March 2018 is a unique month for international politics. It's in this month that two powerful leaders of the contemporary world cemented their places in their respective countries - much to the dismay of the democratic West. While the president of China Xi Jinping was re-elected as the lifetime incumbent on March 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin grabbed his fourth presidential term the very next day, winning the election by securing a whopping 76.5 per cent vote share.
For the democratic world, these two instances do not make a positive message. Russia and China have emerged as the alternate power centres in world politics today and with their leaders now renewing their licence to rule, it is very much likely that international relations will see more tense moments in the coming days.
That the fault line in international politics is wide open was visible when Putin's victory was hailed by countries like China, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Venezuela, Turkey and others while the European leaders were hesitant. But till how long can the West afford to look the other way?
Leaders today bank on their popular image
The days of concluding a leader like Putin as a misfit for democratic ideals and snubbing him are clearly over. As nations become obsessed more with their respective nationalisms and an urge to regain the glorious past, the yardstick of democracy to judge how good and effective their political systems are becoming irrelevant.
Leaders like Putin and Xi and some others like India's Narendra Modi or Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan have thrived irrespective of the system that prevails in their respective countries. And the foremost reason for this is their popularity in the eyes of their own people. Procedural democracy may earn a nation's political system a tag of acceptable or non-acceptable but if the people of that country feel that a particular leader has served their cause well, even if symbolically, it does that leader enough favour to stay in power.
Russians are content with Putin's leadership today
Both Putin and Xi have a strong following in their respective homelands. Russia is not economically well-off but yet Putin's leadership makes the people feel that they are defended by a strong hand. In December 2017, 72 percent of Russians felt their country is a "great power", said an independent research organisation called Levada Center. In 1999, the percentage was as low as 31. The Russian government's 'accomplishments' in Crimea and Syria have bolstered the common man's take on their country which they feel is a great one.
In China, the same thing happens with Xi. Irrespective of the fact that there is no democracy, the common people of China are convinced about Xi's leadership for the country's economy is doing great under him and he has taken a strong stand on corruption. Even in international affairs, China's growing clout has made them a happier lot. Nothing sells like nationalism, not even democracy.
Faltering democracy index on other hand
Compare this with the Annual Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit. It says the record of democracies across the world, including the United States, has been on a decline. Also for the US's slide, it was said that not the advent of Donald Trump as its president is the cause. In fact, it said the erosion in trust on government officials which led to Trump's rise also saw the fall of the American democracy since 2015. According to another survey, direct democracy is gaining preference over the representative variant for people want to take part in the election on major issues and not the elected officials. Maybe the distrust factor works here as well.
Stability, national pride matter
And this is where the Putins and Xis have made an impact as leaders. Even if their regimes do not encourage democratic practices as it is in the ideal democratic systems, yet their people do not feel that they have failed them because they have, after all, succeeded in infusing a satisfaction over stability and national pride. In the democracies that are more divided and chaotic, people find the endless controversies involving the politicians, media and civil society useless to achieve a greater goal of national emancipation.
The majoritarian population prefers to back a leader instead who they feel would lead them on the right path and that leader continues to enjoy the benefit of the doubt over a long time. Even a normal criticism tends to help their cause as their loyalists and common supporters see it as a conspiracy to malign an able leadership. The story holds true for the likes of Trump, Modi and Erdogan.
The rise of Putin and Xi has made one thing clear. We cannot hold democracies as one ideal system which doesn't entertain authoritarian tendencies. The Putins and Erdogans have succeeded in getting a legitimacy without trying force which says they have devised their own forms of democracies that the West can ignore at their own peril. A democracy's approval first comes from the people within and not the experts outside.
We have perhaps lived the era of democracy and entered the era of populism as an established form of governance.