Posts Tagged ‘Authoritarianism’

Russia and China True to Form.

datePosted on 11:58, February 6th, 2012 by Pablo

The double veto cast by Russia and China against the UN Security Resolution condemning the Syrian regime’s repression against unarmed civilians and calling for Bashar Assad to step down in favor of a coalition government harks back to the obstructionist logics of the Cold War. Besides confirming the ingrained authoritarian ethos in both countries (an ethos that does not see human rights as universal values but as contextually constructed), the blocking of the resolution stems from a mix of realist and idealist perceptions.

The idealist perceptions are rooted in the principles of non-interference and sovereignty. Russia and China argue that the UN’s actions amount to externally-forced regime change. That would be true. In their view the right to self-determination, no matter what brutality is evident in a regime’s behavior, is more important than the defense of unarmed populations against the depredations of their rulers. Dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia, sovereignty is the founding principle of the modern nation-state system, and other than as a result of a declared state of war it is illegitimate to attempt to externally impose a political outcome on a sovereign state (exceptions to the rule notwithstanding).

Russia and China are well aware that in recent years the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine has been formalised as part of the UN mandate. R2P states that the international community must act, with force if necessary, to protect vulnerable populations from state violence or in the face of state unwillingness or incapacity to prevent atrocities committed against innocents.  The genocide in Rwanda was the catalyst for the R2P and it has been invoked in the Sudan and Somalia, among other recent cases.

Most importantly, R2P was invoked in UNSC resolution 1973 authorizing the use of external military force in Libya. Starting out under the pretext of protecting Libyan civilians from military assaults by the Gaddafi regime, it morphed from enforcing a no-fly zone to arming and advising anti-Gaddafi forces on the ground in pursuit of regime change. The Russians and Chinese had flagged this surreptitiously planned mission creep from the onset, and had warned that misuse of the R2P to justify armed intervention against a sovereign state government would set a bad precedent.

That is the precedent now being applied to Syria. The Russians and Chinese know full well that external intervention in Syria in pursuit of regime change is on the cards, using R2P as the justification. They also know that military intervention in Syria, should it come, has nothing to do with protecting innocents and all to do with the geopolitical balance in the Levant.

That is where realism enters the equation. China and Russia are partners of Iran. Iran is the Assad’s regime’s closest ally. Under Assad Syria has facilitated the extension of Iranian influence in Lebanon and Gaza by providing land routes for the provision of Iranian weapons, money and advisors to Hezbollah and Hamas. Should the minority Allawite Assad regime fall to a Sunni-majority coalition, then Iran will likely see its influence curtailed significantly, which in turn places Hamas and Hezbollah at greater risk from their enemies (Israel in particular). Moreover, Russia has a military base in Syria and has long been a strong military ally of the Assads. Taken together with Chinese and Russian diplomatic and commercial ties to Tehran, the Assad regime’s forced demise could spell trouble. It will remove a source of Russian influence in the MIddle East. Amid all the sabre-rattling about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it will leave Iran feeling more vulnerable, at least in its own eyes, to Western machinations and internal subversion at home. This not only increases the risk of war but diminishes China and Russia’s ability to act as negotiators between Tehran and the West. Thus the fall of Assad means a diminution of their respective influence in that part of the world.

Thus, by standing on principle (non-intervention in sovereign states), Moscow and Beijing are protecting their geopolitical interests, and their relationship with Iran in particular. It may seem callous for them to do so in what increasingly looks like a civil war between the Assad regime and its people, but it is also in their short-term interest to do so. By holding their UNSC veto power, they can exercise leverage in pursuit of a more favorable accommodation that, if it does not allow Assad to remain in power, does protect their respective spheres of influence in the Middle East.

That is what is behind the double veto. In the absence of universal values and standards in the global community (due to the so-called anarchic state of nature that all realists perceive as the founding principle of international relations), the matter boils down to national interest and the exercise of power in pursuit of it. As such, Russia and China are just doing what they have to do to ensure an outcome more favorable to their respective interests, and by that logic humanitarian appeals and the invocation of the R2P simply have no place as either genuine concerns or as ruses designed to camouflage external meddling in Syrian affairs.

Sad but true.

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?

 

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.

 

Bainimarama channels Pinochet.

datePosted on 12:57, December 13th, 2011 by Pablo

The Fijian military-bureaucratic regime fronted by Commodore “Frank” Bainimarama has promised elections for September 2014, these having been preceded by a constitutional consultation process that is to produce a new Charter in September 2013. The timetabling of the elections will follow ratification of the new Constitution.

The Commodore has already said that he intends to stand for Prime Minister in the 2014 elections. This presumably means that he will retire from active service and lead a military-backed party in them while allowing for open party competition. To date there is no sign of either milestone happening. Nor, for that matter, have the terms of the constitutional consultation process been detailed, which is of import because the presumed stakeholders in the re-making of the foundational document would have to include groups that are currently banned, dismantled, in exile or subject to legal and physical restraints on their activities.

