Organized by
12 Oct 2022, 1010 hrs

The Reign of Political Strongmen

They cultivate their own personal brand of politics while undermining institutions and altering the laws of democratic accountability. Yet countries across the globe have seen iliberal characters rise to power and even encourage a cult of personality. Often with charming duplicity and bullying behaviour, how and why do strongmen rulers continue to appeal to their voters and how does the world deal with this continuing phenomenon?

By Sofia Flores

Political strongmen are on the rise across the globe with leaders using their charisma and machismo to exploit power and bend the rule of law, several experts said at the second Asian Conference for Political Communication (ACPC).

The Philippines’ late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. harnessed the power of myths to reinvent himself as the basis for his need to govern that ultimately placed the country under martial rule, said John Nery, a veteran Filipino journalist who has written columns for Rappler.

The massive disinformation drive in the Philippines also contributes to history repeating itself in the form of Bongbong Marcos’ return to politics despite atrocities under his father’s rule and his reputation for attending parties during his first 100 days in office, he said.

“Because of the alternative information infrastructure built on social media, we recognize now that many people know about Marcos, even about his atrocities, but are ready to discount it.”

Nery also noted how former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “illiberal, populist, violent, authoritarian, the evangelist of the macho gospel” ways paved the way for the Marcoses’ return to power decades later. 

Chinese leader Xi Jinping used the COVID-19 pandemic to justify the need for strongman leadership, said Prof. Jean-Pierre Cabestan of the Hong Kong Baptist University.

“Most people still feel safe with a strongman,” he said.

Strongman leaders are a product of failures of democracy, which the public can only address if recognized, said The Daily Star editor-publisher Mahfuz Anam.

“In my view, whatever is left of the liberal forces all over the world and I think there is a significant amount…. this strength has to be brought together,” said Anam.

“Polishing of liberal forces, a stronger voice for freedom of speech and media, stronger voice of the rule of the law, governments respecting law, international law being respected, this is what we need to concentrate on.”

Cultural context of the strongman leadership must be nuanced to understand why the public readily embraces such leaders, said Prof. Dr. Sandeep Shastri, vice chancellor of Jagran Lakecity University in Bhopal, India. 

“When I look at the emergency of the strong leader in India, the majority of people in India have been saying yes, we want a strong leader and it is not seen as something necessarily anti-democratic,” he said.

He also highlighted how the permanent “election mode” in India, where “even small elections are hyped”, puts leaders in constant spotlight.

“Strong leaders’ capacity is to be able to place the rhetoric in a particular language which is attractive to the masses… mastering the way in which the message is represented is one of the strengths of a strong leader.”

While Europe remains a bastion of liberal values, “an increasing number of countries experience leadership that, in individual ways, challenge the system,” said Stefanie Bolzen, the UK and Ireland Correspondent for German WELT.

Charismatic leaders like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, ex-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Italy’s Prime Minister-in-waiting Giorgia Meloni rise to power partly due to their citizens who are calling after going through years of mismanagement and discontent, she said.

“It is this narrative of the normal, decent people against the establishment… and that narrative ‘them against us’ will only get loud enough that Europe has been facing so many challenges at the same time.”

Nery called on journalists to be on alert as strongmen can “bait” the media into parroting their message. “It’s easy for us to get confused chasing after stories and not looking at the big picture.”

Mahfuz added: “Journalism and journalists need to reflect. In many ways we lost our way but we really need to introspect. Are we serving society the way we’re supposed to be?”

The ACPC 2022 has been organised by the Media Programme Asia of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. It brings together influencers in academia, politics and government to talk about challenges on social media, discuss the opportunities and threats of social media messaging, analyse the phenomena of rising populism and the hottest tools for e-campaigning.

Share this


Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Media Programme Sub-Saharan Africa
Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong
Rappler, Philippines
The Daily Star, Bangladesh
Jagran Lakecity University, India
Die Welt, Germany