Most dic­ta­tors SELF-DE­STRUCT. Why?

The Nation - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

ith au­thor­i­tar­ian rulers as­cen­dant in­many parts of the world, one won­ders what must hap­pen for their coun­tries to lib­er­alise. The likes of Vladimir Putin in Rus­sia, Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan in Turkey or Xi Jin­ping in China are en­trenched, ex­pe­ri­enced and not un­pop­u­lar – so should their op­po­nents sim­ply re­sign them­selves to an open-ended pe­riod of il­lib­eral rule?

Ac­cord­ing to po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Daniel Treis­man, that’s not nec­es­sar­ily the case. For a re­cent pa­per, the a UCLA lec­turer an­a­lysed 218 episodes of democrati­sa­tion be­tween 1800 and 2015 and found they were, with some ex­cep­tions (such as Dan­ish King Fred­er­ick VII’s vol­un­tary ac­cep­tance of a con­sti­tu­tion in 1848), the re­sult of au­thor­i­tar­ian rulers’ mis­takes in seek­ing to hold on to power. The list of these er­rors is both a use­ful hand­book for au­thor­i­tar­i­ans and a use­ful re­minder that even the most ca­pa­ble of them are fal­li­ble, with dis­as­trous con­se­quences for their regimes.

WAc­cord­ing to Treis­man, de­lib­er­ate lib­er­al­i­sa­tion – whether to fore­stall a revo­lu­tion, mo­ti­vate peo­ple to fight a for­eign in­vader, de­feat com­pet­ing elite groups or make a pact with them – only oc­curred in up to a third of the cases. In the rest, democrati­sa­tion was an ac­ci­dent: As they set off a chain of events, rulers didn’t in­tend to re­lin­quish power. Some of them – such as Mikhail Gor­bachev, the last Soviet pres­i­dent – have ad­mit­ted as much.

The five fa­tal er­rors

Treis­man’s list of mis­takes is worth cit­ing in full. There are five ba­sic ones:

1. Hubris: An au­thor­i­tar­ian ruler un­der­es­ti­mates the op­po­si­tion’s strength and fails to com­pro­mise or sup­press it be­fore it’s too late. King Louis Philippe of France was de­posed in 1848 af­ter, as Treis­man puts it, turn­ing “a se­ries of re­form ban­quets into revo­lu­tion by re­fus­ing even mild con­ces­sions”. Ro­ma­nian Com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor Ni­co­lae Ceaus­escu was mak­ing a rou­tine speech when he re­alised he was be­ing over­thrown. In­done­sian Pres­i­dent Muham­mad Suharto be­lieved he could get the coun­try un­der con­trol right up to the mo­ment of his res­ig­na­tion.

2. Need­less risk: A ruler calls a vote which he “fails to ma­nip­u­late suf­fi­ciently” (like Chilean dic­ta­tor Au­gusto Pinochet in 1988, when he lost a plebiscite on whether he should be al­lowed to stay in power) or starts a war he can­not win (like Leopoldo Galtieri in Ar­gentina with the Falk­lands con­flict of 1982).

3. Slip­pery slope: That’s Gor­bachev’s case: a ruler starts re­forms to prop up the regime but ends up un­der­min­ing it.

4. Trust­ing a traitor: This is not al­ways a mis­take made by the dic­ta­tor it­self, al­though it was in the case of Fran­cisco Franco in Spain, who chose King Juan Car­los, the dis­man­tler of fas­cism, as his suc­ces­sor. In Gor­bachev’s case, it was the Polit­buro – the regime’s elite – that picked the wrong man to pre­serve its power.

5. Coun­ter­pro­duc­tive vi­o­lence: Not sup­press­ing the op­po­si­tion when nec­es­sary can be a sign of hubris in a dic­ta­tor, but over­re­act­ing is also a grave mis­take. The ex­am­ple Treis­man gives is Bangladeshi Pres­i­dent Hus­sain Muham­mad Er­shad, who was forced to re­sign by an up­ris­ing that started af­ter po­lice shot an op­po­si­tion ac­tivist at a rally. But the er­ror was also made by Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych in 2013, when his riot po­lice de­scended on a few hun­dred peace­fully protest­ing stu­dents and bru­tally beat them, set­ting off the much big­ger protests that re­sulted in Yanukovych’s ouster.

These are all very hu­man er­rors of judge­ment. Dic­ta­tors are peo­ple, too, and some­times they’ll act on im­per­fect in­for­ma­tion or er­ro­neous gut feel­ing. But Treis­man makes the point that they may be prone to such er­rors pre­cisely be­cause they are dic­ta­tors. They’ll be fooled by polls which peo­ple don’t an­swer sin­cerely, taken in by their own pro­pa­ganda (like Malawi ruler Hast­ings Banda, who called and lost a ref­er­en­dum in 1993 be­cause he’d been im­pressed by the high turnout at ral­lies in his sup­port even though peo­ple had been forced to at­tend them). And some­times they’ll rule for so long that their men­tal fac­ul­ties will be less sharp than at the out­set.

I have a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in watch­ing Putin for any of the er­rors on Treis­man’s list. So far, it’s as if he’d read the pa­per be­fore Treis­man wrote it. His sup­pres­sion has been timely and clev­erly mea­sured, his elec­tion ma­nip­u­la­tion al­ways suf­fi­cient, his tem­po­rary suc­ces­sor, Dmitri Medvedev, avoided the lib­eral slip­pery slope, and he’s only started wars against much weaker ri­vals. He helps his regime’s pro­pa­ganda by treat­ing it as truth, but he doesn’t buy it to the point of los­ing vig­i­lance. For the 2018 elec­tion, he’s keep­ing his main op­po­nent, Alexei Navalny, out of the race, mind­ful that modern tech­nol­ogy al­lows a ri­val to loosen me­dia re­stric­tions – some­thing Treis­man notes can lead a hubris­tic dic­ta­tor to an elec­toral loss.

But even Putin, af­ter 17 years in power, is in danger of mak­ing a mis­cal­cu­la­tion one day, per­haps fi­nally mis­read­ing the mood of the in­creas­ingly cyn­i­cal Rus­sian pub­lic that keeps reg­is­ter­ing sup­port for him in largely worth­less polls. It’s easy to imag­ine the cho­leric Er­do­gan get­ting into an armed con­flict Turkey can­not sus­tain or us­ing dis­pro­por­tional vi­o­lence as Turks’ pa­tience with his reprisals wear thin. It’s a pos­si­bil­ity, al­though a re­mote one, that, af­ter Xi’s power con­sol­i­da­tion, the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party will opt for a more lib­eral suc­ces­sor and he won’t be able to hold the reins as tightly.

Treis­man notes that in 85 per cent of the episodes he stud­ied, democrati­sa­tion was pre­ceded by mass un­rest. Sooner or later, peo­ple tend to get tired of regimes in which they have lit­tle say. Then, it only takes a mis­step from the one per­son at the cen­tre of such a regime. Dic­ta­tors of­ten over­es­ti­mate the ex­ter­nal danger to their power, the plots of for­eign or ex­iled en­e­mies. In the fi­nal anal­y­sis, they are the big­gest threat to them­selves.

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