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.

This rise is a big cause of concern because personalist dictatorships produce the worst outcomes of any type of political regime. Whether leaders rule largely at their own discretion or an face institutional constraints from a powerful party or influential military dramatically affects how policy decisions are made.

A robust body of political science research shows that relative to the other forms of dictatorship, personalized leaders pursue the most risky and aggressive foreign policies; they are most likely to invest in nuclear weapons, to fight wars against democracies, and to initiate interstate conflicts. Lack of accountability of such leaders translates into an ability to take risks that dictators in other systems simply cannot afford. With minimal restraint, these leaders have wide latitude to initiate provocations without the risk of facing consequences or being punished for their words or actions.

Within non-personalist authoritarian settings, leaders are accountable to ruling party elites, senior military officers or an extended royal family. Personalist dictators, in contrast, have a very narrow set of backers – frequently a small clique of family or loyal friends. Personalist dictators also prioritize loyalty over competence and dole out government positions as well as promotions accordingly.

This strategy thwarts their access to accurate information, raising the risk of miscalculations that may lead to conflict. The incentive structures that personalist dictators produce create aggressive foreign policy choices that are hard to anticipate.

Russia underscores the link between rising personalism and aggressive foreign policy. While Putin’s actions in Crimea in 2014 and military intervention in Syria in 2015 were designed to advance a number of key Russian goals, it is also likely that Putin’s lack of domestic constraint and accountability increased the level of risk he was willing to accept in pursuit of those goals. The Kremlin has refined a number of tactics to reduce Putin’s accountability for his foreign policy decisions. For example, Putin’s tight control over the media ensures that the public receives only the official narrative of foreign events. Limited access to outside information makes it difficult for the Russian people to access unbiased accounts of what happens outside of Russia and gauge Putin’s success in the foreign policy arena. Putin’s elimination of competing voices within his regime further ensures that he faces minimal accountability for his foreign policy actions.

The personalization of politics in authoritarian China shows many of these same trends and causes for concern. During his first four years in control, President Xi Jinping used an aggressive anticorruption campaign to sideline his political opponents and boost his own public standing. Referred to as the “The Chairman of Everything,” Xi amassed more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Xi’s increasingly aggressive posture in the South China Sea has occurred alongside the rising personalization of the political system.

Not only do personalist dictatorships pursue aggressive foreign policies, they are also often difficult and unpredictable partners. Research on authoritarianism underscores that limited constraints on decision-making in personalist settings mean that leaders have the latitude to change their minds at whim, producing volatile and sometimes even erratic policies. Moreover, personalist leaders are among those autocrats most suspicious of US intentions, and view the creation of an external enemy as an effective means for boosting public support. Anti-US rhetoric, therefore, has been most pronounced in more personalist settings. Personalist leaders including Russian President Putin, Venezuelan President Maduro, and Ugandan President Museveni have used anti-US rhetoric to distract technology-empowered publics from economic decline and other regime shortcomings.

Finally, personalist regimes are least likely of all autocracies to democratize upon their collapse. These leaders cling to power in the face of domestic challenges, often leading to protracted transitions.

Recent events in Iraq, Libya and Syria illustrate this dynamic. The violence that so often accompanies the downfall of personalist dictators, coupled with these leaders’ tendency to dismantle institutions and sideline competent individuals, creates an environment that bodes ill for democracy. Instead, personalist regimes tend to give way to new dictatorships, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo post-Mobutu, or a complete breakdown of order, as in Somalia since Siad Barre.

The Paradox of Personalism

In some ways, personalization of autocracies appears to run counter to popular arguments about the international diffusion of power. Many scholars argue that power is now being shared more widely by a growing number of actors – to nongovernment organizations, corporations and wealthy or even technology-empowered individuals. The diffusion of power has led many to suggest that the age of authoritarianism is over. For example, Moises Naim in ‘The End of Power’ writes, “[D]ictators, plutocrats, corporate behemoths … are more constrained in what they can do than in the past, and their hold on power is increasingly less secure. In politics … the rise of political freedom is obvious; authoritarianism is in retreat.”

He and other political observers have argued that current dictators will soon find themselves unable to build and maintain the level of power that autocracies require to maintain their repressive systems of rule. So, what’s the future of personalism?

