How attractive is it to be a politician?

Posted on 03. December 2013

by Doris ManuMarta Remacha Recio, Adnan Rahimić

doris-manumarta-remacha-recio-modifiedadnan-rahimic2Imagine twelve people standing on a line. All of them have been asked “how attractive is it to be a politician in your country” and they are answering by their placement on the line: right side means completely attractive, left side means absolutely unappealing. Can you guess where FutureLabbers were placed?

Doris, from Romania, was on the top of the scale. In post-communist Romania, political parties and politicians are generally unpopular, if not demonized due to the high number of revealed corruption cases, and their role as benefactors to the society is disputed. Yet for a significant number of young people being a politician sounds very attractive. The number of those who choose to study political sciences is on the rise, since this field of studies is mistakenly considered to prepare one for a political career. In 2013, no less than 8 candidates competed for one place at the Faculty of Political Sciences of the University of Bucharest, Romania’s biggest and oldest university. The active participation of young Romanians in political parties seems to be soaring as well. If a 2007 Eurobarometer (Young Europeans) estimated that only 1.5% youth under 30 are active in Romanian political parties, this year the estimate stands at 7%. One might rightly ask for what odd reasons are so many young Romanians eager to take the positions of unpopular politicians, and one might find the answer falls within a cost-benefit analysis.

As with most sought-after careers, the attractiveness of a political career in Romania is in its economic benefits. Being a politician is seen as a shortcut to becoming rich without having to work too hard, and there are so many role models to follow on this path, starting with several low-profile and high-profile politicians who are listed in Forbes’ Top 500 Romanian Billionaires. It’s not that the Romanian politicians have the highest wages in the world, but there are mysterious ways to earn a fortune which become known only after one becomes a politician. Even without the perspective of a huge fortune, a different lifestyle definitely comes with the status, including invitations to receptions and dinners, a personal driver, flights in business class, stays in luxurious hotels. All of this sounds too good to most Romanians to give it a try.

Alongside wealth, a political career also brings prestige. So many young people in Romania are in a quest for fame, and apart from those who want to become pop-stars, models and football players, some plan to achieve celebrity by becoming politicians. By seeing their name in the headlines and their face in prime time on TV, they will satisfy their narcissistic needs of affirmation, attention and admiration. Power is also part of the equation. Young people want to place themselves squarely in the camp and to enjoy the relative security that status provides in a society saturated with ranking, in which they are rarely or not at all given a say.

The theory of values will point out that we shouldn’t be surprised since these attitudes of young people in the post-communist world are the norm because these countries have a more materialistic culture. However, as with every norm, there are exceptions as well: the idealist young Romanians who want to make a change. For them, it is attractive to become politicians because they see the need to replace the current ones, to work harder and do things better. They are those who dream of a better world and want to start with creating a better Romania. Why fewer idealists and more opportunists actually make it into the Romanian political scene still remains an open question.

Marta, from Spain, was surprised to find herself alone on the left side. In this country, being a politician is less than attractive. The career is designed to be a dream job: no requirements, no job interview, good wages, great privileges (for example a life annuity after the term of office) and, most important, power. Is this appealing enough? Apparently not: each year the number of students applying to study Political Science at university decreases, “politician” is the job worst rated by children when asked what do they want to be when they grow up, and the profession is in general widely discredited. In fact, the best rated politician in Spain (October 2013) got 4’28 points out of 10.

Spanish people’s perception about their politicians is they are good-for-nothing, incompetent and corrupt. The skepticism increases among youth, and civic movements such as the 15-M (the so-called “Spanish Revolution”) have proved our disappointment towards politicians. Criticizing how all the system has been built, there was no way not to question the figure of the politician itself. Democracy is not representative enough, citizen initiatives have no place, people (and specially the young ones) are not listened, electoral campaign promises are not kept, political parties don’t act according to their supposed ideology but in accordance to lobbies, banks and enterprises’ interests, and a long etcetera. Besides, the crisis has made no-good to the reputation of the political class: unsustainable measures, lack of transparency and cases of corruption revealed by the press have put politicians under the spotlight.

When the Spanish democracy was established (over 25 years ago), a large number of jobs in politics were created and there was a political boost because for the first time people had the right to express freely and to vote. Many people decided then to start a political career, and since a high number of positions were created, it became fairly easy to be part of the political class. How many of them were committed and how many were opportunist remains a question, but their poor skills and corruption had critically damaged the image of political elites as a whole.

