The year the strongmen stumbled

This time last year, I was putting the finishing touches to a book. In an effort to finish Age of the Strongman on a note of qualified optimism, I wrote: “Strongman rule is an inherently flawed and unstable form of government. It will ultimately collapse . . . But there may be a lot of turmoil and suffering before [it] is finally consigned to history.”

Two months later, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. His decision was a textbook demonstration of the flaws of strongman rule. After decades in power, leaders often become prone to megalomania or paranoia and preoccupied by their own place in history. They have usually eliminated all sources of effective opposition. If they decide on a disastrous course of action, there is nobody and nothing to stop them.

Putin came to power on New Year’s Eve 1999 and quickly established a new style of strongman leadership for the 21st century — famously posing bare-chested for the photographers. Behind the macho posturing, there was real violence. Domestic opponents were imprisoned, forced into exile or murdered. Brutal military campaigns were waged in Chechnya and Syria. The Russian leader also positioned himself as the leader of a global backlash against western liberalism, telling the Financial Times in 2019: “The liberal idea has become obsolete.” 

Other strongman leaders went on the record with their admiration. The Russian leader’s fan club included Xi Jinping of China, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Donald Trump. The former US president even described Putin’s threats to Ukraine as an act of genius, just days before Russia invaded.

But this cult of Putin will not survive the brutal debacle of Ukraine. The strongman style of leadership may also lose some of its global allure.

The authoritarian regimes that support Putin have also had a bad year. The Iranian theocracy, which came to Russia’s aid with military drones, is facing the most sustained popular protests since the Iranian revolution of 1979. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is 83 and ailing. His passing will increase the peril to the regime. Undemocratic systems always struggle with political transitions

In China, Xi has strong-armed his way to a third term in office and is digging in to rule for life. But his centralisation of power has led to a significant deterioration in Chinese governance. Xi has blundered in foreign and economic policy — and his unsustainable zero-Covid policies provoked unprecedented protests. The problems that China faces are directly traceable to a political system in which power and authority are over-concentrated in a single, quasi-imperial leader — whose judgment cannot be safely challenged.

Trump, an instinctive authoritarian, recently praised Xi for ruling China with “an iron fist”. But Trump’s own bubble seems to be deflating rapidly, following the Republican party’s surprisingly weak performance in the midterm elections. His decline demonstrates a crucial distinction between strongman politics in democracies and in authoritarian systems. In countries where democratic institutions remain robust, it is possible to lever a strongman out through the ballot box.

That was demonstrated in Brazil this year where Jair Bolsonaro — sometimes described as the “Trump of the tropics” — lost his bid for re-election. Duterte, the Filipino strongman, was also compelled to step down this year — although his daughter is now vice-president to Ferdinand Marcos Jr. In Britain, Boris Johnson, who was labelled “Britain Trump” by the former US president, was also forced from office. The new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, relies much less than Johnson on personal charisma and populist rhetoric.

But strongman leaders can also win elections. In Hungary, Orbán, who remains a hero to the US far right, won re-election fairly easily. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to return as prime minister, leading the most rightwing coalition in Israeli history — including a national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, with a history of sympathy for far-right terrorism.

In Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed, has regained confidence and authority, along with the rising oil price. In India, Narendra Modi has been able to brush aside criticism of his record on civil liberties and continues to dominate politically. In Mexico, the populist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as Amlo, is pushing ahead with changes that will erode the independent monitoring of elections.

Amlo’s machinations demonstrate that even countries with free elections are not secure from the anti-democratic instincts of a strongman ruler. A trademark move is to assault independent institutions — and eventually individuals — who threaten their power. In Turkey, the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, who was expected to run for the presidency next year against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — has just been sentenced to more than two years in prison, on charges of insulting public officials.

In different ways Erdoğan, Putin and Xi are demonstrating that while strongman rulers often make terrible mistakes, they can still be fearsomely difficult to remove.

But even in Turkey, strongman rule is teetering — just as it is in Russia and perhaps China. It is possible that this malign style of politics has peaked. Here’s hoping.

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