Elections in the era of charismatic politics

Authoritarian governments have tried to rig elections for ages. More dangerous are the far-right leaders concentrating their power by relatively fair elections.

SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus
Image credit: Shutterstock

Elections are often regarded as the quintessential expression of democracy. Yet elections can have undemocratic outcomes. 

The carefully choreographed election designed to give a fig leaf to an authoritarian regime is something everyone is familiar with. But there is also the paradoxical case where a relatively free and fair election ends up bringing the winner closer to absolute power. 

The recent elections in Thailand, the Philippines, and India provide interesting contrasts in the ways elections can be used to derail democracy.

Choreographed elections in Thailand

For many observers, the March 24 elections in Thailand provide a classic case of the usual manner authoritarian regimes use the electoral process to achieve anti-democratic outcomes —  that is, to rig it in plain sight. 

First, to neutralize the results of the elections even before they took place, the military authorities — who deposed the elected government aligned with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2014 — scripted a constitution that set up a 250-member Senate whose members would be appointed by the regime and empowered to negate an elected 500-member House of Representatives. 

Second, shortly before the elections, the Constitutional Court dissolved a pro-Thaksin political party that had been expected to gather a sizable number of votes on questionable legal grounds. 

Third, the ruling National Council on Peace and Order unleashed a legal assault on the head of a party, Future Forward, that had caught the imagination of the country’s young people owing to its agenda to confine the military to the barracks, resulting in his being eventually barred from assuming his duties as an elected MP. 

Despite all these handicaps, the opposition won nearly half of all parliamentary seats in contention. Ironically, the Thai military’s manipulation of the elections, by eliciting widespread resentment at what is widely regarded as procedural disenfranchisement, has created an outcome that contradicts the goal it had tried to achieve by calling for the elections in the first place — that is, to gain legitimacy for a system of authoritarian rule with democratic trappings.

Not politics-as-usual in the Philippines

Contrast this to the Philippines and India, which also had elections this year. In both countries, there were the usual instances of irregularities and violence in some localities, but overall the elections were relatively free and fair, as even the opposition and international observers conceded, albeit grudgingly. 

Yet in both countries, the results are likely to provide momentum towards the concentration of power in the hands of authoritarian personalities.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte was not running for office, but everyone knew that the election was a referendum on his three years in office. If it were politics- as-usual in the Philippines, the president’s record could have done him and his favored candidates for the Senate much damage: the worst inflation in nearly a decade, kowtowing to China, credible charges of hidden wealth, a penchant for misogynistic comments, a provocative anti-clerical attitude in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, intimidating the press, imprisoning or ousting from office vocal opponents, and, perhaps, most seriously, over 20,000 deaths, a large number owing to extra-judicial executions, in his war on drugs. 

But it is not politics-as-usual in the Philippines. At the time of the elections, Duterte had an astonishing 81 percent approval rating, and the results of the polls drove this home: his favored candidates and allies captured all 12 of the senatorial seats at stake. Not since the late 1980s had the opposition been completely shut out in a Senate race. As the results poured in on election night, May 13, it became clear that Duterte, warts and all, had been given an overwhelming mandate by the electorate, making him the most powerful person to occupy the presidency since Ferdinand Marcos.

Since electoral fraud wasn’t a credible explanation for the results, some political commentators elected to blame the voters. “We have most of the voters to blame for it,” wrote one prominent journalist critical of Duterte. “They’re the millions who approve of mass killings, who’re indifferent to the violations of human rights, who despise intelligence and who’ve never read a book. They disparage democracy without knowing what it is and approve of tyranny because they can’t tell the difference.”

“A moment of dread for Indian democracy”?

In contrast to Duterte’s prospects, things did not seem as auspicious for Narendra Modi and the ruing Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) at the beginning of the six-week long elections in India in April. 

The annual growth rate was down to 5.8 per cent; the economic crisis triggered by “demonetization” — the sudden withdrawal from circulation of 500 and 1000 rupee notes, which represented 86 percent of the value of circulating currency — was not over. Farmers’ marches reminded the country of the crisis of agriculture, and violence spawned by an aggressive Hindu nationalism had become commonplace. 

Yet after the votes were counted, the whole country was stupefied. The BJP had expanded its majority to 303 seats, 20 more than its 2014 tally. 

Congress, the main opposition party, was badly beaten, emerging with only 52 seats, with its leader Rahul Gandhi losing in his family’s traditional constituency, Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh. Modi came out much stronger from an election where he had been expected to emerge much weaker. The desperate mood that engulfed those critical of Modi was captured by the words of one academic, who claimed that his victory was “a moment of dread for Indian democracy” because it had resulted in “the greatest concentration of power in modern Indian history.” 

Suddenly, BJP boss Amit Shah’s boast that the BJP would rule India “for the next 50 years” no longer seemed incredible.

As in the Philippines, despairing liberals in India wondered what on earth made their compatriots “outsource their destiny” to a strongman, as one of them put it. Just as the Philippine intelligentsia expressed wonderment at how serious charges would simply bounce off Duterte, Indian liberals could not figure out what it was that made voters across the board readily absolve Modi for the very real problems being faced by the country, whether this was rising unemployment, farmers’ suicides owing to economic distress, lynchings of Muslims accused of trading cattle, or the unsolved murders of prominent intellectuals. 

