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Sashes, Swords, and Swearing In

Sashes, Swords, and Swearing In

U.S. President Barack Obama will be sworn in for a second term on Monday in a highly choreographed inauguration ceremony on the National Mall. Some of the traditions surrounding the inauguration are codified by law — the actual swearing-in occurs as close as possible to noon since that’s when the last presidential term officially ends according to the 20th Amendment to the Constitution — while others are customs that have emerged over time: the now de rigueur presidential stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue dates back only to 1977, when Jimmy Carter did it as a populist gesture; John F. Kennedy began the tradition of having an inaugural poet when he invited Robert Frost to read in 1961. But how do other countries inaugurate their leaders?

Most countries with presidential systems have some kind of pomp-filled inauguration ceremony. (Prime ministers tend to be sworn in with less fanfare in parliament.) Many presidents take an oath of office — some more religious than others — and give an inaugural address to the nation. Parades through the capital and military reviews are also pretty standard fare. But there are some intriguing local variations.

The inauguration of the Mongolian president, for instance, includes several days of celebrations, including wrestling matches – the president doesn’t participate, unfortunately. The cost of the celebrations was criticized in 2009, so presidential Wrestlemania may not last forever. In Turkmenistan, the president is traditionally sworn in standing on a white felt mat — a symbol of good luck — and is given "bread and salt as a symbol of prosperity and well being" and a "quiver with arrows symbolizing the people’s unity." In Tanzania, the president receives a symbolic spear and shield when he is sworn in. Most Latin American leaders also wear presidential sashes that they receive at their inaugurations.

Presidents also frequently add their own personal touches. In 2006, a day before his official swearing-in, Bolivian President Evo Morales — the country’s first indigenous leader – held a traditional ceremony at a sacred pre-Incan site, where, "barefoot and dressed as a sun priest, he received a baton, encrusted with gold, silver and bronze, that will symbolize his Indian leadership."

Tributes to national heroes are common during inaugurations. The motorcade of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee made a stop at a monument to Mohandas Gandhi en route to his swearing-in. The president of Taiwan is sworn in while standing before a portrait of the country’s founder, Sun Yat-sen.  

Russia’s inaugurations are notable for including a ceremony in which the  "nuclear briefcase," containing the codes to the country’s arsenal, is handed over to the new president. In France, the outgoing president holds a private meeting with his successor on inauguration day during which the nuclear codes are handed over. In the United States, the handover of Armageddon-unleashing power is a bit more subtle. During the swearing-in ceremony, the military aide carrying the so-called "nuclear football" — who stays with the president at all times — crosses the stage to stand by the new leader.

Obama’s also not the only president to invite celebrities to his inauguration, though they’re not always quite Beyonce-level. Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama invited some of Nigeria’s biggest film stars to his inauguration this year ("Nollywood" movies are massively popular in Ghana). In Iran, after several senior clerics and political figures decided to boycott Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inauguration following the controversial 2009 election, the Iranian president filled the gaps with showbiz figures including the national football team coach, a weightlifter known as "Iranian Hercules," several actors, and a disgraced children’s TV presenter whose show had recently been pulled from the air over a toy monkey named "Ahmadinejad." (Evidently, the president was in a forgiving mood.)

Inauguration rituals can often become proxy political battles. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy initially demanded to be sworn in last year in front of parliament rather than — according to tradition — in front of the Hosni Mubarak-appointed Supreme Court, but eventually acquiesced, which was seen as a sign of the military’s continued influence. When Peruvian President Ollanta Humala took power in 2011, he pointedly swore allegiance to Peru’s 1979 constitution rather than the country’s current constitution, which had been put in place by his rival, former President Alberto Fujimori.

Inauguration crowds are not always particularly respectful. When Enrique Peña Nieto was sworn in before Mexico’s congress last year, and as protests raged outside, leftist lawmakers unfurled a black banner inside the parliament chamber reading "Mexico in mourning" — referring to the thousands killed by drug violence during his predecessor’s administration.

Inaugural addresses are usually uplifting testaments to national unity and better days to come, though there are some exceptions to the rule. When The Gambia’s eccentric strongman President Yahya Jammeh was sworn in for a fourth term in 2012, he accused his citizens of laziness, vowed to "wipe out almost 82 percent of those in the work force," and warned that "I will be more dangerous in the next five years." Stirring oratory indeed.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts might have goofed on the precise wording of Obama’s inaugural oath in 2009, but in terms of drama it didn’t compare to Papua New Guinea’s 2012 swearing-in, when the country’s governor-general — technically the representative of the Queen of England — refused to swear in Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, who had taken power controversially during his predecessor’s illness, and abruptly walked out of the ceremony to "study the documents." He returned to swear O’Neill in three hours later.

Then, of course, there’s Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whose inauguration celebrations were held on Jan. 10 despite the fact that he was out of the country at the time for cancer treatment in Havana, and could not actually take the oath of office. Nonetheless, supporters, as well as diplomats and three foreign heads of state, dutifully gathered for the "inauguration" of Chávez’s fourth term.

Some countries are a bit more deluxe than others. Vladimir Putin was sworn in at the lavish Grand Kremlin Hall, once the seat of the czars. The ceremony reportedly cost $664,000 — half of it spent on commemorative medals for the guests — and was followed by a $400,000 banquet. This is pretty rich by international standards and infuriated the Russian opposition, though it’s pretty paltry compared with the estimated $150 million spent on Obama’s 2009 inauguration. This year’s event is expected to be far more modest (no Bruce Springsteen concert on the Mall, for instance). But when it comes to swearing in new presidents, the United States still goes bigger than anyone else.