With Western democracy on the defensive, China’s Xi Jinping is aggressively advancing a new model for human governance in the 21st century: personal dictatorship backed by nationalism, state-directed capitalism and a security apparatus empowered by cutting-edge technologies. There’s no pretense of evolution toward democracy or even the rule of law. On the contrary, Xi explicitly casts his regime as an alternative that “offers a new option for other countries.” Among the world leaders seemingly most likely to embrace this neo-totalitarianism are Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, both of whom have consolidated personal power on a platform of nationalism. So it’s interesting that both Putin and Sissi are putting on presidential elections this month. Sure, these are not real elections. They are Potemkin pageants that will award the two strongmen overwhelming victories, thanks in part to the exclusion of all serious opponents. The only suspense about the March 18 vote in Russia, or the ballot in Egypt concluding 10 days later, will be about the abstention rate, because opposition leaders in both countries are calling for boycotts.
Still, it’s telling that Putin and Sissi feel compelled to engage in something resembling a democratic exercise and even to campaign for votes. Putin has been touring factories and last Thursday delivered a fiery nationalist speech reeking of Trumpesque populism. For his part, Sissi ginned up a new, made-for-television military campaign in the Sinai Peninsula last month, and last week his chief prosecutor launched a broadside against an always-popular target, the foreign news media.
Why bother? “I think the answer is obvious: legitimacy,” says Stanford University’s Larry Diamond, an expert on global democratic trends. “There is still enough resonance today of the democracy principle so that leaders like Sissi and Putin feel the need to show that they have won in a superficially competitive election, that they are the people’s choice.”