The trial, and error, of the political ‘outsider’
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected not despite his lack of political experience, but because of it. On the campaign trail, he was seen as the outsider who was not tainted by politics. He was Defence Secretary, but that was a public office, not a political office.
The outsider element became especially important after the cry “all 225 are useless” became a dirge for political venality during the Yahapalana era.
The slogan was seen as a death march for politicians that had failed the nation. It was clear in the fact that people were disenchanted with politicians, after it became obvious that the then Government could not even put up a united front, let alone govern.
The ugly goings-on in Parliament during the 52-day crisis and other scenes of unruliness in the legislature also contributed to the idea that a proper leader would be one that was never tainted by previous political experience.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa fit the role. He was not a politician – hitherto – but also had a reputation for being an efficient administrator as Defence Secretary and the moving force behind the UDA (Urban Development Authority) drive for beautifying Colombo city.
The flip side that he had no prior political experience was not seen as an impediment by many. Donald Trump had no previous political experience either. However, the example of Trump was not cited, though he ran a great economy, because the former US President was seen as too unorthodox and perhaps unpresidential for a president of the US.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa in his own right was seen as an exemplar of the new truism – that the political outsider is the best solution for the problem of the ineffectual and corrupt politician. Lack of prior experience in political office, in this context, was seen as a virtue, not an impediment.
Fast forward two years into president Rajapaksa’s tenure since the assumption of office, and the consensus seems to be that a wrong call was made. The outsider without political experience has become a liability, many of the commentators are convinced.
Some of these assessments may be through a partisan lens, but even so the opinion-makers who say that the President’s inexperience is a liability are definitely making a compelling case.
Whether he would, if he had held previous office, been considered by the voters for the presidency is a moot point. If he had held previous office and made decisions such as the one to ram through the organic fertiliser policy in one go without phasing it out, voters would have had a foretaste of his impulsiveness, and may have kept him out of office.
In this instance, voters had no idea. The President, having not held political office prior to becoming President, had never indicated that he is capable of appointing pardoned convicts such as Duminda Silva to high public office. There was no inkling that he would appoint someone who was also convicted and behind bars, but pardoned, a head of a Presidential Task Force on a matter as important as the country’s personal laws, i.e Muslim law, Thesawalamai law, etc.
Of course, the flip side of it is that those with political experience also made decisions that smacked of impunity. Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed a dubious character who was not a citizen of this country to head the Central Bank, with disastrous consequences.
It’s because of this erratic behaviour of conventional politicians that the people opted for an outsider. But the medicine has proved to be worse than the malady it set out to cure. A good deal of the fundamental (core) principles of governance have been jettisoned, it appears.
To aspire to high office, people feel, for instance, that there are two criteria these days. Either the appointee needs to have done a stint in prison for some egregious crime or written a book praising the president. No amount of merit or efficient public service suffices unless one is not a bad egg, a jail-bird, or a sycophant who wrote a massive tome exalting the president.
The fact is that the current presidency seems to have done serious damage to the notion of the advantage of the outsider. People would be cautious about voting for any future political outsider in electoral outings to come, because of the current experience.
This is a pity. Totally inexperienced or relatively inexperienced politicians have done well in the past, and these may include Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, depending on where a person is located on the political spectrum. Some may consider Mrs. Bandaranaike to have been a good politician, and some may not.
History records that great US presidents such as Abraham Lincoln were relatively inexperienced and, of course, many such as Dwight Eisenhower, Herbert Hoover, and Donald Trump had no previous political experience whatsoever. Imran Khan, the current Prime Minister of Pakistan, had no previous experience in political office, though he was a politician for a long time, albeit on the losing side.
The quest for an outsider comes particularly at any time people lose faith in the political process, and there is disenchanted and partisan rancor among the major political players. It’s why Trump was able to emerge from nowhere as an answer to the acrimonious politics that surrounded the Obama era.
Losing faith in the political outsider, therefore, doesn’t necessarily bode well, but it seems the Sri Lankan voters burnt their fingers trying out a neophyte. Now, after two years of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President, the refrain seems to be that a politician has to be experienced and should have had some sort of previous management record in political office, such as ministerial office or as chief minister of a province.
If the transformation in the political culture of considering an outsider for political office fell in a heap due to the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that’s a pity, as in the future, there may be many outsiders who make the cut. But now they may find entry into politics after the bad experience many people are complaining about having elected the current President, whose actions are often considered beyond the pale such as the appointment of Ven. Gnanasara Thera to the Task Force, which are seen as emblematic of the unpredictability of the political neophyte.
People had already lost faith in the probity and integrity of politicians, which is why they elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They thought, here was a man with some integrity, because after all there was a no-nonsense air about him. But what he has done is to further erode people’s faith in the integrity and probity of politicians. As stated earlier, the young and impressionable may fight each other to become bad eggs or jail-birds in the future because they would begin to see that as a ticket to high office.
The effects of such erosion of moral standards are incalculable. Public standards of morality deteriorate, and the President cannot claim he is not corrupt as he had done recently. He may be uncorrupted in money terms because he has not diddled state funds.
But the appointment of convicted individuals to public office has the reek of corruption that goes with it; such acts, even if they are not strictly defined as “corrupt”, are certainly venal. So those who had expectations of integrity from a political outsider have had it all turn topsy turvy, and it may take a long time for people to regain their faith in any type of political actor – insider or outsider, politician veteran, or neophyte.
Worse, it can have an effect on people’s faith in democracy in general. It’s when democracy fails that tyrants emerge and military despots begin staking a claim. The possibility of a political outsider was hitherto seen as an option, but now that too seems to look as if it’s a really bad idea, which means people’s choices are that much more limited. It’s not the outcome people hoped for when they elected Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the man they thought was untainted by politics.
(The writer is a former Editor-in-Chief of three national English language publications and a practising Attorney-at-Law. He is an Editors’ Guild award-winning columnist, and contributing writer and columnist for Nikkei Asian Review and South China Morning Post, while his editorials have been published in The Australian)
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.