Newbies in the House

Ukraine is now a hot topic in international news due to the historic victory of comedian Volodymyr Zelensky in its Presidential elections. The 41-year old will be Ukraine’s youngest President, with a sweeping victory that comprised 73% of the vote share. The star of The Servant of the People sitcom got the chance of a lifetime as he transitioned from the ‘reel’ to the ‘real’. Zelensky has often been referred to as the ‘Ukrainian Trump’, precisely because of him being a political novice and acquiring the highest public office. With Trump and Zelensky around, the big question is what do the ‘newbies’ have in store for international diplomacy and the world order.

A possible implication could be a newer perspective to domestic as well as foreign politics. In an interview in December 2018, Zelensky stressed on ending the ongoing War in Donbass by negotiating with Russia. This is in stark contrast to the policy steered by the previous President Petro Poroshenko. Moreover, his election campaign targeted voters online, and through social media, ditching conventional campaigning in the form of rallies and interviews. His experiments did bear fruit as he emerged victorious, becoming the youngest President in the history of the nation. Similarly, Trump’s somewhat right-wing nationalist construct had significant impacts on both the domestic and international front. His ‘America First’ policy stood diametrically opposed to the longstanding pro-globalisation policy. And his silent acquiescence to white supremacists and major disregard for feminist movements have challenged the American ideals of inclusiveness and equality.

One would believe a political neophyte brings fresher waves in the working of the bureaucracy. Their ideas, derived from their work experience in a non-government sector, bring in a newer set of work ethics, for better or for worse. The Ukrainians voted for Zelensky because of his promise to fight corruption, which seemed unlikely with the ‘oligarch’ Poroshenko. One of Zelensky’s prominent poll promises was of crowdsourcing important appointments and policies, making the administrative setup truly democratic. This may be a groundbreaking idea, given that the public sector universally suffers from elitism and is blamed for poor transparency in its functioning. Trump’s official economic advisors have included the elites of business and finance, with negligible government or academic experience. The appointments are justified by the fact that big names of the private sector have much more practical exposure to real-life business and economics over academicians. While the impact of these changes is yet to be assessed, this could be an excellent case study for public sectors across the globe to emulate–if it really shakes things up.

Newbies put forward an interesting opportunity for governments: new strategic alliances can be forged and existing alliances can go for a toss. In Trump’s case, we have witnessed the case of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the withdrawal of the US from the Deal heightened tensions with the pro-deal European Union. In addition, both are engaged in a tussle over defense spending on NATO. Reportedly, Trump plans to withdraw from the military body in 2019. This would strike a blow to the partnership that carried out ambitious missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libya. Moreover, the President’s soft-corner for Kremlin, in the face of Mueller investigation has raised many eyebrows. In our Ukrainian protagonist’s case, the hypothesis of radical foreign policy changes cannot be rejected, given his willingness to also “make a deal” with Russia.

Another interesting feature about the working of newbies is that as they begin their work, they start with a clean slate: no prior experience of governance. This can be a boon, which can result in out-of-the box and creative solutions to administrative bottlenecks. This can further refine relationships between the executive, judiciary and legislature. Political newbies enjoy a unique advantage over their politically-active counterparts—they have no track record. It may not make sense at the first go, but is, in fact, a great strength. People have known the latter for quite a long time, a career politician’s ideologies and way of working are constantly exposed to the public eye. Anti-incumbency is easy to creep in and vote swings are common. However, a novice is judged by his intent, not past performance. In most of these cases, people would prefer to give the new face with promising plans a chance. Zelensky won because of this psychological phenomenon. As did Trump with his firebrand nationalist rhetoric.

Donald Trump was inaugurated as President in January 2017. More than two years have passed by, with an eventful international arena. From trade wars with China to the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, there has been a lot the world order has had to process. President Trump has been criticised for his thoughtless and confrontational foreign policy. The decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem has been seen as an appeal to the Jewish vote bank, that Trump seems to enjoy back home. The US pulled out of UNESCO in January 2019, in protest of the organisation’s ‘Anti-Israel’ bias. Failure of the Second Peace Talks with North Korea in Vietnam also points to the same confrontational design that his policies have been accused of. But, admittedly, the political newbie has brought tremors and movements to world politics that have not been since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Emmanuel Macron, another political novice was elected as the President of France in 2017. He is the founder of the political movement “En Marche!”, and won against the right-wing Marine Le Pen. As opposed to Trump, Macron’s foreign policy has been observed as ‘accommodative’ and ‘cooperative’. From Climate Change to a secure Indo-Pacific, Macron has been known for his decisive contribution to international diplomacy. However, at the domestic front, he has faced a backlash in the form of Yellow Vest Protests against high taxes on Gasoline. In December 2018, his approval ratings fell to 23%, following the poor handling of the Protests.

It wouldn’t be unwise to say that the political movements across the world have nothing specifically to do with the age and the field of the leader. Leaders can emerge from all walks of life. From the victory of Zelensky, a comedian, to Imran Khan changing the pitch from cricket to politics, the newbies have been quite successful in their endeavours. It might just have to do with the fact that there are always limitations to imagination and career politicians get stale after a point of time. The aspirations of this generation lie with the hope of a faster system and a transparent one. People from the other side of the spectrum are often required to remind the ‘grey-haired’ dinosaurs of what the society really wants.


Gurleen Kaur

I am a second year student pursuing Economics(H) from Delhi University. I am deeply interested in short stories in Punjabi and Sufi Poetry of Bulleh Shah. An environmentalist at heart, I firmly believe in building a sustainable society.

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