Archive for ‘January, 2012’

A question of citizenship.

datePosted on 13:16, January 30th, 2012 by Pablo

I am a US citizen permanent resident in NZ. I got here on  a normal (i.e. not a business or student) visa after going through a “good character” check and because there was an employer vouching for me. I am now beginning the process of taking out NZ citizenship and am amazed by the level of detail and bureaucratic hurdles I need to go through to get it after living in NZ for nearly 15 years (things like the names and last addresses of my long deceased parents and name and address of my long-divorced American ex-wife are just the start). The process is said to take 6-12 months and I need to surrender my US passport during that time. I guess that is a good thing as it verifies my bonafides.

I say this because I have read reports that Mr. Kim Dotcom, the Jabba the Hut of the internet world according to the US government, purportedly has a NZ passport. He also apparently has a Hong Kong passport as well as that of his birth country Germany. These are said to be legitimate, not fraudulent passports.

My understanding is that you have to be a NZ citizen to hold a NZ passport, and that applies even though one may have entered the country in the investor plus scheme by buying 10 million dollars of NZ government bonds. This makes me curious because Mr. Dotcom arrived in NZ in 2010, which means he was granted citizenship very quickly (as a contrast, a friend of mine of British birth lived in NZ for 30 years, married a Kiwi, served in various official roles including as a JP, and it still took him a year to get his NZ citizenship even though he has never been arrested anywhere and had several NZ people of import vouching for his good character). I am thus curious as to how, with his prior convictions and assorted other odd baggage, Mr. Dotcom managed to get a NZ passport so quickly, especially if there are residency and character requirements involved in acquiring citizenship and he is not claiming refugee status. I also wonder if he surrendered his foreign passports during the time his application was being processed because I have read that he traveled extensively after his arrival in NZ.

I also understand that in order to be an MP one has to be a citizen. I remember some minor scandals a few years back surrounding MPs who turned out to be non-citizens, something that forced their resignations. That also makes me curious because there is a new list National MP who may or may not be a NZ citizen as far as I know. He is a decent chap for a Righty and certainly will improve the intellectual calibre of the NAT backbenches, so good on him for making a go of it. But I am not sure that he is a citizen even though he arrived in NZ about a decade ago. I could be wrong and certainly harbor him no malice, but wonder if all the ticks were checked off on his citizenship prior to the election.

More generally, I am just curious about the flexibility of NZ citizenship laws and the process of granting citizenship because I too hope to join the NZ citizen ranks in the near future. Since I do not have 10 million bucks and am not the darling of any political party, can I instead run for local office with my PR status? I already own property, pay taxes, married a Kiwi etc., so if my citizenship application is rejected (presumably on “good character” grounds), can I still make a nuisance of myself at the local political level?

A Culture of Impunity?

datePosted on 15:16, January 27th, 2012 by Pablo

During the dark years of dictatorship in South America in the 1970s and 1980s, there emerged a phrase to capture the attitude of the elites who benefitted from such rule: the culture of impunity. It referred not only to the attitude of the uniformed tyrants who ran the regimes, but more to that of the civilian elites who gave them social and economic support, and who benefitted lavishly thanks to the repression and restrictive laws on basic rights of association, dissent and movement. These civilian elites literally lived above the law, since they could, if not be directly protected by the regime’s thugs, be immune from prosecution or liability for crimes and other transgressions they committed simply because of who they were. Murders, rapes, abuse of servants, violent attacks on members of the public–all of these type of behavior were excused, ignored or bought off rather than be held legally accountable (I do not mention justice simply because it is impossible to have real justice under dictatorial conditions). Although there was variation in the attitude of some elites and cross-country differences appeared as well, the bottom line is that during the authoritarian period in South America a culture of impunity developed that was one of the salient social characteristics of the regimes in question.

With that in mind I ask readers if such a culture of impunity exists in NZ. I ask because it strikes me that although diluted and less repressive in genesis, there appears to be an attitude of impunity in the political and economic elite. They can buy silence and name suppression when they misbehave; with a wink and a nod they accommodate employment for their friends and provide sinecures for each other (think of various Boards); they consider themselves better informed, in the know, more worldly and therefore unaccountable to the popular masses when it comes to making policy (think of the use of parliamentary urgency to ram through contentious legislation and the NZDF command lies about what the SAS is actually doing in Afghanistan); they award themselves extraordinary powers in some  times of crisis (Christchurch) while absolving themselves of  responsibility in others (Rena). They use the Police for their own purposes (Teapot Tapes and Occupy evictions, the latter happening not because of public consensus but done by summary executive fiat). More generally, think of the lack of transparency in how government decisions are made and the duplicity of elite statements about economic issues (say, the price of wage goods) and political matters (e.g., recent internal security legislation). Coupled with equally opaque decision-making in NZ’s largest publicly-traded firms, or the cozy overlap between sectors of the judiciary and other elites, the list of traded favors and protections is long.

