Why second terms for illiberal leaders are different, and more dangerous, than first ones

The past week provided three depressing reminders that we live in an age defined by the march of illiberal populism.

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The past week saw the right-wing populist Andrzej Duda narrowly defeat a liberal challenge by the Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski to win re-election in Poland’s presidential election, after an ugly campaign that scapegoated German, Jewish and LGBTQ people. It also saw Recep Tayyip Erdogan defy international opprobrium and turn Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, first built as a Christian cathedral in 532, from a museum into a mosque, as part of the Turkish president’s rollback of his country’s secularism. And it saw Donald Trump commute the sentence of Roger Stone, a long-time confidant of the US president, convicted of obstructing justice and lying to Congress.

Three depressing news events. Three reminders that we live in an age defined by the march of illiberal populism. But also three illustrations of the perils to democratic norms when a first-term illiberal leader runs for re-election, and especially when he wins a second term. It is tempting to treat this juncture as just another part of a uniform process of election after election. But four distinct effects mark it out and make it worth particular scrutiny.

The first of these is the impunity-testing effect. Democratic norms are often calibrated during elections. Illiberal incumbents such as Trump are more powerful and emboldened when they run for re-election than when they first seek office. So their re-election bids are a unique chance to test how far they can push their boundaries.

In the weeks before Poland’s vote on 12 July, Duda and his vassals plumbed new depths of bigotry. “Will Trzaskowski fulfil Jewish demands?” ran a chyron on Poland’s state TV. Erdogan held his first re-election campaign as president in 2018 during a national state of emergency in which opposition messages were virtually banned from the airwaves. Trump’s recent twisting of democratic norms – race-baiting, sending troops on to the streets to curb Black Lives Matter protests and suggesting the election is rigged if he does not win – are another typical example.

The second is the endorsement effect. Central to the populist formula is the dichotomy between “the people” (an undifferentiated mass that supports the populist in question) and the “enemies of the people” (balancing institutions such as the judiciary, media and opposition, but also minorities deemed not to belong). A re-election win, narrow or otherwise, is the perfect prop for this argument, treated as conclusive proof that “the people” are on side.

Erdogan hailed his re-election as “the supremacy of the national will”. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán followed his 2014 re-election with a now-famous speech praising the goal of an “illiberal state” and thence an unprecedented assault on independent civil society. India’s Narendra Modi was emboldened by his re-election in 2018 to launch his proudly illiberal vision of “Hindutva”, or Hindu-ness, and to write many Muslims out of the Indian nation with a new citizenship law.

The third is the sunk-capital effect. A first term is often the time when a leader – illiberal or otherwise – gets to grips with the levers of power. Take two mainstream British examples. Tony Blair considered his first term not radical enough and felt that his New Labour truly came of age during his more reformist second mandate. And what we consider today as “Thatcherism” – privatisation, the defeat of the coal miners, the big bang in the City of London – was primarily a product of Margaret Thatcher’s second term. Political capital and experience take time to pay dividends.

That applies to anti-system populists too. Trump has created a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. He has changed the machinery of American government by co-opting the spineless Republican Party, overhauling agencies and federal personnel, changing the norms of its democracy and bending its diplomacy to his own whims. It is not unreasonable to wonder whether in a second term he would routinely use the army to put down civil protests, pull the US out of Nato or even challenge the rule limiting presidents to two terms. It is noteworthy that John Bolton, Trump’s estranged former national security adviser and hardly a bleeding-heart liberal, has described this November’s election as the “last guardrail” for American democracy.

Finally, there is the life-cycle effect. As a second term of illiberal abuse of a democratic system plays out, the risk grows of voters normalising the changes and opposition figures losing hope. One term can be an aberration, and four or five years do not seem like a big proportion of someone’s life. But two terms can feel like a new consensus and eight, nine or ten years are long enough – if you are an opposition politician, campaigner or public-spirited civil servant – to give up and do something else. In a well-functioning democracy such churn can bring renewal. But in a cynical, unfair political system it simply launders optimism and talent into other fields (and often other countries), and replaces it with opportunism and demagoguery. Look at the diminished, beleaguered, exhausted oppositions in Turkey or Hungary for a sense of the direction America or Poland could yet take.

The lessons for liberals, pluralists and anyone who does not want their country to end up looking like, say, Turkey, are several. Fight against a second term of illiberalism harder than the first. Stand up to the rewriting of norms. Do not allow an electoral win to be equated with the endorsement of an entire electorate. Where institutions are co-opted, hold them and the government responsible for their ensuing performance. And most of all, recognise that illiberal populists rarely deliver for their countries in the long term: growth sinks, innovation shrivels, people leave and those who remain can become sick of the bombast and their reduction to a pliant mob. Do not give up hope. 

Previously this piece stated that US presidents were bound by a two-term convention. It is in fact a constitutional rule. This has been corrected.

Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 17 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine

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