Even his party’s endorsement of a known terrorist who had praised the assassin of Gandhi did not hurt Modi, leading one analyst to attribute his success to “smart political communication” that consistently projected him as being “above the fray.”

Controlling the narrative was certainly part of the explanation for Modi’s success, as it was for Duterte’s. Modi’s discourse placed him and the BJP as the agents of India’s economic development and the restoration of Hindu civilization’s ancient greatness. Duterte combined an earthy discourse that many saw as refreshingly free of the usual liberal democratic froth with a stern message of cleansing the country of the drug menace that was “destroying the youth of my country.” 

This analysis, however, assumes the relationship between the voters and the strongman is a one-way street, whereas anyone who has lived through the tumultuous politics of both countries in the last few years would not have failed to note the very real synergy or mutually constructive relationship between the strongmen and their people.

For other analysts, Duterte and Modi had tangible achievements that overrode the problems pointed out by their opponents. In the case of Modi, for instance, voters were said to appreciate his campaign to build a toilet for every household, his free LNG connections for poor families, and a program of giving 6000 rupees a year to subsistence farmers. 

These material benefits do not, however, add up to a viable explanation for the massive mandate. Politics in India and the Philippines today is not arithmetic, to use a famous Filipino politician’s inimitable description of democracy. Promising and providing goods and services is the stuff of patronage politics, of democratic politics-as-usual, but what is happening in both countries today is a political earthquake, a massive transformative change, a fundamental reconfiguration of politics.

The era of charismatic politics

At the epicenter of this earthquake is a discontented citizenry, and it is as much an agent of change as the unorthodox personalities that have found a way to unlock its swirling passions. 

The focus of citizens’ discontent is a system of liberal democracy that has simply not delivered on its promises. “India is a grotesquely unequal society,” writes Pankaj Mishra. “A great majority of Indians, forced to inhabit the vast gap between a glossy democratic ideal and a squalid undemocratic reality, have long stored up deep feelings of injury, weakness, inferiority, degradation, inadequacy, and envy; these stem from defeats or humiliation suffered at the hands of those of higher status than themselves in a rigid hierarchy.” This could be a description of 21st century Philippines as well.

It is the explosive synergy between a deeply disaffected citizenry and a political personality who has captured their imagination — and on whom they have rested their dreams and aspirations for the future — that today drives politics in both countries. It is perhaps easier to understand this dynamic in the case of Modi, who unites a dynamic personality to an aggressive ideology of wounded but assertive nationalism that has tapped into a country’s feelings of pride and shame, deep disappointment, and persistent hope. 

Yet Duterte is, in his own way, a magnetic personality, bringing together a tough law and order stance, a discourse that is deliberately politically incorrect, and the image of the “punisher” who has what it takes to tame exploitative elites and discipline a people that famously regard themselves as rowdy and undisciplined. The very qualities that liberals despise in Duterte is what enables him to “connect” with the masses, especially with the volatile middle classes that feel most sharply the yawning gap between aspirations and the possibilities of fulfilling them in the “really existing” democratic dispensation.

The “connection” that has been forged between strong personalities and their people has ushered in a period that may best be described as one where charismatic politics has displaced democracy-as-usual. Here we might take a leaf from the great sociologist Max Weber, who saw “charismatic” authority or legitimacy as a dynamic transformative process that overwhelms both “traditional” and “rational-legal” authority and structures co-existing in society. 

Charismatic politics exploits the contradiction between traditional authority structures that legitimize inequality and injustice and a rational-legal order based on the principles of democracy, justice, and equality. Charismatic politics is not politics as usual and is a fluid process that moves in uncharted waters until the charisma of the leader is “routinized” into a set of rules, procedures, and processes which become the new source of authority and legitimacy.

Charismatic legitimacy is hardly benign. Indeed, it almost invariably ends up with a dangerous concentration of power in the hands of the charismatic individual. And, equally alarming, its emergence has been accompanied by the imaginative creation of an “Other” or “Others” upon whom the ills, contradictions, and disharmony of society are projected. The achievement of social harmony is dependent on the excision or neutralization of the Other or Others — in the case of the Philippines, drug users, liberal politicians (“dilawan” or “yellows”), and communists; in the case of India, Muslims, Christians, westernized intellectuals, and Marxists. It does not take much for the leader and his disciples to set the mob on these “enemies of the people,” as persecuted communities in India would readily testify.

A key feature of the dynamics of charismatic politics is that it is both authoritarian and intensely “democratic.”

One the one hand, followers are willing to hold their critical faculties in abeyance, ready to give the leader the benefit of the doubt even when they may not agree with everything that he stands for or promotes. On the other hand, it is through the mediation of the electoral process, through direct contact with the masses during the campaign and through their act of willingly voting for him or his anointed ones, that the leader renews his legitimacy. 

Managed elections like Thailand’s are fatal for charismatic authority. Indeed, the less controlled and more spontaneous the expression of approval, the greater the legitimacy that can be turned into even greater power.

Context then spells the difference for the outcomes of recent elections in Asia. Thailand remains in a state of polarization, one that has been aggravated by a choreographed electoral exercise. India and the Philippines, on the other hand, have gone through relatively free elections that, by bestowing greater legitimacy on them, is, paradoxically, leading to the concentration of even greater power in the hands of charismatic authoritarian personalities who are intent on doing away with the post-World War II liberal democratic dispensation and leading their consenting citizens to a brave new world.


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