On 22nd September, a court in the eastern city of Jinan, China, sentenced Mr Bo Xilai to life imprisonment.
Before that, he was a prominent leader of China’s Politburo, a flamboyant and populist leader held high in esteem by his provincial followers for his admiration of Maoism. He was tipped to become the next chief of the party and hence, the next supreme leader of the country. This was becoming an increasing source of worry to the other party leaders.
Things started unfolding differently for him soon after. First, his wife was taken in on the accusation that she would have conspired to have a British businessman with whom she had business dealings killed. It was one of Mr Bo Xilai’s lieutenants, Mr Wang, who implicated her in the killing, before rushing into the American consulate in Chengdu to seek asylum. She was the first to be tried and sentenced.
Political regimes make no difference to the extent of abuse by politicians
Testimonies obtained from her were levelled against Mr Bo Xilai to hurl accusations of corruption involving huge sums of money and the purchase with unaccounted-for money of a luxury property in the south of France. It is on these charges of corruption that the severe sentence was pronounced against him despite the spirited defence he put up. The court ordered all his assets to be seized and all his political rights to be revoked. It is unlikely his appeal against the life imprisonment will be upheld and it is also unlikely he will stand in the way of the newly appointed top seven delegates in the National People’s Congress for the rest of their 10-year term.
One would have thought that the top of China’s political hierarchy would be far removed from alleged abuse of power as the ones Mr Bo Xilai was accused of. That would be further from the truth. Compare the situation of politicians in China and America. In the US, the 50 richest members of the Congress are worth $1.6 billion altogether; in China, the 50 richest delegates to the National People’s Congress are worth $94.7 billion. The wealth of the richest man in the American Congress, Darrell Issa, is estimated at around $355 million; the wealth of China’s richest delegate, Zong Qinghou, is $19 billion. American politicians are paupers compared with their Chinese counterparts.
Running away with ill-gotten wealth while there is still time
From the Middle East to the Far East, going through Africa, regimes are believed to be consolidating their own wealth, influence and power. The longer they stay in position, the more they are believed to be amassing thick layers of wealth to themselves. It was in Tunisia, the first place where the Arab Spring burst out, that some members of the outgoing dictatorship were stopped at the airport with several suitcases full up with money and ready to depart the country, the moment the revolution started looking unstoppable.
It will be recalled that the Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi, India, were also the occasion when allegations of rampant corruption by some who had been in charge of organizing the Games, broke out in broad daylight. This brought shame upon India’s political leaders at a time India was in the glare of international publicity. The matter did not stop there. Thanks to disclosures made of sales for peanuts of 2G and 3G spectrums, as brought out in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, a huge cloud of corruption started hovering over the heads of certain members of the Indian political class who appear to have indulged themselves in other public contracts, notably in the allocation of coal mines to cronies and to persons of not the highest integrity.
Where politicians arrange to whom power should go
In Russia, the system of repression against those who point fingers at abusive powers exercised by those in control leads to prison. Two of the Pussy Riots, a musical group, who protested in their songs about Mr Putin’s iron hand over the levers of politics, are in prison. Others like the one who was tipped to become the Mayor of Moscow was not only jailed at first but then released on bail to be allowed to contest the mayoral elections for Moscow only to lose. Circumstances were such that he failed to qualify even for the second round of run-off since Mr Putin’s candidate to the post managed to get just over the 50% of the votes cast, enough to avoid facing up to a run-off, Quod erat demonstrandum.
What has been going on in Zimbabwe for decades now, in an alliance between the perpetual president of the country and the all-powerful repressive bosses of the army, forms part of the same schemes of action we see in several other countries. It makes no difference whether the regimes call themselves democratic, socialist, communist or military. The same temptation to grab power and money cohabit with different sorts of regimes all over the world.
It is not a coincidence that peoples all over the world appear to be fed up with their politicians. In several countries, including in the West, they’ve been changing political leaders in the hope someone better and having a higher level of integrity and skill at managing national affairs equitably would replace them. Francois Hollande came as a protest against the defiant attitude, arrogance and liberalist postures taken by Nicolas Sarkozy. Francois Hollande is today at one of the lowest positions in opinion polls among France’s presidents. People breathed a sigh of relief when Tony Blair was made to go under pressure from within the ranks of the party. Even this was not enough to remove the New Labour from power altogether. It looks like the turn of Tony Blair to go under is fast approaching.
What direction should a changeover take?
What then should be done to give back to politics its golden credentials of the past? For, it is not true that it is the economic depression that has lasted over the past 5 years that is causing the growing disaffection of peoples with their political leaders. People are gradually coming to know about the garnering of private wealth by past politicians who have been out of power since long. It leaves a bitter taste.
There are also countries which have been doing very well, economically speaking, whose leaders are also not held in high esteem anymore. The honeymoon proved in their cases to be of short duration. It is difficult to write down and enforce a code of conduct for the political class which is almost all the time busy giving codes of conduct to all others barring itself. By the time it is found out that it has transgressed the rules of proper behaviour, it is too late. The harm has already been done… to its advantage.
No matter how bad politicians can be, a country needs a political class to guide its affairs and take decisions at the national and international levels on its behalf. The governing political establishment has to be in place. It is supposed to be governing according to “democratic” rules. However, there are variances in what is understood as being democratic in different climes and countries. Some, as in Switzerland, are better in practice, in fact, much better as compared with their equally “democratic peers”, say in Zimbabwe.
The best that can be done is to push for governments which come closer to real-time transparency in the course of their mandates. Those politicians who are inclined to run the affairs of the country with a broader element of consensus should be approved of in preference to all others. It may take some time to reach this point, given the widespread abuses of power we see across the entire spectrum. But the direction to be taken in terms of popular choice – notably towards greater real-time accountability, consensus-seeking and transparency in dealings – should now be clear.
* Published in print edition on 4 October 2013