By Anthony Stonestreet
In recent years it has become increasingly common for individuals from non-political backgrounds to put themselves forward in elections and find a certain amount of success. These people often have a remarkably different career path to more mainstream politicians, but why do these people enter politics and why are they so popular?
On the 30 March 2019, following the second round of the Slovak presidential election, Zuzana Čaputová, from the Progressive Slovakia party, beat her opponent, Maroš Šefčovič, by a margin of 16%. A trained lawyer and NGO campaigner, she is a known face in her local town of Pezinok having led a successful campaign against the creation of a landfill site. This gained her international recognition and she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016. Her widely promoted progressive views combined with her dynamic campaigning style distinguished her from other candidates believed to represent the conservative status quo. It is this status quo Čaputová wants to change.
This profile differs almost entirely from that of Volodymyr Zelensky, who, at the time of writing, is the frontrunner in the Ukrainian presidential election. Originally a screenwriter, actor and director, Zelensky initially rose to prominence for his role in the TV series Servant of the People, where he played a teacher disgruntled with the government. As of March 31 2019, Zelensky holds 30% of the first round votes, virtually the double of the next candidate, who happens to be the current President. Zelensky has frequently presented the same arguments as his fictional counterpart, which became widely popular when a video of him criticizing the government goes viral.
Thus far, they have managed to circumvent the traditional path to power. Given that political support is often founded on the trust between a representative and those who elected them, how does someone who is only accountable to themselves gain such popularity?
These candidates often place themselves as alternatives, presenting themselves as the solution to those disenfranchised with the establishment. Čaputová and her party are seen as a refreshing liberal alternative to the old guard and Zelensky’s campaign is built on the rejection of longstanding inefficient government policy. Both candidates believe themselves to be a third choice, a substitute to the familiar.
The rise of these two unlikely figures immediately draws parallels with the ascension of one Donald J. Trump only three years ago. Like Čaputová and Zelensky, Trump was elected in a presidential role despite having no previous political experience. It is widely accepted that Trump succeeded in both his bid to secure the Republican nomination and to become the 45th US President as a result of his populist policies and his previous experience in front of the media.
A media figure is unconstrained by party policy or governmental procedure. An individual can appear on talk shows or social media Q&As and present themselves in the best light possible, something which is unattainable for an ordinary politician. Once again, it is that lack of accountability, combined with their supposed transparency, which makes them seem more approachable.