None of this would matter if NZ was run by Commodore Bainimarama. It would just be another Pacific island state ruled by a despot and his pals. But as a liberal parliamentary democracy NZ regularly scores highly on Freedom House and Transparency International indexes, to the point that it is often mentioned at the least corrupt country on earth (which is laughable on the face of things and which raises questions about the methodologies involved in such surveys). To be sure, in NZ traffic cops do not take cash bribes and judges do not have prostitutes procured for them by QCs representing defendants, but corruption does not have to be blatant and vulgar to be pervasive. And in the measure that elite sophistication in accommodating fellow elites outside of the universal standards applicable to everyone else is accepted as routine and commonplace, then a culture of impunity exists as well.

My experience in NZ academia, two respectable volunteer organizations and in dealing with national and local government officials suggests to me that such a culture of impunity does exist. It may not be that of Pinochet, Videla, Stroessner, Banzer or Geisel, but it seems pervasive. It appears to have gotten worse since I arrived in 1997, which may or may not be the fault of market-driven social logics and the “greed is good” mentality that has captured the imaginations of financiers, developers and other business  magnates (or it could just be a product of a long-established tradition of bullying, which has now spilled over into elite attitudes towards the country as a whole).

Mind you, this does not make NZ a bad place. It simply means that there is an encroaching, subversive authoritarian sub-culture at play amongst the NZ political and economic elite that undermines the purported egalitarianism and equality on which the country is ostensibly founded (I am sure there are sectors of Maoridom who will take reasoned exception to that claim). And if so, has the corrosive culture seeped into the body politic at large so that almost anyone is a relative position of power vis a vis others thinks that s/he can get away with behavior otherwise contrary to normal standards of decency and responsibility?

Does NZ has a culture of impunity?


Hearing no evil

datePosted on 22:25, January 17th, 2012 by Lew

A few days before the November 26 general election, TV3 aired Bryan Bruce’s documentary Inside Child Poverty, and I posted on the depressingly predictable response of the usual right-wing subjects.

And now NZ On Air board member Stephen McElrea (who, in Tom Frewen’s marvellously dry turn of phrase, “also happens to be John Key’s electorate chairman and the National Party’s northern region deputy chairman”) has used his dual position of authority to demand answers from the funding body and, simultaneously, make implicit but forceful statements about what constitutes “appropriate” policy material for such a funding body to support.

There has been some outrage on the tweets about the obvious propaganda imperative here — agenda-control is pretty crucial to a government, never more so than during election campaigns — and I agree with Sav that this shows a need for NZOA to be more independent, more clearly decoupled from the government, not less so. Stephen McElrea, after all, is not simply a disinterested member of a crown funding agency — he is a Key-government appointee to the NZOA board, a political actor in his own right, and has a history of advocating for broadcasting policies curiously similar to those being enacted by the present government, such as in a 2006 column titled “Scrap the charter and get TVNZ back to business”.

I may write more about this as it develops, although it seems likely that the ground will be better covered by people much more qualified than I am. But what I will do is return to my initial point, to wit:

a documentary about child poverty, covering the appalling housing, health and nutritional outcomes borne by children in our society, and the immediate response is to launch a ideological defence of the National party and deride the work as nothing but partisan propaganda. … I haven’t heard a peep out of National about what they plan to do about the problems since it aired. Isn’t it more telling that National and its proxies immediately and reflexively go on the defensive, rather than acknowledging the problems of child poverty and renewing its commitment to resolving them?

I still haven’t heard that peep. Given the fact that the National party leader feels at liberty to dismiss attempts by David Shearer and others to make child poverty alleviation a matter of bipartisan consensus, and that a senior National party official so close to the leader feels at liberty to throw his weight around in this professional capacity, I rather despair of hearing it.


Talking tough on the way out.

datePosted on 13:55, January 12th, 2012 by Pablo

Over the years teaching about authoritarianism I developed a series of one-liners that summarized specific aspects of that form of rule. With regards to the circumstances of its demise, I coined the phrase “when the dictator starts wearing capes, he is soon to fall.” The point being that once the head honcho started dressing like Liberace or Elvis in their late phases they had lost touch with reality and, worse yet, had no honest feedback loops within their inner circle to correct them of their delusions. It was a play on the “emperor has no clothes” line and students much enjoyed it. And if we think of Idi Amin, Gaddafi, Somoza, the Shah and assorted other despots, sure enough their final days were literally cloaked in an over-the-top fashion sense that only Lady Gaga would think reasonable and appropriate.

