Adam E. Casey a PhD candidate in political science and his professor Seva Gunitsky of University of Toronto published a paper on Foreign Affairs (March 23, 2020) entitled, “The Weakness of Strongman Power Grabs by Putin and Xi Bode Well for Democracy’s Future”. Nothing wrong for a professor and a student to prefer one political ideology over another, but it is important to understand the difference between the concepts of political ideology and political system. The title of the authors’ thesis made no such distinction and the paper’s content did not get into any details about the two strongmen’s ideologies other than assuming they were different from liberalism and the political systems they were ruling were different from a democratic system. Hence, they are using the term liberal democracy, a term encompassing liberalism (political ideology) and democracy (political system), to compare with the strongman’s ruling style (the authors termed it as personalist and categorically included other strongman like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdrogen and Philippine’s Rodrigo Duterte) without getting into any analysis of each individual strongman’s political ideology. The overall subject of Casey’s thesis is very interesting as a worthy political science research topic, however, the conclusion the authors draw is not solidly supported by evidence nor by arguments. One must make comparisons based on clear understanding of the political ideology (liberalism, communism, socialism, etc.), governing system (multi-party, single-party democracy, authoritarian, etc.) and personal ruling style (charisma with certain ideology and supported by some visible institutions) before drawing credible conclusions.
In a limited space here, we will only stress that it is very difficult to identify an absolutely pure political ideology for each strongman, since he or she will formulate his or her own ideology over his or her long career. In politics, there will always be strongmen in any political system, be it a single-party or multi-party system with varying degree of democracy. For example, Erdrogen (66) of Turkey participated in political endeavors since youth by joining student union and anti-communism groups (1976-80). He left politics when the Turkish 1980 coup banned political parties. He rejoined the Welfare Party in 1983. He was elected to parliament but not allowed to take the seat (1991), then he got elected as the mayor of Istanbul (1994-98) but he was jailed for citing a poem considered inflammatory. In 1998, the Welfare Party was judged as unconstitutional, he then joined a Broad Conservative Democratic Party (AKP). AKP grew and got popular support, 34.3% (2002) gaining 2/3 of parliament seats, then received 46.7% support (2007). AKP escaped a constitutional ban in 2008 and won a landslide victory, 49.83% (2011) gaining 327 parliament seats. Erdrogen became the Prime Minister in 2003 and won consecutive three times. He introduced referendum to reduce the President’s term from 7 to 5 years limited to two terms. Yes, Erdrogen is a strongman but he has worked through a multi-party democratic system. Similarly, Philippine’s Duterte has also a very unique political career, rising through a democratic system essentially developed with the help of the U.S. Duterte has his own conviction when comes to China policy, a trait of strongman. Duterte seems to be capable of acting independently from the China policy of the U.S. for Philippine's benefits.
Casey and Gunitsky did not compare the efficacy of Putin’s and Xi’s governing system with their strongman leadership or personalist style. The efficacy of a governing system and/or style is the key parameter for judging the superiority of the system. Broadly speaking, democracy is just a tool used in a political system by one (or more) political party to make decisions with more or less direct or representative participation of people by casting votes. The extended or life-long term limit adopted by Russia’s and China’s Constitution were used by the authors as the sole critical factor to conclude that Putin’s or XI’s Administration will be doomed for failure in extended terms thus “bode well for the future of Democracy”. The authors presented no evidence or sufficient logic to support their conclusion. In fact, all politicians and national leaders are driven by a desire to leave a ‘great’ legacy; the stronger the leader, he or she tends to leave a greater legacy. The one party system in China has managed its succession issue with obvious success as the country has made continuous progress in the past seven decades sustaining a high GDP growth with a momentum surpassing the GDP growth of the U.S. According to an IMF studies, China’s GDP will be greater than the U.S. GDP in a year or two. With the coronavirus breaking out all over the world, this year 2020 will be an unusual year for measuring the efficacy of all governments facing the pandemic challenge. China has already demonstrated her ability in containing the pandemic disease, now sharing her experience, solutions and medical supplies with many countries to help them to combat the virus.
The liberal democracy Casey and Gunitsky refereed to in their paper is representing the democratic system the U.S. has been promoting for the past seven decades. One certainly can cite many countries such as the U.S., U.K., Germany, France and Japan as successful examples of liberal democracy, even though not all systems being identical with same liberalism. The authors assumed that people intrinsically would prefer the liberal democratic system, thus when a strongman would fail, his people would rise to adopt the liberal democratic system. This assumption might be valid in the last century, when all communist and authoritarian governments were concerned if they would fail in their economy, democracy would take over. In fact, the U.S did make a great effort “introducing” or “exporting” democracy to other countries by supporting democracy movement. However, as more strongman leadership created more success stories and gained more self-confidence, comparison with liberal democracy might be irrelevant; the more important issue would be how a political system could groom the right kind of strongman to serve the people. A strongman was created by putting one through many levels of real job tests and rigorous scrutiny to ascertain one’s ability to lead the country, not just giving speeches, raising funds and soliciting votes. After all democracy is just a tool, nothing sacred about it. An experienced strongman will know how to apply democracy in a given political system to accomplish deeds.
We must objectively hold the view that the Chinese and Russian people must have high confidence in their leaders to let the extension of leader's term-limits to be entered into their constitution. The elites in the two countries must have seen the need and advantage of such an extension to be established. Perhaps, we need to examine and reflect on the liberal democratic system: Is the frequent turn-over of our political leaders with opposing political views a reflection of a seriously fractured nation? A serious disadvantage from governance efficacy point of view? A handicap in terms of long-term project planning and execution like national infrastructure construction? If the political elites in China and Russia recognized such a disadvantage, wouldn't they support their strongman to serve longer terms? If that is the rational, I don't think succession will be a problem in the strongman Administration or in a single party system!