On the other hand, the Bainimarama regime has, under the de facto state of emergency it has ruled by since 2006, used executive decrees to reshape the legal context in which these actors will need to operate. That includes the Essential Services Bill, which outlaws strikes and imposes serious restrictions on union activities in violation of International Labour Organisation standards. This exclusionary state corporatist approach to labor relations has been paralleled by similar efforts to control the media (to include provisions that media outlets have to be majority owned by Fijian citizens, which forced out foreign-controlled news agencies). In fact, there has been a militarization of the Fijian state apparatus as a whole under the Commodore’s rule, as active duty, retired, reservists and relatives of military personnel are given privileged access to civil service jobs. This form of patronage is designed to maintain loyalty as well as promote a military perspective on policy-implementation within the public bureaucracy.  Given that the regime’s “Peoples Charter for Change, Peace and Progress” proposes a profound transformation of cultural mores, social structures, political institutions and economic practices as part of a project of national rebirth overseen by the Republic of Fijian Military Forces, it seems that military colonization of the state apparatus is being used as a pre-requisite for the pursuit of those goals.

Such ambitious objectives cannot be achieved within the timeframe currently outlined for the constitutional re-draft and elections. That means that either Bainimarama and his colleagues have no intention of relinquishing control in 2014, or at best plan to use the elections as a procedural fig leaf with which to legitimize a military backed “civilian” government led by the Commodore that will continue to pursue the transformational objectives of the Peoples Charter. Since those objectives will be resisted, the elections will have to be rigged and dissent suppressed after they are over. What is envisioned, in other words, is what in Latin America have been called “guarded” or “protected” democracies, or for those who know Spanish, “democraduras” (“hard” democracies).

The Latin connection may in fact be stronger. The Pinochet regime in Chile held a constitutional referendum five years after it came to power in which it re-drew the foundational principles of the nation so that challenges to private control of the means of production and elite domination of the political system were made near impossible. Pinochet also colonized the state apparatus with  military personnel (although in his case the appointments were designed to promote ideological uniformity within the public bureaucracy rather than as a form of personal patronage). His timetable for the foundational elections of 1989 was established by the 1978 constitution and included Pinochet as the leader of a civilian party after his retirement. It had provisions for conservative control of the Senate (including the appointment of “Senators for life” by the Pinochet regime before its departure) and for military veto of legislation deemed inimical to national security or the national interest. Popular resistance eventually forced Pinochet to abandon his plans to rule in civilian guise after 1989 (in exchange for other conservative guarantees like those listed above), but the model for an orderly transition to a “guarded” democracy after a major constitutional reform was established by his regime. It will therefore be interesting to see what materializes in the constitutional reform process set to get underway in Fiji next year.

Given Chile’s market-driven economic “success” and the elimination of serious threats to the socio-economic and political status quo resultant from the authoritarian episode and its constitutional revisions, it seems possible that the Bainimarama regime has taken more than passing interest in it. In fact, it appears that mutatis mutandis, the Commodore and his clique have emulated the Pinochet experiment, Fijian style. The objective, as far as can be determined at this point, seems to be to establish the bases by which a “protected” or “guarded” elected civilian regime can be installed that will continue the transformational objectives outlined in the People’s Charter. Or, it could just be the best way for the regime and its supporters to continue to feed at the public trough. Either way, it is likely that the 2014 elections will not be an honestly contested affair, if they are held at all.

The second alternative (military colonization of the state as a source of patronage and rent-seeking) is not a frivolous aside. Corruption is rife in the Fijian public service, and military appointments to it on non-meritorious grounds exacerbates the problem while diminishing the organizational efficiency (such as it is) of public services. Moreover, it has been demonstrated in Latin America and elsewhere that military colonization of the civil service leads to a deterioration of operational readiness and command authority the longer soldiers are seated at desks in civilian Ministries. This is a problem for the Fijian military, which prides itself on its professionalism (mostly related to its long history of UN peace-keeping service), and which sees itself as the guardian of the nation (it should be noted that the Fijian military swears allegiance to the nation, not the constitution–as the suspension of the 1997 constitution clearly shows).

The more the Bainimarama regime colonizes the Fijian state with soldiers (however smart it may be as a tactical move given his objectives), the more likely that divisions will emerge in the ranks over the proper military role and adherence to corporate standards of conduct. It is one thing to be an arbitrator or mediator military in a praetorian civil-military relations context that intervenes in politics when civilian governments prove too inept or corrupt to govern (as has been the case in Fiji since independence in 1970). It is another thing for the military to try to rule as an institution over the long-term, especially when kleptocratic tendencies are encouraged by the use of military sinecures as sources of patronage. The downside of the latter is great on several levels.

Needless to say there is much more to the Fijian transitional picture, if that is in fact what we are observing. The praetorian nature of Fijian society, evident in zero-sum approaches to politics and economics that results in an impossible game of mutual vetos between contending interest groups divided by ethnicity and class, has continually “pulled” the military into intervening (in 1987, 2000 and 2006). The incompetence of civilian elected governments, the nepotistic and opaque ways in which business is conducted, and the general malaise of civilian institutions accentuate the military urge to put things right. Having failed in its arbitrator role, it now seems that Bainimarama and his colleagues want to perpetuate military rule, even if under civilian guise after 2014, so as to continue the process of national transformation in order to eventually “put things right.”

All of this is set against the backdrop of Fiji re-orienting its “Looking North” foreign policy from West to East in response to the sanctions imposed by its traditional allies and partners (Fiji has been suspended from the Pacific Island Forum, seen the suspension of financial aid from the EU and Asian Development Bank and downgraded its diplomatic ties with Australia and New Zealand as a result of their criticism of the coup and its aftermath). The Commodore has emphasized the need for a “re-balancing” of Fiji’s foreign relations, and to that end has encouraged closer trade, investment and/or military ties with Asian nations (particularly China) and the Middle East. Although these new ties have not brought Fiji out of its economic doldrums as of yet (net growth has been negligible for the last five years even though tourism is at all-time highs in terms of visitors and contribution to GDP), they do allow the Bainimarama regime some room for maneuver as it works to reconcile the constitutional reform and election timetables with its long-term objectives.