I now have another such observation: the dictator’s end approaches in direct relation to the ferocity of his rhetoric. The more the dictator talks violently tough in the face of mounting popular unrest, the quicker will be his end. I say this after hearing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad talk about using an “iron fist” to “crush” foreign-backed “terrorists” after six months of popular rebellion. I will leave the overuse and abuse of the word “terrorism” for another day, but what strikes me is how Arab dictators under siege ratchet up the violence in their rhetoric even as the walls crumble around them. Who can forget Saddam and his spokesmen talking about American blood running in the streets even as US tanks encircled Baghdad? Or Gaddafi and his sons railing about what they would do to the “cockroaches” and “rats” slowly closing the noose around them? Even Mubarak was using words like “crushing” and “merciless” to describe his response to the Tahrir Square demonstrators, at least until the Egyptian military told him to shut up because he was the problem, not the solution.

The point is simple: once a (here Arab) dictator starts shouting about the nasty ways he will deal to his enemies in a situation of popular unrest, he is finished. This is because such rhetoric suggests a divorce from reality and a lack of proper, realistic council on the part of the tyrant’s advisors (who with few die-hard exceptions will jump ship once the opposition has seized the upper hand in the armed struggle).

It may have something to do with Arab political culture or notions of masculinity, but this type of response is exactly the reverse of what would give their moribund regimes some room for maneuver, if not a longer life span. Once demonstrators spill in to the streets and are not intimidated by police and para-military repression, and before their numbers grow to the point that a full military response is needed, the safest course of action for tyrants is to promise reform and accommodation of dissident demands. If nothing else this can be used as a divide and conquer strategy to weed out moderates and militants within the opposition, thereby allowing better targeting of the hard-core resistance while seeking to co-opt those less inclined to assume the physical risks involved in an escalating fight. It provides the dictator and his coterie an opportunity to listen to grievances and for negotiation of specific demands. It may entail having to offer concessions and perhaps even increased opposition access to or power-sharing with the authoritarian elite, but it could serve as a pre-emptive reform-mongering gesture that keeps the basic composition of the regime, or at least the governing elite, more or less intact.

The alternative is to go fully militarized at the opposition, which entails using disproportionate force against one’s own citizens. This certainly does not ingratiate subjects to the regime and invites foreign condemnation and isolation. It is a no-win strategy and, quite frankly, is the beginning of the end of such regimes for a variety of reasons, military factionalization under the pressures of such a scenario being one of them.

It is thus with bemusement that I watch the Syrian opthamalogist-turned-dictator fulminate against his enemies. Although it is true that his Alawite regime is relatively united and fearful of the Sunni majority and thereby willing to commit atrocities until the bitter end, and that Syria has a geopolitical position that Libya does not, Assad’s rhetoric clearly indicates that he does not realize that his regime’s utility as a strategic buffer has ended. Israel, the US, Arab and other Western states understand that removing the Assad regime and replacing it with a Sunni majority coalition will deny Iran land routes for the logistical supply of its allies in Lebanon and Gaza, who in turn help spread Shiia influence in the Sunni Arab world. After the demise of Gaddafi and other convolutions of the Arab Spring, it has become politically expedient for foreign parties to back the Syrian opposition, which they are now doing with material, safe haven and military advice. At least on this issue Assad is right–foreign actors are now at play in Syria, although he neglected to mention that Iran is one of them because it realizes what is at stake in the proxy struggle in the Levant.

All of which is to say that the outcome is clear and encapsulated by my new authoritarian demise rule of thumb: now that Assad has started to talk hyperbolically tough in the face of a continued uprising that is not bowed by the ongoing military violence meted out against it, his days are numbered. Best for him, then, to tone it down, pull his troops back and look for an exit strategy so that his departure will be unlike that of Gaddafi, Mubarak or Saddam.

On Dynastic Regimes.

datePosted on 16:48, January 4th, 2012 by Pablo

The death of Kim Jung-il and the ascent of his youngest son Kim Jung-un to the Supreme Commander’s role in North Korea highlights the problems of succession in dynastic regimes, particularly those of a non-monarchical stripe. Monarchies have history and tradition to bank on when perpetuating their bloodlines in power. In authoritarian monarchical variants such as absolute monarchies and kingdoms the exercise of political authority is complete and direct, if not by Divine Right. In democratic variants such as constitutional monarchies royal power is circumscribed and symbolic. There are also hybrid systems where royal privilege and power coexist and overlap with mass-based electoral politics, making for what might be called “royalist” democracies (such as in Thailand or the sultanates in Malaysia). In all versions royals are integral members of the national elite.

