When Jose Mujica stepped down as president, his popularity rating stood at 70% – the highest for any world leader – By TP Saran
How politics is practised in different countries can be a matter of make or break – either construct the country and improve the lives of its people, or destroy both country and people. Given that democracy does not mean the same thing everywhere, since it is the least worse among systems of government, it is therefore the way in which its precepts are used, misused or abused by the politicians who take charge of a country that determines the fate of the country and its citizens. Democratically elected leaders, whether through clean or rigged elections, can soon show their true colours, after perhaps an initial period of pretending to be fulfilling the pledges they made while campaigning.
Given that it has been in the news recently, Zimbabwe is the most glaring example of things gone wrong – although its former president Mugabe started off with much goodwill and promise, before megalomania overtook him and led his country to ruin. Ideals forgotten, his politics became a career instead of remaining a profession as it was at his inception.
In our country, it would seem that the same trend has been apparent for a good while now, with politics being seen as a career with a quick buck in mind rather than a vocation to serve people. As we shall soon be entering into the frenzy of the by-election at Quatre-Bornes, perhaps we ought to learn some lessons from those who have genuinely put into practice the precept that ‘politics is meant to be a humble and honourable profession’.
The most well-known politician who has epitomized this adage is former President Jose Mujica of Uruguay (2010-2015), recognized and cited throughout the world as the example to follow – but nobody does!
When Jose Mujica stepped down as president, his popularity rating stood at 70% – the highest for any world leader. He was not only head of State but also head of government. He refused to live in the presidential palace, because there, he said, if you want a cup of tea you have to walk 200 metres! He therefore preferred to stay in his one-bedroom, one-storey farmhouse, and travelled in his old Volkswagen beetle, which he drove himself. No motor cavalcade for him, no flashing lights.
Compare this to what happened to this writer once, while driving towards the Phoenix roundabout one Saturday afternoon several years ago, keeping to the left side of the road with ample space for any vehicle to overcome, there being little traffic at that time. Suddenly there was the noise of a police siren, and not one but two policemen on their huge cavalcade motorbikes started to wave down and indicate that the car should slow down and go further left! Then the main car whizzed past – and believe you me, it wasn’t event the prime minister, but his wife!!
Which brings to mind another incident that took place a couple of years later, on the road to a zoo about 40 km from Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, by coincidence on a Saturday afternoon as well. Suddenly the taxi driver slowed down and parked the car on the side. Reason: he had seen the presidential motorcade coming from about a km away – which we soon saw too – and informed us that if he did not stop then the frontrunner brigade would not only shoot at the car but shoot to kill!
So the lessons from President Mujica should give us rich food for thought, especially those who aspire to prime ministership or presidency. For a start, besides staying in his farm with no domestic help, and his senator wife doing the cooking and cleaning, and he also pitching in for some house chores, he donated 90 per cent of his salary to charity: he retained only the equivalent of the average wage in Uruguay – $775 (£485) a month. That’s was because, ‘I have a way of life that I don’t change just because I am a president. I earn more than I need, even if it’s not enough for others. For me, it is no sacrifice, it’s a duty.’
He also remarked: ‘I’m called “the poorest president”, but I don’t feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more.’ This must be the best definition of what genuine poverty is: a poverty of mind and heart!
Another remark of his about where he lived showed that he was just not like other politicians: ‘As soon as politicians start climbing up the ladder, they suddenly become kings. I don’t know how it works, but what I do know is that republics came to the world to make sure that no one is more than anyone else. You need a palace, red carpet, a lot of people behind you saying “Yes, sir.” I think all of that is awful.’ Can we think of anyone in our local context who would adopt this attitude?
Besides leaving the economy in good health, he also legalized abortion and gay marriage, and pioneered the legalization of marijuana for practical and not ideological reasons. This has been a very successful endeavour in tacking the drug problem. His logic was that ‘150,000 people smoke [marijuana] here and I couldn’t leave them at the mercy of drugs traffickers. It’s easier to control something if it’s legal and that’s why we’ve done this.’
Not only does he practise the simplicity he preaches, he is also reputed for some down-to-earth quotes which bear powerful messages:
On materialism: ‘We have sacrificed the old immaterial gods, and now we are occupying the temple of the Market-God. He organizes our economy, our politics, our habits, our lives, and even provides us with rates and credit cards and gives us the appearance of happiness. It seems that we have been born only to consume and to consume, and when we can no longer consume, we have a feeling of frustration, and we suffer from poverty, and we are auto-marginalized.’
On global consumption: ‘We can almost recycle everything now. If we lived within our means, by being prudent, the 7 billion people in the world could have everything they needed. Global politics should be moving in that direction. But we think as people and countries, not as a species.’
On redistribution of wealth: ‘Businesses just want to increase their profits; it’s up to the government to make sure they distribute enough of those profits so workers have the money to buy the goods they produce. It’s no mystery — the less poverty, the more commerce. The most important investment we can make is in human resources.’
On being a president: ‘A president is a high-level official who is elected to carry out a function. He is not a king, not a god. He is not the witch doctor of a tribe who knows everything. He is a civil servant. I think the ideal way of living is to live like the vast majority of people whom we attempt to serve and represent.’
On his goals for Uruguay: ‘My goal is to achieve a little less injustice in Uruguay, to help the most vulnerable and to leave behind a political way of thinking, a way of looking at the future that will be passed on and used to move forward. There’s nothing short-term, no victory around the corner. I will not achieve paradise or anything like that. What I want is to fight for the common good to progress. Life slips by. The way to prolong it is for others to continue your work.’
These could equally be the goals of the Prime Minister and the president for Mauritius, why not? As for the motorcade etc., well…
* Published in print edition on 8 December 2017