Democracy has always had a complicated relationship with its leaders. For starters democracy is the one form of government where leaders are regularly cast aside. Winston Churchill navigated Great Britain through World War II, but his party lost power shortly before the war’s conclusion. For many leadership itself is undemocratic. The idea of leaderless movements appeals to our sense of political equality. Still, it’s difficult to imagine many democracies without their founding leaders. Nelson Mandela, George Washington, and Jawaharlal Nehru legitimized democratic norms and institutions. Of course, every successful democracy must move beyond the shadow of its founders. Democratic leaders provide a vision, but their ideas cannot crowd out the opinions of others. It is a delicate balance between leadership and deference.
Most of the examples where democracy survives in hard places depend on strong democratic leadership. The founding leaders typically play an important role that sets the tone for its political process. As mentioned before, India had Jawaharlal Nehru and South Africa had Nelson Mandela. But even Indonesia received active support from its President BJ Habibie. Moreover, the leadership of Golkar embraced the democratic transition. However, Benin is quite different. The transition effectively sidelined the president Mathieu Kérékou. Rachel Beatty Riedl drives home this point when she writes, “In Benin, many of the key players were not committed democratic ideologues.” Even Mathieu Kérékou accepted democracy and eventually returned to power.
So, the importance of democratic leadership remains ambiguous even in the hardest places. In some examples leadership comes across as the decisive factor. However, in others leaders adopt democracy out of a “narrowly instrumental calculation of costs and benefits.” After Indira Gandhi suspended democracy for 21 months, even India realized it could not count on democratic leadership. Instead, its citizens rose to the challenge and defended its democratic traditions.