Dr. Erica Frantz discusses "Personalist Strongmen: Challenges and Trends"

February 7, 2023

Dr. Frantz, Associate Professor of Political Science,  and co-author Andrea Kendall-Taylor have contributed to the blog Democracy Paradox.  Kendall-Taylor is senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. See the original publication here: https://democracyparadox.com/2023/02/06/personalist-strongmen-challenges-and-trends/


A Bad Year for Strongmen
Looking back, 2022 was a bad year for strongmen. Take Russia, where Vladimir Putin’s poor judgement led to a war that has not only devasted Ukraine, but left Russia seriously weakened and Putin’s own hold on power more tenuous. In China, as well, widespread protests over the country’s heavy-handed COVID restrictions tarnished the increasingly personalist Xi Jinping’s image, culminating in the most overt signs of dissent that observers have seen there in years.

Even outside of autocracies, the world’s strongmen faced setbacks last year. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro lost re-election in October 2022, prompting calls among his supporters for the military to intervene and overturn the result.  Likewise, in the United States, the Republican Party’s poor performance in mid-term elections in November 2022 dealt a major blow to Donald Trump’s image and prospects for returning to power.  The bad news for strongmen trickled over into 2023 too, with the Czech Republic’s former highly personalist Prime Minister Andrej Babis losing in the country’s presidential election in January.

The headwinds facing the world’s strongmen is clearly a good news story for global peace and democracy.  A large body of evidence suggests that personalist rule — whether in autocratic or democratic environments — brings with it a number of harmful outcomes.

Personalist Dictators
Looking at autocracies, for example, personalist dictatorships (or those regimes where power is concentrated in the hands of an individual rather than a political party, royal family, or military junta) produce the worst policy outcomes of any type of political system.  Research shows that compared to other forms of dictatorship, personalist dictatorships tend to pursue the riskiest and most aggressive foreign policies, as recent experience with Putin’s belligerence has illustrated.  Personalist dictatorships are also the most likely of all dictatorships to invest in nuclear weapons and the least likely to engage in international cooperation.  Greater personalism in dictatorships even increases the chance of repression, as witnessed under Xi in recent years as he has solidified his hold on power.  Importantly, personalist authoritarianism is harmful to global democracy, as these regimes are the least likely form of dictatorship to democratize upon their collapse.

Personalist Rule in Democracies
While there is less literature looking at the consequences of personalist rule for democracies, new researchwe have conducted with Joseph Wright on elected strongmen suggests that it is similarly harmful in these settings too. Specifically, the data reveal that where personalist leaders (or those leaders who wield disproportionate power relative to the parties that back them) are elected to power, we see the quality of democracy decline, regardless of whether it is measured incrementally, sharply, or by total democratic collapse. Compared to leaders supported by more robust and less top-heavy party organizations, personalist leaders are more likely to be successful in their efforts to erode horizontal constraints on their power (i.e., the state’s legislative, judicial, and bureaucratic institutions).

But the effects of personalist rulers don’t end there. Our research also shows that these leaders increase polarization in the societies they govern, often via their attacks on state institutions.  Their actions even degrade their supporters’ views of acceptable democratic behavior, helping to explain the capitol riots that occurred in recent years in both the United States and Brazil among supporters of Trump and Bolsonaro, respectively.

Indications that personalist leaders are facing challenges is therefore welcome news.  It runs counter to the trend observed in the last two decades, with personalism on the rise in both autocratic and democratic contexts.

The Rise of Personalism
In autocracies, most dictatorships since the end of World War II were led by strong political parties, such as the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) in Mexico, or military juntas, as in much of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s.  Since the end of the Cold War, however, authoritarian politics has evolved, such that personalist rule has become the predominant form of authoritarianism.  Not only are we seeing personalist dictatorships grow more common, with new regimes coming to power in places such as Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan and South Sudan under Salva Kiir, but we are also seeing formerly collegial dictatorships grow more personalist, as in China under Xi.

In democracies, as well, we have witnessed an upsurge in personalism.  Our data show that leaders in democracies are increasingly being elected to power backed by weak and shallow parties, often that they themselves created.  This trend has been particularly notable in the last decade.  It has not been confined to one or two regions of the world either, but has been a global phenomenon, as illustrated by the assumption to power of leaders such as Macky Sall in Senegal and Nayib Bukele in El Salvador. Importantly, when such personalist democracies do give way to dictatorship, the regime that arises is nearly always personalist in nature too.

The Decline of Personalist Rule?
It is too soon to assess whether the distress — and in some instances downfall — a number of personalists experienced in 2022 will be a bellwether of political dynamics in the years to come.  After all, strongman leaders such as Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua appear more powerful than ever.  And, while they may face challenges, even Putin and Xi remain firmly in control for the foreseeable future.

Likewise, many of the factors driving the rise of personalism in democracies persist. For example, today’s media landscape continues to prioritize the individual over the party, short-circuiting the need for party building to win office. Political parties are increasingly being built around individuals, and, lacking a robust policy platform, represent little more than the politicians who found them, fueling personalism in democracies. Moreover, the well-documented wave of partisan dealignment that has swept across many parts of the globe remains relevant. As voters express dissatisfaction and detachment from long-standing political parties, it has created openings for new leaders and their personalist parties to fill.

That said, the fact that 2022 was a challenging year for personalists is certainly welcome news. If it indeed marks a turn in the tide of personalism, the world will be in a better place for it.