What their renewed grip on power means for the world?
March 2018 has been a unique month in the realm of international politics. It was in this month that two powerful leaders of the contemporary world cemented their places in their respective countries. While the president of China Xi Jinping was re-elected as the lifetime incumbent on March 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin grabbed his fourth presidential term the very next day. For the democratic world, these two instances do not have a positive message.
Today, Russia and China are the two alternate centres of power in world politics. But, with their leaders now renewing their licence to rule, international relations will see more tense moments in the coming days. That the fault line in international politics is wide open was visible when Putin’s victory was hailed by countries like China, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Venezuela, Turkey and others while the European leaders were hesitant. But till how long can the West afford to look the other way? Leaders, today, bank on their popular image. The days of concluding a leader like Putin as a misfit for democratic ideals and snubbing him are clearly over. As nations become obsessed more with their respective nationalisms and an urge to regain the glorious past, the yardstick of democracy to judge how good and effective their political systems are is becoming irrelevant. Leaders like Putin and Xi have thrived irrespective of the system that prevails in their countries. And the foremost reason for this is their popularity in the eyes of their own people.
Procedural democracy may earn a nation’s political system a tag of acceptable or non-acceptable but if the people of that country feel that a particular leader has served their cause well, even if symbolically, it does that leader enough favour to stay in power. Both Putin and Xi have a strong following in their respective homelands. Russia is not economically well-off yet Putin’s leadership makes the people feel that they are defended by a strong hand. The Russian government’s ‘accomplishments’ in Crimea and Syria have bolstered the common man’s take on their country which they feel is a great one.
In China, the same thing happens with Xi. Irrespective of the fact that there is no democracy, the common people of China are convinced about Xi’s leadership for the country’s economy is doing great under him and he has taken a strong stand on corruption. Even in international affairs, China’s growing clout has made them a happier lot.
Nothing sells like nationalism, not even democracy. Stability and national pride matter. This is where the Putins and Xis have made an impact as leaders. Even if their regimes do not encourage democratic practices, yet their people do not feel that they have failed them because they have, after all, succeeded in infusing a satisfaction over stability and national pride. The majoritarian population prefers to back a leader who they feel would lead them on the right path and that leader continues to enjoy the benefit of the doubt over a long time. Even a normal criticism tends to help their cause as their loyalists and common supporters see it as a conspiracy to malign an able leadership.
The story holds true for the likes of Trump, Modi and Erdogan. The rise of Putin and Xi has made one thing clear. We cannot hold democracies as one ideal system which doesn’t entertain authoritarian tendencies. We have perhaps lived the era of democracy and entered the era of populism as an established form of governance.