Positive political leadership

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By Prof John Harbeson

I confess that in writing about matters bearing on Kenya’s politics and development and the continent more generally, on several occasions I have realised that I have in effect been writing with my own country in mind at the same time. That has been especially the case this past month as, along with many in my own country I have been thinking about political leadership. The passing of a distinguished US Senator, John McCain, and former president George H. W. Bush, for neither of whom did I vote, has reminded me how critical quality political leadership is to the health and sustainability of democracy.

There has been a great deal of handwringing over the past few years about democratic stagnation and retreat. There’s a large and growing library about its causes. What there has not been in the academy or in policymaking circles, to my knowledge, is articulation of what it takes to sustain democracy over the long term, or what is most important in strengthening new and fragile democracies so they are sustainable over the long term. At the same time, it is important to recognise events and circumstances which, if not overcome, can prove fatal to even the strongest democracies as well as the more fragile ones.

My hypothesis is that the dimensions of political leadership needed to sustain democracy have been underestimated in much of the academic and policy literature on democracy. The focus on reasons for democratic backsliding have focused on lack of political leadership, but too narrowly in my view. On the one hand, democracy has suffered most clearly in countries where presidents or prime ministers have slammed critical media and/or have taken steps to restrict the associational freedom by restricting civil society groups, even those whose work assists governments in humanitarian relief and development promotion.

Presidents have sought to work around two-term limits, notwithstanding the singular popularity of these limits with the voters. Systemic corruption has been a major reason why many democracies, including Kenya, have remained only partially free and democratic. There is some evidence that the quality of elections has improved in sub-Saharan Africa, but instances of Executive intimidation and outright authoritarian abuse abound. Of course, this catalogue of executive branch abuses applies to countries that have taken some steps toward democracy, and excludes those where authoritarian rule remains firmly in place.
On the other hand, too little attention has been paid to the positive qualities of leadership that are required to sustain democracy and enable to weather the most systemic threats to its viability, particularly but by no means exclusively in newer democracies.

Most important of all, I suggest, is deep civic commitment on the part of presidents and prime ministers to the democracies over which they preside, a commitment to the health and well-being of the democracies over which they preside that supersedes in importance all partisan conflict.

Second, commitment not only to country but to democracy over all other considerations entails both a capacity to anticipate long term threats to democracy and political stability implicit in current policy disputes and debates and a willingness and determination to address them before they actually emerge. One of the fundamental principles of liberal democratic theory is the importance of foregoing short-term gratifications in such a way that larger benefits accrue in the long term.

Putting the health of a democratic system first, over all other considerations and anticipating long term threats to democracy implicit in near term policy issues and conflict lead to a resulting third essential positive leadership quality required of those who would lead their countries, is the willingness and capacity to stand on principle at personal and political cost when situations arise that demand it.

Finally, a fourth essential leadership quality needed to sustain democracy is the capacity to compromise. Leaders with the foregoing qualities needed to recognise others who share these same qualities, especially those who have principled differences with them. Basic human respect for one another, should animate these principled’ leaders’ willingness to broker and compromise on these differences. This is especially applicable to the heads of the traditional three arms of government.

These mutually reinforcing qualities of positive leadership seem to me to be at least important to sustaining and advancing democratic governances as is an absence of the negative qualities evident in democratic backsliding. I mention no names, but as I reflect on the quality of democracy in our time, the presence of both these positive political leadership qualities as well as the absence of the negative help to explain the survival of newer democracies as well as older ones.

No guarantees, course. Exemplars of positive political leadership have been overridden and outridden in lengthy periods in which practitioners of negative leadership have prevailed. But I would maintain that few democracies have proven viable and sustainable without some noteworthy demonstrations of positive political leadership at critical periods in a country’s political development.(

– The writer is a professor of Political Science Emeritus as well as a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

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