Political Leaders And The Risk Of Overreach

Many countries, whether democratic or authoritarian, sooner or later get a leader who risks staying in office too long or overreaching themselves, politically. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been facing widespread protests against his rule, is just the latest example. Other examples could include Russian President Vladimir Putin, who faced demonstrations in 2011, and former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006 after mass unrest. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair arguably also fell into the trap of overreach, judging by the fall-out from the Iraq War and by how unpopular he was by the time he left office in 2007.

Although Erdogan is undoubtedly one of Turkey’s most successful prime ministers, and remains popular after more than 10 years in office, many Turks are concerned about his apparent desire to be elected president with expanded executive powers in 2014. This could theoretically allow Erdogan to serve two five-year terms to 2024. Aside from the fact that two decades of one-man rule may seem too long to Turkish voters, there is widespread opposition to his perceived Islamisation of the traditionally secular Turkish polity. Although Erdogan and his AKP party have been elected three times (in 2002, 2007, and 2011), with increased popularity each time, not everyone agrees with his domestic and foreign policy agendas.

Erdogan aside, there is a tendency for successful and repeatedly elected leaders to let ‘power go to their heads’. They become not only comfortable but increasingly confident in office, and feel that they can ignore their critics, who they see as a vocal minority or as ‘extremists’. These leaders may assume an air of arrogance, making them irritable with even minor criticisms. Amid such circumstances, they become vulnerable to outbursts of public protests. Often, the trigger may be something ‘minor’, but the demonstrations soon expand beyond their original scope.

What Constitutes Overreach?

Overreach can mean forcing through unpopular measures, either politically, economically, or socially. Some leaders actually receive praise for doing this, especially if these are economic reforms that are considered beneficial for long-term growth. In this regard, former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher arguably ‘overreached’ herself, and she remains a divisive figure in Britain today.  

Why Do Leaders Overreach Themselves?

There are several reasons why political leaders overreach themselves.

Firstly, certain electoral systems (for example the first-past-the-post system in the UK) can create big legislative majorities from a relatively small percentage of the popular vote and low turnout. This may give leaders an exaggerated sense of their mandate, and thus encourage them to pursue ‘pet’ projects that are far from universally supported. They may incorrectly assume that the public supports their entire agenda, rather than just parts of it.

Secondly, and similarly, some leaders solidly win election or re-election mainly on the basis that their opponent is so mediocre or has had such constraints placed on their campaign that they cannot help but attract only limited support. Some leaders meanwhile come to power as a result of benefiting from protest votes, without recognising this. Again, these circumstances give the incumbent a false sense of a strong mandate.

Thirdly, political leaders may develop an exaggerated sense of their historical importance. This is especially likely for elected leaders in their second terms, who know that their second term may be their last, but who feel that their ‘pet’ political projects can only succeed with them at the helm. These leaders worry that any putative successor will slow or even reverse their ‘reforms’. Thus, they feel the temptation to pursue a third or even fourth term. In extreme cases, these leaders argue that the alternative to their rule is chaos.

Fourthly, leaders may overextend or overreach themselves to protect their support group, who feel that the incumbent best represents their interests. There have been some cases where leaders have wanted to step down, but have been urged to stay on by vested interest groups.

Fifthly, a robust economic climate may disguise a leader’s overreach. That is to say, when economic times are good, the public may be willing to overlook a leader’s less attractive policies, or personality traits. However, as soon as the economy sours, the public can suddenly become very critical not just of the economy, but of the leader’s other agendas.

How Long Is Too Long?

In order to prevent the emergence of strongman rule, many if not most countries have term limits on their leaders. South Korea and the Philippines restrict their presidents to single five- and six-year terms, respectively. Chile does not allow its presidents consecutive terms. The US, France, and Indonesia place two-term limits on their presidents. Brazil, Russia, and Iran limit their presidents to two consecutive terms at a time.

However, there are also some risks from term limits. Most South Korean presidents become lame ducks by their third year, and most leave office on a low note. Arguably, five years is not enough time to have a transformational impact on an economy. In the US, second terms often lead to a sense of drift, or alternatively, rash decision-making, as the president hastily scrambles to achieve a domestic or foreign policy ‘success’ for their legacy. For example, Bill Clinton’s attempts to force a final Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement in his last year in office arguably worsened relations between the two sides.

Japan seems to be the only major country where political leaders very seldom overreach themselves. The reason is that most prime ministers struggle to stay in office for more than a year. Even so, there is a risk that Shinzo Abe could ‘overreach’ himself by focusing too much on defence-related issues rather than the economy, which is of greater concern to voters ahead of the July Upper House elections.