Idrees Ali

‘Presidents for life’ could echo beyond China

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One could imagine Putin convincing himself that leaving the Kremlin in 2024 is no longer necessary. Elected leaders could soon rush to tell their voters that a change of leadership is a dangerous idea


By: Ivan Krastev

In 1813, not long before the end of his reign, Napoleon Bonaparte told the Austrian foreign minister, Count Metternich, the downside of being a strongman. “My reign will not outlast the day I have ceased to be strong and therefore to be feared,” Napoleon said. “Your sovereigns, who were born to the throne, can allow themselves to be defeated 20 times and will always return to their capitals.”

Napoleon knew better than anyone the difficulties of remaining in power forever, particularly if you weren’t born to the throne. Years later, democratic institutions would resolve this problem by making it possible for a defeated leader to return by way of the ballot box. Electoral democracy made clear that the throne is never owned, only leased.

But the spirit of democracy was hardly limited to the idea that the will of the people is expressed through free and fair elections. That rulers should not be encouraged to outstay their welcomes and that their power must always be constrained played an instrumental role in the modern understanding of liberal democracy as well.

But this consensus, forged over centuries, is now being called into question.

Today some of the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries, democracies and nondemocracies alike, are fashioning themselves as modern-day emperors. They are concentrating power in their own hands with no plans to leave office in their lifetime. In their view it does not matter whether a country is a democracy or an autocracy; what matters is the quality of its leader. And they have a lot of support: At a time when mistrust of politicians is high, many people see strongman leaders as preferable to a corrupt political establishment.

No example of this trend is clearer or more significant than the vote this week by China’s National People’s Congress to abolish presidential term limits. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this move signals the end of democracy’s hegemony as the world’s political ideal.

In the days after President Xi Jinping of China announced his decision to abolish term limits, many analysts concluded that his attempt to become an actual emperor signaled Beijing’s ambition to openly challenge America’s global leadership. This is accurate, but it’s not the full story.

What is rarely discussed in this context is what the political scientist Professor Ken Jowitt calls the “Versailles effect.” Looking at history, Jowitt demonstrates how power can be best measured by the eagerness of others to imitate one’s institutions and lifestyles.

In the 17th century, he argues, Louis XIV of France “created a remarkably powerful and prestigious regime, one mimicked from Germany to Russia, where mini-Versailles were built, French manners adopted, and the French language spoken by the elite.” In the 19th century, Britain’s Parliament became the object of political desire – Hungarians signaled their political ambitions by building a neo-Gothic Parliament building in Budapest as grandiose as the one in London.

After World War II, the Stalinist regimes installed in Eastern Europe were all stamped with a similarly imposing and inhumane Stalinist architecture.

After the end of the Cold War, imitating the West signified being on the right side of history. Holding elections and writing American-style constitutions was as important for the image of the nation as having a smartphone is for the self-esteem of a teenager. For Jowitt, “in the post-Cold War era, playing golf for the non-Western elite was what wearing togas was for the non-Roman elite in the ancient world.”

And constraining a ruler’s power was one of the key ways that nondemocracies adjusted to the age of democracy.

That’s why many undemocratic governments insisted on maintaining democratic trappings, in particular elections and term limits. In 2008, for example, Vladimir Putin of Russia resisted the temptation to change the constitution to allow him a third consecutive term as president because he did not want his country to look like one of the Central Asian republics where presidents never leave their palaces.

Even though the system was rigged, undemocratic governments knew it was important to at least pretend it wasn’t. This – rather than the spread of liberal democracy – is the real evidence of democracy’s hegemony. Even China played along.

Until now.

In this sense, the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to abolish presidential term limits will resound far beyond China. One could imagine Putin convincing himself that leaving the Kremlin in 2024, when his next term would conclude, is no longer necessary. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey may very well also be reassured that he could stay in power indefinitely. Elected leaders around the world could soon rush to tell their voters that a change of leadership is a dangerous idea. New constitutions will be written and old constitutions will be amended to mark the arrival of the new political fashion.

The arrival of this “emperor’s moment” is bad news for Europe, where not having an emperor is at the very heart of the European project. It is also rotten news for the United States. But it may be a boon for President Donald Trump, who could decide that after Americans have taught the Chinese how to play golf, it’s time for Americans to start imitating the Chinese. What if two presidential terms isn’t enough time to make America great again?

  • Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Source:

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