It matters who governs

François Hollande (picture Matthieu Riegler / Wikimedia Commons)
François Hollande (picture Matthieu Riegler / Wikimedia Commons)

Politics is not only about policies but also about personalities.  The very best ideas are no good if they are implemented incompetently.  Good leaders are able to recruit the right people to follow them.  And who knows how anyone will react in a crisis?

Voter choice is based on manifestos and policy proposals, but voters will also want to choose the candidates they like best.  How else to explain Boris Johnson?

Two stories from abroad illustrate the point.

Francois Hollande was elected French president in part on the grounds that his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy had demeaned his office.  “When I am President, I will ensure that my behaviour is exemplary every instant,” he said during the final TV debate of the campaign.

But now 600,000 copies of Closer magazine were sold in a weekend containing pictures of President Hollande apparently slipping in and out of his lover’s apartment on a moped.  Is this a shocking breach of national security?  After all, the president has his hands on the launch codes for the force de frappe.  No, not really, but it’s interpreted as a reflection on his character.  He’s not sticking to the things he promised.  That’s also true of his economic recovery.

And across the Atlantic, New Jersey governor, and 2016 Republican presidential hopeful, Chris Christie has to explain away the cause of four days of traffic chaos in the small town of Fort Lee, whose mayor happened to be one of his political opponents.  Traffic jams can happen anywhere, but are rarely preceded by e-mails from political appointees planning them for revenge.

Governor Christie denies all knowledge (having previously revelled in the image of a hands-on manager), but he still has questions to answer.  He is understood to be a man of rages and compulsions (a 25 stone man who cannot control his instincts, who knew?) and political discussion is now about whether those are appropriate character traits for the nation’s commander in chief.  His pragmatic and folksy approach to policies is being eclipsed by his personal behaviour.

The policies of different political parties are getting more and more similar, which means that the search for difference has to look elsewhere.

This is not due to the squeezing out of democracy, but rather to a growing understanding of what does and does not work.  Tax and spending plans increasingly now unite government and opposition rather than divide them, given the implacable force of the bond market and the need to reassure investors.  The skills needed to be a politician are becoming more and more specialised, so that the members of the political class come from similar backgrounds.  What’s left are their personalities.

This has consequences for electoral systems and also for party systems.  And it has consequences for European democracy, too.  If the personality of the president of the European Commission is going to matter more in the future, then so should the voters’ choice of that president.  The current and previous presidents were awarded the post after discussion behind closed doors among the heads of national governments.  Voter choice was largely excluded.

This summer, as the European elections get closer, there is the chance that we ordinary citizens can have a say, too.  The parties will present not just manifestos and policy ideas but also the people they ask us to trust in implementing them.  Personality increasingly counts, and we should be given the choice.

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