All of which is to say, if I were a bettor or a futures forecaster, I would hedge against uncertainty and assume that the 2014 elections will be delayed, manipulated or even canceled. As for the longer-term future–that ultimately will be for the Fijian military to decide.

Turning Negatives into Positives.

datePosted on 10:00, November 4th, 2011 by Pablo

One of the more vexing problems in politics is to turn opposition to something into a virtue. Being anti-something is reactive and defensive rather than a path with which to move forward. It is the antithesis of a proactive, innovative posture where the power of a better future is conveyed in order to secure implicit agreement to the unspoken “Yes” latent in the electorate. The latter is a positive reaffirmation, often couched in crude nationalism or other symbols of consensus and collective identity. In contrast, the implicit or explicit “No” embedded in negative campaigns carries with it connotations of obstructionism, obstinacy and lack of vision.

The negative connotations of a “No” campaign suffer from a structural disadvantage when it comes to mass political psychology. All things being equal, it is harder to successfully engage in “No” campaigns rather than “Yes” campaigns, especially when the former is confronted by the latter in electoral competition. Negative campaigns can also be a sign of defeat. Although all political challengers must attack incumbents on their record, there are ways to do so in addition to simple rejection of the opponent’s policies. In practice, opposition parties that fail to cloak their campaigns in a positive and proactive message are often conceding the outcome and using the electoral process for party rejuvenation rather than truly competitive purposes.

Yet it is possible for negative campaigns to convey a positive message. An example of a successful negative campaign is the opposition to the 1989 referendum on the nature of the Chilean regime. After 16 years of market-oriented military-bureaucratic authoritarianism, General Pinochet sought to continue as a civilian president in a “guarded” democracy installed by “controlled” elections. He and his supporters formed a political party to that effect, relaxed restrictions on the political opposition, and held a referendum that proposed that voters say”Yes” to constitutional revisions that would guide the installation of the “guarded” democratic regime. Pinochet and his followers banked on their control of the media and relative economic successes to ensure that the “Yes” outcome would prevail. The language of the referendum spoke to this fact by asking voters to vote “Yes” or “No” on continuing the unfinished process of national reconstruction under a Pinochet presidency.

Opposition to the “guarded” democracy plan came from a diverse array of groups, who preferred a full transition to democracy and the removal of Pinochet from politics. It did not necessarily have the support of the majority when the referendum campaign began, and besides the advantages accrued to the Pinochet regime, it was hampered by tight campaign regulations, lack of access to publicity, restrictions on public gatherings and the fact that many of its leaders were in exile.

Even so, the Opposition campaigners phrased their negative message so that a “No” vote was a vote for democracy as well as a vote against authoritarianism. It played on the knowledge that most Chileans understood that whatever its successes, the Pinochet regime was an aberration rather than a model, and that the price for its success was not worth the benefits supposedly gained. This organic understanding of Chilean “good sense” in the face of elite-purveyed common sense shifted popular perceptions of the referendum, and the “No” vote won a commanding majority. Confronted by defeat, Pinochet was abandoned by his supporters and the stage set for a fuller transition to democratic rule (I say “fuller” because the terms of the foundational election and the character of the political system for the first post-authoritarian decade were fixed by post-referendum constitutional reforms made by the outgoing Pinochet regime under executive fiat, which were heavily weighed in favour of the elites who benefitted from the Pinochet regime and which was backed by a military commitment to defend them. It was not until the 2000s (and Pinochet’s death in 1999) that Chilean democracy was fully consolidated, and even then the structural and institutional changes wrought by the authoritarians and their successors skewed socio-economic and political power in favour of those who prospered under Pinochet).

Regardless of what happened later, the “No” campaign on the 1989 referendum succeeded in shifting the terms of the Chilean transition to democracy away from those preferred by the authoritarians and towards those of a long-repressed opposition. It is therefore a good example of turning a negative stance  into a political positive.

The success of the 1989 Chilean “No” campaign might provide some insights for Labour as it enters the final phase of the 2011 election. Labour has staked its campaign on opposition to National’s economic policies, epitomized by the “No” on Assets Sales plank.  A little more subtly, the proposal to raise the retirement age is an admission that not all is well in Aotearoa. In other words, it is an admission of a negative, which is also the case for the repeated references to job losses via immigration to Australia. Most importantly, although Labour has “positive” planks in its electoral platform, these appear to be overshadowed (at least to me) by the negative aspects of its campaign. For its part, National can play the role of positive campaigner, using the upbeat character of the Prime Minister, the hopeful nature of its policy message (however devoid of positive content that it may be) and incidentals such as the All Blacks WRC victory to cement its pro-active and affirmative image in the eyes of voters.

Given the late stage of the campaign, it might be worth considering how Labour might cast its “negative” planks in a positive light. The key is to use the implicit “No” as an affirmation of Kiwi (as opposed to class or ethnic) identity, be it in its quest for economic and political independence or in its reification of  individualism as a national trait. Here differences can be drawn with National on issues such as security policy, where National has basically subordinated its military perspective to those of Australia and the US, or on foreign investment in an increasingly deregulated domestic economic context, where National would prefer to ease restrictions on foreign capital flows into the country regardless of their impact on strategic assets, local capital or the integrity of resident labour markets and environmental conditions. Saying “no” to such things is not being obstructionist or reactionary, it is about reaffirming who we are.

