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Incompetence to practice politics

Ecuador and Peru are possibly the two Latin American countries currently going through the most delicate moment in terms of democracy. While Ecuador is immersed in an impeachment process against its president, Peru is languishing after the political crisis of December 2022, which led to the president’s imprisonment. These two countries, moreover, have accumulated seven and four interruptions, respectively, in the presidential term since 1985, and their democracy index, recently elaborated by The Economist Intelligence Unit, shows the worst value in the data series that began in 2006.

The academy focuses the explanations for the success or, in these cases, the failure of the politics, on facts that occur in three types of areas. The first one is related to issues that are linked to institutional design. In this case, the form of government, whether presidential or parliamentary, with its different nuances, is most significant, without forgetting aspects related to the levels of decentralization or to the existing electoral and partisan legislation. The second one refers to the capacity of politics to face (and solve) problems that people consider peremptory. Lastly, there are structural conditioning factors in the societal and cultural framework that can hinder the exercise of politics due to the deep burden of inequality that they historically carry.

However, there is a certain negligence in bearing in mind the explanatory character that people who hold positions of responsibility in the conduct of politics have on the quality of the policy-making process. The dimension of competence as expertise, aptitude or suitability to do something is ignored by the all-powerful and legitimizing character of elections. The elected person receives, without further ado, the unrestricted mandate of the ballot box to carry out the proposal this person made to the electorate.

The presidents elected in Ecuador and Peru in 2021, Guillermo Lasso and Pedro Castillo, respectively, are two good case studies, if one follows the path outlined by Plutarch in Parallel Lives. Castillo lost power and plunged the country into a serious political crisis, and Lasso may lose it in the coming weeks,  either because the impeachment trial against him advances or because he calls early elections. Yet, he has also led the country to an unquestionable scenario of degradation.

Both come from opposite political backgrounds. Likewise, their individual profiles are very different in terms of their personal trajectories and the context in which they began their careers. Nevertheless, a factor that unites them and is not always reflected in political analysis, although it is in both cases in the journalistic chronicle: incompetence.

It is shocking that when trying to understand the reasons for a failure, the emphasis is placed exclusively on organizational or procedural factors, leaving aside those related to the person who led the action: Experience, knowledge, communication skills, empathy, character, integrity and health are all elements that shape those who will assume the responsibility of command in the public sphere.

All this establishes a set of skills and knowledge. These are components required in any profession, understood as a task to which time and effort are dedicated with remuneration in return, and which in the field of politics also involves the use of power for a certain purpose.

Nikki Haley, born in 1972, former Republican governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the United Nations during Donald Trump’s administration, has recently proposed that politicians should be tested for mental and cognitive competence as soon as they turn 75. Although her idea has a clear militant component against President Joe Biden, as well as the fact that she herself is currently competing with Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, it is nonetheless remarkable, albeit a very limited and paradoxical mechanism.

The relevance lies in understanding that there is a need for politicians to undergo certain types of exams to evaluate their level of qualification for the position, but why link them to their age? Does age alone influence mental and cognitive competence? The permanent nonsense in the action of the Government, the lack of any plan in this regard, the inability to argue coherently in public for a short period of time, the ignorance of notorious, essential, day-to-day issues, the lack of sensitivity to the suffering and the absence of values manifestly permeate the behavior of part of the political class without anyone seeming to object to anything, and assuming only arguments to justify distrust and discredit.

The democratic creed predicts that anyone, with the only limitation of the age of majority and not being interdicted by a judicial decision, can run for election. However, it would seem that the satisfaction of the responsibility inherent in the exercise of power requires a brake on incompetence.

The problem, though, resides in constituting both the parameters that define it, along the lines of the aforementioned elements, and the independent agency that could determine it. This should not prevent the incompetence of Pedro Castillo and Guillermo Lasso, as well as other members of the political class, from being an issue that open society must address without delay.

*Translated from Spanish by Micaela Machado Rodrigues  


Otros artículos del autor

Profesor Emérito de la Universidad de Salamanca y de la UPB (Medellín). Últimos libros publicados (2020): “El oficio de político” (2ª ed., Tecnos, Madrid) y coordinado con Mercedes García Montero y Asbel Bohigues (2024): “Elecciones en América Latina: de pandemia y de derrotas (2020-2023)”, (Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales. Madrid)


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