In 1992, Ross Perot did not take a single state in the US presidential election, but in an unprecedented showing for an independent candidate, received almost 20 million votes. Italy's Silvio Berlusconi founded his party only two months before being swept into the premiership in 1994, and won again in 2001. Michael Bloomberg is mayor of New York City. Having a few billion dollars can do wonders for a political career, but can Arkadi Gaydamak ride his fortune to office?
Gaydamak expected to start new party
Poll: Gaydamak would get 14 mandates
Gaydamak was born in Ukraine in 1952, grew up in Russia, and immigrated to Israel at age 20. He served briefly in the Israeli army, worked on a kibbutz, and left for France, where he lived and made his fortune until the age of 48. In December 2000 he left France as a result of allegations concerning illegal arms trading with Angola, tax evasion and money laundering, and returned to Israel. In Israel he has also been investigated for alleged money laundering, but has denied any responsibility.
Gaydamak was active philanthropically in Russia and Israel for some time without drawing much attention, until the police allegations against him. Since then he has launched attacks on the police in paid advertisements, and initiated high-profile philanthropic projects. Most prominently, during the war in the North and the Kassam attacks on Sderot, Gaydamak embarrassed the government by providing support for residents that official sources did not.
On Wednesday, he launched a quasi-political movement he calls "Social Justice." Since many political parties have started first as "movements" that are not subject to campaign finance and other laws, it is unclear whether this new organization will be transformed into a political party. Gaydamak says it will not, and has also indicated that he has no interest in personally running for office.
Indeed, he would make an odd candidate, not just because of his legal troubles, but because he does not speak Hebrew, or at least not in public. Despite this, speculation is rampant and some polls suggest that he could receive a substantial number of Knesset mandates.
Such claims of electoral potential should be met with some skepticism. It should not be assumed that the Russian public, where Gaydamak enjoys even more popularity than among the general public, would vote for him in substantial numbers. Popularity does not automatically translate into votes, especially when that popularity is based largely on being a non-politician. Just as generals often lose their popularity when they become politicians, the same can be true of philanthropists.
The more important question, however, is not about Gaydamak's personal career, but about whether a party led by him might be viable in the first place. Clearly, support for his candidacy, if there is to be a party, is yet another symptom of the public's utter distrust of conventional politics and politicians.
The attractiveness of billionaire politicians in many countries shows that there is a tendency to view such men (so far they have only been men) as being above and beyond politics. They must be competent, the public reasons, and their pockets are already lined so they have no need of the public's money.
There should, however, be no shortcuts when judging political candidates. Being successful in business neither assures nor hampers success in politics. Candidates for office should be assessed on their records, their platforms, and their trustworthiness to exercise good judgment in the public's interest.
In this context, we hope that Arkadi Gaydamak continues on his path of philanthropy, and that his new movement continues to step in by supplementing government action and challenging government to do better.
Though it is often assumed that such movements must fully enter politics in order to become effective, this may not be the case. Just as business leaders are often more effective outside of politics than inside the government, so it is likely with social activists and philanthropists. It is possible that Gaydamak can make a greater contribution to politics by staying out of it, as he says he will but most suspect he won't, than by jumping into the fray.