Personalist regimes: Reverse wave in global democracy

The autocratic regimes that emerged after the Second World War were controlled either by the party or by military juntas. Broadly speaking, those were joint leaderships. After the end of the Cold War, there was a rise in personalist regimes in non-democratic states. Ali Riaz writes about such personalist regimes and the reverse wave in democracy

Illustration: SM Rakibur Rahman

The year 2024 is being called the election year. Elections are to be held in the European Union and 64 countries of the world. In some places elections have already been held. It is said that 49 per cent of the world population will be casting votes to elect their leaders at a national level. Never before in world history have so many countries had their elections in the same one year.

On this list are the US, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and other large countries. In terms of population, the election in India is being considered the largest election. And in terms of geographical reach, the election to the European Parliament is considered the biggest. And the impact of the US election is not restricted to the US and so everyone's focus is on that election too.

On one hand, it is being thought that this large number of elections will give an indication of the future of democracy all over the world. On the other hand, these elections have also given rise to deliberations on the regression of democracy for over the last one and a half decades. The overall state of democracy since half a decade from the year 2000, is dismal. Democracy saw a serious downturn in this period.

It has been around three dozen years since the expansion of what Samuel P Huntington described as the "third wave" of democratisation.  And then the entire world is being engulfed by the "third reverse wave of democratisation". The first two waves were from 1882 to 1926 and then from 1945 to mid-1970. Then to the reverse wave came in the same manner. At that time, the countries going against the grain went straight from democracy directly to dictatorship. There was no grey area in between.

The third reverse wave of democracy can be identified by two significant phenomena. These are 'quasi democracy' and the 'rise of personalist dictatorship.'

What is quasi democracy?

'Quasi democracy' or 'pseudo democracy' is a system with a smattering of democracy. For example, elections are held at regular intervals and there is space, albeit limited, for opposition parties. But the actual character of this form of governance is dictatorship. This quasi democracy is also called hybrid regime.

Those who are in power in a hybrid regime manipulate the constitution to suit themselves. The polls are rigged in such a manner that the elections, rather than being a part of democracy, become a tool to give legitimacy to those in power.

The rulers unleash a process that gradually ensures the death of democracy. These rulers claim that their democracy is a different breed of democracy. They use culture and religion as an excuse to curb the fundamental elements of democracy such as freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, electing representatives through fair process, and accountability.

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The number of such governments has been on the rise over quite a few years now. That is because the people have been overlooking the steady downslide and disintegration of democracy. Also, quasi democratic countries often manage to pull the wool over the international community's eyes. These rulers are aided and abetted by outside instigators who emerge on the scenes as 'saviours' in any adverse circumstances.

Many hybrid rules have long been hovering in the grey area between autocracy and democracy. Some of them, in the meantime, have crossed over to autocracy. Only in a handful of country has democratisation successfully taken place.

What is personalist dictatorship?

The second phenomenon, that is, 'personalist dictatorship' has steadily emerged on the global scene and caught our attention. Studies show that 23 per cent of all dictatorships in 1988 were of this type. In 2010 this has risen to 40 per cent. In a sense, 'personalism' is not really new in politics. However, what has made it prominent in recent times is that it is becoming the central characteristic of a regime. In other words, it has become a particular system in the existing forms of government.

The autocratic regimes that emerged after the Second World War were controlled either by the party or by military juntas. Broadly speaking, those were joint leaderships. This was the major trend towards the end of 1980.

After the onset of the third wave of democracy in mid-1970, this character of non-democratic governance gradually diminished. After the end of the Cold War, there was a rise in personalist regimes in non-democratic states.

Several political scientists have been studying this phenomenon for the last decade or so. They include political scientists like Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Carisa Nietsche, Erica Frantz and Joseph Wright. They have defined such personalisation as the dominance of the individual in a political space. They say that in certain instances, the personalist leaders exert their dominance excessively in the political system of their countries. As a result, the individuals become indistinguishable from the governments which they one.

Erica Frantz describes such a regime as a personalist dictatorship. She says in a personalist dictatorship, power is concentrated with one person rather than with any political party, royal family or military junta.

It is common knowledge that the characteristic of autocratic leaders is to take centralised and unilateral decisions and they demand unquestioned allegiance and personal loyalty. It is clear that the political system where there is a 'personalist dictator' at the helm, is personalist dictatorship. 

