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Absolutist presidencies

Populist authoritarian leaders seek to undermine the control mechanisms that limit their ability to accumulate power. Whether in presidential or parliamentary systems, their behavior resembles more that of absolute monarchs than that of democratically elected leaders.

The world has witnessed the rise of populist leaders who are supported by large sectors of the population. They are known to be authoritarian populists because they seek to dynamite the counterweights that prevent them from accumulating power. Regardless of presidential or parliamentary systems, their actions are more similar to those of absolute monarchs than to those of elected leaders. Even the nicknames they acquire in public opinion say a lot about the conception they have of the world. For example, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is nicknamed “the Sultan of Turkey” and Vladimir Putin is known as “the new Russian Tsar”. The nicknames have been earned due to how they exercise power, absolute and unquestionable, that is why I consider it important to explain what the concept of absolutist presidencies consists of.

Since the emergence of political philosophy, presidential and parliamentary models have been separated and marked by the discussion of which is more effective in limiting power. From political science, authors such as Thomas Hobbes and Perry Anderson have established the characteristics of monarchical models, in which the king exercises power because God chose him to do so. Therefore, his functions and designs have no limits.

On the other hand, in presidential systems, the Head of State or Head of Government is legitimate as long as the popular will makes him or her achieve the position. Scholars such as Daniel Zovatto, Diego Valadés, or Jorge Carpizo establish that in these models power has limits. Still, in recent times we have observed that some executives have accumulated personal and omnipotent power under the protection of the majority.

The concept of presidential absolutism refers to the political systems that have executives or leaders who democratically emanate from the ballot box but, when in power, behave as absolute kings. Now, unlike the classical theory, in which God appoints the monarch, in this new one it is the people, as these leaders call it, who endow them with all the power.

Through the ballot box, the masses elect these leaders, who use their sympathy and inflammatory rhetoric and denounce the status quo. After winning power, despite the existence of institutional checks and balances, majorities endorse and provide the legitimacy to erode democracy and concentrate greater powers. Suffrages provide majorities to these governments that co-opt independent institutions and even defy the established legal framework with functions they do not have.

An example would be the reelection of Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, even though the Constitution prohibits running for a second term immediately. On the other hand, in Mexico, López Obrador attempted through a memorandum to overturn structural reforms, a power that the executive does not have. In Venezuela and Nicaragua, Nicolás Maduro and Daniel Ortega, respectively, are conceived as sources of political power and of the revolutions they presume to lead.

In Europe and Asia, characters such as Vladimir Putin, Erdoğan, Víktor Orbán, Andrzej Duda, and Xi Jinping have become figures that embody the omnipotent power of presidencies. They have taken it upon themselves to nullify the opposition and have strengthened their party and its presidential powers while convincing the masses that they are the only option to transform the country. The subjugation of the organs of the state has allowed them to entrench their constitutional and meta-constitutional powers. 

Putin is known as “the czar” because in the monarchic past the czars were the heads of the empire: they exercised unipersonal power and, in some cases, the Dune, or the Congress exercised a counterweight. The same is true in 21st-century Russia: everything is subject to the personalism of the Russian president, who knows how to pull the strings of the political system he has molded in his own image and likeness. 

In Turkey, Erdoğan has become the new builder of the Turkish state, has wielded power since 2014, and has sought to draw closer to Europe in the interest of consolidating economic and social development superior to other Mediterranean countries. Some scholars argue that he intends to return the country to the glory of the extinct Ottoman Empire. However, as he has nationalist overtones others compare him to former President Kemal Atatürk, who was the builder of the Turkish Republic.

The president has become the pillar of the political system. He runs in periodic elections in which he continues to win re-election. Meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Polish President Andrzej Duda have raised nationalist banners to combat gender ideology and the sexual diversity community and have accumulated power to impose a single vision on their countries. 

How they exercise power relies on polarization and division of the population to radicalize their policies. Likewise, the growth of their constitutional functions has led to the weakening of checks and balances. Comparing these two countries, it can be concluded that populists weaken political systems regardless of whether they are parliamentary or presidential.

Finally, in China, Xi Jinping has become not only the president but also a reference for his country. He has been in office for three terms, something that only the historic leader of the revolution, Mao Zedong, had achieved. Since the 20th century, China has been a single-party system, without elections, which prevents the people from directly electing the president. The secrecy of its politics and the lack of democracy are what have allowed this authoritarian regime to survive.

The emergence of presidents who exercise power in an absolutist monarchical manner is not the same as a dictatorship. Dictators bet on the use of force and come to power through coups d’état; absolutist presidents, on the other hand, do so through the ballot box and from within begin to dynamite the controls of power. Moreover, they believe that the broad popular support they have allows them to destroy institutions since their supporters believe that destruction is necessary to change to a “more democratic” model.

This is known as tyranny of the majority, which considers that because they are more numerous they can decide personally through their leader, regardless of what other sectors think and even if they oppose it. Absolutism has changed hands: it used to belong to kings, but today it is some presidents who yearn for this supreme power.

*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.


Otros artículos del autor

Cientista Político. Graduado en la Universidad Nacional Autônoma de México (UNAM). Diplomado en periodismo por la Escuela de Periodismo Carlos Septién.


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