We just started the third decade of the 21st Century.  No doubt there has been progress and far-reaching transformations  just in the last two decades in technology, communications, medicine, space exploration, and travel.  Yet, one area that still poses challenges is progress in democratic governance.  As still unresolved challenges such as poverty, inequality, discrimination, racism, conflict, and hunger, persist, the effect of democratic governance is being called into question.  While these challenges facing governance are not necessarily new, today they are stronger and more pressing than in the past.  Similarly, the relationship between government and citizens is evolving, as political communities have multiplied identities, needs, and aspirations.  Moreover, demographic shifts, climate change, and socioeconomic transitions have  structured a complex governance matrix, with new political attitudes, some old, others new.  A key emerging challenge is the business of governing societies that are constantly evolving.  While a more democratic wave of government swept the latter part of the 20th century and spread hope into the third decade of the 21st century, today whole societies are struggling to sustain static models of democratic governance and are sliding into more authoritarian models of governing. The non-democratic risks of a century ago remain today alive and well, and they have re-emerged in multiple ways, undermining collective interests, institutional mechanisms, and citizen representation and participation.  The current unwavering trend at the start of a new decade of a new century begs the question; is the one-man tradition of control, once observed only in fewer places and thought to have been mitigated, now part of a wider political parlance across the world’s governance systems?  

From Democratic Institutions to Strongman Rule

Four decades ago, citizens across the world took to the streets to demand democracy from their governments, spurring a wave of democratization that transformed a majority of governments from Africa to Asia to Eastern Europe, and to Latin America. Today, not all countries in this wave have consolidated democratic governance.  A combination of factors has deflected the path towards consolidating strong democratic governance.  But most concerning is the backsliding in what were thought to be well-established democracies, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France as their governments gradually are shifting away from their democratic ideals and slipping closer toward different forms of authoritarianism.  And, in other countries with global influence, such as Russia, China, and India leaders are actively working to undermine democracy’s legitimacy.  

Throughout human history one can find evidence of strong man rule, (yes, all man) and its different variants. In the last century with the end of  authoritarian experiences in Germany and Italy, then followed by Portugal, Spain, Greece, most of Latin America and Eastern Europe, and many countries in Africa and Asia,  a wave of transitions to civilian democratic government slowly became a common aspiration. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism in Europe marked democracy as an alternative, though imperfect, form of government, and ushered elections, protection of freedoms, increased civil society activity, and aspirations for more decentralized and accountable governance.  A new line of inquiry emerged to study the conditions to consolidate democracy in this new wave.  My former professor, Adam Przeworski, as well as Guillermo O’Donnell, Alfred Stepan, and Juan Linz, among others political scientists, researched and wrote extensively on how to keep the democratic impetus in new emerging democracies and learn how to consolidate democracy and keep any form of authoritarian rule away.

At the same time, understanding how democratic regimes break down in older democracies stalled.  While Juan Linz and other focused attention of the breakdown of democracy in countries such as German, Spain, Italy and Chile, less attention was giving to other countries that in the last couple of decades have consolidated authoritarian or totalitarian rule (Venezuela, Nicaragua, Egypt), or have noticeable showed setbacks in democratic practice (Unites States, Hungary, Brazil, Poland). 

Rising populism and growing mistrust of democratic systems have given way to strongman rule in usual and unusual places. Trump,  Bashar al-Assad,  Jong-Un, Al Sisi, Duterte, Maduro, Ortega, Castro, Morales, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Jinping, Putin, Salman, Orban,  Museveni, Biya, Bongo, and Sen, are but a handful of familiar names who recently governed and/or are still governing with some level of authoritarianism and despotism.  Unlike a century ago, the strongman of the 21st century have found new ways to legitimize their power and extension, through among others, democratic elections, capturing political party support, executive decrees, intimidation, corruption, violence, nationalistic and identity politics, and disinformation through traditional and social media. These men use the power, in many cases entrusted to them, in other cases captured by them, to pursue a malevolent and often inhumane agenda focusing on fear, exclusion, and misinformation.  They disregard the human suffering they cause and are oblivious to basic human rights principles.  

