The world is unnerved by reports that China has changed its constitution to allow President Xi Jinping to remain in power for life. This follows President Putin running rings around the Russian constitution to stay in power as long as he likes.
China is the largest country in the world by population and Russia is the largest in terms of geography. The inescapable conclusion is that we are moving away from a world where leaders routinely serve just four or eight year terms, towards a situation where in much of the world, autocrats remain in power as long as there is breath in their lungs.
In the years after the Berlin Wall came down and Communism crumbled, things looked very different. Complacent American thinkers wrote lengthy books proclaiming the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy, reflecting how dictatorship naturally gave way to more accountable systems of government. Such conclusions no longer look so inescapable. Even in Europe and America we see a rise in right-wing forces hostile to the values of liberal democracy.
I have never believed that one form of government is best for all people in all parts of the world. Indeed these authoritarian trends represent a breakdown in public trust for democracy. During the traumatic events of the 2011 “Arab Spring”, it was the GCC monarchies which proved most resilient against populist forces that tried to rewrite their political systems from scratch.
What matters is whether governing systems can guarantee good standards of living for all their citizens. The problem with authoritarian trends in Russia, China, Turkey, Iran and even the US, is that they give rise to crackdowns against the media and public freedoms, while favouring the clique of politicians and businessmen closest to the leadership.
What happened when Hosni Mubarak tweaked the constitution to stay in power for life? Most Egyptians lost faith that they could expect change through the ballot box and chose the path of revolution. Revolution resulted in chaos, because instead of just changing the leadership, the entire political culture had to be rewritten, allowing opportunists like the Muslim Brotherhood to try to take power for themselves.
Maybe China and Russia will enjoy five, 10 or 20 years of peace under their current rulers. However, a time will come when the vast majority of people want change. If it has become impossible to achieve change through elections, then ultimately they will resort to force.
February 14, 2001 is rightly seen as the most important date in Bahrain’s political calendar because it defines our current phase of constitutional monarchy and a parliament-centred system. It made Bahrain’s political system more accountable and ensured that Bahrainis could elect politicians of their choice. As a monarchy rooted in a constitution, Bahrain became a state founded on the rule of law. Even Saudi Arabia, often seen as the ultimate example of absolute monarchy, is undergoing major political changes towards a more accountable system of governance.
Figures like Putin and Trump benefit from democracy, then once they are in power do all they can to undermine democracy.
The lesson is that mature systems of government must maximise the values of democracy - accountability, tolerance and the rule of law – while having the resilience to protect themselves from anti-democratic forces. After 2011, the Bahrain political system demonstrated its own resilience by preventing anti-democratic forces from undermining our system of government and way of life.
When everything is going well, it is easy to believe in the goodness of human nature and trust that open democracy can guarantee the best future for everybody. However, when times get difficult and public dissatisfaction grows, there are plenty of figures hiding in the shadows waiting to destroy democracy and rule in their own names.
The history of the Western world during the 20th century was one of oscillation between democracy and dictatorship. If we are to avoid repeating this throughout the 21st century, then the world requires more sophisticated systems of government with the strength to flourish in both good and bad times.