Sunday 4 March 2012

Why Western celebrity status is not enough to be a politician

What do the chess master Gary Kasparov, the boxing world champion Vitaly Klitschko, and the singer Yossou N'Dour have in common? They all have, at one point or another, tried to stand for election in their home country, after many years of living in the Western world, and been touted by Western media as the saviour of their country. The former cricketer Imre Khan has just joined the list, feted by The Observer today as the last hope of a country torn between rampant corruption, a failing political elite and an increasingly radicalised population. 
While the list of those who have lived in the West and re-discovered their roots and their electoral ambitions is long, the list of those who have succeeded in winning public office is short. Yet the love the West has for celebrity figures as saviours of their country continues unabated. This despite any evidence to the contrary that those who have lived in the West and are much appreciated by Western media are either qualified to hold political office in their home countries or that it, if they did, would make any difference. 
So what’s at the heart of the West’s infatuation with these celebrity exile politicians? At the heart of it lies a specific patronising attitude, an arrogance about the West’s values and practices, and an (un-)healthy dose of wishful thinking. Let me explain. 
First up is the view that any person who has lived in the West and enjoyed success here, must habour a deep commitment to Western values. It’s easy for all those potential electoral candidates to reinforce this view, all they have to do is to demonstrate their unflinching opposition to corruption in their countries. 
This is so, since our opinion of developing countries is shot through the prism of rampant corruption. So much so that often entire developmental strategies are said to be held up by corruption, while absence of the same is allegedly tantamount to unhindered development and prosperity. This of course is an enormous simplification of reality. Some countries that have made a fist of things after the war, e.g. Japan and Italy, have retained a staggering amount of corruption in politics and business. 
Yet, this is only half the story. Western observers often seem to think that if only the head of state would be incorruptible, everything else would fall in place. Hence the saviour role of these Western based celebrities in turning around the fortunes of their home countries. But corruption is more complicated than this. It is often a symptom of a lack of transparency that pervades the whole of society and unchecked governance structures. In addition, what goes as corruption in one part of the world, is part of conventional business transactions in another. Unclear tax legislation which can be used by the powers that be to persecute opponents and favour others, may equally contribute to corruption as an social ill woven into the fabric of societies. Changing the head of state may make little difference indeed. 
The upshot of this is that parachuting someone who allegedly symbolises Western values into highest office in a developing country is unlikely to show the desired effect. Not to mention the fact that widespread backing from Western media rarely endears these candidates to the local population. 
But there is an additional aspect of arrogance in the Western position when they back one of these celebrity politicians. It is the widely held belief that developing countries are somehow based on clear choices and options, of which the Western path of development and prosperity is the most obvious for the majority of the population. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that any society in the modern world, developing or not, is highly complex and Western views of governance, democratic politics and regulated markets are often faring fairly low in domestic public discourses. Where they are talked about, they are often cited as synonyms of cultural decadence to be avoided, rather than to be accomplished. 
That is why celebrity politicians rarely succeed in gaining high office in countries from which they have often been absent for decades. And perhaps it’s the better for it. The fact is that success in politics anywhere in the world is a matter of finely balancing social and economic interests. Not to mention the need for a powerful constituency that can prop you up in times of trouble. 
Parachute candidates often lack the knowledge and the skills to negotiate this jungle of interests and influences. Their electoral programmes are often little more than ragbags of slogans and populist demands. In a sense, we in the West wouldn’t give them our vote, why should anybody in Senegal or Ukraine? 

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