Autocrats rule, democrats flounder
By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.
Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia, claimed the Presidency, the supreme leadership of his country, once more last week with – at least in public – an assurance which amounted to nonchalance. The man whom he had made current President of Russia, Dmitri Medvedev, proposed to the party he had created, United Russia, that he be its candidate for the next presidential elections, to be held next year.
He told the party congress that, should he be elected, he would appoint Mr. Medvedev as Prime Minister. A straight switch, requiring only the imprimatur of the people – who, grateful for stability, rising prices and an increase in the status of their country – are expected to give it.
For a country which has been turbulent for a quarter of a century, this promises the smoothest of transitions. Mr. Putin was president – succeeding Boris Yeltsin – for two terms, from 2000 to 2008. Mr. Medvedev kept the seat warm for a further four years: and if re-elected, Mr. Putin can expect two more presidential terms, till 2020 (when he will be 68) – a longer tenure of power than any other major elected leader since the war. This, of course, assumes he remains popular: but while both his own and his party’s ratings have fallen, both easily outstrip every other individual or party in the state.
The proposed transition points to a jagged fact: most authoritarian leaders are presently both more successful and (much) more popular than most democratic ones. The rulers of China, secure in the former Imperial pleasure garden compound of Zhongnanhai next to Beijing’s Forbidden City, continue to balance carrots and sticks in their successful quest for relative stability and absolute growth. Fears of a contagion from the Arab spring has translated into a harsher tone to Chinese rule – but so far, Tienanmen has not been transformed into Tahrir Square. Dissidence and protests there are, aplenty: but the steady expansion of living standards, consumption and (managed) liberties ensure a majority quiescent, or supportive.
In the democratic world? Uneasy lies the head of every elected leader of a major state. Contemporary politics offers no swifter descent from the stellar to the cellar than that of President Barack Obama, whose main crime in the eyes of both his opponents and his supporters has been to make the (fully democratic) transition from aspirant to occupant. The leader of the world’s biggest democracy, Manmohan Singh of India, is said by The Diplomat, the current affairs magazine for the Asia Pacific region, to be “seen by many as ineffective, insufficiently driven and, worse, just plain uninspiring”.
Angela Merkel of Germany on whose shoulders the Euro crisis mainly falls – and who scored a rare success this week in getting the Bundestag to ratify a large hike in German financial aid to Greece – has an unruly coalition, opposition parties taking regional bastions of centre-right power by the month and an electorate sullenly grudging of every Euro pledged to lazy, spendthrift southern states. Her partner in the salvation of the European currency, and the European Union, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, has had a descent in popularity only a little less precipitous than Obama’s, one which his beautiful wife, Carla Bruni, has tended to hasten rather than halt (a late autumn baby may help).
David Cameron also commands an unruly coalition, unfamiliar to the UK: and strains to see promised private sector growth springing from public sector cuts. In August, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan produced its sixth Prime Minister in five years, Yoshihiko Noda, a former Finance Minister. Even Silvio Berlusconi, who had earlier in this, his third period in the Prime Minister of Italy’s office, had seemed invulnerable to scandal and national decline, is, at 75 this week, himself in sharp decline in the polls.
These men and one woman are democratically elected, head major political parties which depend on the favour of electorates and spend much of their time explaining their policies and seeking support. Yet everywhere, they are said to be held in contempt – often by the people who voted for them.
The successful leaders of the east, by contrast, can count, explicitly or implicitly, on a settled base of authoritarian power: Communism. The politburo members of Zhongnanhai are heirs to the power of a party in power for over six decades, succeeding first by brutality, more recently by flexibility. Vladimir Putin and many of his closest colleagues were KGB officers, the Soviet Communist Party’s “sword and shield”, trained in devotion to the Soviet state. He was, to be sure, elected – and is likely to be again: but by his own proclamation, the democracy over which he presides is “managed”. He has determined that Russia, heir to the Soviet state, should strengthen central rule and emphasize continuing greatness – that last through an adroit modernization of Communist era themes and symbols.
There is another factor. The democrats, with the partial exception of Mrs. Merkel, were raised in good times, when the West had the power, wealth and moral advantage. They came to power when government was, at root, a matter of ensuring that their peoples’ consumption would steadily increase. Power, wealth and moral advantage are now all either in at least relative decline, or in question: what strong moral base can be found in an apparently failing capitalism?
Free societies and free markets seemed, from the democratic vantage point, easy affairs: the natural choice of men and women. Their moral base can be re-found, but it needs a new and difficult articulation: a reassertion of virtues and standards which wealth and ease seemed to have rendered no longer useful – even slightly ridiculous. Now, in hard times when the basis of free markets face harder questioning than it has had in decades, leaders must both assert faith in political and economic freedom, and seek ways to channel market activity so that the rewards do not go, in obscenely large amounts, to the already wealthy; so that men and women do not spend years looking for work; so that the watchdogs, among which are the news media, do not degrade themselves, and render themselves unfit for public purpose.
The new leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, tried in a speech to his annual conference last week to grope for this, proposing “a new bargain based on a different set of values”, where “the right people” were rewarded. To this, the ruling Conservatives retorted that it was the last Labour government “that gave us the ‘something-for-nothing’ culture” – yet have, in their “Big Society” agenda, put much the same approach into the public domain.
The exchange showed, at least, that a battle has been joined, on the right terrain. President Kennedy’s inaugural injunction – “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” – has been much admired, but hasn’t been seen as much more than rhetoric. Now, countries – states – can do less for their citizens than they had become accustomed to: and Kennedy’s question is less of a speechwriter’s brainwave, more of an urgent requirement. Half a century on from the day of its voicing, the unpopular democratic leaders have little choice but to live by it.