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OP-ED: Politicians falling on their own swords

  • Published at 03:05 am July 1st, 2021
Jacob Zuma
Jacob Zuma stands trial for corruption in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa REUTERS

South Africa’s Jacob Zuma is getting his comeuppance, but he isn’t the first political leader to bite the dust

All power is evanescent. All glory approximates twilight beyond the waves of the sea.

With South Africa’s constitutional court ordering former president Jacob Zuma to surrender himself to the police and serve 15 months in prison on charges of corruption, the reminder comes once more to people around the world that the powerful, when they violate the norms of proper social behaviour, will one day bite the dust. 

Politics is a matter of trust, in societies where citizens have the right to elect governments and then vote them out again for reasons of a multiple nature. And politicians, therefore, are seen to be embodiments of probity, lighthouses for their nations. Zuma has clearly failed the test, like so many others before him in diverse regions of the globe. He will now pay the price for his indiscretions.

Among those so many others, is India’s Lalu Prasad Yadav, the powerful former chief minister of the state of Bihar who till recently was serving time in prison for corruption. Before he walked into prison, Lalu was a kingmaker not only in Patna, but in distant Delhi as well. A smooth talker known for his disarming rusticity, he always stayed a step ahead of the law, until the law caught up with him. Democracy, when it functions without interruption and without interference, has a majesty all its own. It has punished Lalu. He is now out on bail.

The power of democracy is fundamentally guaranteed by the weapon it wields, that of a strict adherence to and enforcement of the rule of law. Time was when Alberto Fujimori ruled Peru to the satisfaction of his people. He went after the guerrillas of the Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path, in the process nabbing and jailing their leader, the intellectually-oriented Abimael Guzman. But then came the fall. Accused of massive corruption and presiding over extra-judicial killings in his days in power, Fujimori went to prison, where he has been ever since. His daughter Keiko Fujimori tries, without much of success and with a tainted reputation herself, to become Peru’s president.

Politics does not go with corruption, for where corruption insinuates its way into politics, it is entire societies which are laid low. But, of course, there are those nations, South Korea for instance, where presidents are brought down through impeachment and then tried and sentenced to long prison terms. Park Geun-hye is today serving a 25-year sentence on charges of accepting kickbacks in her days in power. As the daughter of the late military ruler Park Chung-hee, she had begun well, as a refreshing change for South Koreans. But then temptations of a financial nature wormed their way into her politics, ruining her for good.

Arrogance in politics certainly does not lead all politicians to life behind bars, but it does leave them humiliated beyond measure. General Iskandar Mirza, who never concealed his contempt for politicians and politics in 1950s Pakistan (he once threatened to shoot Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani “like a dog”), spent his final years in exile in London managing a restaurant. Ousted by his friend Ayub Khan in October 1958 within days of their having jointly imposed martial law in the country, he died in November 1969. The Pakistani authorities would not let him be buried in Pakistan. He was interred in Tehran. Ironically, the dictatorial Shah who permitted him a decent burial was himself hounded out of Iran by the Islamic revolutionaries and died in Cairo, where he lies buried.

With Zuma going to jail, the eyes of the world will be on Israel, where the just ousted prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a slew of corruption cases. It is quite likely that the prosecution will deliver a stinging blow to him, enough to convince the judiciary that the man needs to be put away for a long time. Netanyahu will need sheer luck to avoid donning prison raiment if and when the judgment goes against him. In Brazil, the judiciary ruled against former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva a few years ago in a corruption case he says was politically motivated. He is now out, for the moment, until such time as he is formally acquitted of all charges. Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff was impeached by Brazil’s parliament in 2016 on corruption charges and removed from office. 

With federal officials investigating questionable doings in Donald Trump’s business organization, there is quite the likelihood that he will be hauled to court over such issues as avoiding payments of taxes. For years he has cleverly protected himself from prosecution through such lawyers as Rudy Giuliani, who himself is under a cloud. If Trump is disciplined by the law, even if he does not go to prison, it will bring to an end the nuisance he has consistently personified in American politics. 

And let it not be forgotten that political corruption brought down Richard Nixon in 1974. Had his successor Gerald Ford not pardoned him, Nixon would have been tried in court and certainly sentenced to a long jail term for his violations of the law as president.

All political power, at the end of the day, is a mirage. All glory passes into nothingness when politicians fall on their own swords. The story of France’s Nicolas Sarkozy is a story of falling standards, depressing in its depths of gathering darkness. In the Soviet Union following Joseph Stalin’s death in March 1953, Lavrentiy Beria, the powerful KGB chief responsible for the murder of politicians and intellectuals at Stalin’s behest, was tried, sentenced to death in summary proceedings, and executed. He thus had his comeuppance.

These tales, together with the fate awaiting Jacob Zuma, should be a loud ringing of the bell for political leaders, around the globe, whose grasping nature and indulgence of cronyism, whose good cheer in the company of toadies and hangers-on makes them impervious to what might be in the times ahead.

The sun sets for everyone every day. For corrupt and hubristic and insensitive political beings, it sinks fast, never to rise again. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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