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Dictators: why heroes slide into villainy

What do Vladimir Putin, Fidel Castro, and Kim Il-sung have in common? All took power promising change for the better: a fairer distribution of wealth, an end to internal corruption, limited foreign influence, and future peace and prosperity. To an extent, they all achieved this, but then things began to go wrong. Corruption raged in Putin’s Russia; millions fled grinding poverty and political persecution in Castro’s Cuba; and Kim’s Korea launched a disastrous war that, to this day, makes reunification with the now-wealthy South a distant dream.

Rather than admitting failure and handing over power to the next generation, each autocrat hung on, long outliving their welcome. And we can add Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Hugo Chavez, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Muammar Gaddafi, and Daniel Ortega to the list.

So, why does this happen so often?

From triumph to tyrant

A new model, developed by Professor Kaushik Basu from Cornell University, and published in Oxford Open Economics, simulates the decisions national leaders face. It reveals positive feedback conditions that lead to escalating acts that serve the autocrat’s self-interest, and preservation of power, rather than the best interests of the country.

“My paper was provoked by a personal encounter with Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua,” Professor Basu, former chief economist of the World Bank, recalls. “When I met him in September 2013 he still had the aura of a progressive leader, but subsequently morphed into a kind of tyrant that I would not have predicted. I wrote up the algebra to explain this transformation, and realized I had hit upon an argument that explains the behaviour of a large number of authoritarian leaders around the world.”

It can take many years of struggle for a dictator to reach office and achieve their political ambitions. Reluctance to risk this work in progress with a popular vote after a mere four- or five-year term leads to actions such as intimidating, imprisoning, or assassinating political rivals; silencing the press, financial corruption, and tax evasion; influencing or corrupting the judiciary. Such tactics work—in the short term, at least —but opponents can’t be silenced forever: truth finds a way, often supported by domestic or foreign antagonists.

As these controlling behaviours escalate, it becomes clear that relinquishing power would lead to legal persecution or imprisonment: just ask Chilean autocrat General Pinochet, arrested after leaving office; or Uganda’s Idi Amin, forced into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Basu’s algebraic model shows that, after a threshold of bad behaviour is passed, no amount of do-gooding can undo the damage: the only choice left a dictator is to tighten his grip on power especially if, beyond national justice, lie international courts and tribunals. For example, Sudan’s former leader Omar al-Bashir has been in hiding since 2009, a fugitive of the International Criminal Court.

Democratic policy matters

The model explains why two-term limits have evolved as a popular way to curb such damage as they provide a limited time for unsavoury actions to accumulate, a single opportunity for re-election, and better options for leaving office peaceably. So, could this common system be more widely employed to prevent dictatorships?

“A globally-enforced term limit is an important step, but may not be enough,” says Basu, who half-jokingly suggests that creating an easy exit for dictators, such as offering them a castle on a Pacific island, could also be effective.

Joking aside, the paper has important implications for current US politics. Former US president Donald Trump faces 91 felony counts across four states. Is the barrage of legal indictments boxing him into the corner where he has no option but to regain office, and then corrupt power to save himself, just as the model predicts? 

At a time where authoritarian regimes are on the rise—the 2024 Economist Intelligence Unit report shows that 39.4% of the world’s population is under authoritarian rule, an increase from 36.9% in 2022—the need is greater than ever to promote policies that could halt the slide.

Feature image by Peterzikas, via Pixabay. Public domain.

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