Jan 16, 2020

Putin aims to join the world's leaders for life

Russian President Vladimir Putin named Tax Service chief Mikhail Mishustin (right) as the new prime minister yesterday. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool via AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin, 67, has given the clearest signal yet of how he plans to navigate term limits and join China’s Xi Jinping, 66, as a possible leader for life.

Why it matters: Several of the world’s most powerful leaders have recently shifted the rules in order to keep power past normal transitions.

That includes Xi, who ended presidential term limits in 2018.

  • Putin is expected to step down as president in 2024, but showed with a surprise shakeup yesterday that he has no intention of fading quietly away.
  • It’s not yet clear whether Putin intends to become prime minister again or carve out another powerful position. But it is clear that even after leaving the presidency, he doesn’t want any rivals for power.
  • "This is not about a succession plan," Brookings' Alina Polyakova said. "This is about consolidating power."

Putin didn't opt for the most straightforward choice: simply removing term limits. 

Zoom out: Several leaders who aren't quite "president for life" have prolonged their tenures through controversial means.

  • Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro rigged an election in 2018 and has defied calls to step aside amid political and economic crises. His predecessor, Hugo Chavez, eliminated term limits.
  • Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no stranger to Putin-style constitutional maneuvering, and while Turkey still holds competitive elections he has pulled the country in a more autocratic direction over 16 years in power.
  • Hungary’s Viktor Orban is one of several leaders attempting to use control over institutions and the media to close the door behind him after winning office.
  • Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking both re-election and parliamentary immunity from three corruption indictments. Now Israel’s longest-serving leader, he’s positioning himself as the indispensable man.

Even Putin has lessons to learn from Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev. He left the presidency last March after 30 years but continues to wield authority as chairman of the country's security council.

  • He got a nice parting gift: the capital was renamed in his honor.

Worth noting: Nearly all "leaders for life," and in fact all 20 of the world’s longest-serving non-royal leaders, are men.

  • The longest-serving woman, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is expected to step aside by 2021.

Go deeper... 20 Years of Putin: Tracing his rise from KGB to Kremlin

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