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Why do people run for political office, to serve or to be served?

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 10 June 2016 00:00



Dudley Shelton Senanayake (19 June 1911 – 13 April 1973) was the second Prime Minister of Ceylon. Senanayake was an unassuming man who led his people and ruled the country not for his personal benefit but out of a sense of duty. 

Dudley in the sixties was invited as the Chief Guest for the University of Ceylon (Peradeniya) Convocation to award degrees/certificates. The unassuming Head of State arrived well before the scheduled time for the Convocation with just the driver and a constable and parked his car under a tree close to the Peradeniya junction and waited till the time was up to proceed with his journey to the campus. 5

In contrast, today we have a Government that allocates Rs. 140 million to two Ministers to purchase two vehicles. Another Rs. 98 million for two more Ministers and Rs. 91 million for two cars for a Cabinet and a Deputy Minister. The total allocation, a whopping Rs. 1.17 billion to purchase vehicles for Ministers. 

Ministers are also entitled to generous duty free permits and given that more and more taxes have been recently heaped on the public, giving additional tax-free vehicles to Ministers does not augur well for a Government that promised Yahapalanaya from day one.

While we all know good vehicles have to be given to Ministers and their bodyguards because of the difficult terrain in some areas of Sri Lanka where they have to travel, still it would be good to follow a transparent vehicle formula like what is practiced in some progressive countries that determines what kind of vehicles will be given to MPs and Ministers.



A Professor of Management at a seminar on leadership in the US asked why people run for the post of President – Is it for power or to do good? He said, “Take a look at Barack Obama before he became President and now. You will notice how much he has aged.” 

Therefore, he said, firstly, running for president is very tough, and then secondly, actually being president is even more difficult. Because one needs a special set of skills and competencies to play an effective role and survive in office.

Yet he observed that politicians are lining up around the block to consider bids for the presidential nomination in 2016. They’re looking at months of constant public speaking, travel, relentless fundraising and sort of close scrutiny of their personal lives, and have to be guarded in what they say to prevent an offhand comment turning into a career-killing gaffe, all for the opportunity to be held responsible for crises, from managing the economy to providing security for the citizens of the country. Therefore, given that, the presidency is one of the most stressful and thankless jobs in the world. 

In most cases they are already millionaires, so he concluded that it couldn’t be for the money, it has to be for the power, or to be a part of history and the love for the country. He further pointed out that in the developed world the motivation of those contesting for top posts would be very different to the motivation of those contesting for power in developing countries.


Why do they actually run?

Therefore, why do people actually run for political office? Let’s count the reasons. I could think of several reasons.

For starters, nearly everybody says they run to address the nation’s most pressing problems, for some it is the family business, for some to boost their brand and to change the country’s direction and for some to make history and to make a point. Beyond that are a combination of other factors; personal and political. And some candidates run for political office for reasons other than actually getting the job. It’s an office where you can change a lot of things and do a lot of things that you think are important and I therefore think power is the attraction. 

Recognition and power is certainly an incredible motivation to any person. For some it could be the belief that the person running for high office has something special to offer the country in terms of the ultimate level of leadership, skills and qualifications and service, and the belief that he or she can do the job and make a big difference for their fellow citizens.



Often people ask why a person would run for a job that often pays less than the candidate is now earning (say in the case of many US presidents). Others ask why someone would spend many times more to campaign for an office that pays less than it costs to acquire it.

The answer is that there as many reasons as there are candidates. Some of the often-cited reasons are change to the social status, money, power, influence and lack of good candidates. Of course, most candidates will say that they are running because they want to make the country they live in, a better place. There are some candidates who just love politics, having been perennial volunteers and now see an opportunity to run. 

To me the top two reasons that must spur politicians to run for a political office in a country like ours should be:

a) Because they truly believe they have the skills and passion that can make a big difference to the people they hope to serve

B) Because they deeply care for the wellbeing of the country and their people

Therefore, in the final analysis, given the challenges we face as a country today, the window of opportunity to reform our political culture and manage the painful political reform in an acceptable manner to the public still lies with President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, two men who deeply care about the country and have outstanding ability to do good for the country and restore Sri Lanka to its rightful place in the world once more.

(The writer is an HR Thought Leader.)

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