The longevity of totalitarians

Among the heads of state expected to descend on New York City for the United Nations General Assembly this autumn is an elite subset of their ranks — leaders distinguished by unparalleled longevity in office and general intolerance for dissent.

Muammar el-Qaddafi, 67, will have the privilege of speaking at the opening session. It was 40 years ago this month that Qaddafi, then a young army captain, led a coup against King Idris of Libya.

Later that same afternoon, Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (two days older than Qaddafi) will address the General Assembly. Obiang seized control in 1979 after deposing and executing Francisco Macias Nguema.

The exceptional staying power of Qaddafi and Obiang is a political curiosity, but comes at a steep price. Despite enormous windfalls from abundant natural energy resources, both Libya and Equatorial Guinea remain deeply impoverished. And after decades of erratic rule, key institutions are largely incapable of meeting ordinary people’s needs.
These two are hardly atypical: The leadership longevity list includes some of the world’s most ruthless and ossified governments. In Cuba, the Castro brothers have held power for four decades. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez has held power now for ‘only’ 10 years. This decade may just be a warm up: In February, Chávez engineered a referendum victory to abolish term limits.

Soviet Union and Africa

The former Soviet Union is well represented on the list, including the likes of Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In Africa, Libya and Equatorial Guinea are part of a large group that also includes Egypt, Angola, Cameroon and Sudan.
Although none of these countries are formally monarchies, some of them feature dynasties in the making. Azerbaijan and Syria, for example, have already undergone father-to-son transfers of power, and others, including Egypt and Libya, are signaling similar successions.

Despite differences in political tradition, culture and history, all of these countries today share at least two critical common features: heavy restrictions on political expression and participation. The bottom line in these settings is political influence, and the economic benefit that accompanies it remains within a well defined circle. Those who challenge the status quo find themselves in jail or worse.

A particularly bleak picture emerges when leader-for-life regimes are placed alongside their respective rankings for media freedom and corruption.
Of 20 countries fitting the leader-for-life mold, all are designated as Not Free in Freedom House’s annual media freedom survey. Egypt, whose 81-year-old president, Hosni Mubarak, is serving his fifth six-year term, looks the best of a group of dreadfully poor performers. It ranks 128th out of 195 countries on media freedom.

The story is similarly grim for corruption, where virtually all of these countries are in the bottom quarter of the 180 countries reviewed by Transparency International.
While some argue that the authoritarian leader-for-life model can deliver stability, there is a significant cost. Scholars and policymakers have long understood the relationship between free and independent news media and reduced levels of corruption, greater governmental effectiveness, stronger rule of law and generally better development results.

Early on in his rule, Robert Mugabe was considered by some as a case study for ‘strong-handed’ leadership that, the thinking went, could deliver benefits for ordinary Zimbabweans. Three decades later, Mugabe has driven Zimbabwe into abject poverty and misery.

Similar strongman arguments are made today in Russia’s case, where Vladimir Putin has pursued a ‘dictatorship of law’ while putting in place the building blocks to remain paramount leader indefinitely. Putin choreographed a handoff of the presidency last year to Dmitry Medvedev, through which Putin, as prime minister, continues to wield enormous influence. There is widespread speculation that Putin may next return to the presidency. In the meantime, Russia’s governance leaves a great deal to be desired.

The refusal of these regimes to allow the emergence of authentic political alternatives and independent watchdogs means that official mismanagement goes unchecked.
At the same time, competing ideas that could help improve government policies and the lives of ordinary people are suppressed.

The New York Times

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