I have no expertise in political marketing, but it seems to me that if the 1989 Chilean opposition could turn a negative campaign into a positive statement given the severe restrictions and disadvantages under which it operated, then Labour might consider how to cast its campaign in a way such that its opposition to National’s policy proposals becomes a reaffirmation of Kiwi autonomy and independence. Other than that, it has little else to go on.*

* I am well aware that on economic fundamentals Labour and National are two sides of the same slice of bread, and that many National policies are mere continuations of those originally set by the 5th Labour government. My point here is to show that there is a way, however improbable, for Labour to rescue its election campaign.

Gaddafi is Gone.

datePosted on 14:13, October 24th, 2011 by Pablo

The brutal end of Muammar Gaddafi’s life marks a political new beginning for Libya. The circumstances of his demise speak volumes about the road ahead.

Gaddafi was summarily executed after being captured by rebel fighters (the term “rebel” rather than revolutionary is correct in that it properly places the armed opposition in a civil rather than revolutionary war whose outcome was largely determined by external interference).  His non-military convoy was attempting to flee the rebel’s final advance on Surt, his hometown, when it was struck by a NATO airstrike (in violation of the rules of engagement NATO publicly announced when it declared a no-fly zone that included attacks on land-based military targets that posed an imminent threat to civilians). Concussed and wounded by shrapnel, Gaddafi and a few loyalists took shelter in a culvert. They were discovered and some were killed then, while Gaddafi was dragged out and manhandled by a growing mob. Disarmed, confused, pleading for mercy and bleeding, at some point soon thereafter he was head shot at point blank range (images of his wounds show powder bruns at the entry point). He was not caught in cross-fire, as there was none.

Killing a captive after surrender or capture is a war crime, including in civil wars. The rage and thirst for revenge of Gaddafi’s killers is understandable, but it shows a lack of discipline and foresight. Gaddafi and his inner circle could have provided valuable intelligence on a broad range of subjects, be it the terms of the exchange that led to the release of the Lockerbie bomber, the grey arms networks in which Libya operated, or the extent of Gaddafi’s funding of influential Western agencies such as the London School of Economics or Harvard’s private political and strategic consulting firm. Similarly, although the outcome would have been pre-determined, his trial would have provided the Libyan people with a facimilie of representative justice in which his crimes could be publicly aired, and which could serve as a foundation for a new justice system once the new regime was installed. Even Saddam Hussein was allowed that much.

The barbarism of putting Gaddafi’s decomposing corpse on display in Misurata for public viewing speaks to the levels of distrust and base nature of the sectarian divisions within Libya. These will not go away simply because Gaddafi and his clan have been removed from power. The tactical alliance against his regime will not hold now that it is gone, and given that all of the main factions are armed, this raises serious questions about the political future of the country. The cross-cutting divisions are multiple and overlapped: Eastern versus Western, Islamicist versus non-Islamicist, Berber versus Arab, Benghazian versus Tripolian, urban versus rural, coastal versus land-locked, elite versus commoner, old royalist versus new upper class. Although the role of foreign military advisors and logistical support was crucial to victory, many rebel military commanders have carved out power centres of their own, and not all of the rebel political and military leadership are democratic in inclination.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) headquartered in Tripoli has announced the formation of an interim government within a month and presidential elections in 18 months. Both goals are very ambitious and the latter is inherently flawed. Imposing a presidential system in a multi-tribal society with no history of democracy and a long history of conflict  is a recipie for authoritarianism, as political contenders will vie for and hold presidential power in pursuit of sectarian rather than national objectives. A parliamentary system with multiparty proportional representation would be a better fit given the realities on the ground, as it would force power contenders to negotiate and compromise in pursuit of coalition objectives, which in turn would put constraints on executive authority.

To put the issue in comparison, the Libyan polity is more fragmented than that of Iraq and does not have an occupying force that imposes transitional order and around which national opposition can coalesce. Iraq has a parliamentary system that recognises sectarian control of parts of the country as well as grant participation to key clans, and yet has yet to be free of violence or have fully cemented the institutional base of the post-Baathist regime. This portends darkly for the immediate prospects of a post-Gaddafi Libya.

The issue of disarmament and creation of a national military, to say nothing of disposition of Gaddafi’s purported chemical weapons stores and other sophisticated armaments, is bound up in the negotiations over the interim government and rules of the game for the political transition. Given that NATO allies are not the only foreign actors involved in Libya, and given that some of these actors are non-state or state-sponsired in nature and have conflicting agendas with NATO, this means that the post-Gaddafi situation may descend back into conflict sooner rather than later. To this can be added the purge and reconstitution of the Libyan state as a functioning sovereign entity, a process that will also be driven by mindsets as much focused on the division of spoils as it is by notions of the common good. That overlaps with the issue of oil resource control and distribution, as well as the status of contracts signed during the Gaddafi regime, both of which involve tribal politics as well as the interests on non-NATO foreign actors such as China.

All of which is to say that the circumstances of Gaddafi’s death tells us much about what the future holds in store for Libya, at least over the near term: chaos, violence and imposition rather than consensus, forgiveness, reconciliation and compromise.

 

Master-race baiting

datePosted on 22:57, July 9th, 2011 by Lew

[Updated 10 July 2011 to account for Don Brash’s statements in response to John Ansell, and Ansell’s resignation from ACT.]

