The Middle East is on a roll – one dictator down, two more on the edge. The people are energized and a fresh breeze of hope seems to be blowing. But this is not the first time that euphoria has gripped a region and an old order has been brought down. Ukraine placed Viktor Yushchenko in power in 2005 and Poland elected Lech Walesa to lead the first non-communist government, in 1990. In both cases, the euphoria didn’t last long and both Yuschenko and Walesa lost their re-election bids.
Does euphoria create expectations that people like Yuschenko and Walesa find too challenging to handle or do they just get corrupted by power in office? The ‘power corrupts’ adage does apply, but several other factors come in the way of a successful tenure of a revolutionary leader. Sometimes it’s a leadership vs management challenge and sometimes it’s the establishment that makes things difficult.
Leadership vs Management Challenge: Political leadership entails rallying support to challenge status quo. Leaders inspire their followers to go outside the realm of law and order in open defiance, to change a paradigm in society. Gandhi led an entire nation to defy the laws imposed by the British. Lech Walesa unionized Polish workers in open defiance, during a communist regime. In short, leaders create chaos. But once the chaos settles, the same leaders find it a challenge to restore order and move forward. In 1947, after India was in flames as a result of the partition riots, the Indian leaders had to seek help from ex-viceroy Mountbatten, to manage the situation. The Indian leaders knew how to defy the law, but enforcing the law to manage a rioting country was a completely new paradigm for them.
So should leaders merely facilitate change and then handover the reigns to experienced administrators and stick to setting the broad vision and goals to be accomplished? If experienced administrators are the way to go, should they be career politicians or experienced hands from the industry?
And that brings up the debate on the accountability of electing the right leader. The modus operandi for that will vary based on the type of government. In a democracy, it will be upto the people to elect the right leader. Since leaders are great with swaying opinion, the electorate will prefer a passionate leader over a seasoned administrator.
Dictatorship faces the same dilemma. Dictators essentially are good military leaders, who are able to lead an armed ouster of an incumbent ruler for various reasons. Muhammar Qadaffi was a Colonel in the Libyan army and overthrew the monarchy in 1969. But just because he was a successful military leader didn’t mean that he was equally competent to lead Libya.
But in both cases – democracy and dictatorship, the power of the office is too tempting to give up. Gandhi stands out as one who did not covet any official power and to some extent, the same could be said of Martin Luther King Jr.
The difference between a democrat, dictator and a tyrant really is the length of tenure and the degree of misuse of power.
A leader’s tenure should be 8-10 years, maximum. Anything beyond 10 years and the power starts going into the head and all of a sudden, the line between democracy and autocracy starts getting blurry. India’s Indira Gandhi imposed a state of emergency in the country 10 years into her tenure to prevent open opposition to her government.
And once a leader crosses 20 years at the helm, the reign is likely to slip into tyranny. Malaysia’s Mahatir Mohammad curbed the judiciary during the latter half of his 22 year tenure and tortured a key political rival – Anwar Ibrahim. Tyranny is a state when the leader (dictator or democrat) begins to consider himself and his dynasty divinely ordained to rule the nation – anyone else is a clear target for elimination.
A 2-term limit is optimal. However several democracies like Great Britian, India, Malaysia, etc. do not impose any limits on the term of the elected leader and that itself creates dictators out of democrats. In several countries across Asia, one of the reasons for presence of dictators is the absence of an environment conducive to emergence of new leaders. Most of the time, it is a high handed democratic dictator whose power brigade apprehends or eliminates any emerging opposition to the rule. Other times, it can be a leader gaming the system to stay in command. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is an interesting example of this scenario. Russia imposes an 8 year term limit very similar to the US, so when Putin exhausted that in 2008, he ensured the new President Dimitry Medvedev appointed him Prime Minister.
The establishment: That brings us to the other variable in the equation – the establishment. The establishment comprises the bureaucrats whose positions remain unchanged irrespective of the leadership changes at the top. For example, Robert Mueller, the FBI Director has been at the helm for 3 presidential terms now. New leaders, like Lech Walesa or even Barrack Obama, who come in with a lot of promise for change, often underestimate the power of the establishment to ensure status quo. The strongest establishments vary from country to country. In case of Pakistan, it is the army and the ISI – the intelligence agency, which are the strongest enforcers of status quo. In case of the United States, it is the Pentagon and the Congress.
Elected representatives constitute the establishment as well and there is no limit on their tenure. Senator Robert Byrd served in the US Senate for almost 52 years. More than 25 senators have served more than 34 years in the US Senate – that would make even Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak envious. This group often causes a lot of headache for new leaders like Lech Walesa who are completely new to the political arena. Many of the constituents of the establishment tend to have a thinking at least one generation behind – the generation when they first came into office.
So, the question is, should a term limit be applied to the elected representatives as well? Possibly – because a large section of these are career politicians who have little hands-on experience in any field.
In case of a democracy, the establishment’s mindset is the result of the thought process of several leaders through the course of its existence. So the establishment doesn’t have an issue with a new leader – they just resist any changes to their way of thinking.
In a dictatorship, the establishment comprises staunch loyalists of the dictator himself. Whereas a democrat inherits his establishment, a dictator creates his establishment. As a result, over time, staunch loyalists of the dictator are entrenched in the establishment. With such an establishment behind him, the dictator has the leverage to convert his dictatorship into a dynastic rule, without much opposition. The most blatant examples of this are North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il naming his 20- something son Kim Jong Un, to be his successor and Cuba’s Fidel Castro making way for his 80-something brother Raul, to lead the nation. There is no lack of fresh leadership, but a well-entrenched loyalist establishment prevents the emergence of new leaders. And it is partly because of this that it is more difficult to overthrow a dictator. The advent of social media may have made the job easier on the rallying and communications front, but the hurdle of a loyalist establishment is still a tough one to overcome.
So assuming equally strong managerial/administrative skills, a new leader faces steeper challenges when his/her predecessor has been a dictator than a democrat. The euphoria too is higher when a new leader replaces a dictator because of the decades plus tenure of the dictator.
Leadership vs management is an important aspect and can make or break an elected government. But for the electorate, it is not an easy choice. Democracy is the best form of government because it guarantees power to the people, but does the system give enough opportunities to the people to exercise that power. In the era of social change, is the current implementation of democracy also ready for a change? We will examine that in part II of this piece in a couple of weeks.