Are we witnessing the end of the ‘strong man’?


I’ve always thought the term ‘strong man’ to describe people like Putin, Erdogan, Trump and Orban was a misnomer. If you’re strong you don’t try to rig the system. We’ve seen how this can be done both overtly or covertly, by silencing opposition, through media ownership, jobs for the boys, as well as the grift of dishing out contracts and funds to your supporters. The so-called strong men are actually weak men who can’t corral support without tipping the scales, or removing them altogether.

“If you’re strong you don’t try to rig the system”

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has received a doughty response from a population he referred to as “Little Russians”. When not playing the Tzar, Putin plays the victim, but for over 20 years his imperialist tendencies and his disrespect for international law have been on display. His decision to invade Ukraine on 24 February was the point where he finally pushed his luck too far. This was, apart from all else, a massive strategic error. Putin is finished.

We’ve learnt from the U.S. this autumn that winning the backing of a certain Donald J. Trump to represent your party in Congressional elections is not an anointment. The Republican Party seems to be slowly waking up to the fact that Trump is electoral death. His most obsequious supporters in the highly partisan U.S. media have more or less withdrawn their support. He is seen as a loser, in fact he is seen as the worst sort of loser, a sore loser; one who is shouting into the void on Truth Social, still in denial that the people have spoken. Add to this the travails of the Trump Organisation being found guilty of multiple counts of criminal tax fraud, Congress is now in possession of his tax returns and the January 6th Committee investigating the assault on The Capitol will be issuing their final report soon, we can also assume that Trump is finished.

Brazil’s Bolsonaro was ousted in a narrow vote, but without repercussions. He is finished – at least for the next four years.

Protests in two of the world’s most oppressive countries, China and Iran, have also shown that they are not quite as immutable as they appear. China is finally relaxing its draconian Covid provisions after open dissent and Iran is considering the abolition of their infamous morality police following the protests linked to the arrest and death of Mahsa Amini.

Closer to home

Despite the best efforts of a coalition of opposition forces in Hungary, Orban won elections in April, however Macron won decisively against Marine Le Pen in April’s presidential elections. The victory of a neo-fascist in Italy is no doubt worrying and Poland’s assault on the rule of law means that Europe is far from out of the woods. 

The EU has been woefully ineffectual at reigning in its very own, homegrown, wannabe autocrats; some have argued – including me – that European funds and failure of European political groups (of all colours) have aided and abetted some of Europe’s worst. The hesitancy of  EU heads of government to act decisively has also been somewhat disheartening. Europe’s autocrats don’t really have much to fear, the EU’s plodding efforts through annual reports, Article 7 procedures, infringement procedures, the rule of law conditionality mechanism… have, as yet, been ineffectual. Change, if it is to happen, will have to come from within each administration and here I feel there are signs that the sands are shifting.

“Authoritarian governments aren’t very good at governing”

One of the baked-in features of authoritarian governments is that they aren’t very good at governing. It is fair to say that political leaders who favour liberal democracy haven’t always had a perfect record in government either, but they’ve always allowed the voter the chance to let them know through free and fair elections, permitting the peaceful transfer of power. 

Looking at Hungary, we’ve recently seen mass protests at the treatment of teachers and the poor education system. Orban might have an iron grip at the moment, but when people see their future corroding before their eyes the tide can turn. Questioned by a parliamentary committee the governor of Hungary’s central bank said: “We have to face the fact that the Hungarian economic crisis is imminent. We must face up to the fact that the macroeconomic indicators for finance are the second worst in the European Union, next year we will be the worst, if there is no turnaround it will be a lost decade.”

It may be too early to say either way, but recent developments suggest that the tide is turning and people are turning against those who cultivate a stranglehold on power and the inevitable corruption that comes with that power.