There are also differences between authoritarian and democratic non-monarchical dynastic regimes, and they have to justify themselves in other ways.  Democratic political dynasties such as the Gandhi’s in India, Bhutto’s in Pakistan, Kennedy’s in the US or Papandreou’s in Greece reproduce the family lineage within the context of political parties inserted in competitive multi-party systems. Their power is exercised via party control and influence reinforced along ideological lines and buttressed by inter-marriage with economic elites. They can come to dominate national politics when in government and their access to national authority is preferential in any event, but they do not have direct control of the state bureaucracy, courts or security apparatus. In a way, dynastic political families in democratic regimes are akin to organized crime: their influence on power is mostly discrete, dispersed and diffused rather than immediate and direct.

Non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic regimes have more direct control of the state apparatus, including the judiciary and security agencies. They tend to reproduce themselves politically via mass mobilisational parties, and tend to divide into religious and secular variants. Religious variants fuse family bloodlines with clerical authority (say, in the ordained status of fathers, uncles and sons) in pursuit of theological constructions of the proper society. Secular variants mix nationalist and developmentalist rhetoric with charismatic leadership or cults of personality, often with military trappings. In both types the dynastic leadership leads the security apparatus, which is often expanded in size and scope of authority (particularly with regard to internal security). In both sub-types personal ambitions are blurred with political objectives, often to the detriment of the latter.

There can be hybrids of the non-monarchical type that are religious or secular-dominant, where a controlling dynastic family accommodates the interests of smaller dynasties (this happens in clan-based societies).

The issue of succession is problematic for all authoritarian regimes but particularly those of non-monarchical dynastic bent. The more institutionalized the authoritarian regime, the less dynastic it tends to be. Institutionalisation of the regime provides mechanisms for political reproduction beyond bloodlines. This most often happens through the offices of a political party and a strong central state bureaucracy. The more personal dynasties fuse family fortunes with institutionalized political reproduction, the better chances they have of holding on to power. Even then, relatively institutionalized non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic rule such as the Assad regime in Syria, Qaddafi regime in Libya, Hussein regime in Iraq, Somoza regime in Nicaragua, Duvalier regime in Haiti or Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic have proven susceptible to overthrow when their rule proves too pernicious for both national and international constituencies.

Monarchies can also be overthrown (such as that of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran), although that type of regime change was more prevalent in the 19th century than it is in the 21st. Some monarchs have seen the writing on the wall and willingly accepted a constitutional status stripped of political power, such as in Spain (after the aborted coup of 1981 known as the “Tejerazo”) and more recently in Bhutan (where the last Dragon King voluntarily relinquished absolute status as part of the 2008 Constitutional reform). Other monarchies are under pressure to liberalize, such as in Tonga or (much less so) Brunei.

Add to these scenarios the problems inherent in the universal law of genetic decline and the prospects for long-term dynastic succession have markedly decreased in modern times. Many non-monarchical authoritarian dynasties span two generations but few go further than that. The transition to the grandchildren is the big demarcation point between non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic wannabes and the real thing.

The key to non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic succession is for the family bloc to embed itself within a technocratic yet compliant non-family political, military and economic circle of influence peddlers, who together form a symbiotic relationship based on patronage networks in order to govern for mutual benefit. The more that they can justify their rule on ideological grounds or in the efficient provision of pubic goods, the more they will succeed in securing mass consent to their rule. Although the bloodline becomes increasingly dependent on the entourage, the overall effect is a stable status quo. The Singaporean PAP regime exhibits such traits, although the passage of the Lee dynasty from its founding father to its third generation is increasingly problematic. The Kim regime in North Korea is in reality a military-bureacratic regime with a dynastic core that has now moved into its third generation leadership (the next six months should tell whether Jung-un will consolidate his position). Its vulnerability is its inability to deliver basic necessities to a large portion of its people, which requires ideologically-justified repression and isolation in order to maintain mass acquiescence to its rule.

Dynastic authoritarian regimes also suffer the same divisions between hard-liners and soft-liners that are common to non-dynastic authoritarians such as the military-bureaucratic regimes of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s or the South Korean and Taiwanese regimes of the 1970s through the 1990s. These divisions on issues of policy and governance are exacerbated when played out within family circles. For example, intrigues of succession and future policy direction within the House of Saud are legendary, but the same can be said to be true about the current North Korean transition or palace politics in Morocco or Kuwait.

The bottom line is that non-monarchical dynastic successions are hard to maintain over time, and increasingly rare. The need for regime continuity is no longer as tied to family fortunes as it once was (even during the Cold War), and the pressures on family-run polities are more myriad and complex than before.  With the ongoing fall of dynastic regimes in the Middle East amid the general decline of bloodline influence on political power in most of the integrated world (“integrated world” defined as politically independent and economically inter-dependent countries), what we may be seeing in North Korea is the last of a political sub-species: the non-monarchical dynastic authoritarian regime. No matter what happens to Kim Jung-un, at least we can be thankful for that.