Many have remarked on the appropriateness of the website of the ACT Party Parliamentary leader’s press-secretary, SOLOpassion, and many have made jokes about the sound of one hand clapping, or fapping, as it were. It is therefore entirely appropriate that ACT should become the butt of these same jokes, since they appear to have swallowed (implication most definitely intended) Lindsay Perigo’s paranoiac auto-stimulatory tendencies whole. His hand-work is evident in the party’s ever more deranged press releases, speeches, and most recently in this morning’s advertisement in the New Zealand Herald, titled “Fed up with pandering to Maori radicals?” and strategically timed for the end of Te Wiki O Te Reo Māori. The advertisement is worth reading; the image below is stolen from The Dim-Post. Read the comment thread over there; it’s magnificent.

There’s an awful lot wrong with this, but aside from the warlike verbiage, none of it is much different from ACT’s or Brash’s prior form, and since I’ve been over most of the arguments before I will spare you the full repetition. You can trawl through the Take Māori section of this blog if you want the detail. But just a couple of obvious things: the reasoning privileges Article III of the Treaty; that is, the article which gives the Crown a colonial payday, while neglecting Articles I and II, upon which the consideration of Article III rests. In terms of a contract, which is a way of thinking about the Treaty that ACToids might be expected to understand, Brash’s reasoning emphasises the payment for services rendered, while materially ignoring the requirement to actually render those services. (More on this theme here). Secondly, it’s more of the same selective history we’ve come to expect: our history as Pākehā matters and has value; theirs, as Māori, doesn’t — except for the bits Pākehā can turn to their advantage, like the decontextualised appeal to Ngāta.

But there is a broader point that this development illuminates. Race relations in Aotearoa has changed enormously in the past seven years. In the winter of 2004, the country was in the throes of Orewa madness. The māori party had just been formed, promising to deliver “an independent voice for Māori” in parliament. Eight years ago tomorrow Tariana Turia won her by-election, seeking to deliver on that promise. Don Brash was the leader of a resurgent National party who held a strong lead in the polls, and whose race-relations platform dominated the policy agenda. Now, Turia leads a hollowed-out party whose mandate and credibility are under severe threat from one of their own. Don Brash, having been ejected from the National leadership disgrace, now leads a party with less than one-twentieth of the electoral support he once commanded; a party he was only able to colonise after it was fatally weakened by a series of appalling political scandals, and then only by the narrowest of margins.

Under Brash National’s popularity stemmed from the fear of a brown nation that emerged from the foreshore and seabed debate and the māori party’s formation. As far as the general electorate of Aotearoa is concerned, those fears were not realised. As far as Māori are concerned, the māori party’s results have been disappointing to say the least. As far as the established political power blocs are concerned, the māori party has proven a very dependable agent their political agendas; even while disagreeing with many of their positions, both National and Labour recognise that the māori party are invested in constructive collaboration with the Pākehā mainstream, not in its destruction. I’ve long argued that the initial purpose of the māori party wasn’t to effect sweeping policy change, but to create cultural and political space for kaupapa Māori politics, and to establish the credibility of same. For all their policy failures, they have succeeded at this task in spades; perhaps they could have afforded to succeed at this task a little less. But largely as a consequence of the sky not falling after the passage of the Foreshore and Seabed Act and the emergence of the māori party as a credible political force, neither National nor Labour have any truck with ACT’s vitriol. Don Brash, his “one law for all” rhetoric, and his scaremongering are firmly on the outer.

Even further out on that slender but flexible branch is the architect of Brash’s Iwi/Kiwi campaign, probably the best campaign of its type in our recent political history and certainly one of the most memorable: John Ansell. Ansell’s rhetoric had become distasteful enough by the time of the last election that even the ACT party — then under the leadership of Rodney Hide — refused to use much of his best work. Thereafter he was picked up by the Coastal Coalition. A less credible gang of fringe loonies it’s hard to imagine; one of its principals, Muriel Newman (who, shamefully, was invited by Radio New Zealand to speak as an authoritative expert on the WAI262 Treaty claim) believes that pre-Tasman Aotearoa was settled not only by Polynesians but by “people of Celtic and Chinese ancestry as well as Greek, French, Portuguese, Spanish and others“. Ansell’s own views on race are similarly bizarre; Māori, he reckons, are “not a race, but a religion“.

Ansell is now reduced to ranting in Kiwiblog comments, and is as critical of ACT as he is of everyone else. Even there, though, his views hardly find great favour, with more people objecting that his campaign is distracting from the “real issues” than supporting him. His contribution to the thread about the Brash advertisement — it’s not clear whether he was involved in the ad’s production or not — is a magisterial display of racist, misogynist essentialism, and I think it really gets to the heart of the paranoiac auto-stimulatory tendencies to which I referred earlier. I quote his initial comment in full:

The problem with New Zealand is it’s full of white cowards who are too frightened of being called names to stand up for the truth.

(And that’s just the ACT Party.)

And the truth (if we are honest enough to admit it) is: for the last quarter-century, our country has been brownwashed by a bunch of scammers (aided and abetted by legions of white ‘useful idiots’) into feeling guilty for the supposed sins of our British great-great-grandparents.

A sober reading of the facts reveals that some of these sins were actual (though far less sinful than the crimes perpetrated by Maori on Maori). Many others were highly exaggerated and delivered with lashings of emotional blackmail, for the purposes of extorting compensation.