Even nowadays, it is quite easy to be a politician, whereas other public functions with similar salaries (doctors, teachers, professors, researchers, civil servants) have a tough process of selection and a better reputation. Equally, wages in the private sector are higher. Consequently, the profession in question is being rejected by the most successful members of society, who prefer to work in other sectors; only people who have failed in other careers decide to give a try to politics.

Is it the problem that the political class is only composed of “the unskilled”? There is compelling evidence that politicians are not that bad-prepared. Contrary to what the Spanish population believes, most of Parliament members and Ministers have gone to University and have a degree in accordance to their function. Besides, the stair to power is full of obstacles, so commitment, ambition and intelligence (or maybe cunning) are required to climb to the top of the ladder. Finally, being a politician is not only about education and technical knowledge, but also about ability of leadership and of understanding the decision-making process. Here is where Spanish politicians fail: their inability to communicate, to discuss in the Parliament, to carry on their propositions or to defend people’s interests have conveyed the image they are not skilled enough to fulfill their mission. In the end, this has provoked a deep disappointment amidst a population who is no longer interested in politics, let alone in becoming a politician.

Opportunism seems to be present as well in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Adnan was placed on the right side, arguing that politics is an appealing profession… only for politicians. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a very complex country as a result of Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the 1990s and of the following aggression that lasted for four years and brought a once strong industrialized country to the starting point of a country in transition.The respected Yugoslavian politicians that originated from what was at that time the Federal Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina were replaced with a generation of non-experienced, power- and interest-driven politicians. It all started in the 1980s, when politicians misusing the perks of their life and their influence, presented their personal interests as national values and perspectives. These ideas guided the masses which brought the country disintegrated. Almost 20 years after the aggression, a similar politics is still present, dividing people by ethnicity and presenting the values of the nations who lived there together for centuries as different. Today’s politics and policies for sustainable development have never been in a worse state, yet those involved have never been in a better position to lead them to more comfortable lives.

The majority of politicians in BH are people who were involved in politics when the aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina happened, and who upgraded their place in politics due to the roles they had at the time, but also through favors and nepotism. They now enjoy the status of “celebrities” who give speeches about prosperity and the future, blaming the others for stagnation whilst covering their inability to work. The work is usually done by the administration, not by them. Instead of providing sustainable policies, their main focus is to represent the “national interest” of the different nations living in the country. Unfortunately, the interests of politicians and those of the people do not usually coincide.

As a consequence of bad policies, nepotism and corruption, nowadays Bosnia and Herzegovina is full of incompetent politicians who were initially driven by economic rewards but lack skills and vocation. So young people who graduate from political sciences chose different careers, they are not interested in politics because current politicians are not the role model they should be. This creates a state of stagnation which affects all parts of the society … except for the politicians.

So, what attracts young people to become politicians? To answer that, we need to look at two different groups of youth. One group of younger people wants quick success and economic benefits – to work less and get rich fast. Also, for some, becoming politician equals becoming a celebrity, which makes one present everywhere and opens every door. This group is material-driven, often forgetting what is the purpose of true politicians. There’s no better time to be an politician in Bosnia and Herzegovina because of the perks that they get: money, influence on people, good car, media exposure, participation in national projects, networking, work places for the family members or exchange for certain services, personal business opportunities and industrial activities. This are the “pro” arguments of those driven by money and without vision for a sustainable future.

The other group is the “still” quiet, but present. Young people of all ethnicities in Bosnia and Herzegovina want to make a change and they see politics as a way to do it by working hard, starting projects for sustainability and removing nepotism as a factor when recruiting people. However, Political Science graduates, including those with a vision of a prosperous country, will have a “thorny” path to their goal without the networks and without family members already in some of the political parties, which usually ends with their decision to give it all up.

What can we conclude about the attractiveness of a political career in Europe? Through the cases of three countries, Spain, Romania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is obvious that the profession is appealing for its economic rewards and it is full of opportunists. Politics is attractive only for those who stand in power, since they are famous, they can easily manipulate the population with moving speeches and they have great privileges, not to mention they can obtain additional benefits. On the contrary, the profession is discredited among those youngsters who are really committed and who feel there is no place for them in the political system. Listening to the people, opening new ways for citizens’ participation, enlarging the representation and improving communication lines seem therefore the main conditions to restore trust in politicians and to ensure only people who have a true engagement to their fellow citizens accede to the profession.