Apr 16th 2009
Why mediocrity flourishes and will only thrive further
POLITICAL freedom means that rulers tremble when voters grumble. Fine. But a healthy political system also needs an opposition that is able and willing to take power.
On that score, the outlook in post-communist countries looks rather bleak. Few have what sport journalists call a “long bench”—meaning a plentiful supply of substitutes who can take the field when the first lot of players are injured, exhausted or overwhelmed.
Hungary’s ex-communist rulers, for example, were dire, and a caretaker prime minister, Gordon Banjai (pictured below, foreground) has now taken over. But it requires quite a leap of faith to think that the likely winners in next year's election, the right-of-centre politicians of Fidesz, led by the volatile and idiosyncratic Viktor Orban, will be much better.
The same goes for the Czech Republic, where what should have been six months of glory running the EU has turned into a farce that disgraces everyone. In Latvia, almost all competent politicians (and some incompetent ones) are deployed on the pitch already. If the economic collapse overwhelms them, who will take their place?
Even countries with talented individual personalities in public life cannot necessarily say that they have a strong, credible opposition. Latvia has excellent journalists, NGO-niks and civil servants—but none of them are warmed up and ready to play on the political field. And individuals, even fit and ambitious ones, don’t make a team. Georgia’s opposition leaders are seasoned and eloquent. They have all, for reasons good and bad, quarrelled with the headstrong president Mikheil Saakashvili and want him to step down. But little else unites them.
So far, political systems across the post-communist world have done a poor job of ventilating pressing political issues, such as sharing the pain of the economic downturn. What will happen to firms and households in, say, Hungary or Romania, who have borrowed in euros and Swiss francs, and now cannot repay their loans? Should governments force foreign banks to reschedule the debts? Will taxpayers help? Or will the market and the legal system be left to take their course? If responsible politicians don’t discuss this, then irresponsible ones will.
Public figures in or close to politics who could credibly run the country are easy to spot in the biggest and the smallest of the new EU member states. Some of them, such as Leszek Balcerowicz or Mart Laar (ex-Polish finance minister and former Estonian prime minister respectively) even have international reputations. They may be the most conspicuous figures, but other impressive potential players are lurking near the substitutes’ bench, their kit already packed in their sports bags. Poland has heavyweight regional politicians, such as the mayor of Wroclaw, Rafal Dutkiewicz; Estonia has a crop of top-quality serving and former public officials, the fruit of the modernisation of public administration in the 1990s.
But for the most part, in most countries, the ebb and flow of sleaze, cynicism and apathy over the past ten years has washed talent out of the political system, while mediocrity has flourished.
Now the downturn makes the political game look even less attractive: bruising economic misery may be a fine spectacle, but it is not particularly tempting for participants. It is a good time to have a sinecure in academia, in a think-tank, or (best) in an international bureaucracy. But taking office means taking responsibility, at a time when even the most inspired political leadership may not bring much in the way of results. Fancy explaining to bewildered and resentful voters that their savings, jobs and hopes for the future are imperilled and that nothing much can be done about it? Please form an orderly queue.
Thursday, April 16, 2009