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