Estonia may not immediately spring to mind when you think of 'sexy' countries, but the small Baltic state has certainly earned its share of coolness cred since gaining independence from the USSR in 1991. From a melancholy backwater of the Soviet Union, the country has since emerged as an economic and cultural powerhouse, with the highest concentration of tech start-ups anywhere in the world and one of the world's most exciting contemporary music scenes. And while the country took a severe beating during the the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, Estonia's healthy business climate, strong ties to Scandinavia, and growing tourism industry helped make its recession far less painful than many of its fellow ex-Eastern Bloc countries.

If geek-chic has become Estonia's new modus vivendi, the country definitely has the right leadership for the job. In the largely ceremonial role of president Estonia has a bow-tied Bill Nye lookalike named Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a social media-obsessed tech maven who famously got into a Twitter spat with economist Paul Krugman over Estonia's 2008 austerity program. Meanwhile, this year's parliamentary election brought to power the baby-faced Taavi Rõivas, who at age 35 is currently the EU's youngest head of government. Combining Justin Timberlake's hair, Leo DiCaprio's jawline, and an easy fluency in four languages, Rõivas might just be the dishiest figure on the EU scene. But don't get your hopes up - his marriage to local pop princess Luisa Värk is one the the best-known things about him.

7. Portia Simpson Miller

When it comes to Gross National Sexy, the land of rum, reggae and rastafarianism has it made. Jamaica may have its problems, but lack of sex appeal has never been among them. From the seductive Irish-influenced lilt of Jamaican English to the island's bad-ass cuisine and its irresistible musical smorgasbord of reggae, ska, dancehall, rocksteady etc., Jamaica oozes sex appeal like few other places. Sadly, however, the island's politics have been decidedly less sexy over the course of the nation's young history, as its diverse economy has long been hampered by corruption and fiscal mismanagement to such an extent that a 2011 revealed that 60 per cent of Jamaicans would, if put to a vote, opt to return to direct British rule. Such sentiments are further compounded by the island's stubbornly high rate of violent crime, with poverty and corruption continuing to fuel the country's notorious gang problem.

Jamaica's current prime minister Portia Simpson Miller represents a significant departure from the island's previous leaders. As the country's first female head of government, Sista P, as she is commonly known, has shown a willingness to swim against the current when dealing with her country's warts. Most notably she has been the first Jamaican leader to publicly advocate on behalf of LGBTQ rights, a thorny issue in one of the world's most notoriously homophobic societies. While her performance on this front has been mixed in recent years, her administration has overseen a gradual opening of dialogue with gay rights groups and reforms aimed at curbing homophobic violence. And at age 69 she still looks glamourous, which helps when you're blowing kisses at LGBTQ rights protesters in New York City.

8. Joseph Kabila

Unless you're a wannabe mercenary with a serious danger fetish, the Democratic Republic of Congo is about the furthest thing from a sexy tourist destination one could possibly think of. The Central African country formerly known as Zaïre and previously known as the Belgian Congo has for most of its post-independence history been the sum of every negative cliché about the continent, from the cartoonish kleptocracy of dictator Mobutu Sésé Seko to the horrors of the country's two post-Mobutu civil wars, which together resulted in as many as 5.4 million deaths - more than any armed conflict since World War II. Even now, over ten years after the end of the Second Congo War, the eastern regions of Kivu and Ituri remain humanitarian disasters, where rape continues to be employed as a weapon of war with terrifying regularity. Indeed, using the word sexy in the same sentence as the DRC might strike some as inherently in bad taste.

That said, there once was a time when the nation's capital Kinshasa (formerly Léopoldville) was a hip and happening metropolis known affectionately as 'Kin la Belle' (Kin the Beautiful), which teemed with jazz joints and cafés, even as Mobotu and famously hosted Foreman and Ali for their legendary 1974 'Rumble in the Jungle' bout. And while much of the country remains a humanitarian nightmare, there are signs that life in the capital and other more peaceful regions is returning to normal - such as an emerging jazz festival in Kinshasa. As for sexy leadership, former guerrilla fighter-turn-president Joseph Kabila is certainly the handsomest head of state the country has had since the assassination of its dapper founding president Patrice Lumumba. While Kabila's 2012 reelection was marred by irregularities, he's been a saint compared to his predecessors - and at the very least is easy on the eyes.

