Opening Remarks

Mini-Trumps Are Running for Election All Over the World

The strongman has returned, promising to solve big problems that democratic institutions struggle with.
Illustration: 731

To many political observers, Marine Le Pen’s defeat in the French presidential election halted a worrisome political trend in the developed world. However, the style of leadership she epitomized—along with Donald Trump and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan—continues to roll on around the world. The old-fashioned term “strongman” can be used to describe those who’ve adopted the style—with a difference. In the past, a strongman was a true dictator, someone like Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union or Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt who grabbed power through undemocratic means and then ruled over an authoritarian state. Today’s strongmen, by contrast, win real elections but then undermine democratic norms to control power. In Turkey, Erdogan eked out a referendum victory on changes to the constitution that could give him vast powers. In the U.S., Trump has been using presidential executive orders, the firing of the FBI director, and Twitter bombast to disrupt the status quo.

Of course, today’s strongmen can be women, too. Le Pen may potentially be one. She rode a wave of French anger to deliver by far the best result for a far-right party in French history, setting the stage for her—and her strident National Front—to mount a stronger bid for the presidency in 2022 if Emmanuel Macron fails to address the country’s problems.

Similar types of leaders will be running for high office on almost every continent in the next two years. If this diverse array of mini-Trumps triumphs, it will be a clear signal that democracy is on the brink worldwide. It will be a sign that, in an era of collapsing public trust and weakening political parties, strongman governance has enormous global appeal, not only in aging societies such as France that are grappling with issues related to trade and immigration.

As Yascha Mounk, a lecturer at Harvard, has shown, young people in many nations have become increasingly dissatisfied with democratic governance and willing to consider authoritarianism. They’ve become unhappy, according to Mounk and other analysts, because they believe democracy hasn’t helped address stagnating incomes, because representative institutions have been captured by narrow interests or turned into hyperpartisan battlegrounds, and because once-stable political parties have collapsed, among other factors. Additionally, the spread of social media has undermined gatekeepers of information. Given these conditions, authoritarian or pseudo-authoritarian leaders can capture minds with Trumpian strategies, promising that one strong political personality can offer an answer where parties, institutions, and previous elected leaders have failed.

Strongmen or aspiring strongmen will be on the ballot in countries including Cambodia, Malaysia, Hungary, Botswana, and Kyrgyzstan. In some places, such as Serbia, Macedonia, and Nicaragua, strongmen or aspiring strongmen have already won elections in the past year, sometimes after changing electoral laws to favor them or extend their terms.

In Indonesia, there could be two mini-Trumps running for president in the 2019 elections. One is Prabowo Subianto, a mercurial ex-general and former son-in-law of Indonesian dictator Suharto. Prabowo has ridden into rallies atop a horse, positioned himself as the only solution to Indonesia’s economic and security challenges, and threatened to get rid of direct elections. The other is Hary Tanoesoedibjo, a billionaire who builds resorts (and is one of Trump’s business partners) and is positioning himself as a savvy businessman who can step in and right Indonesia if normal politicians falter.

In Mexico, former head of government of Mexico City Andrés Manuel López Obrador is leading in polls for the 2018 presidential elections. Unlike Prabowo or Trump, López Obrador’s politics lean left—today’s strongmen come in all political flavors—but he shares many of their traits, including a distaste for working with others and a messianic view of his own powers.

The breadth of this political wave shows that democracy is in deep trouble worldwide. This is actually the third global wave of democratic regression in the past century. The other two reverse waves, when authoritarians grew in power and democracies failed, happened in the 1920s and ’30s, and in the ’60s and early ’70s. Freedom House, the global organization monitoring civil liberties, estimates that this wave of democratic regression has lasted 11 years. According to Freedom House, it’s occurring everywhere from Poland to the Philippines, where another elected strongman, President Rodrigo Duterte, has overseen a crackdown on free expression and a brutal drug war of extrajudicial killings.

Not all these would-be Trumps will win, of course. Prabowo and Tanoesoedibjo must still be considered the underdogs in a race against incumbent President Joko Widodo. López Obrador faces a crowded field, and Mexican elections can be unpredictable. Cambodia’s strongman, Prime Minister Hun Sen, faces an opposition that almost won the last election.

But if even half of the mini-Trumps were to triumph in the next two years, the number of countries regressing from democratic rule—including enormous economies such as Indonesia—would almost double, which would have disastrous effects on social and political freedoms. The appeal of strongmanism would spread. Just as the establishment of democracies in one region, such as post-Cold War Eastern Europe in the 1990s, created pressure for neighboring states to democratize, the return of authoritarian rule in some countries could exert pressure on neighboring nations to choose strongmen.

Yet the next two years could also prove the high point of the era of modern strongmen. They already have faltered in Poland and elsewhere. Strongmen in some countries, intoxicated by their own power, pushed too far against influential local figures or promoted policies so unpopular even some of their own supporters revolted. In Thailand, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra so alienated the military and Bangkok elites that he and then his sister were both overthrown in coups. In Poland, the increasingly authoritarian Law and Justice Party has angered many Poles by trying to pass laws on hot-button cultural issues, such as banning abortion. The party could lose control of Parliament in the next election, as the opposition is now polling close to Law and Justice; a similar fate could befall the GOP-dominated House under Trump. And in places such as the Netherlands and Austria, potential strongmen—Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer—found that their pseudo-authoritarian preening, which may have been popular, became so intertwined with divisive policy platforms that they didn’t win elections.

In addition, despite initial public bromances between strongmen such as Trump and Duterte, or Trump and Erdogan, these contemporary strongmen probably won’t work together well. In the past, the U.S. has negotiated most effectively with other democratic governments, such as those in NATO, in large part because they’ve shared stable political cultures based on deep democratic traditions that restrained any one leader’s decision-making. But the modern strongmen are trying to shed some of these traditions—traditions that have often provided continuity and helped countries get along. What’s more, many of these figures—from Duterte to Trump to Erdogan—have grandstanding personalities. Their high-profile, showmen styles make it hard to imagine they will easily compromise with anyone on global issues. Instead, their attitudes will likely make the world a more dangerous place, hurting their own claim to be powerful leaders who’ll protect their people.

Trump himself could wind up being the largest impediment to the rise of leaders who model themselves after him. If the U.S. president, watched by the entire world, continues to preside over a dysfunctional, domestically unpopular government, the idea that a strongman can fix all problems could be undermined not only in Europe but also in Asia, Africa, and other regions. After all, in the part of the world where elected strongmen have enjoyed the most success, South America, decades of dysfunctional government, despite concentrated political power, have led to counter-revolutions. That’s true in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela, though Caracas’s strongman is still hanging on—but barely.

The last two waves of global democratic regression eventually ended, too, and democracy progressed once again. The good news? In the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, democracy began to flourish again in southern Europe and then in Eastern Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world. Mostly peaceful movements learned from past democratic failures and ousted the strongmen of that time. The bad news? The first big antidemocratic wave only ended after World War II.
 
Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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