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10 May 2023

As strongman leaders around the world begin to fall, has authoritarianism peaked?

Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro both tested the democratic system and lost power. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could be next.

By Jeremy Cliffe

We live in the age shaped by authoritarian strongman leaders. Consider Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. All played pioneering roles in the rise of polarising identity politics in recent years. All led major democracies at the turn of the decade and put those democracies under immense strain. All exhibited what the Venezuelan journalist Moisés Naím has called the “three Ps”, or populism, polarisation and post-truth.

Since then two (Trump and Bolsonaro) have lost power; one (Orbán) has held on to it; one has lost and regained it (Netanyahu); and one faces the first round of presidential elections on 14 May, after which he may well lose it (Erdoğan). It has even been claimed that the strongman surge has peaked. The American diplomat Samantha Power wrote earlier this year that “early 2022 may prove to be a high-water mark for authoritarianism”. That could be premature. But clearly the past few years have revealed something about how, and how not, to defeat a strongman leader in a democratic system.

This is rarely a straightforward task. Virtually by definition, strongman leaders are prone to defying the norms of their system. Oppositions must often win on a tilted playing field: institutions co-opted, independent media under attack, minorities and “elites” vilified, sometimes election processes themselves captured.

Necessary conditions for opposition success in such a race appear to include both unity in its determination to oust the strongman and enough pluralism to draw together a broad coalition of support. In 2020 Joe Biden defeated Trump by building an alliance of voters spanning from the progressive left via suburban Middle America to the post-industrial, blue-collar places that had given Trump his win in 2016. In Brazil last year Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva could similarly unite both his left-of-centre base with moderate right-of-centre voters.

In Israel the eight-party bloc, which in 2021 ended 12 years of rule by Netanyahu, bridged left and right and even included the first ever Arab party to participate in a governing coalition in the country.

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Yet clearly that is not enough. Netanyahu returned to power in Israel 18 months later, after the unwieldy eight-party government collapsed and he made a deal with the far right. In Hungary a six-party opposition alliance that stretched from the far-right Jobbik via liberals to greens and socialists took only 35 per cent at last year’s election.

[See also: Donald Trump heads back to court, and this time it’s serious]

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Those cases point to at least two other important conditions. The first is that hostility towards an incumbent is not enough for an opposition bloc to succeed; it also needs the momentum and resilience that come with a positive common vision for what to do with power once the strongman has gone. Biden had his “Build Back Better” agenda (in practice a more muscular and protectionist green industrial strategy) and Lula pledged greater public investment and protections for the Amazon. By contrast, Israel’s post-Netanyahu “government of change” fell as differences over religious laws and Palestinian rights eroded its wafer-thin majority. Hungary’s opposition struggled to find a clear, common agenda beyond removing Orbán.

The second further condition is probably the most important of them all. Recent evidence suggests that an opposition’s best chance of defeating a strongman leader is when voters feel gloomy about their financial circumstances – if supposedly decisive strongman leadership turns out to be too weak in practice to deliver prosperity. Trump and Bolsonaro both squandered their economic credentials by mismanaging the Covid-19 pandemic; Orbán on the other hand succeeded in lavishing economic boons on households in the months running up to the election (income tax rebates and exemptions, price freezes, bonus pension payments) – so much so that wavering voters opted for another four years of “the devil we know”. An irony here is that the fates of leaders best known for prosecuting culture wars are often decided by material politics – such as rents and  prices – rather than identity issues.

All of which gives the Turkish opposition grounds to be optimistic ahead of the election. It has managed to unite in a big-tent “Nation Alliance” committed to removing Erdoğan after his two decades at the country’s helm; a so-called Table of Six ranging from conservative Islamists to secular social democrats, and unofficially backed from the outside by the left-wing (and heavily Kurdish-supported) Peoples’ Democratic Party. In Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu it has a presidential candidate acceptable to broad swathes of the Turkish electorate, including those crucial Kurdish voters. Turkey’s economy is in chaos after years of mismanagement by Erdoğan, with many former supporters of the president in the urban middle class fed up with seeing their savings steadily eroded by inflation.

Turkey stands, then, as a test of the patterns of the past years. Are those propitious circumstances enough to carry the opposition to victory in elections? Or is it missing some other element of the formula? And then there is the other, darker question, hanging over all countries where democracy has come under pressure: at what point is a system too corroded to remain genuinely competitive? The results from Ankara will resonate far beyond Turkey itself.

[See also: The chaos and confusion of Trump on trial]

This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?