Caudillos in the North and Everywhere

The figure of caudillos grew out from Latin American 19th and 20th centuries history.  In its purest form, a caudillo is a post-independence man on horseback who seeks to take the mantle of authority previously centered on the king and reestablish the system of authority and power around them, and with them in charge.  The absence of a king, or for that matter democratic institutions, became the new target from which caudillo power, patronage and spoils flowed in Latin America in the first part of the 19th century. Names like Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia in Paraguay, Juan Manuel de Rosas in Argentina, Mariano Melgarejo in Bolivia, and Juan Jose Flores in Ecuador, to name but a few, led their newly formed countries to adopt highly centralized, exclusionary, authoritarian, and repressive political regimes. This trend transcended into most of the 20th century with full military dictatorships and combinations that included hybrids between military and civilian authoritarian rule espousing far-right, socialist and populist ideals.  The likes of Juan Domingo Peron and Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina, Ernesto Geisel in Brazil, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar and Fidel Castro in Cuba, Maximiliano Hernandez in El Salvador, Efrain Rios Montt in Guatemala, Anastasio Somoza Debayle and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Juan Vicente Gomez and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and Manuel Antonio Noriega in Panama among others.

That brief background helps to explain in part the new era of caudillismo that is no longer a Latin American phenomenon, but instead it has spread, diversified, and adapted to other contexts around the world.  Among the new caudillos and strongman there are close replicas of the most despicable strongman like Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, but there is also a variety of mutations and manifestations.  What all these men have in common is that they have gained power with some form of mass support (including elections), and once in power they use it if needed with an iron hand to skew most outcomes and benefits to their narrow interests and loyal and partisan supporters.  They appeal to strong national and global anti-system sentiments, such as being against capitalism, globalization, elite politics, and in favor of identity politics (based on religion, race, ethnicity, socio-economic background).  Moderns caudillos appeal their followers to see advantage in their unilateral rule, even if often they are acting illegally and/or above the law and suppressing the opposition. 

Modern caudillos have a couple of more tools in their kit to grab and use power, spread fear and doubt, and generate chaos.  First, they no longer need to be presidents or primer ministers, as paradoxically the very progress in democratic governance in some countries has given way to more decentralized forms of governance, and more localized spaces for would be caudillos to emerge. Today, senators, representatives and legislators, governors, mayors and council people can use the power that was entrusted on them to influence authoritarian and anti-democratic policies, ideologies, behaviors, and attitudes. Taking advantage of outdated electoral norms, like gerrymandering, a practice intended to establish an unfair political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries, and winner take all, unlimited terms, and voting restrictions, many politicians have used their localized elected office and power to advance self-centered and despotic agendas.  Second, social media has helped modern caudillos amplify misinformation, polarization and their radical positions.       

Enabling the New Global Caudillismo

Caudillos today, like in the past, claim they want to make their supporters happy by giving them what they consider good for them, instead of considering what supporters and other constituencies want or need.  Ultimately, for caudillos the plight of their own supporters is secondary.  Caudillos take advantage of the political inexperience and illiteracy of their supporters, and by appealing to their emotional and fanatical instincts, caudillos climb into power and work hard to stay in power indefinitely. Most if not all caudillos have an ego-inflating satisfaction derive from holding power in an authoritarian fashion and literally looting public resources to satisfy an ostentatious lifestyle that benefit them personally.  Countries that have had caudillos as heads of state or heads of government, or both, produced evidence showing how these caudillos use power to help themselves.  Muammar Gaddafi, Daniel Ortega, and the Dos Santos family for example, all came from modest means, and once in power they amassed wealth for themselves and their families by engaging in corrupt practices and using all means, including force and intimidation, to sustain their rule.  While they claim to be fighting for the common folk and the poor, they acquire with  public resources expensive cars, media outlets, boats, and natural resource companies.  They may be illiterate or well educated, but they are instinctive and calculating in their actions, and often are unstable in character.  They are not afraid to use force to intimidate, or remain in office, while keeping a small but controlled space for freedoms and rights.  What enables caudillos to remain in power and to enjoy unbounded impunity?  Here are a few factors to consider by themselves or in combination:

