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Outsiders and politics

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For weeks, political circles were abuzz with speculation that cricketer Kumar Sangakkara may enter politics. Even though he has categorically dismissed such an event, the discussions surrounding his potential invitation to run for office gives an interesting insight into why political parties and the public may feel that he would be a more attractive candidate than a career politician. 

Non-politicians running for political office is nothing new. Around the world many people, especially successful businessmen, have sought to hold office, sometimes to further their business interests but also because an outside perspective is sometimes an attractive proposition. Perhaps the most famous of such personalities is of course US President Donald Trump, but there were four previous presidents selected without political experience, namely Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Most of these had, however, been appointed to several prominent offices. Hoover’s contributions toward the Treaty of Versailles preceded his appointment as Secretary of Commerce. Taylor, Grant and Eisenhower led US forces to victory in the Mexican–American War, American Civil War and World War II, respectively, each occupying the highest-ranking command post of their time. Donald J. Trump is the group’s sole exception, having never held any public office nor any military position, but was swept into power unexpectedly after he pledged to break bureaucracy and move away from liberal social and economic traditions upheld by the US for decades. 

The rest of the world has seemingly joined in. The Philippines, Venezuela, Turkey, and Hungary all have strongman political leaders, though some of them have political experience. France also elected a president who was seen as an untested political candidate, and the stage seems set for more. Sri Lanka has not gone untouched by these global transitions. Dominant leaders are an attractive prospect when the chips are down, but once elected they do not necessarily strengthen democracy. Sri Lankan voters have previously demonstrated their preference for strongman politicians, and continue to be lured by this possibility. 

On the opposite side of the strongman paradigm are “prestige leaders,” which are broadly defined by political scientists as attractive personalities that are invited into politics. This is commonly done when disappointed masses move away from politics or a political party, and the political hierarchy feel that a prestige leader or at least a candidate would draw people back and make them engage with politics again. This has been seen during previous elections when actresses, cricketers and other celebrities have run for office successfully, but it has not significantly changed the political landscape.

It appears that ahead of crucial presidential and parliamentary elections, the major political parties may resort to the same option. The fact that this has become Sri Lanka’s reality is a sobering one. In January 2015, more than 80% of Sri Lanka’s voters used their franchise at the Presidential Election, but in February 2018 that number had dropped to about 65%, clearly denoting a disinterest in both political parties and the political process. This is a dangerous trend for Sri Lanka’s democracy, and all politicians and political parties must wake up to the fact that a disillusioned public can be the greatest threat to good governance. Repeated scandals, controversies and conflicts within the coalition Government has dented confidence, and incumbency fatigue has become rife. It is up to politicians to get their act together without attempting to use celebrities to draw people back to their corner.

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