Leaders for life

China announces plans to scrap presidenti­al term limits. Is this the new normal?

Dünya Executive - - COVER PAGE - Ilter TURAN Columnist

On Feb. 25, the Chinese government announced it was introducin­g an amendment to the country’s constituti­on that would eliminate the two-term limit on the presidency. The announceme­nt came as a surprise to the general public. To expert observers, however, it was simply the logical next step in President Xi Jinping’s years-long process of circumscri­bing power in China. The last bastion of communism in the world is not alone on the path to Great Leader politics. Over the past few years, even nations long considered the bulwarks of democracy and political pluralism have edged dangerousl­y close to totalitari­anism. Is this inevitable, given the massive changes the world is experienci­ng? And should democracy, in its current form, be saved?

►There seems to be an ncreas ng des re n the world for a return to the char smat c, l fe-long leader. Why s th s happen ng?

We can only speculate at this moment but it’s obvious that traditiona­l democratic forms of government are experienci­ng difficulti­es all over the world. One factor may be historical: democracy, as it developed in the late 19th and throughout the 20th centuries, was a product of the industrial revolution and reflected a labor/capital dichotomy. It may be that social and economic compositio­n of societies no longer correspond­s to the fundamenta­l assumption­s on which democracy was built. These days, the world faces a host of challenges that could not have been imagined a century ago. People don’t know how to cope with these challenges; they are afraid of the future, like, for example, the threat of automation replacing the human workforce. This, in turn, has created a situation in which populist movements have emerged to challenge democracy and, as a side effect, reinforce the message of leaders who claim to offer simple and effective solutions to these issues. This is a universal phenomenon. Maybe the surprising thing is that it is spreading to countries, including the United States, that we have looked upon as the bastions of the liberal democratic model.

►What do these new breed of leaders, f we can call them that, really have to offer? Is the r message rooted n an object ve real ty?

Firstly, to use an analogy from economics, there are supply-side and demand-side factors in promoting the emergence of these leaders. Obviously, the charms of office are all too evident, and particular­ly in societies where power comes with perks. There is a reluctance on the part of some to leave because departure will mean significan­t deprivatio­ns. The average citizen may not appreciate what loss of power means, but when you’re accustomed to power, then not being able to do what you were used to doing is perceived as deprivatio­n. This is the supply side.

On the demand side, if leaders, particular­ly powerful leaders, conduct activities that may not necessaril­y be fully in line with the laws, that in itself creates a requiremen­t for them to stay in power. As long as they hold onto their positions, forcing them to account for their deeds becomes difficult. In addi- tion, around every leader there is a significan­t number of beneficiar­ies who will also suffer deprivatio­ns if their leaders go. These beneficiar­ies will inevitably encourage their leader to stay, through various sycophanti­c means.

Then, if we turn to the citizens, political change through elections where different people with differing visions compete, may be considered destabiliz­ing or disturbing. If the performanc­e of the existing leader is found to be satisfacto­ry, the temptation to let the leader continue to serve, even if it may not be allowed by the existing laws, is rather powerful. We run into this in quite a number of societies. There have been a number of African and Latin American leaders who have tried to prolong their tenure in this way – promising stability and prosperity. And now Mr. Xi is also taking advantage of it.

►If we play dev l’s advocate and look at democracy n context – at a t me of upheaval – the nherent v c ss tudes of a democrat c system, a change of pol t cal v s on every four or f ve years, for example, can be ts Ach lles heel. Do you th nk democracy can handle the current real t es of the world?

That is the $64,000 question. It seems clear that some adjustment­s need to be made in the way we’re governed. There are too many interests vying for influence. The solution might come in reducing the size of the units that are governed. Maybe, the expanding of local government’s power while reducing the powers of central government­s will reduce the problem. In some states, that may require dismemberm­ent. Maybe there will also be a necessity to transfer more questions of governance to private initiative­s rather than rendering everything into a question of public policy. Current trend is reducing democracy and centralizi­ng control.

The Chinese have posed a very interestin­g additional question to the world: Can you have a market economy alongside a single party authoritar­ian government? We haven’t seen the answer to that question yet. But the inherent conflict between two centres of power in society, which the Chinese model would imply, is vitiated by the fact that the economic elite tend to be closely associated and often integrated with the political elite. Even then, there will come a point where their interests will diverge.

►Clearly there’s a r sk to the r se of strongman leadersh p. How can nst tut ons play a role n check ng the power of these people?

It depends on the strength of the institutio­ns and on the abilities of the aspiring leaders to achieve mastery over them. For example, if we look at the experience of the United States and its populist leader, who holds no plans to change two term limit, we see that institutio­ns can be quite powerful and impede the leader’s agenda. But in China, the number of relevant institutio­ns is limited to one: The Communist Party. The distinctio­n between government and party is not as clear as it is in most other societies. Consequent­ly, the resilience of the Chinese political system to preserve the two-term system is limited. But this removal of term limits will probably reduce considerab­ly the ability of the Chinese system to respond to pressures for change because a change of leadership is an important method of adjusting to demands for change in societies. So Mr. Xi may get what he wants but life is not going to be necessaril­y be easy for him. This is the conundrum all authoritar­ian leaders face. And if history has any lesson to teach us, it is this: the leader for life model never ends well.

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