How to Stop Power Grab by Putin-Like Authoritarian Leaders

Mantasha Ansari

In today's democratic era, for how long should a leader rule over a country? On July 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin won a referendum which could keep him in power until 2036. Putin has been in power since 1999: as the acting prime minister from 1999 to 2000, as the president for two terms from 2000 to 2008, then as the prime minister from 2008 to 2012, and again as the president for two terms from 2012 to 2020. In 2008, he unusually took a lower position as the prime minister because the law did not permit him to continue as the president for a third term. In brief, Putin has ruled Russia for 21 years and could rule for another 16 years until 2036. If he manipulates the system further, he could stay as president for life.

In pre-democracy times, absolute rulers were accepted by people who believed in the idea that god had given them the right to rule. In political science, this is known as divine rights theory. However, in 1776 America became the first modern democracy. Over the years, the number of democracies has increased. Currently, 193 countries are members of the United Nations. Not all the 193 UN members are democracies; some of them are in the process of becoming full democracies. But all of them commit to the UN charter and aspire to uphold democratic values. 

These democratic values do not allow for any despot to rule a country for life. It is a fundamental democratic idea that every citizen must be able to get an opportunity to become the ruler. This can happen only when politicians do not go on, like Putin, to rule for long periods. Before we discuss how Putin-like leaders are manipulating and altering the system to rule forever, let's look at some authoritarian leaders in the recent past.

In China, Xi Jinping became the president in 2013 for a five-year term. Under the Chinese law, he could rule for two terms. However, in 2018 when he was still in his first term, Xi Jinping changed the Chinese constitution to abolish the two-term limit. Now, it is possible that Xi Jinping could remain president of China for life. So, we see that both in Russia and China, attempts were made by sitting presidents to change law to keep them in power for life.

In North Korea, Kim Jong-il ruled from 1994 to 2011 after the death of his father Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il was in power for almost 17 years until his death. Since 2011, his son Kim Jong-un has been in power. These leaders were chosen by the party, not directly elected by the people of North Korea. The idea of a hereditary ruler is totally anti-democratic. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, initially a respected nationalist leader, governed as the prime minister from 1980 to 1987 and as the president from 1987 to 2017. He ruled Zimbabwe for almost 37 years.

In Saudi Arabia, people do not have any choice about who is the ruler. The country is an absolute monarchy. Power devolves from the king to his brother. Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the current ruler, became the king in 2015 after the death of his brother King Abdullah. King Abdullah's reign had followed his brother King Fahad's rule from 1982 to 2005. Now, King Salman has also changed the rule by appointing his son as the crown prince. So, after King Salman's death, his son and crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will succeed.

In Uganda, Idi Amin was the president. He was known for being a cruel and ruthless ruler. Idi Amin came to power through a military coup and ruled Uganda with an iron hand for more than eight years from 1971 to 1979. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein ruled the country for more than two decades from 1979 to 2003 when he was killed by the American military. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak governed as the country's president for 31 years from 1981 to 2011.

In the former USSR, Joseph Stalin ruled as a dictator for more than 31 years from 1922 to 1953. In Germany, Adolf Hitler came to power through elections but ruled the country as an absolute dictator from 1934 to 1945. In Italy, Benito Mussolini was the fascist dictator who ruled from 1922 to 1943 – for more than 21 years. There are numerous examples of how individuals have ruled countries for decades. 

This may have been justified in the past when kings and queens such as Emperor Akbar of India or Queen Victoria of England ruled for long periods. In earlier times, there was no public awareness about democratic rights and institutions. Although ancient Athens had some sort of a democratic system, it was not an evolved democracy because women and slaves did not have the right to participate in the governance. 

Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini in the past and Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in contemporary times have led countries into authoritarianism, totalitarianism, fascism and dictatorship. These terms might have carried different meanings at different times. However, in modern times the very meaning of dictatorship is changing. As per The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics and International Relations, "In modern usage," dictatorship means "absolute rule unrestricted by law, constitutions, or other political or social factors within the state."

Now, democracy has come a long way since tribal chiefs, kings and queens, or dictators ruled without accountability. Democracy has now evolved its own institutions of governance such as the parliament, free press, multi-party elections and voting rights to all adults, including women. In democracies now, every citizen should get an opportunity to try to govern the country. This can happen only if a ruler remains in power for a limited duration. 

In some countries such as Russia and the U.S., a politician can serve as the president for two terms only, with each term being four years. The president of China, before Xi Jinping changed the law,  was permitted to rule for not more than two terms of five year each. The examples set by Putin and Xi Jinping show that the system can be manipulated to prolong the rule of a leader.

In America, there was no limit on how many terms the president could contest and remain in power. In the 1940s, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the president for four terms. However, politicians in America realised that there was an urgent need to improve the functioning of American democracy. Therefore, the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. constitution was enacted  in 1951. This law reformed the constitution by limiting two terms for the American president.

In India, there is no limit on how many times a person can serve as the prime minister. However, the functioning of Indian democracy can improve if a law is enacted barring any person from holding the offices of the prime minister or the chief minister for more than two terms. But, if a party retains power consecutively for three or more terms, then it should be forced by law to choose a new leader to fill in as the chief minister or the prime minister, as the case may be. This will improve the functioning democracy in India.

Mantasha Ansari is a writer based at the University of Lucknow. She can be reached via email:

Jul 26, 2020

 Mantasha Ansari

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