The Strongman Syndrome

US President Donald Trump speaks on the Florida school shooting, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, DC. (Mandel Ngan, AFP)
US President Donald Trump speaks on the Florida school shooting, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, DC. (Mandel Ngan, AFP)

The world is witnessing the re-emergence of the strongman leader syndrome. For instance, in the West, since 2005, Angela Merkel is now enjoying her fourth term as German chancellor. In the far East, Xi Jinping is presently redrafting the constitution to be consecrated as China’s president for life. This pattern, of a ruler for life, has already been sanctified in Russia with Vladimir Putin and in Rwanda with Paul Kagame.

What is unique about this syndrome is that it is no longer confined to African tinpot dictators like long-serving Teodoro Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. Rather, it is gaining traction in established Western democracies. President Donald Trump, when questioned last week about Xi’s power grab that obviously defies term limits, responded that “maybe we’ll give that a shot”.

What then are the implications of this strong leader syndrome for developed and developing nations?

How to explain the appeal – among the rich and poor, educated and uneducated, in democracies and dictatorships – of Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the Philippine’s Rodrigo Duterte? Can it be said their appeal is, debatably, largely based on violence and coercion rather than on their ability to deliver basic material goods like healthcare, security and education?

More importantly, what is the net effect of this strongman leader syndrome on the survival of liberal democracy? Is Western-style democracy on the wane since its very DNA – of consensus, transparency and accountability – hinders practical and immediate delivery of public goods?

To be sure, the reappearance of authoritarian leaders is not new. There is historical precedent for the re-emergence of a Xi, Putin and Kagame or one-man-rule leaders who have nevertheless provided for their citizens Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These present-day autocrats follow in the footsteps of Park Chung-hee (South Korea) and Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore) who transformed their countries into first-world levels of development. Hence, the East Asian miracle by the so-called Asian Tigers, which was marked by massive industrialisation and modernisation, was underwritten by despotism.

Similarly, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Fidel Castro of Cuba are celebrated legends, in progressive circles, for ensuring their populace attained record-high welfare that is the envy of democratic countries in the West. They attained these incredible achievements through benevolent authoritarianism.

It is not surprising that the forced removal from political power of Gaddafi, in the name of democracy and “humanitarian intervention”, resulted in Libya regressing into a failed state. In addition, the political vacuum created resulted in the destabilising rise of al-Shabaab in north and west Africa.

In fact, with his inhumane removal by presidents Barack Obama and David Cameron in 2011, Gaddafi was robbed of his incontestable role as a critical gatekeeper of Africa’s migrant crisis and medieval terrorism represented by al-Qaeda.

Of course, rabid defenders of democracy will counter that these benign dictators delivered these common goods at the price of denial of the basic freedoms of expression and assembly. They would add that, quite patently, these common goods were supplied at the altar of suppression of minority groups and suppression of a free press, which is a bulwark against corruption and state capture.

A jeremiad cynic might respond by asking, in hindsight, what would have been more preferable for the majority of South African citizens after 1994: prioritising the delivery of basic material goods or freedom of expression and assembly? As we have learnt in history, for developing societies it is simply not practical to achieve both at the same time since hard choices have to be made by citizens and rulers.

For instance, the liberal democracy darling countries, namely the US and UK, built their first-world levels predominantly through centuries-long slavery and suppression of women. Women’s suffrage only became a reality in the early 1900s and black Americans could vote only after 1965.

As such, if democracy is buckling under pressure and from impossible expectations, does this mean the world is poised to accept strongman rule as the new normal, or what Sinologist Orville Schell terms the “big leader couture era”? Closer to home, let us ask two deliberately sensitive questions.

Firstly, is a Rwanda-style development model suitable to or acceptable for the rest of Africa? Without doubt, Kagame has brought about positive peace and political stability, grown the economy, curtailed bureaucratic red tape and facilitated admirable technological revolution.

Needless to say, his critics would argue that Botswana and Mauritius did the same through democracy without resorting to stifling the voice of civil society.

Secondly, is it feasible to achieve China’s unprecedented poverty eradication of moving 600 million people, in one generation, into middle class levels through open election contestation? Naysayers will point to the 1989 Tiananmen Square clampdown as an example of martial despotism gone rogue.

These two questions are asked to highlight the distinction between good governance and democracy. Good governance, ultimately, boils down to identifying a country’s core needs and making decisions to meet those needs. No doubt, good governance talks to an inclusive, transparent and consensual process such as our own 2030 blueprint, the National Development Plan. But this process neglects two equally salient points.

One, as Singaporean social scientist Kishore Mahbubani, and the US’s Francis Fukuyama have informed us, it is possible to have good governance without democracy – to which China and Rwanda have testified. Secondly, the US is not the quintessential democracy it is popularly made out to be. This argument is put forward by the Princeton University scholars, Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens, in their ground-breaking 2014 paper, in which they argue that the US is not necessarily a democracy, but is more an oligarchy ruled by the powerful rich, crudely highlighted by Trump’s billionaire cabinet.

In their analysis, they conclude that: “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

Therefore, perhaps there is a need to update Churchill’s dictum that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”.

The rising spectre of benign or benevolent dictatorship is a case in point to justify, in tech-speak, the upgrading of democracy.

Alternatively, can the presidency of Matamela Ramaphosa buck the trend and combine the collective consensual leadership of Africa’s customs, the lekgotla, with Singapore’s pragmatism steeped in local values and imported Western science?

- Sehume is a contracted researcher in the civil service.

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