OPINION: When 'legit' governments became bullies 1

OPINION: When 'legit' governments became bullies

Robert Labayen

Posted at Jul 02 2020 01:50 AM

OPINION: When 'legit' governments became bullies 2

Historical despots were installed by armed men; recent dictators were elected by peaceful citizens.

In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt said it’s “less dramatic but equally destructive” the way the new dictators “subvert the very process that brought them to power.”

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is a favorite example. He was quite popular when elected President in 1998. His pro-poor programs were appreciated. But with public support fading in 2003, he stalled a referendum that could recall him from office. In 2004, the government blacklisted those who signed the recall petition. In 2006, his government closed a major tv station, arrested or exiled opposition politicians, judges, and media figures on “dubious charges.”

According to William J. Dobson in the book The Dictator’s Learning Curve, Chavez quickly labeled his critics as “traitors,” “oligarchs,” “criminals,” “mafia,” and “lackeys of the United States.”

How they win and win again

Chavez’s rule was legitimized by election victories. He really had fanatic supporters up to his death. But having control of media and money, he surely had the advantage with the people lured by his populist style. In Parliament, his allies “gamed the system by having candidates loyal to Chavez run under the banner of political organizations that were legally distinct from Chavez’s main party.”

Venezuela became one of the world’s most corrupt countries while also having one of the worst inflations.

Journalist Melyk Kaylan, having observed “elected dictatorships” in many countries, commented “it’s not hard to get re-elected” if you “control the means of communication with the public, while you intimidate and silence opposition politicians and media, and you monopolize the disbursement of employment.” In the article written in 2015, he mentioned that the media in Turkey was “almost wholly owned by businesses run by Prime Minister Erdogan’s cronies.” He also wrote that in Iran, “the supreme leader effectively determines who can run for political office.”

In The Dictator’s Handbook, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith reported that Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe ”used bulldozers to demolish the houses and markets in neighborhoods that failed to support him in the 2005 election.” The government claimed that “Operation Murambatsvina” was meant to stop illegal housing and commercial activities as well as reduce the spread of disease in the slums.

Targeting with the Law

Dobson noted that in modern dictatorships, “laws are broadly written, then used as a scalpel to target the groups the government deems as a threat.” He said that in Russia, they selectively targeted critics and human rights defenders. Their organizations would be easily dissolved after tax audits, building code violations, and use of pirated software.

The Russian government claimed that all political parties were given equal access to TV airtime. The truth was "Kremlin has already banned liberal and unwanted parties from registering or fielding candidates.” Speaking of media, Putin forced owners of major tv networks to sell shares to the government or they would face charges.

The bad network

For a government to have its way while looking legitimate, it has to have allies that know what the boss wants. Theoretically, the legislative and the judiciary are the executive’s independent co-equals. But the histories of many countries have showed that government institutions could be easily populated with loyalists. Levitsky and Ziblatt’s term for it is “capturing the referees.”

In dictatorships, the head needed to maintain a network with a loyal army and police to cause fear; a parliament to legitimize his actions while blocking the opposition; a judiciary to jail his critics; and tax collectors and fire inspectors to find or create faults. In recent years, a new army has been added to the regime: the troll farms that massively sow fake news and weaponize the internet.

Badness in government is an ecosystem. The balance is maintained through mutual back-scratching and mandatory surrender of both intelligence and integrity. The remaining good people need one particular strength: the resolve to resist the temptation to get absorbed by the system.

Read: 

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Operation Murambatsvina in Wikipedia

The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy by William J. Dobson

The New Wave of Elected Dictatorships Around the World by Melik Kaylan in the Forbes website

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.