Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Leadership under Siege

As I watched the late news yesterday, I saw the beleaguered Japanese Prime Minister Aso walk from here to there, surrounded by aides, looking very troubled and unable to disguise his agonies and thoughts behind an opaque shroud. It is a sad picture is it not, when a (soon to be) defeated politician has to soldier on, and continue to fight a lost cause, trying to salvage what remains amidst the wreckage of a lost career. It reminded me of 1997, when I took a break from my doctoral research to watch the Conservatives in the UK mount a lacklustre, disorganised and ultimately unsuccessful campaign against Tony Blair and his rampaging New Labourites. This was a humiliating loss, and a life-defining setback for John Major and what little that remained of the Conservative parliamentary party. There are more current examples - notably Gordon Brown fighting for his own political future as leader of the Labour Party in June this year, amidst a flurry of cabinet resignations, and a parliamentary expenses scandal that has left the British Democracy damaged, possibly irreparably. Who can also forget the former Malaysian Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, who had to resign a year after his UMNO party suffered its worst-ever poll results, and the ruling coalition was left without even a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Internal party feuds, the failure to deliver key promises (such as the eradication of corruption, strengthening of the police and other services, etc) and also a strong dissent by Abdullah Badawi’s predecessor contributed to the steady disintegration of leadership before our eyes. Of course when looking at leadership that comes under siege, there is much that goes on behind the scenes that will neither be known nor articulated. If I may proffer a personal viewpoint as a lay observer, people have become cynical of leadership. We expect a great deal from our leaders, especially during an economic downturn. Factors that turn voters away include rising costs, the size of the bureaucracy, and government waste. Educated voters are tired of ‘spin’. There is no way to play down a bad message. Reality should rule. Even longstanding political parties with track records are not immune to setbacks. The LDP in Japan has been in power for 53 years, and indications are that come August it will lose the snap elections called by Prime Minister Aso. Yet the LDP is also seemingly entrenched, with its strong traditional links to Japanese business and the bureaucracy. With the onset of new media, and alternative platforms for message dissemination, it may also be that charisma and visage are complementary qualities to the sheer ability to organise, command, control and get things done. New media will not lie, and internet access permits the rigorous scrutiny of integrity and character. The mobile phone camera, when deployed spontaneously, may be a potent source of validation and endorsement for any leader. It can also be the most unforgiving scourge. Contrary to how politicians of yesteryear may think, it would appear that great political capital will also be harnessed from the ability to communicate and articulate with clarity, resonance, and sureness of purpose. Look at the US President. Advice to Prime Minister Aso - if you look defeated, you are.

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