It may be that power is diffusing. And it may be that many leaders are finding it harder to impose their will and pursue their preferred course of action. But autocrats possess a distinct set of skills and strategies that allow them to slow the dissipation of power in ways that democracies cannot. By quashing alternative centres of power, controlling the media and degrading institutions, authoritarian regimes are actually well positioned to insulate power. For example, autocrats can limit the influence of technology-empowered individuals through filters and controls, surveillance, repression and self-censorship.

Similarly, autocrats create incentives that lead the myriad actors who can chip away at power – including governors, judges and entrepreneurs – to support rather than work against regime goals. Because autocrats are less likely to be affected by the dispersion of power than their democratic counterparts, they are likely to avoid much of the disruption and other governance challenges.

While autocrats of all breeds may be poised to expand their ranks, personalist leaders appear especially well positioned. Political forecasts suggest that the world is likely to become increasingly turbulent over the next ten to twenty years, given increasing levels of violence, economic disparity and polarization.

These trends could elicit a widespread backlash against core democratic values of freedom of expression and individual empowerment if a greater share of citizens worldwide sees strong leaders as a better option than volatility and chaos.

Warning Signs: Indicators of Personalist Dictatorship

Given the continued movement toward personalization and the dangers inherent in this trend, a rich body of research identifies following five features that distinguish personalist dictators from other forms of dictatorship. These indicators can be used as “alarm bells,” to gauge the extent of personalization in autocracies.

1. Installing Loyalists

Leaders seeking to consolidate their personal control over the country’s political system install loyalists in key positions of power including in the courts, the security apparatus, the military, the ruling political party and the bureaucracy. In Venezuela, for example, President Chávez placed his chavistas in key positions of power across the judiciary, army and the state-owned oil industry.

2. Promoting Family

Leaders looking to amass power seek to place members of their family in influential positions, regardless of government experience. Like other loyalists, they help insulate a leader from opposing views and are reliable implementers of a leader’s agenda. Iraq under Saddam Hussein provides an extreme example: Hussein’s son Qusay controlled the Revolutionary Guard, his son Uday ran the Fedayeens, and his cousin Barzan Abd al-Ghafur led the Special Republic Guard.

3. Create New Party

Personalist dictators also tend to create new political organizations or movements. They use such movements to signal their break with the political establishment and create a new base for their support. In Peru, for example, Alberto Fujimori ran as a self-professed anti-establishment candidate in the 1990 presidential election and created the Cambio 90 movement to support his candidacy. He stacked Cambio 90 with his own personal acquaintances, enabling him to develop a base of power independent of pre-existing political parties.

4. Direct Rule or Referendum

Leaders intent on concentrating power also seek to appeal directly to the public through referendum or plebiscites to legitimate their rule or extend their time in office. In Nazi Germany, for example, the German government used the referendum of 1934 to gain public approval for Adolf Hitler’s illegal combination of the powers of the President of the Reich with the office of the Chancellor following President Paul von Hindenburg’s death. Just under 90 percent of voters voted “yes,” and the media reported that the referendum gave Hitler “dictatorial powers unequalled in any other country, and probably unequalled in history.”

5. Creation of New Security Services

Personalist dictators create new security services outside of the domain of the traditional military command. This gives leaders direct access to an armed organization that is personally loyal and that has the capacity to counterbalance the formal military. In Haiti, Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier created the Tonton Macoute in 1959, a militia comprised of a consortium of young illiterate men from the countryside who were fiercely loyal to him. The group functioned as a security police in Haiti, eventually becoming more powerful than the military. Such a tactic increases the leader’s grip on power by lessening the credibility of the threat of military ouster.


Personalist rule is not a new phenomenon. If anything, it has been the norm for much of history, ranging from the Pharaohs of Egypt to the monarchs of Europe. In todays’ world also personalism in politics is rising. Although its consequences in democracies are not yet well understood, it is as clear as crystal that once personalization gains momentum, it becomes difficult to counter. Preventing a rise in personalism is hard; however, it is not impossible. To counter the rise of personalist leaders, it is imperative for organized groups, both in civil society and traditional political parties, to mobilize against changes in the rules of the game.

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