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Barring some unlikely turn of events, Vladimir Putin seems poised, courtesy of thinly veiled constitutional manipulations, to solidify his perpetual grasp on power in Russia. And, despite an element of courageous (and sometimes short-lived) opposition, he will do so with the support of a majority of Russians.
Putin is plainly not the only populist and nationalistic strongman to emerge in recent years, and frankly Russia has a tradition of admiration for strong leaders and a very thin history of voluntary withdrawals from power. But the reality of majority support for such leaders, often expressed through forms of voting, raises the question of whether they measure up to the core governance principle of legitimacy.
Admittedly, while legitimacy is a non-negotiable element of good governance, strictly speaking it is about general acceptance of a regime rather than particular processes. Thus Max Weber described “traditional” forms of authority (check out the dei gratia reginainscription on Canada’s coinage) and “charismatic” forms (think of Mussolini, Mao and Che Guevara), in addition to “rational-legal” forms like electoral democracy. That said, most modern leaders, Putin included, prefer to claim democratic legitimacy.
But in fact Putin miserably fails the democratic legitimacy test even as low-in-the-polls leaders in truly democratic systems pass it. First, a litmus test for legitimacy is the general acceptance of a government’s decisions even by those who disagree with them. The willingness of Putin’s opposition to suffer harassment (and worse) suggests he has a real problem here. This reflects the absence of “voice” – a genuine opportunity for all stakeholders to be fairly heard and their dignity respected. Historically, dictators have often used plebiscites, enjoying large and even enthusiastic majorities. But heaven help you if you were in the minority.
Putin’s brand of legitimacy and supposed democracy is wholly incompatible with other principles of good governance – transparency, accountability, and equity. It is all but impossible, especially at the level of national leadership, to have meaningful accountability without a democratic reckoning in which opponents get a fair shake. And it is equally impossible for a system like Putin’s, which relies on a pseudo-democratic veneer, to function without the systemic corruption of institutions and free media.
Elections and majority rule alone do not a free society make.
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