But of course we are New Zealanders and we are not allowed to tell our truth (as Alasdair Thompson recently found out to his cost).

We are not allowed to speak out about state suffocation, Maorification, feminazism, National socialism, teacher unionism or any of the other evils that are dragging our country into the third world.

Those who do have the guts to tell the truth are called nasty names like racists in the hope that, like snails, one light contact with politically-correct criticism will be enough to make them shrink back into their shells.

And of course it works a treat.

There are plenty of parties for pessimists, backward-looking Maori and white bedwetters. But there’s only one for optimists, achievement-oriented people and forward-looking Maori.

ACT will not succeed until it champions the latter and tells the dishonest others to go to Hell.

In short, their catchment is men and women who think like men. Not men and women who think like women. ACT is the party of the strong father, not the soft mother.

(By strong father I include strong women like Rand, Richardson and Thatcher, and by soft mother I include weak men like Key.)

I hope you people will think about that.

[Update: A NZ Herald article titled Act ad man blasts ‘apartheid’ contains more such statements from John Ansell, who is ACT’s creative director; and in it Don Brash distances himself from them, saying “I don’t want to associate myself with those kind of views at all”. He may not want to, but he is. His own press release issued in conjunction with the advertisement above calls any form of “preferential treatment” — such as concessions granted under Article II of the Treaty, which ACT apparently does not recognise — “a form of apartheid”. Perigo is fond of the term, and also of referring to Māori, Muslims and anyone else who doesn’t quack like an Aryan duck as “savages”. Moreover the prospective MP for Epsom, John Banks — who represents the kinder, gentler face of the ACT party — also has form on this issue, having previously referred to Māori TV as “Apartheid Television”, and holding views generally very comparable with those of Ansell and, in some cases, with Perigo. So Brash’s will to not be associated with such views really raises a question: will he, in order to dissociate ACT from these views, fire his creative director, the press secretary for his Parliamentary leader, and the only MP likely to win an electorate? I rather doubt it, but I believe Aotearoa deserves answers.]

[Update 2: Ansell is gone. One down; how many to go?]

As Russell Brown said, Ansell’s comment is “essentially an incitement to race war“, and I don’t believe Ansell himself would deny that. But it’s more than that; it’s also an incitement to sex war. It’s easy enough to dismiss as the usual sort of dark mutterings, but hang on a minute: this fool is claiming to speak for me, and if you’re a man (or a woman who thinks like a man, whatever that is), he’s claiming to speak for you too. But he doesn’t speak for me. To head off the inevitable speculation, I’m hardly what you’d call a feminised liberal pantywaist; I have a beard, I hunt, I fish, I provide for a family; I like whisky and brew my own beer; I like rugby and rock’n’roll and Rachmaninov, and breaking things to see how they work; I’ve spent years studying martial arts and I’m trained to do or have done most of the things on Heinlein’s list. I wear a Swanndri to work in an office on Victoria Street, for crying out loud.

But in my world, masculinity isn’t measured by warrior prowess or the vulgar ability to force one’s will upon others, whether by physical, social or legislative means. Those things, as anyone who’s studied totalitarianism will tell you, only garner a mean and hollow sort of respect; the sort which dissipates as soon as the heel is lifted from the throat of the oppressed. No, in my world, masculinity is judged by honest work, truth and wise counsel, respect and tolerance, forbearance and understanding, accommodation and partnership; from love and support, and strength of a kind which intersects with but is not eclipsed by that to which Ansell appeals. As I have argued before, that sort of view — the dictator’s view that power comes from the barrel of a gun, that only the whims of the mighty matter — is a bare and miserly sort of humanity. And if that’s how Aotearoa actually is, then I say: come the feminised, Māorified revolution, because we desperately need it.

Of course, it’s not. Ansell no more represents Aotearoa’s men than Muriel Newman does its women, Lindsay Perigo its homosexuals or Don Brash does Pākehā. Their methods have become unsound. As Conor Roberts put it, “if you gaze for long into the sub-5 percent abyss, the sub-5 percent abyss gazes also into you.” Let’s see how long they can keep gazing.

L

A door cracks open in the Little Red Dot.

datePosted on 21:51, April 27th, 2011 by Pablo

Authors Preface: Now that my departure from Singapore is imminent I no longer have to fear retribution for commenting about local politics. I was warned when I arrived in SG that foreigners commenting about SG political issues was verboten and liable to risk summary deportation or defamation charges. I do not think that what follows is defamatory in any way shape or form, and constitutes just the first in what will be a series of reflections about Singapore after having spent 3.5 years immersed in its politics and culture.

On May 7 2011, 2.5 million Singaporeans (out of a total population of 5 million) go to the polls in order to elect the next government. As a one party-dominant authoritarian state, the outcome is already assured–the People’s Action Party that has held power since 1959 will win the majority of parliamentary seats (Singapore is formally a unicameral parliamentary system). By gerrymandering electoral districts (which has led to uncontested walkover rates of 50 percent) and placing limits on opposition party rights to public expression and assembly outside of the two week campaign season (to include prohibitions on holding rallies and distributing flyers, posters or pamphlets, which has resulted in numerous defamation suits against and arrests of opposition figures over the years–the last in 2010 for a violation of the “no public assembly of more than 5 people without a Police permit” law), the PAP might match the 66 percent of the vote garnered in 2006 (a drop from the 73 percent received in 2001).  It will retain its majority hold of the (recently expanded) 87-member parliament. But there is political change blowing in the hot and humid Singaporean breeze, which is as much the result of generational and social change as it is of opposition renewal and PAP sclerosis. Although it will retain power this time, none of the trends auger well for the PAP.

