Leaders for life are as creative as novelists. They engage in world-building

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 17, 2020

On Wednesday (Jan. 15) Russia’s president Vladimir Putin offered an apparently new tactic of democratic deconstruction or what scholars call constitutional regression. He raised the profile of a previously little-known body, the State Council, and suggested Russian presidents shouldn’t have as much authority as once they did. This raises the possibility that Mr Putin will either head the State Council forever and a day, or create some other reality to ensure he is in charge and unaccountable.

Mr Putin, incidentally, borrowed his strategy from nearby Kazakhstan. Last year, Nursultan Nazarbayev quit the presidency, which he had held for three decades, but stayed firmly in power. Mr Nazarbayev remains the constitutionally designated leader of the nation and lifelong head of the Security Council, a constitutional advisory body to the government.

It’s called world-building, creating a system that preserves an illusion and elides the reality of democratic deconstruction.

Funnily, at the time Mr Nazarbayev worked his creative instincts to hold on to power, Arkady Dubnov, an independent Russian expert on Central Asia and Afghanistan, wondered if the Kazakh model might be a template for others in the region, namely Russia, to follow.

In a piece for Al Jazeera, Mr Dubnov said, “In Russia, Vladimir Putin could adopt the same approach of appointing a successor and retiring to a powerful position, say, as the head of the State Council, where he can enjoy enhanced powers, but the Russian president is known not to be fond of copycat moves.”

As it happens, Mr Putin doesn’t seem to have minded taking his cue from the Kazakh leader. There are only so many creative ways to hold on to power without triggering a popular backlash, and an international outcry against the ongoing murder of democracy.

There is the unsubtle exercise of removing term limits – a favoured tactic of African leaders, at least 17 of whom have tried, since 2000, to change the constitution to stay in power, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Venezuela’s late Hugo Chavez eliminated term limits too, as did China’s Xi Jinping in 2018.

Then there is the tactic of the rigged election – as in Venezuela in 2018.

History tells us that a crisis — real or manufactured — can be invaluable for politicians who find democratic checks and balances inconvenient. The narrative skilfully weaves a fictional web around some real-world issues. As happened in the Philippines in the 1970s, Peru in the early 1990s and then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the late 1990s, security considerations can serve as a justification to arrogate power to the leader.

In their 2018 book “How Democracies Die,” Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt noted that “blatant dictatorship — in the form of fascism, communism or military rule — has dis­appeared across much of the world since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected gov­ernments themselves.”

The point about constitutional regression is that it preserves the illusion of order and elides the chaos that’s just below the surface.