Today only the most radical elements of the left and right see Putin as an example of someone to emulate.
Globally, democracy is going through its worst crisis in decades, marked by the ascension of leaders speaking authoritarian rhetoric, the proliferation of fake news and destructive polarization. In recent years, authoritarian governments such China’s and Russia’s have sought to take advantage of the situation by exposing the contrast between their political elite (for them, considered more stable and technically prepared) and that of liberal democracies (which are supposedly slow in their decision-making processes, less prepared and unpredictable). The Chinese state press has given ample attention to the scenes of the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection in Washington, the increasingly heated confrontations between the left and right in democratic countries, and the initially confused response to the pandemic in various nations. This is a clear attempt to demonstrate that liberal democracies are not adequately prepared to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.
Even in democratic countries, this narrative has had some effect over the past few years. At the beginning of the pandemic, the idea that authoritarian governments were better prepared to deal with COVID-19 echoed widely. When Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine in February, more than a few analysts and decision-makers in the West publicly and off the record marveled at the Russian president’s purportedly brilliant strategy. Many voices on the extreme left and extreme right in Europe, including Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, for example, did little to hide their conviction that what was missing in democracies was a “strong man” like Putin.
However, 2022 exposed the immense risks of lacking any checks and balances; there was no political body in Russia capable of making Putin explain his decision to invade Ukraine more fully; no legislature and no free press that could have questioned the president’s plans. Nine months after the invasion and an increasingly disastrous war for Russia, the major threat to the aura of an infallible strategic genius is not as much the indiscriminate violence against Ukrainian civilians, but simply the grotesque incompetence in the planning and management of a warlike conflict. As Jana Ganesh recently wrote, dictators can give themselves the luxury of seeming callous or even inhumane. They can’t however, give themselves the luxury of being inept.
In the case of China, the concentration of political power in the hands of Xi Jinping, not seen since Mao Zedong’s time, had dire consequences when the policy of “Zero Covid,” presented as a strategy personally designed by the Chinese leader, became increasingly problematic. Instead of simply changing strategy, Xi, reluctant to recognize the error, insisted on maintaining an approach that increased the population’s frustration and contributed to the protests seen in recent weeks. The situation reached absurd dimensions when, during the broadcast of the World Cup, the Chinese government censored images of fans gathering without masks, afraid that those images would lead citizens to question the frequent lockdowns in China while the rest of the world seemed to have turned the page on the pandemic. The absence of political entities capable of questioning the Chinese president explains how the country ended up at an impasse; the end of the “Zero Covid” policy could lead to the collapse of the health care system because many Chinese, above all the elderly, did not receive three doses, while continuing the policy could produce political instability on a grand scale.
It is very improbable that Putin and Xi’s mistakes will threaten them or that such errors will affect the tremendous control that both have over the political process of their respective countries. But there is no doubt that their decisions throughout 2022 have reduced the appeal of the systems they represent. Until recently, it was common to hear people praise Putin’s intelligence in the background of European and American politics. Today, only the most radical elements of the left and right see President Putin as an example of someone to emulate.
Democracy can be frustrating, slow and not always capable of timely correcting the mistakes its leaders make. Former President George W. Bush, for example, a notoriously incompetent leader, was reelected even after his disastrous decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Often, however, the mechanism functions; when they perceived that Donald Trump was incapable of managing the pandemic, American voters were able to replace him.
None of this guarantees an easy solution to the current crisis facing democracy, but for those who believed that a major concentration of power in the hands of a president would be a solution, 2022 has brought an important warning, expressed in the famous phrase attributed to Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
*Editor’s note: The original Portuguese version of this article is available with a paid subscription.
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