Taking 25 years as the generational baseline, Singapore is in its third generation since gaining political autonomy from the Malay Federation in 1959 (independence came with its expulsion from the Federation in 1965). Led by 87-year old Lee Kuan Yew, the first generation of PAP leaders ruled with tight control until 1990, in an era when Singapore’s image as an austere and puritanical authoritarian state was forged. The second generation of hand-picked successors, who began the slow process of political and social liberalization and orchestrated the emergence of the country as a major transportation, logistics and financial hub, is singing its political swan song today. This year’s election marks the transition to the third generation of political leadership and not all has gone as planned for the PAP.

Voting is mandatory in Singapore. Yet spoiled ballots and non-voters amounted to nearly 10 percent of the 2006 electorate. In other words, the signs of discontent were already present five years ago. This year there has been a resurgence of political opposition led by the Workers Party, the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Party. In marked contrast to previous elections, 82 of the 87 parliamentary seats will be contested. Among the ranks of the opposition are defectors from the PAP, former government-sponsored overseas scholars (who usually pay their scholarship debt by returning to assume bureaucratic positions and joining the PAP), former Internal Security Act detainees (the ISA allows for the indefinite detention of suspects without charge and some of the current opposition candidates have spent periods in confinement as a result of it) as well as political exiles.

Most of the new candidates are in their mid 20s to mid 40s, thereby representing a coming of age for their generation of free thinkers. In response, the PAP has trotted out the usual ensemble of former bureaucrats and politicized retired military officers, interspersed with a handful of younger neophytes (including one whose qualifications for office apparently are that she is the wife of the Prime Minister’s executive assistant and has a penchant for shopping–the latter being Singapore’s national pastime). What is most revealing is that the PAP is no longer able to hide its internal divisions, with leading officials, Ministers and even the Minister Mentor (how’s that for a title?) Lee Kuan Yew himself openly disagreeing about issues of politics, policy and social construction. Perhaps sensing a shift in the public mood, some PAP candidates have withdrawn from the election (“retirement” being the most common reason). All of this underscores something that the Minister Mentor said last year: that the PAP must rejuvenate or stagnate, and that democracy would only come when the PAP proved incapable of responding to public expectations as a result of its stagnation.

The trouble for the PAP is that the elections have come too quickly for a major re-generation of its cadres, which in a talent-thin environment such as Singapore (owing to its population size, as anyone who looks beyond the front benches of the New Zealand parliament will understand), means that the moment of political reckoning has come much sooner than the 25 years Lee Kuan Yew envisioned.

Even worse for the PAP, although the government controls all of the mainstream media in Singapore, including the Straits Times and the telecommunications giant MediaCorp, it has been unable to staunch the flow of internet criticism of its personnel and policies, or the grassroots mobilization of support for the opposition. Much concern has been voiced about increasing inefficiencies in public services, the high cost of living, the loss of white collar jobs to foreigners, and the government’s astronomical pay scales (the Prime Minister–Lee Kuan Yew’s son–is paid S$4.5 million per/year, senior ministers make S$3 million and parliamentary backbenchers start at S$150,000. In fact according to the Economist, Singapore has the second highest ratio of political leader’s pay to the country’s GDP per person, with the average salary of US$2,183,516). There is irony in the latter because it is a world first: Singapore has the most expensive government that money can buy, in a society that is image-obsessed but in which income inequality is more third world than first world.

In the face of what looks to be the possibility of losing previously safe seats amid an unprecedented wave of electoral contestation, the PAP has resorted to fear-mongering, focusing on the tired old canards of economic insecurity, Malay sedition, jihadist terrorism, unskilled foreign workers from the sub-continent and mainland China bringing crime and stealing local jobs, and gay rights (homosexuality is illegal in Singapore but as part of the social liberalization process enforcement of sodomy laws has been weak and episodic over the last decade. This has been a major concern of social conservatives, including the very large number of ethnic Chinese Christians found on the island who are a core PAP constituency). PAP officials talk darkly about “hidden agendas” and wonder why the opposition would seek “to take control of the government” (apparently ignorant of the fact that political parties are formed precisely to contest for power in order to gain decision-making authority and influence policy). Yet the more it raises the specter of Singapore returning to its polyglot swampland brothel and opium den past, the more the PAP is ridiculed for being out of touch with the wants and needs of contemporary Singaporeans.

This means that this election and its aftermath will constitute a critical juncture in Singaporean history. It will set the stage for the next critical juncture, which will be the occasion and aftermath of Lee Kuan Yew’s death.

The notion of critical juncture is important and needs explaining. Using economics-derived path dependency analysis (in which human behavior is “locked in” by past institutional practice the more that practice is routinised over time), critical junctures are historical moments when decisive choices are made within given institutional parameters that set the future course of events (the most common used analogies are the “fork in the road” and “tree branch” motifs).  Because of its internal divisions, Lee Kuan Yew’s death will be the moment when the knives come out within the PAP, with moderate reformists and liberalizers pitted against hard-line status quo defenders in what could wind up as a splitting of the party. Since the hard-line elements constitute the bulk of the deadwood and sclerotic elements within the PAP, it is quite possible, given the outcome of this election, that reformists will gain control of the party and move to accommodate moderate opposition views in a grand coalition strategy designed to help preserve their hold on power after 2016.