9. Atifete Jahjaga / Tatiana Turanskaya

Sources: /
In the ninth spot we have a split decision between two leaders whose countries fall into the category known to political scientists as 'places that don't exist'. The post-Cold War disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia left in its wake a bizarre assortment of self-declared nation states ranging in size from Kazakhstan (about four times the size of Texas) to places small enough to defend with a single large man with a Kalashnikov and a pack of rottweilers. It is into this latter category that fall the republics of Kosovo and Transnistria, two 'countries' that remain unrecognized by either much or nearly all of the world. On this front, Kosovo is on slightly more secure ground. Nearly nine years after its declaration of independence in 2008, it enjoys full diplomatic recognition from most developed western countries, including most of Europe. Transnistria, on the other hand, only enjoys recognition from fellow unrecognized breakaway republics Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia, although Russia, which maintains a troop presence in the region, continues to accord it 'special status' - whatever that means.

Transnistria and Kosovo also share the distinction of being led by two of the youngest female political leaders around. In 2013, the parliament of Moldova's breakaway eastern sliver selected as its prime minister the 40-year-old Tatiana Turanskaya, a former city administrator and mother of two, which is about all we could find out about her. (Concrete English-language information on the secretive Transnistrian Republic seems to be hard to come by.) More, however, is known about her Kosovar counterpart Major General Atifete Jahjaga, the country's former Deputy Director of Police who in 2011 became the region's youngest and first female head of state at age 35. While her ambition to move Kosovo towards EU membership might seem a long way off, she looks to have at least secured her country's place within the International Olympic Committee. Which is more than can be said for Transnistria, whose athletes have no option but to compete under the Moldovan flag.

Jahjaga and Turanskaya are both lookers - and therefore both make the list, but for all intents and purposes Jahjaga's worldly charisma and tough cop image puts her on top in the beautiful-women-running-tiny-states-struggling-for recognition category. Turanskaya appears to be more of Eastern European Danielle Smith than anything - possibly ready to cross the floor to Russia or Moldova at any moment.

10. Park Geun-hye

Source: New York Times
Of all the innumerable US-backed dictators of the late-twentieth century, few cut as jaunty a figure as South Korean strongman Park Chung-hee, who dominated his country's political scene from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. A former Imperial Japanese military officer during the colonial era who seized power in a 1961 coup, General Park is simultaneously loathed by modern-day Koreans for constructing a police responsible for a laundry list of human rights violations in the 1970s and 1980s (including the infamous Gwangju Massacre of 1980), and revered for his instrumental role in the country's spectacular economic ascendancy from the 1960s onward. Koreans' conflicted relationship with their former dictator has been thrown into sharp focus in recent years with the dramatic ascension of his daughter, Park Geun-hye, to the office he once held, making her the first female leader of any of East Asia's 'tiger' economies.

A little-known fact about South Korea's sitting president is that in 1974, as a 22-year-old university student in France, she suddenly found herself in the official role of First Lady following the death of her mother in a botched assassination attempt on the president - a direct link to the country's most autocratic period that makes many Koreans uncomfortable. But while her administration took a beating in the aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster (although her decisive response to the disaster earned her many plaudits) and more recently has been shaken by an influence-peddling scandal within her Saenuri Party, she remains East Asia's most powerful woman according to Forbes Magazine, and her popular nickname 'Queen of Elections' if nothing else confirms her unquestionable commitment to the democratic principles her father once usurped.

While 'sexy' might not be the right adjective for the stern, buttoned-down mother of the nation, she nonetheless manages to blend Margaret Thatcher's charisma and resolve with the maternal streak of Michelle Bachelet. She remains unmarried, alluding in the past to being 'married to South Korea'. It's therefore doubtful that Korea's Iron Lady has a profile on Plenty of Fish, or whatever the Korean equivalent to that is. But with her maximum term in office to expire in 2018, one never knows for sure.

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