  • Absence of effective constitutional checks: Modern caudillos benefit from the lack of explicit constitutional checks on executive power.  In the most extreme cases, modern caudillos while in power, chip away existing constitutional checks in their benefit without the acceptance of other branches of government, or citizens, technically becoming masters of the constitution.  For example, in Nicaragua and Bolivia, autocratic leaders changed the constitution to terminate presidential term limits and to allow them to be in power indefinitely.  In Bolivia, the argument was based on an interpretation of a provision in the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, which says that political rights can “only” be limited under very specific circumstances.
  • No independent centers of oversight capable of checking caudillo power: As long as oversight is absent, weakened or constrained, modern caudillos thrive in impunity and corrupt practices. Main reason why the media and freedom of the press are demonized, as well as the civil society space reduced.  Modern caudillos use cronies, corruption and often bribery to buy loyalty in courts, and other government control entities to remain above the law.
  • Using electoral process to legitimize their entrance or stay in power:  Modern caudillos have many tools at their disposal to legitimize themselves or when needed delegitimize the opposition.  Elections is one of them. For example, Maduro in Venezuela called elections in December 2020 to both legitimize his dictatorship and delegitimize the interim opposition government.
  • Political parties and groups:   A recent brief by V-Dem Institute shows how political parties can become overtime more illiberal for democratic governance enabling the rise and consolidation of autocratic rule. For example, according to the brief the Republican party in the United States, known for its moral high ground, and reverence to the rule of law and freedoms, has retreated from upholding democratic norms in recent years. As can be seen in Figure 1 below, its rhetoric is closer to authoritarian parties, such as AKP in Turkey and Fidesz in Hungary.
  • Uninformed and un-invested citizens:  Democratic governance is not only about government or politics.  It is as much about citizens, communities, and societies, and how invested they are in defending the democratic space and in demanding accountability.  When citizens are uninformed, apathetic, driven by conspiracies, and when they are not invested civically in democratic governance, the door is wide open for demagogues and caudillos to play into those weaknesses and take advantage or their civic-democratic ignorance. Modern caudillos thrive on misinformation, fake news, alternative realities and target uninformed citizens. Evidence shows that countries with higher overall citizen participation also have better performing democratic government.    

Quō vādis New Caudillismo?

Perhaps the most worrying element of the strongman’s global rise is the message it sends. The  democratic governance systems that brought hope half a century ago look today weaker and dismantled from institutions.  Strong checks and balances, accountability, and the peaceful transfer of power can prevent the emergence of one-man rule and backsliding of democracies. While there are still many unknows, going back to the literature on democratic consolidation from the 1990s may offer some clues in reverse.  Political scientists like Przeworski, O’Donnell, Stepan, Linz, and others like Fareed Zacharia, studied and contributed to democratic theory, which brought significant advances in the state of knowledge by focusing on how to consolidate democracy.  As the reverse trends of consolidation seems to be occurring, important to understand how to stop and or reduce democratic backsliding and the factors that allow modern caudillos to thrive.

O’Donnell’s delegative democracy framework seems to be relevant as a starting analytical tool. For example, the recognition that electoral processes do not necessarily translate into representation.  O’Donnell would argue that while many of today’s democratic systems could technically meet most of Robert Dahl’s criteria for the definition of polyarchy, but would argue they are not consolidating but backsliding.  While in the 1990s O’Donnell argued that in the new democracies there was no sign either of any imminent threat of an authoritarian regression, or of advances toward representative democracy, four decades later we seem to have a clearer trend of moving further away from representative democracy and closer to authoritarian and populist regimes.  The deep social and economic crisis and inequalities that most of these countries face reinforces the perception among some groups that under more democratic regimes these basic issues cannot be  resolved.   

Caudillos use elections to get to power, and once in power they work hard at destroying any institutional vestige of democratic governance and in building a personalistic, nationalistic, and populist regime.  They close any openings to reform and obstruct any effort to promote a shared interest in re-investing in democratic institution building. The modern caudillos use division and polarization as tools.  The political and policy environment under caudillos becomes so toxic that it is difficult to achieve either institutional progress or governmental effectiveness in dealing with social and economic crises. In the most extreme cases, the political cost for the caudillos in power is relatively low, as they restrict opposition and accountability and can use absolute power to hide policy failures, incompetence, and corruption, and make it look as if they are supporting or defending the poorest, for example through subsidies or transfers.

Evidence shows caudillos work hard to systematically weaken horizontal accountability by capturing control of oversight institutions and use power fully to intimidate, and thwart any exercise of vertical accountability by the media, citizens and civil society organizations.  This is the main reason why the greatest threat to democratic governance today may be the strongmen and new caudillos yet to come. Currently, we are witnessing a concerning time for democratic governance globally.  As in other historical periods, the modern global caudillo tendency is part of a general cycle, although they are important differences among them in nature, context, and depth.  While there is no blueprint to reform and strengthen democratic governance, it is imperative to close the gap between decision makers and citizens.  Understanding how to bring back to democratic governance minimal principles such as accountability, inclusion and constructive dialogue is necessary to find creative solutions towards more accountable governance. 

*Source of the photo: Pexels, 2021

Written by Gerardo Berthin

This is a conversational blog written and maintained by Gerardo Berthin, a political scientist, who specializes in applied governance policy issues. This personal reflection is not intended to reflect the positions of organizations he is and/or has been affiliated with. All pictures unless otherwise noted are attributed to the author.

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