Can Democracy Stand Up to the Cult of the Strongman Leader?

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Written by Mandeep Tiwana and Andrew Firmin

Donald Trump’s presidency, recent protests in Russia and South Africa and the referendum to consolidate presidential power in Turkey have reignited debate about an emerging form of macho conservative politics called ‘Putinism’. This new form of politics is shaping contemporary notions of democracy while undermining the international rules-based system and harming civil society.

In a recent article in Open Democracy Marlene Laruelle compares Putinism to Gaulism in post-World War II France where national consensus was sought to be forged through the country’s alleged need for law and order and ‘respectable mores’ to evoke visions of national grandeur. Michel Eltchaninoff writes in the Huffington Post that Putinism is becoming a rallying cry for ‘non-aligned’ conservatives seeking to defend their national path in the face of hostile manoeuvres from abroad. Because of its leadership style and content, Putinism presents a unique set of challenges for civil societies in environments where the argument for respecting democratic dissent was previously thought to have been won.

Putinism’s leadership style posits the leader as a saviour uniquely placed to restore glory to a country through victory at the ballot box. Putinist leaders often start out posing as strong men or mavericks, able to smash through political inertia and take the hard decisions that conventional leaders shirk. Putinists set great store by winning elections and then claim a mandate to declare further dissent as undermining majority interests. They apply a highly personalised and centralised style in which decisions are concentrated in a small coterie of advisors. Politics and economics are also tightly bound together as Putinists often surround themselves with members of business elites.

Putinism’s content draws on majoritarian tradition, conservative values and patriarchal norms to forge narrowly defined national interest that disparages internationalism and evolving notions of human rights. Respect for diversity, and attempts to address the exclusion of disadvantaged groups, are dismissed as obstructive ‘political correctness’ even if they are enshrined in constitutions. The real risks posed by transnational terrorism are repurposed to impose unjustified restrictions on fundamental freedoms on national security grounds.

Indeed, this all makes Putinism bad news for civil society. Civil society that seeks to expose corruption, stand up for rights and protect minorities are a thorn in the side of Putinist leaders. A key Putinist tactic is therefore to make it harder for civil society to carry out these vital roles. There are now hardly any countries in which civil society freedoms are fully respected according to the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks the conditions for civil society.

Putinism is on the rise because in many countries conventional politicians are being rejected by citizens as failing to provide bold solutions to the challenges of our times. In this globalised era, people have seen big business elites getting richer while they remain insecure and poorly off. Putinist leaders offer an enticing – if false – promise of economic and physical security and speak to a public appetite for a fresh approach to politics. Putinism spreads through the use of relentless post-truth propaganda that appeals to nativist tendencies and collective fears of population groups that feel themselves under threat. Ironically, for all their rejection of internationalism, Putinist leaders happily borrow autocratic approaches from other countries to suit their purposes.

Russia is of course the birthplace of Putinism, where President Putin has flouted constitutional term limits by playing a game of political musical chairs around the president’s and prime minister’s offices. In Russia, human rights groups have to register themselves under the derogatory term of ‘foreign agents’ if they wish to obtain funding from international philanthropic institutions. Most independent civil society groups have been bullied into discontinuing their work. Strong arm tactics to suppress widespread anti-corruption protests in March 2017 in which hundreds were arbitrarily detained are indicative of the Putinist approach.

So effective has the approach proved that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government in Israel has borrowed it, coming up with its own reactionary foreign agents law to isolate civil society groups that expose human rights abuses and the expansion of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

In Turkey, President Ergodan’s government has used the pretext of last July’s attempted coup to throw thousands of academics and activists into jail without due process of law, ignoring strong international criticism. Hundreds of civil society groups opposed to the purge have been suspended while others have been forced to self-censor for fear of reprisals further degrading the state of Turkish democracy.

Hungarian Prime Minister Orban intends to build an ‘illiberal state’, citing Russia’s and Turkey’s example. Not surprisingly, he is also a proponent of harsh anti-refugee policies, modelling himself as a defender of western civilisation from those fleeing wars in Syria and Iraq. Stung by criticism of its poor human rights record, his government has instituted a number of regressive moves to restrict civil society and media freedoms, including ordering punitive inspections of critical organisations.

