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Reluctant Politicians

Vaclav Havel is the finest example of the idea that the best people to run government are the people who don’t actually want the power.

Frustrated when thrust to the presidency of Czechoslovakia in the early 90s he would admit: “It is almost as though I am an imposter in this job, I feel at any moment as though someone will come and divest me of my office and throw me back to prison…”1.

Reluctant politicians are rare. When they do appear it is usually in circumstances where countries denied of democracy need swift stabilizing action to attain it. Havel was unqualified to be president but as a symbol of dissidence and an admired intellectual he seemed, in that moment, ideal for the task.

These days everybody seems to think they are qualified to be a politician. Ambitious, deluded, often backed by big money and the machinations of new technologies they construct and sustain false impressions of charisma and leadership elbowing out those who are competent and actually dedicated to public service.

The Donald Trump Circus set up tent again this week confirming that there are people who still think that being president essentially involves uttering slogans, tweeting undiplomatic incongruities, trolling enemies and grinning while showing signed documents to camera.

He is the best example of the catastrophic assumption that celebrities with a platform but especially business celebrities can smoothly transition into political leadership.

Combine this with the notion – now fully normalised – that being president is like being a CEO and government is somehow re-framed as a business, the public domain as a market and voters as consumers.

Then comes the fallacy that the market always knows best. Which covertly means it knows what is best for big money not what is best for democracy.

Everyone agrees that democracy is stuck. Many things need to be addressed to fix things. But there’s one key decision that should be easy to arrive at: While every person has the right to vote not every person should be eligible to seek the vote. Democracies have become too lax, too free-market, too democratic for their own good. Sure, everyone has a right to run for the presidency but just as the market sets rules for its traders so should a democracy for its leaders. Criteria must be set for those who seek to run a democracy, especially in systems where presidents rule as monarchs.

And it really doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact it could be rather pedestrian: There are only two full presidential democracies in the western world, the United States and Cyprus [on paper Turkey too but it is borderline western and for the time being not a democracy, and France which is however semi-presidential]. Such systems while adjusting to political culture and constitutional structure could start by setting one fundamental condition: To seek the highest office a candidate would have to have first served in parliament – a full term.

Anyone who wants to sit behind the big desk would have to toil on the benches of the institution that represents the ‘demos.’ They would need to develop a solid understanding not only of how the Legislature works but how it works with the Executive. Politics is one thing but policy-making is quite another. Debating on television is not the same as debating on the parliamentary floor. Candidates must bring evidence of their capacity for policy formulation and leave a public record of how they voted on the policies of others. They would have to debate environmental legislation and ministerial budgets, vote on social rights and international agreements, see how the Executive deviates and how parliament checks and re-calibrates.

For this to work election thresholds would have to be adjusted so that independent parliamentary aspirants can stand a chance without having to capitulate to existing party structures. This would prove the most difficult part of the experiment. But loosening the stranglehold political parties maintain on the system (in the US and Cyprus) is long overdue.

To broaden the game cabinet appointees – even if they have never held a parliamentary seat – could be allowed to pursue the presidency but only if they have served a predetermined minimum number of years in a ministerial post. Ministerial work obliges vigorous collaboration with the parliamentary machinery so this would release them of the duty to serve in parliament.

Admittedly Barack Obama, a single term Senator from Illinois before 2008, said the Senate did not prepare him for what he had to face at the Oval Office but it had been an essential education. Critics will argue that there are serving senators and parliamentarians who are useless and equally dangerous to seek the top job. They would be right. But introducing some standard of prior relevant experience anew would invite closer scrutiny of the motives and aptitude of such characters as well as test their interest in serving the public. Shallow celebrities and pseudo successful business people would be reluctant to work in parliament; they are mostly seduced to desire the top job. A would-be president must be forced to deal with a small constituency before serving the big one. The process would also oblige voters to become more conscious of their parliamentary choices aware that they may have one eye on the presidency.

In the years ahead populism, disinformation and economic hardship will increase the risk of fraudulent messianic candidates. Setting minimum standards would mitigate the chance of landing single-agenda or accidental presidents. A clown like Trump would have been reluctant to run for the House or the Senate. But even if he did not think it beneath him and had done so and won, his weak mental state and strong criminal instincts would have been exposed early.

Making the dishonest or the entirely unsuitable reluctant to enter high politics by forcing them to enter parliament first is only a small step. The upside, rather enticingly, is that sitting parliamentarians might not be too reluctant to adopt it.

1. The European, 11 May 1990.

Photo: Miroslav Zaj – Getty

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