The tables have turned… and the true face of populist leaders are unveiled in these times of trouble.
While many say that a great leader emerges from a crisis, today’s populists create their own crisis and enemies to stay in power and show their indispensability. Their true colors unveil in times of hardships, their very egos challenged by coming conflicts.
For many of them, the COVID-19 pandemic is the first real political crisis. A true test of their leadership skills driven by a downward economic spiral.
And as the world watches these mighty leaders who try to tower above the commoners… the only notion that we get is that is mighty men seem feeble and… disappointing.
This short list’s aim is to give an insight into how the most notorious populist leaders from flawed democracies and hybrid regimes are doing.
Rodrigo Duterte (The Philippines)
The political ground of the Philippines has been a curious one for many years.
A wave of extreme violence across the streets have led Rodrigo Duterte to the pedestal of fame. His promises to “clean” dangerous drug dealers with a very unique way of justice have been rumored to contain brutal measures. Rodrigo is in power since 2016 and even though there is no re-election, it seems he won’t go quietly.
Strangely enough, there is a massive approval rating behind his back, and a clear will to hold more power in his grasp. While back in March, during a speech he was not concerned with the pandemic, his attitude greatly changed by April when he admitted the situation is far from good.
Although The Philippines has one of the worst COVID-19 situations in Southeast Asia, the government is prioritizing by class. The elites are at an undue advantage as the Gini coefficient of the country is at unparalleled levels.
So the solution to the problem is handled Rodrigo’s very own stern fashion.
People who aren’t wearing a mask or violate quarantine rules are being detained, left in the sun, or even shot by police and military.
Duterte has warned: “I will send you to the grave…Don’t test the government”.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey)
In Turkey, the situation is not so different. There is a man who loves power, after all, Erdogan has been the Prime Minister of Turkey between 2003 and 2014. Then re-elected as President in 2014, and again in 2018. He celebrated his first Presidency with a new palace, bigger then Kremlin and even the Palace of Versailles near Paris.
His second term as president gave him more authority over the country, the ability to rule by decree is certainly one of them. All this after a failed, some say staged, military coup against him which was followed by a big purge of almost 100.000 people for alleged ties to the failed coup.
Since March 22 Turkey has seen extreme growth in coronavirus cases, so it had to adapt, and here comes the essence of being a populist. They do everything in their power to silence their critics. Just like Erdogan who granted amnesty to 90,000 detainees to battle the pandemic, except to those who are behind bars due to political reasons like journalists, academics, and many more.
As Ankara’s financial stability is already weak, the coronavirus will only make it even worse. Especially with a combination of external debt, public health crisis, and a president who fears more his position than his own people, the Turkish economy is in a really hard situation. Bad economy equals more critics, more critics equal with even stricter rules. The question is when comes the time when there are more people behind bars because of their political beliefs than because of murder?
Jair Bolsenaro (Brazil)
Jair Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil in 2018. He has been mostly criticized because of his disdainful remarks on race, gender, and homosexuality. Not to mention that he is also a notorious denier of climate change, turning Brazil from a global leader in the fight to a threat. He is a military man who praised the brutal dictatorship and continues to militarize his government, so far he has nine in his Cabinet. Brazil has now more than 33.000 coronavirus cases, with a very poor health care system.
One would believe that the president and the whole government has the same on their mind: “We must stop the pandemic by all means”. But words do not make up the actions of the Brazilian government. Bolsonaro referred to COVID-19 as a “little cold”, and encouraged his voters to take part in political activities, gatherings. Unlike him, the Health Minister wanted to take social distancing seriously, to battle with the pandemic.
Bolsenaro’s answer was clear. He fired him. Later he joined a rally to protest coronavirus lockdown measures, and also gave a speech in front of the military headquarters. When he came to power he promised a better economy, and the virus put a stop to that. How far is he willing to go in order to keep that promise? One thing is for sure, he is currently testing his strength.
Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel)
In Israel, the situation is just as complex as it can be. In March it was the third time the country had to hold an election after Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz were unable to form a coalition. Although Netanyahu declared the latest outcome “the biggest win of my life” he was still two short of a majority. At the same time, the coronavirus was also spreading in Israel, causing havoc and uncertainty. The two leaders had to act, and they did.
They signed an emergency unity government agreement. Under the deal, Netanyahu would continue as prime minister for another 18 –month period, and then the position goes to Gantz, who would also serve for 18 months. Right now Gantz is serving as his deputy. Netanyahu gained two things from this: the first is obvious, the position of PM, as for the second one he managed to delay his trial by over 2 months as court activity limited over the virus.
He was charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in connection with three separate cases. Right now Benjamin Netanyahu is not just Israel’s longest-serving prime minister but a real wizard when it comes to the game of politics.
Viktor Orbán (Hungary)
It was only a matter of time before a renowned figure would emerge and take the stand on our list. We can confidently say that Mr. Orban is the personification of an emerging populist wannabe, who uses guile and tactics rather than violence.
In recent years, since Fidesz’s rise to power, Hungary’s position has plummeted from 50th in 2010 to 70th in corruption rankings.
With all this in mind, one might ask who needs more than 2/3 of votes and take almost complete control over media and public funds? Well, Orbán does.
This year, Viktor Orbán is having his third consecutive term. By now he has consolidated his position as a centralized figure, having his fingers wrapped around the media to chisel his party’s image.
On March 11 the government of Hungary announced the “state of danger.” Later, they submitted a Bill of Protection to hinder COVID-19, and extend a state of emergency that would give the government the power to rule by decree. However, this required a 4/5 majority vote, needing the opposition’s decision to outrule any obstacles to initiate the bill.
Opposition parties have stepped up against Orban but were outplayed. Knowing the opposition won’t vote for the bill, Orbán could show the public that his political rivals didn’t want to help the government to battle the pandemic. And a new wave of finger-pointing and false information swept across the news media.
The second point of a populist image leads directly to the military. Uniforms have become the norm in the country. Soldiers can make us feel that everything is in order, and we are safe. But not against a virus. The government deployed army units, so-called “control teams”, to 84 strategic factories, to ensure secure operations in telecommunication, transport, and health care. And there is this so-called “operational unit” which is the main source of information regarding the Coronavirus, most of their members have police or military background which begs for the question: Where are the virologists?
As for the opposition, the government made public parking free causing further losses for local governments. When Hungary’s “arch-nemesis” George Soros gave 1 million Euro, the response from Orbáns Fidesz party was swift: ”Gergely Karácsony, oppositional mayor of Budapest sold the capital to Soros”.
They also cut the state funds for parties, limiting all non-Fidesz accomplices to further disrupt the ruling party from acting out on their own.
The author of this article is Hungarian-born Gábor András Papp, BA student in Political Science at the University of Szeged. He is an extremely enthusiastic undergraduate who found his passion in the field of Security Studies and International Affairs.