In India, the world’s largest democracy, civil society groups are being attacked with a vengeance. Prime Minister Modi’s nationalist government has cancelled licences to receive international funding for over 20,000 civil society groups.  Among those targeted are environmental groups painted as hindering the government’s market-oriented economic development agenda. Organisations uncovering violations by security forces in counter-insurgency operations, and those seeking justice for historically disadvantaged Dalits and victims of anti-Muslim riots have also come in for particular scrutiny, accused of giving the country a ‘bad name’ in international circles.

In South Africa, once considered the world’s most hopeful democracy and where the ruling African National Congress continues to face heat from civil society for a string of corruption scandals involving President Zuma, the state security minister went on record in parliament last year to say that NGOs are “collaborating” with foreign forces to destabilise the country. No concrete evidence was presented nor any legal action taken against any entity raising suspicions that this was merely a ploy to divert attention from obvious internal governance failures.

Over 7000 people have reportedly died since President Duterte came to power in the Philippines in May 2016 and declared open season on the drugs trade. President Duterte has made numerous public statements encouraging vigilante action against suspected drug dealers and users, and the police appear to enjoy almost total impunity to kill. Those who oppose the killings are attacked: President Duterte has publicly said that he would kill human rights advocates if they halt the war on drugs, and that journalists who have been killed deserved their fate. He has also expressed his wish to cultivate closer connections with Russia and threatened to pull out of UN bodies.

US President Trump in many ways fits the template of a Putinist leader. He has openly expressed contempt for the press while baiting critics of his policies towards immigrants. His executive order banning international NGOs that receive US funding from providing abortion services or information about abortion not only undermines their independence but also women’s health, sexual and reproductive rights. President Trump has declared his admiration for President Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu on numerous occasions, and shares their disdain for international institutions. His inaugural address with its short-sighted vision of protectionism and putting ‘America First’ was a rebuke to the spirit of internationalism which has been a core pillar of US foreign policy in the post – World War II era. As president-elect Mr Trump mocked the UN as a “club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.” His prejudiced wholesale ban against the entry into the US of citizens from six Muslim majority countries violates the letter and spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whose first article states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in the spirit of brotherhood.” To add insult to injury, President Trump is mulling withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, unravelling of which, could have catastrophic consequences for the planet and the future of humanity.

The rejection of internationalism by Putinist leaders has already directly impacted international peace and security. President Putin’s support for Syrian President Assad has fatally undermined the UN’s efforts to halt crimes against humanity in Syria while providing inspiration to tyrants and mass murderers on ways to subvert international justice. Prime Minister Netanyahu has not only repudiated the January 2017 UN Security Council resolution urging an end to settlement activities by Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territories but has gone a step further by ushering in a retroactive law legalising some 4000 settlements on privately owned Palestinian land. Such moves are bound to exacerbate global conflict and rights abuses.

To some, the future may seem bleak. But there are also strong counter-reactions to the rise of Putinism. Last December, on international human rights day, the UN launched a campaign called ‘Stand up for someone’s rights today’. The campaign urges individuals to speak out when they see someone being harassed, bullied or ridiculed on the street; to combat myths with facts; and to talk to children about human rights by pointing out positive and diverse role models.

The unravelling of decency and respect for dissent in the Putinist political discourse is spurring both deep introspection and serious strategizing among civil societies around the world. Many are thinking of ways to reconcile the ‘winner take all’ impulses of Putinist leaders—who seek legitimacy through electoral democracy—with the inclusive strands of constitutional democracy that is inherently respectful of minorities and diverse opinions. The struggle to reclaim lost space is well underway in the courts, in newsrooms and on the streets.

Millions have already mobilized through the Women’s March on Washington and its sister marches against the sexist and bigoted rhetoric that defined Donald Trump’s election campaign. Concerned citizens and civil society organisations around the world are indeed being galvanised in unique ways, unwilling to surrender decades of progress achieved in civil rights, gender, economic and social justice struggles. 2017 continues to be a contested year for Putinism’s proponents.

About the authors: Mandeep Tiwana is the Head of Policy and Research at the world alliance for civil society participation, CIVICUS. He specialises in legislation affecting the core civil society freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Andrew Firmin is the lead author and editor at CIVICUS. He specialises in global research topics on the state of civil society, human rights and democracy.