How personalist autocrats rule

How does a personalist autocrat rule a country? Accordingly to Alexander Baturo and Jakob Tolstrup, these leaders do not always rely on one particular institution. And even if there is any such institution, they share a patron-client relationship and rely on informal politics in their governance.

In discussing the political trends in Russian politics, Ekaterina Schulmann highlighted the relationship between the institution and the leader. She said, in order to ensure power remains in the hands of one leader, or of the leader's close associates, in a personalist regime, the institutions are rendered dysfunctional and destroyed.

Kendall-Taylor and her associates say that in a personalist regime, an individual sidesteps all institutions, rules and regulations. They say that in personalist dictatorships, the top leader remains outside the control of all other players and runs the country. Even the leader's political party (if it exists) or the security forces cannot exert their control. As a result, the leader's whims and wishes are reflected in policymaking.

Policies of a personalist autocrat

There is a strong consensus among political scientists that among all systems of government, the worst policies are formulated in autocratic regimes. These policies are not restricted to domestic politics or governance alone, but also are prioritised in foreign policy. There is a propensity among personalist autocrats to follow most dangerous and aggressive foreign policy.

In 2017, in a booklet published by the Brookings Institute, Torrey Taussig identified four factors behind the aggressive foreign policies of personalist dictators.

Firstly, the inherent characteristics of personalist rulers are ambitious, cut-throat and divisive.

Secondly, personalist leaders perceive lower costs of fighting and view force as more effective than other tools of statecraft.

Thirdly, personalist leaders do not fear defeat because of the lack of strong institutions that can hold them accountable.

Fourthly, subordinates to personalist leaders are typically unwilling to challenge a leader’s personal biases, leading to profound “groupthink”.

Other experts also contend that personalist autocracy, as in the case of other autocrats, want to invest in nuclear weapons and want to participate less in international relations of cooperation. Such rulers build up a crony system based on personal networks that go against national interests and shield the beneficiaries from all sorts of accountability.

Foreign policy is formulated on the consideration of who will act as a shield if any adverse circumstances emerge from outside.

How personalist autocrats rise

Personalist autocrats do not suddenly emerge from out of the blue. They arise gradually. They use institutional weaknesses as stepping stones, create harmful polarisation in the society and use the democratic system including elections to come to power. Once they ascend to power, they embark on what Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt call the route to the death of democracy.

In their book, How Democracies Die, they point to the three steps to the rise of autocracy. The first step is to target the referee (that is, to take control of the judiciary, the law enforcement agencies and the intelligence, and the tariff control agencies).

The second is to target the opposition (using repressive policies and laws to silence political parties, the media, the civil society and dissenting voices).

The third step is to changes the rules of the game (changing the rules and regulations of how the parliament functions, how the elections will be held and so on).

Personalist dictators arise by means of destroying institutions. This creates absolute dependence on the leader. First this is done in practice, and then it is given legal or constitutional form. All state institutions brought under the leader are used for this process.

By weakening or, if necessary, uprooting the opposition, and also by changing the constitution and laws, a playing field is created where only the leader has control. The laws and the courts are used to rig the elections by various means including eliminating the opposition party or candidates. All this is done covertly and overtly, by means of conspiracies, by force and by co-option.

The people should be reminded under such circumstances, the rise of personalist autocrats push the nation to the brink of disaster. Until these matters can be spoken about openly, silence is the best alternative.

What is to be done when personalist autocrats arise?

Personalist autocrats pay no heed to voters. They view critics as their enemies and they are not bothered about public sentiment. And yet they expect adulation and praise for their 'success'. They want to hear that all progress is proof of their competence and failure of the opposition.

What is missing in such praise is how the state institutions are use unlawfully used to render the opposition ineffective. The sycophants completely overlook this. This is how personalist autocrats seek legitimacy for their regime -- the regime that destroys state institutions and silences all dissension in political space and in civil society.

Such victory apparently seems to be achieved by means of strategic thinking and subtle planning. But this is merely Pyrrhic victory, a victory won through extensive harm.

It is the nation that will have to pay the price in short and long term for this victory achieved at a steep price. These leaders cannot be hailed by the people for their success. To the contrary, the people should be reminded under such circumstances, the rise of personalist autocrats push the nation to the brink of disaster. Until these matters can be spoken about openly, silence is the best alternative.

* Ali Riaz is distinguished professor of the Department of Politics and Government at the Illinois State University in the US, nonresident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, and president of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.  

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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