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A democratic dilemma

A democratic dilemma

One needs to look at the causes, processes and consequences of personalisation in the realm of democratic states and societies. Three dimensions of personalisation come into focus viz., institutional, behavioural and media personalisation.

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Last Updated : 27 May 2024, 00:32 IST
Last Updated : 27 May 2024, 00:32 IST
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Personalisation is now a defining trend in contemporary politics. Personalism was traditionally perceived as a problem in authoritarian regimes. However, democratic politics seem to be becoming more personalistic which has been a cause for concern. Personalism in politics reflects the dominance of a single leader over the political realm. In electoral politics, it reflects a trend wherein an appeal is made to voters by demonising individual leaders.

One needs to look at the causes, processes and consequences of personalisation in the realm of democratic states and societies. Three dimensions of personalisation come into focus viz., institutional, behavioural and media personalisation.

Political theorist Maurice Duverger argued that party politics is an evolution of personal politics. Personal qualities and traits mattered even before the advent of political parties. He even used the term ‘personalisation’ without adumbrating it in his well-known classification of political parties. 

Personalism in politics is on the rise and has almost become a global phenomenon, especially in Latin America, Africa, Asia and more recently in the US and Europe, too. Personalism is backed up by institutional, social, economic and personal factors and reflects a deliberate policy. Higher degrees of personalism in democracies often lead to higher degrees of populism. Personalities tend to precede party politics. This shows the different aspects and dimensions of personalism and personalisation and its impact on democratisation and contemporary politics. 

Electoral personalism tends to prioritise the attributes of individual leaders over the characteristics of the party. It is a deliberate strategy of the political elites to mobilise voters based on the individual qualities and traits of the leaders and candidates, rather than a collective appeal. Hence parties tend to be vehicles for enhancing the interests of individual leaders. Such a trend can lead to the weakening of political institutions in political democracies, impacting democratic governance. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, has virtually demolished any perception of a viable alternative to his leadership. Hence the political leader virtually becomes indistinguishable from the regime, often trumping institutions and rules.

Personalisation of politics is one of the most defining elements of democratic politics. This is because it has redefined the equations between political leaders, voters and the mass public. The institutional, behavioural and media dimensions of personalisation and its impact on electoral processes and outcomes are important in this context. Comparing and contrasting the phenomenon of personalisation in different democracies helps to widen one’s understanding of the complexities of personalisation in democratic politics.

One is increasingly seeing the impact of personalised party leaders on the outcome of elections. Studies have shown that the personalisation of politics has taken place hand-in-hand with the decreasing importance of partisanship in structuring voters’ choices. Often it can even provide a positive logic for skeptical voters, to the extent of obscuring the possibility of bias in influencing electoral outcomes. Party leaders clearly tend to shape political communication and public opinion. Populist parties can undermine the state’s capacities. Three factors play out in this context viz., the nature and vocabulary of political campaigning by leaders, the volatility of elections and the role of the media in personalising politics.

The adverse outcome of intense personalisation of politics can sound the death knell of the political party, resulting even in a party-less democracy. In such cases, personal loyalty and advancing one’s career tend to take precedence. Political parties can become personalist parties to the extent of even eroding open-access societies. In the process, parties can get personalised and polarised. Perhaps this even calls for a new classification of political parties suited to personalised politics. However, personalism is conceptually different from party system institutionalisation, though they can influence one another, depending on the political leader and the context. Personalism can adversely impact the state’s administrative culture and capacity.

Personalisation is not unique to any one country; it is structured around the centrality of one person. Democratic politics is being impacted by political personalisation and personalised politics. Many studies have shown that personalism in the ruling party tends to enhance the levels of political polarisation. Hence politics is increasingly becoming a personal affair, leading to a scenario where the politician becomes the main anchor of interpretations and evaluations in the political process. It can result in the possibility of personalismo, i.e., the practice of glorifying a political leader to the extent of subordinating/disempowering the political party and constitutional forms of governance. The emphasis is on image rather than substance and personality over ideology. Structural transformations have fostered the personalisation of politics in many democracies, thereby acting as a powerful political and electoral tool of consolidation.

[The writer is Professor, Dept of International Studies, Political Science and History, Christ (deemed to be university), Bengaluru] 

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