Putin’s power playbook has parallels elsewhere - Hindustan Times
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Putin’s power playbook has parallels elsewhere

Apr 02, 2024 09:15 PM IST

Putin’s long political career has the virtue of helping us understand some key trends in contemporary leadership in major countries

Vladimir Putin has won a fifth term in office. His re-election to the Russian presidency was expected. And the 87% vote share, which he apparently secured, only reinforces the fact that Russian authoritarianism is masked by a democracy whose managed character the Russian elite does not hide and the Russian citizenry has capitulated to. We might call the process by which Putin has stayed in power — remember that he once made himself prime minister (PM) for a term so that he could become president again — a farce but for the damage it has caused to Russia and its neighbours. But Putin’s long political career has the virtue of helping us understand some key trends in contemporary leadership in major countries as well as the variety of ways in which democracy can be eroded.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers his address in Moscow on March 23, 2024, the day after a gun attack on the Crocus City Hall in Krasnogorsk.(AFP) PREMIUM
Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers his address in Moscow on March 23, 2024, the day after a gun attack on the Crocus City Hall in Krasnogorsk.(AFP)

First, when Putin first came to power in 1999-2000, it was still possible to believe that despite struggling through the 1990s, democracy had a chance in Russia. But in 2008, after two terms, Putin placed his loyalist Dmitry Medvedev in the presidential office while he exercised real powers relegated as PM, thus giving Russia’s political transition a decidedly authoritarian turn. That the Russian system continues to enact the theatre of democracy illustrates how democracy has come to be considered the only legitimate means of securing power and exercising authority in modern times: After all, even China and North Korea call themselves democratic. Paradoxically, it also reveals how easily the meaning of democracy can be made a subject of national definition.

In several non-western countries, we find the argument that because their country is sovereign, it has the right to decide what democracy means. This argument is sharpened by placing it in opposition to liberal democracy, which is described as western, culturally alien and unsuited to the non-West. This is a caricature because the fundamental feature of liberal democracy is that it regulates the powers of the elected executive. Paths to authoritarianism or majoritarianism swiftly open if the elected executive goes unchecked. This is a good reason why claims of countries being a “sovereign democracy” (Russia), a “people’s democracy” (China), or a “mother of democracy” (India) must be viewed sceptically.

Second, Putin has stayed in power for 24 years. He is 71 years old. As he has aged, he has positioned himself as Russia’s all-purpose patriarch. He has brought the idea of family to the centre of his political project, equating it with the traditional heterosexual unit with children and relatives, on the one hand, and the Russian people, as a whole, on the other. In public projection, Putin has become the father figure who protects the Russian State, the Russian people, and each Russian family. Variations of this father figure can be found in contemporary Turkey, India and China, where the top leader is also projected as having laid the foundation of a new nation. Lofty comparisons are made — Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Mustafa Kamal Pasha and Xi Jinping with Mao Zedong — and age is substituted for wisdom and restraint as the characteristic features of statesmanship.

Third, changes have been made to the Russian constitution to prolong Putin’s stay in power. A four-year presidential term has been extended to six years, and a pathway created for him to stay in power until 2036, which could mean 36 years in power. This pattern is found elsewhere too. A two-term limit on the presidency was removed from the Chinese constitution, enabling President Xi Jinping — elected in 2013 — to potentially stay in power for life. Another long-termer, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, has sought to tame the powers of the country’s supreme court to review governmental actions. In Turkey, Erdogan (in power for over 20 years) has abolished parliamentary government, turned the system presidential, and given more powers to the president. (On March 31, Erdogan suffered a shock setback when the Opposition Republican People’s Party won big in Turkey’s local elections).

A detailed study of these and similar cases is likely to show that leaders who stay more than two terms — or 8 to 12 years — in office are likely to change the basic governance structure of their countries to directly or indirectly prolong their stint in power.

The fourth major feature of Putin’s long political career has been the systematic emaciation of dissent and opposition. Alexei Navalny was the most famous and latest victim in a long line where critics of the regime have mysteriously died, been imprisoned or exiled. China’s Xi has filled the top-rung of the leadership with his loyalists. Following a failed coup attempt in 2016, Erdogan has cracked down on his political opponents. And in India, action against Opposition leaders and regime critics through the coercive apparatus of the State is an established pattern.

Countries and leadership styles tend to differ in important ways, but the tactics of leaders who seek to stay for long periods in power tend to be similar: They turn ultra-conservative, alter constitutional orders, and become authoritarian and self-referential. Their governance outcomes are suboptimal but the political and social toll of their time in office — which are intangible and hard to measure — are deeper and long-lasting. It is a measure of contemporary world politics that half of humanity is governed by leaders above 70, many of whom are sceptical of liberal democracy.

Atul Mishra teaches international relations at Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi-NCR. The views expressed are personal

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