At the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, President Xi Jingping delivered a speech that lasted for 3 hours and 23 minutes. In it he set out his ‘China Dream’. It was time, he said, for his nation to transform itself into ‘a mighty force’ that could lead the world on political, economic, military and environmental issues. He ended the Congress by, effectively, becoming the President of China for life. At an elegant stroke of the calligrapher’s quill, the convention that China’s Presidents serve two five year terms was swept aside. Xi would be in office with a firm grasp of the reins of power for as long as he chose. Did he bore them into this mammoth historical concession, or was there some other reason for his success?
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has changed the constitution, put thousands in jail and given himself the power to appoint ministers, issue decrees and make all the judiciary appointments in the country. He is the law of the land. He has been in power for fifteen years and could, in theory, stay in office until 2028 or later. Is his popularity the reason for his success?
Kim Jong-Un’s appetite for absolute power, despite recent overtures to the USA and across to the border in South Korea, is common knowledge, and its inviolate nature one of the current great world certainties.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin wades through icy water bare-chested to demonstrate his potency, the strong man in charge, any voices of opposition running the risk of being shot, possibly just outside the walls of the Kremlin, being arrested or just exiled. How did that happen?
The thirst to acquire and retain power remains depressingly common, and often unchallenged by a population dulled by poverty or ideological blindness. As for getting the average president of a small principalities to step down voluntarily, that’s a rare event. It would seem that once you acquire a taste for absolute power there is little to do other than scheme about how you might hang on to it. And success in town planning or deft economic policy are not the kind of skills that might keep a politician in power long. Losing power and office is the beginning of a swift downward spiral to be avoided.
The world of Newtonian politics would suggest that the more you use violence to retain power, the more the same level of violence may come to be used against you. Leaders who live by the sword are unlikely to see the full benefits of their index-linked pension.
Power is such a heady brew that even enlightened leaders – think Mugabe when first in office – can become drunk and intemperate with their judgement very swiftly. The principles and policies adopted should maintain the status quo rather than risk a new rock bank on the block. Fine words become dark deeds as enemies accumulate and friends and family require favours.
The Presidential incumbency is now effectively a tribe rather than a single politician. Vladimir Putin knows that if he is not President he will be either in jail – or worse. His actions mitigate his demise. The power of patronage means survival for a time but not, as history demonstrates, for all time. But dictators are not students of history or, if they are, they are clearly ignoring the lessons available to them. They will be the exception that proves the rule. They will find the way to keep the people subservient, the opposition in disarray and the family happy and wealthy.
Is there another way? Can power be curbed constitutionally, irrevocably? Power-driven presidents may change what they do not like but they have to effect some manner of consensus to deliver such change, and perhaps therein lies the nature of the answer.
A robust constitution with an independent judiciary will invariably counter dictatorships. If the system in place tries to challenge one or the other, then it will be time to take to the streets.
When the crowd started to boo the autocrat Nicolae Ceausescu in Bucharest, he had no answer but to flee. The people could not be silenced and his time had come. Despite the efforts of his secret police, the tide flipped and he lost his power almost in an instant. The power of the booing brought to an end a dictator who had ruled without compromise for almost a quarter of a century, even though the fall of the Berlin Wall had served to facilitate his opposition.
What response can there be to absolute power? Mockery, lampooning, satire, disrespect? These are all in the right circumstances ways of eliminating the need for bombs or guns. A brutal cartoon or a sharp piece of repartee can suffice. Dictators demand respect and when they do not get it, they may lose comprehensively.
The next time you encounter a President for Life, it might be an idea to draw a mocking cartoon or write a satirical sketch, undermining the demagogue with a one-liner or a well-blown, sibilant raspberry.
Now that’s really revolutionary.