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The Global Rise of Personalized Politics

The Global Rise of Personalized Politics

It’s Not Just Dictators Anymore

It may not be surprising that power in Russia rests with Vladimir Putin or in China with Xi Jinping, the personalization of politics is alarmingly accelerating to Bangladesh, Hungary, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey and elsewhere, potentially including the United States itself. 

No sane person would deny that in today’s Russia President Vladimir Putin is omnipotent. He has sweeping powers in his hands like never before. During his first four years in office, Putin installed his loyalists, particularly from the Russian security services, at key positions. From then on, he has concentrated enormous executive power in his hands. He has continued to accumulate power by monopolizing his control over the media, hollowing out the legislature, systematically disempowering civil society and marginalizing his potential competitors. Politics have become so personalized that the stability of the Russian system is now contingent on Putin’s own popularity.

In Turkey, President Recep Erdogan is also on a similar trajectory. He has used the botched coup of July 2016 to overwhelm his country’s institutions. Following the putsch, Erdogan proceeded to purge his regime of dissenting voices, including those from within his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the military, the media and the judiciary.

While personalization of politics is particularly visible in Russian and Turkish examples, it is not unique to these countries. The trend is apparent in countries including Bangladesh, China and the Philippines. Even in the heart of democratic Europe, leaders are taking steps to enhance their power at the expense of political allies: Hungary’s Victor Orban and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński are two most frequently cited examples in this regard. And this expansion is poised to accelerate. The spread of populist sentiment across Europe is fuelling public demand for parties and leaders extolling the virtues of strong and decisive leadership. Similarly, the US election has led political observers to question whether the United States is also ripe for personalization of its political system.

The Perils of Personalism

While increasing personalism is evident across a broad swath of countries, the trend has been most pronounced within authoritarian settings. Data show that personalist dictatorships – defined as those regimes where power is highly concentrated in the hands of a single individual – have increased notably since the end of the Cold War.

In 1988, personalist regimes comprised just 23 percent of all dictatorships. Today, this percentage has almost doubled, with personalist dictators ruling 40 percent of all authoritarian regimes.

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