By MFM Fawas –
A dictatorship is familiar to most of us, and can be defined as a “system of government ruled by a relatively small number of self-appointed people who hold absolute power over any organised institutions or system of laws”. There are mainly five types of recognised dictatorships in the world. The Military dictatorship in countries such as present-day Myanmar, Mali and Chile under Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), comes to being by the classical means of a coup d’état and relies on armed forces. Countries such as China, Uganda and North Korea are identified as Single-Party dictatorships that are based on the monopoly of a single political party. Some countries are also classified as having Personalists Dictatorships, Monarchic Dictatorship and Hybrid Dictatorships. A ‘modern dictatorship’ on the other hand is a “dictatorship that succeeds in overcoming the gap between rulers and ruled by convincing a large portion of the people, through persuasion, benefits, and organic links-that they should support it.” Rulers in these dictatorships are known as ‘modern dictators’ or ‘strongman leaders’. The world has for a long time known strongman leaders in non-democratic countries, such as Xi Jinping in China, Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Putin in Russia. However, the 20th century has seen the rise of strongman leaders in well-established democracies from all around the globe.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s in her book titled Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present identifies three key periods in the history of strongmen; (1) the fascism of the 1930s, (2) the dictatorships of the Cold War era, and the (3) resurgence of right-wing populists like Viktor Orbán, Rodrigo Duterte, and Trump, among others in the present. She explains that the difference between the present period, where the world, is seeing the rise of the likes of Trump and Duterte is that they have not fully destroyed democracy (yet). Though they have made democracy more illiberal, downgrading, they have done so without reaching the stage of the traditional dictatorship of past periods. She explains that across all three periods, the strongman relies on the same set of tools—extreme nationalism, propaganda, corruption, an extremist ideal of masculinity and violence—though they can vary over different periods. William Dobson, in, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy, explains that because of the rise of technological advancements, it’s more difficult now more than ever to be a dictator, as it is tougher for oppressive regimes to hide their violations and crimes. Therefore, he notes that modern dictatorships have become more sophisticated in their oppression, avoiding resorting to only physical aggressive tactics. Modern dictators also identify that they need to be cautious not only of armed popular resistance but also of widespread popular protests. In Authoritarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know, Erica Frantz highlights two pertinent points in relation to modern dictators. First, she notes that, at present, the most common way for authoritarian regimes to emerge is by eating out democracy from within. Second, these new regimes often take what the author calls “the most dangerous form of dictatorship”: personal rule or rule centred around a Strongman leader. She identifies a few features of these dictatorships to be a narrow inner circle of trusted people; installation of loyalists in positions of power; promotion of members of the family; creation of a new political movement; use of referendums as a way of justifying decisions; and the creation of new security services loyal to the leader. She further identifies that the typical feature of these strongmen is that they start as populists and argue that they alone, once armed with extraordinary powers, can solve the country’s problems.
The major example of the rise of a strongman leader was seen in 2016 when Donald Trump, a radical supporter of the far-right extremist ideology, was elected the President of the USA, a country that often boasts of its liberal democratic values. In 2014, Narendra Modi, a strongmen nationalist leader, was elected as the Prime Minister in India, the largest democracy in the World. Similarly, the new strongman president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has been a vocal supporter of a military dictatorship and hostile towards the democratic system of governance. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, nicknamed ‘the punisher’, ‘Duterte Harry’, has relentlessly crackdown on drug users and has according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), plunged the Philippines into its worst human rights crisis since the dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s. Closer to home, the landslide victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former Defence Secretary, and a military officer in 2019 signalled that Sri Lanka is following the same trend.
Since November 2019, human rights organisations have noted that Sri Lanka is on an accelerated path towards authoritarianism, with fundamental human rights and civil liberties being in serious jeopardy. As identified by Frantz one of the key features of strongman leadership is the appointment of loyalists to positions of power. After he was appointed the President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed close allies, past and serving military officials to key administration positions and created several “Task Forces” on different subjects. These task forces act in parallel to state institutions. Moreover, several state agencies, including the police and the NGO Secretariat, were placed under the Defense Ministry. In January 2020, President Rajapaksa established a Commission of Inquiry to Investigate Allegations of Political Victimization by the previous government. The commission then began intervening in cases where Rajapaksa allies and associates were facing police investigations or prosecution for alleged corruption and human rights abuses. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Political Victimization submitted its report to the president on December 9, 2020, but its findings have not yet been made public.
Another feature as described by Frantz is that strongman leaders promote members of the family. At present, four brothers of the Rajapaksa family hold key positions in government. Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed his brother, Mahinda, a former strongman President, as the Prime Minister. The eldest brother, Chamal Rajapaksa, was named the minister of irrigation, as well as the state minister of home affairs and national security and disaster management. More recently, the younger brother of the President, Basil Rajapaksa, was appointed the Finance Minister. Mahinda’s son, Namal Rajapaksa, is currently the minister of youth and sports, as well as the state minister of digital technology and enterprise development. Chamal’s son, Shasheendra Rajapaksa, also holds a non-cabinet portfolio in government. Moreover, Frantz observations on how strongman leaders argue that “they alone can save the country from the problems it’s facing when given extraordinary powers” is identical to the situation that can be observed in Sri Lanka. A look back at Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential campaign and subsequent speeches makes this very apparent. Addressing the country on the occasion of Sri Lanka’s 73rd Independence Day in February 2021, President Rajapaksa, in his speech stated that “I am the leader that you searched for”.