Can “Putinism” Compete as a Political System?

Mainstream commentators in the West argue that Putin, Orban and Erdogan have created strikingly similar systems built around their personal leadership and open contempt for separation of powers, pluralism and transparency. They all offer different solutions to global challenges than liberal democracies.

“But even I never imagined that a national leader – from Europe no less – would use the term [illiberal democracy] as a badge of honor,” wrote the influential Indian-American pundit Fareed Zakaria about Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s controversial speech this July.

According to Zakaria, Hungary has enacted and implemented a version of what can best be described as “Putinism,”whose crucial elements are nationalism, religion, social conservatism, state capitalism and government domination of the media. He points to other examples of political systems embracing core elements of Putinism. Turkey’s recently elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has adopted Putin’s authoritarian and anti-Western brand of politics.

Zakaria and other mainstream commentators in the West argue that Putin, Orban and Erdogan have created strikingly similar systems – albeit by different methods – built around their personal leadership and open contempt for separation of powers, pluralism and transparency. These leaders manipulate the legacy of national heroes and seek to reclaim past imperial glory to imbue their autocratic regimes with democratic mysticism, and wield cultural relativism as a weapon against constitutional freedoms. This new style of political system is seen most clearly in the revival of czarism in Russia, xenophobia in Hungary and fundamentalist Muslim traditions in Turkey. The defenders of liberal democratic exceptionalism note that Putin, Orban and Erdogan are in no hurry to relinquish power.

For them, ideology, politics and the formalities of democracy are only means to an end. They believe they know intuitively what their people need. They resurrect dreams of former greatness and glory and construct ideologies based on national exceptionalism, patriotism and xenophobia.

Liberal advocates of “justice” have rendered their verdict. But are they right? Is a common model emerging in these three countries? Or do they merely overlap at certain points, including a rejection of liberalism?

Viktor Orban, who has consistently spoken about the demise of the liberal model for fifteen years, earned the wrath of Western – primarily American – media with his lecture at Hungary’s University of Culture criticizing the tenets of liberal democracy. He said that the new Hungarian state was based on an illiberal foundation. He argued that Hungary’s liberal systems failed to protect collective property and plunged the country into debt, turning Hungarian families into debt slaves. The tectonic shifts underway in the global economy have shown that liberal systems are struggling to remain competitive and that their promise of prosperity for all was an illusion. But, according to Orban, a search is underway for a form of collective organization that can make nations and societies competitive internationally. Political science experts around the world are less interested in Western, liberal or even democratic systems than systems that make countries prosperous – Singapore, China, India, Russia, and Turkey. Orban’s liberal detractors intentionally distort his words, claiming that Hungary is abandoning the system of European democratic values. Most publications offer only a selective reading of his speech and the simplistic suggestion that Budapest is modeling itself on Moscow. The New York Times even urged the EU to reduce Hungary’s infrastructure funding and suspend its voting rights.

Of course, Mr. Orban has parted company with the liberal, or more accurately neoliberal, economic system, not democracy. All he did was reaffirm a growing international trend and question the salutary nature of the market. He wants to create a state that protects its citizens, nationalize utilities and raise taxes on banks, the retail sector and media outlets. Orban is not alone in his market-bashing. The West will have to come to terms with leaders placing their national interests ahead of the interests of global capital.

The EU faces not only a grave economic crisis, but also a crisis in values. This is why the valid critique and alternatives offered by Orban and others have caused such a vexed reaction in the West. They are particularly frightened by the Hungarian government’s “anti-liberalism” – which it decided not to translate into English in the version of the speech it released – though, in fact, Orban criticized market fundamentalism. They are even more alarmed by any praise of the Russian model. It was no coincidence that they tried to present Orban as a Putin supporter (while disregarding the other countries that fit the mold) because he advocates a foreign policy based on pragmatic interests rather than liberal values. Viktor Orban has signed a major bilateral deal with Vladimir Putin, supporting the building of the South Stream pipeline and condemning the EU sanctions on Moscow because it is in Hungary’s best interests to do so.

Even staunch supporters of liberal democracy acknowledge that history is on the move again, heightening the competition between political systems. The Western system is noticeably losing ground to others that are forging ahead. This would be unfortunate, though not terrible for the West, were it not for the fact that Hungary is not the only example of the growing “illiberal” trend. In Central Europe, there are politicians like Slovakia’s Robert Fico and former president of the Czech Republic Vaclav Klaus, who are equally critical, if more cautious in their wording. Add to this group Putin-hater Jaroslaw Kaczynski who, like Orban, is critical of EU liberalism and gearing up for a comeback in Poland, and it becomes clear that liberal democracy faces a serious challenge.

The extent to which the 2008 global crisis has undermined faith in democracy around the world – including the Euro-Atlantic world – will become clearer with time. But can anyone still argue that liberal democracy is the only model that is both democratic and promotes the public good? The liberal model is likely to face challenges from so-called hybrid models combining features of democracy and authoritarianism. These mixed systems springing up in Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe incorporate formal institutions of democracy into a country’s existing historical, societal and cultural milieu, pragmatically combining efficiency and stability. Their success is what legitimizes them in the eyes of citizens. They have proved that they are here to stay, despite the liberal attacks leveled at the prime minister of Hungary and others who question the wisdom of liberal democracy.

This does not mean, of course, that Mr. Orban is copying Putin or Erdogan, as his critics suggest. Some features – conservatism, traditionalism, patriotism, defense of national interests – are outwardly similar, but rest on entirely different customs and historical experiences. At the same time, they all offer different solutions to global challenges than liberal democracies. Of the three, Hungary is under the heaviest pressure as it looks to chart a path of its own in the changing world, breaking with liberalism while remaining in the Western alliance. The success of the search for alternatives will largely depend on how Putin approaches Ukraine. This conflict is as much about the views and means shaping the new global order as it is about spheres of influence. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.