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COVID-19: The Case with Strongman Leaders. Part I.

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“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”

– Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States,  former Captain in the Army Reserves

As many of us are in self-isolation and staying home all day, it is quite hard not to pay attention to the news, especially in this time of uncertainty. Journalists, politicians and those who seek the attention of the people use this opportunity to get more likes, clicks or they just simply want to inform us. One thing is for sure, that many of them keep using war-like metaphors. I am not here to judge this kind of rhetoric but to entertain this thought for a moment. After all, we battle with this pandemic, our economy, education system, healthcare system, and society is in a time of crisis. If it is a war then we should approach it by checking the core elements. These are leadership, logistics, society, and technology. Now we will only focus on the element of leadership, especially the case with strongmen leaders.

Why them?

In the last decade, a new wave of politics has emerged. This brought many things with it, for example, it questions the pluralist beliefs about who should have the power and authority in a state. They target the mainstream media, elections, politicians, judges, protests and international organizations alike. While claiming that the only legitimate source of political and moral authority in democracy rests with the “ordinary people, the silent majority”, thus undermining the judicial systems. In countries with flawed democracies and hybrid regimes, strongmen leaders are using populist rhetoric to target human rights, silencing the press, forcing constitutional changes, stealing state resources and paving the way to electoral autocracy. They tend to build their political success by exploiting fear, like anti-migrant rhetoric. While many say that a great leader emerges from a crisis, today’s strongmen create their own crisis and enemies to stay in power and show how indispensable they are, making the picture of the future almost unimaginable without them. For many of them, the COVID-19 pandemic is the first real political crisis. So the question is how do they perform?

The proof of the pudding is in the eating… 

When we talk about strongmen leaders in hybrid regimes or flawed democracies we usually associate them with names like Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump. Again these are only the most well-known names.

In the Philippines, a wave of extremely violent street crime helped elect Rodrigo Duterte and his promises to clean those streets from dangerous drug dealers with a very unique way of justice. He has been in this position since 2016 and even though there is no re-election there, he won’t go quietly. There is a massive approval rate behind his back, and a clear will to grab more power. While back in March, during a speech he was not concerned with the pandemic, his attitude greatly changed by April when he admitted the situation is far from good. After getting his emergency powers on March 25, his main result is the establishment of the National Task Force (NTF), headed by three ex-generals. Although The Philippines has one of the worst COVID-19 situations in Southeast Asia, the government is taking care of the elites rather than the general public, and the front-line healthcare workers. As for the newly established NTF, hope is definitely not their trade. People who aren’t wearing a mask or violate quarantine rules are being detained, left in the sun, or even shot by police and military. Duterte has warned: “I will send you to the grave…Don’t test the government”.

In Turkey, the situation is not so different. There is a man who loves power, after all, Erdogan, the former Prime Minister of Turkey between 2003 and 2014. Then elected as President in 2014, and again in 2018. He celebrated his first Presidency with a new palace, bigger than the Kremlin and even the Palace of Versailles near Paris. His second term as president gave him new powers, with the ability to rule by decree certainly one of them. All of this after a failed, some say staged, military coup against him, which was followed by a big purge of almost 100 000 people for alleged ties to the failed coup. Since March 22, Turkey has seen extreme growth in coronavirus cases, so it has had to adapt, and here comes the essence of being a strongman. They do everything in their power to silence their critics. Just like Erdogan who granted amnesty to 90 000 detainees to battle the pandemic, except to those who are behind bars due to political reasons like journalists, academics and many more. As Ankara’s financial stability is already weak, the coronavirus will only make it even worse. Especially with a combination of external debt, public health crisis, and a president who fears more of his position than of his people, the Turkish economy is in a really hard situation. Bad economy equals more critics, more critics equal even stricter rules. The question is when does the time come when there are more people behind bars because of their political beliefs than because of murder?

Jair Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil in 2018. He is criticized because of his comments on race, women, and homosexuality. Not to mention that he is also a notorious denier of climate change, turning Brazil from a global leader to a threat in the fight for the environment. He is a military man who praised the brutal dictatorship and continues to militarize his government, with nine military officials in his Cabinet. Brazil has now more than 33.000 coronavirus cases, with a very poor health care system. One would believe that the president and the whole government has the same on their mind: “We must stop it!” The truth is completely different. Bolsonaro referred to COVID-19 as a “little cold”, and encouraged his voters to take part in political activities and gatherings. Unlike him, the Health Minister wanted to take social distancing seriously, to battle with the pandemic. Bolsenaro’s answer was clear: he fired him. When he came to power he promised a better economy, and the virus put a stop to that. How far is he willing to go to keep that promise?


Three very unique politicians, with three different backgrounds and environments, are facing the same problem caused by the coronavirus pandemic. While believing in their own moral authority and using the political power they jailed, silenced and fired their critics. It is clear that they are ready to go pretty far, but how far exactly? For how long are they willing to gamble with their people’s lives just to ensure their position?


The author of this article is Hungarian-born Gábor András Papp, BA student in Political Science at the University of Szeged. He is an extremely enthusiastic undergraduate who found his passion in the field of Security Studies and International Affairs.


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