Political leaders are such an unrewarding species. No matter how successful they may appear, a single incident can instantly destroy their political life. The COVID-19 outbreak is a perfect example. No matter how hard they try to maneuver, it is political orthodoxy that ultimately matters in politics.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was badly criticized for being “invisible” until late last week. Japan failed to contain the outbreak at its borders and is now trying to curb domestic infections. Abe had to call a news conference on Saturday to seek public support for his fight against the virus with a big emergency economic package.
The prime minister is desperately trying to sell a series of unpopular but logically inevitable drastic measures to the public to minimize the damage to the nation. No one knows whether he will succeed but the difficulty is that, unlike in China, Abe has to sell the measures via a transparent, democratic process.
Similarly, until last Friday U.S. President Donald Trump was complaining that the Democrats were “politicizing the virus as a hoax” to damage his presidency. On Saturday, however, Trump held a second news conference to claim that “there’s no reason to panic at all” since it “is being handled professionally.”
Of course, Abe and Trump aren’t exceptions. The rapid spread of the new coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has politically endangered the presidents of South Korea and China. Political leaders in Italy, Iran, Egypt, Southeast Asia and the rest of the world are also feeling the heat.
In U.S. politics, another event that might instantly change the race for the Democratic presidential candidacy took place over the weekend when former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden won a sweeping victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary. Two week ago in the Nevada Democratic caucuses he looked like a zombie. Now he looks quite confident and presidential. What a difference a victory can make.
Although Biden’s single victory in South Carolina isn’t guaranteed to impact the March 3 Super Tuesday contests, he reminded us of the importance of dignity, decency, respect, empathy and concern for others. They are, in other words, the orthodoxy in political leadership.
Some medical experts predict that the COVID-19 outbreak is becoming a global pandemic. They say it could be a matter of months, if not weeks, for millions of people to become infected. If their prediction comes true, no incumbent political leaders will be free from criticism that they failed to prevent the disease from spreading all over their countries. Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Abe, Trump and many other leaders will be doomed to face such criticism.
Naturally, many world leaders will sooner or later suffer as a result. Some may survive the crisis, while others may not. What is more crucial, therefore, is not to avoid any initial damage, but to persuade, convince and ultimately win the support of the public for drastic unpopular measures that must be taken immediately.
To do this, leaders must have the political skill to show to the people their dignity, honesty, empathy, respect, decency and responsibility as a leader. They have to convince the great majority that they are neither selfish nor partial in dealing with the crisis. They should be able to make the people feel comfortable with their leadership.
If they can’t do that, they are already politically dead. Trump’s rare appearance at two news conferences in a week followed a devastating stock market fall and the first coronavirus-related death in the United States.
Trump’s initial response was to ask the market to buy more stocks without showing any sympathy for the virus victims. This is not the kind of political orthodoxy mentioned above. In Tokyo, Abe’s unexpected call for closing all elementary, junior and high schools across the country for two weeks drew harsh criticism. Pundits complained that his nationwide decision, taken without prior consultation, was too abrupt for schools to fully prepare for.
If what Biden said in his victory speech at South Carolina is right, it is political orthodoxy that ultimately matters in politics. Dignity, honesty, empathy, respect, decency and responsibility continue to matter for the next president of the United States. While winning the people’s trust is difficult, losing it is quite easy. If leaders are considered selfish, partial, dishonest or irresponsible, they can easily lose their credibility in politics.
Although his credibility has been damaged by a series of scandals, Abe is much better positioned than other leaders whose reputations have suffered from the coronavirus outbreak. This is because politically he has much less to lose when taking a chance with drastic emergency measures. In short, Trump is seeking re-election and Moon wants to win the next general election of the parliament. With elections in mind, it is difficult to maintain decency in politics. Abe, however, is free of such concerns.
This is not to suggest that Abe will survive the deadly outbreak politically. There is no denying that the government’s counter-coronavirus measures flip-flopped over the first few weeks. Although this was partly due to the lack of appropriate legislation, it was also caused by bureaucratic red tape.
The point here is that the political orthodoxy has prevailed so far in Japan and Abe will have to abide by it. No matter how lucky he might have been earlier, he may not succeed this time. As Abe often says, “All politics is result-oriented.” Abe has already crossed the Rubicon, whether he likes it or not.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.
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