July 15, 2021

How Personalist Politics is Changing Democracies

By Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Carisa Nietsche, Erica Frantz and Joseph Wright

Personalist leaders, such as Russian president Vladimir Putin, Rwandan president Paul Kagame, and former Libyan president Muammar alQadhafi, dominate their country's political systems to such a degree that they become virtually indistinguishable from the regimes they rule. In the case of Russia, Putin has tightened his grip on power since his election in 2000 by systematically eliminating checks on his authority, including from the legislature, judiciary, regional governments, and civil society. He has also demolished any perception of a viable alternative to his leadership, even from individuals within his regime, and instead installed loyalists in key positions of power.

Personalism refers to the domination of the political realm by a single individual. The leader's personality has an outsized impact on policies and outcomes, often trumping institutions and rules. In contemporary politics, we typically associate this sort of rule with authoritarian regimes. In such a personalist autocracy, the leader governs absent the constraints of other actors: Not even the leader's political party (should it exist) or the security apparatus exert independent control. Policy choices, in turn, reflect the whims of the ruler.

This rapid increase is alarming: Personalist rule brings with it a host of negative outcomes compared to other types of authoritarian systems.

Personalist rule is not a new phenomenon: For the bulk of political history, from the pharaohs of Egypt and the emperors of Rome to the czars of Russia, it was commonplace. The late twentieth century marked a departure from that norm as representative democracies emerged in substantial numbers during the "third wave." As the twentieth century unfolded, not only did democracy spread but autocracies grew more diverse, and in many cases were less likely to be dominated by a single individual, as reflected in the collective-leadership structures of communist regimes in post-Mao China, Laos, and Vietnam as well as in those of the former military juntas in Argentina, Brazil, and Nigeria.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, politics has seemingly been slowly reverting to earlier times. As we have documented elsewhere, personalist dictatorships are on the rise.1 In 1988, these regimes composed 23 percent of all autocracies. By 2010, this percentage had nearly doubled to 40 percent. Although the data on authoritarian regime type end in 2010, all signs indicate that this trend has continued, with most new dictatorships exhibiting symptoms of personalism, including Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdo¢gan and Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega.

Read the full article from The Journal of Democracy.

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