But that is precisely why this election constitutes a pre-conditioning critical juncture that will set the stage for the next one. Processes of authoritarian regime liberalization tend to be “two-steps forward, one step backwards” affairs. The regime opens a little, the opposition pushes further than what is acceptable to the regime, and the regime pushes back. Confronted with a rising tide of opposition success and grassroots mobilizations against one-party rule that cannot be contained with selective application of the ISA and the usual use of defamation and non-assembly laws, the PAP regime will therefore be forced to opt for one of two paths: repress or reform. Its previous preferred strategy of cooptation will no longer work.

This is important to consider because the reformists constitute a minority of the current PAP leadership. The PAP status quo–many of who have held their sinecures for more than a decade–control the levers of government and retain the loyalty of the armed forces (which have internal security and regime protection as well as external defense roles). Thus, even if there are internal tensions within the armed forces between “professional” and “political” officers (the former focused on the technical merits of soldiering and the latter concerned with career advancement via political linkages), and its leadership sclerosis is profound, the PAP can, if it wants to, halt the process of social and political opening any time it wishes. Because it still has a reservoir of support in the so-called (ethnic Chinese) “heartland,” the regime can push back without incurring major backlash.

This is not to say that there will not be any. Singaporeans are largely a passive and conformist society, so a move to repress or politically back-peddle will not be met with mass demonstrations akin to those of the Middle East today or Latin America in the past.  But even if they acquiesce to the retrogression, the third generation of Singaporean voters will not consent to a return to the days of arrests for jaywalking, fines for chewing gum and imprisonment or bankruptcy for reasonable (unarmed) dissent. Instead, they will engage in passive resistance and low-level protests with increased grassroots mobilization over the internet, including social media and other hard-to-filter communications vehicles. Since Singapore is an extremely “wired” society that depends on its telecommunications capabilities for much of its daily business, Chinese-style censorship will be very hard to maintain even though the government controls the telecommunications duopoly through which all internet access is filtered (I will not digress into the reaction of foreign actors to any such retrogression but suffice it to say that it will not be entirely supportive).

All of this means that the PAP is staring at the beginning of the end in this election. The opposition has organized, mobilized and taken advantage of the limited political space afforded to it by the manipulated electoral system. The PAP has reacted slowly and awkwardly to the opposition’s energetic display. It therefore sits on the horns of a dilemma: accept that power sharing is inevitable over the short term and rotation in government office is quite possible within a few years (or at least much sooner than expected), or use its election victory to reassert its political supremacy, by force if necessary, over pretenders to its throne. That will influence the context in which the power struggles following Lee Kuan Yew’s death will occur, which in turn will determine whether or not the slow process of authoritarian liberalization will continue or be halted. At that point the moment of truth will have arrived for a country struggling with its identity as a modern bridge between East and West.

>> A different version of the essay appears as this month’s “A Word from Afar” column at Scoop.

Another locked closet.

datePosted on 00:19, April 6th, 2011 by Pablo

The old saying that the two things one does not want to see being made are sausage and legislation comes to mind given that the Security Intelligence Amendment Bill public submission hearings commence this week (the first reading on the Bill was held in December, during the usual Xmas lull in which serious media scrutiny of pretty much anything unrelated to the season is negligible). Labour and the Greens wanted the submission hearings to be held in public, but the government has knocked that back and declared that they will be held in “private” ( that is, in secret). Although submitters can disseminate their submissions as they see fit, the content of the meetings, including questions by committee members and submitters, are subject to non-disclosure provisos. 

Regardless of the  subject of the hearings, which has to do with specifying the scope of SIS authority and the warrant process involved in conducting surveillance of new electronic technologies such as mobile phones, GPS systems and other gadgets, the failure to hold public hearings is yet another sign of the ingrained authoritarianism of the political elite and its disdain, if not contempt, for the pubic at large. For example, one of the reasons for the surveillance upgrade, according to the government, is the security concerns surrounding the Rugby World Cup. To use that as a rationale beggers belief and just shows the disconnect between the thinking public and what National believes the public will swallow (the reasons why the RWC is not going to be a terrorist target are many but suffice it to say that NZ security agencies have a vested bureaucratic interest in hyping the threat. And should they come, RWC threats will be of a local dissident-protest rather than terrorist in nature, and will not require anything beyond what is already in place in terms of warrants for electronic eavesdropping).

Labour’s call for public hearings is pretty rich given that during its term in office it never held a single one when it came to SIS matters. The Greens, as always when it comes to such things, stand on principle. What is interesting is that the Maori Party and ACT, which have members on the Intelligence and Security oversight committee that will chair the hearings, have sided with National on the issue of transparency–that is, they have opted for the closet rather than the open door when it comes to airing contending views on juxtaposed issues of national security and civil rights. What this says about the Maori Party and ACT leadership, given the targeting of the former’s members by the SIS and the supposed championing by the latter of civil rights, individual freedoms and governmental accountability, I am not not in a position to say. But what I can say is this: the move to hold the SIS Amendment Bill public submission hearings in private is designed to cover the fact that the oversight committee is going to disregard submissions against the granting of expanded surveillance powers to the SIS and will rubber-stamp the legislative changes in any event. There will be no incisive or critical questions offered by committee members with regard to how the electronic spying will be carried out, under what circumstances, for what purposes and with whom it will be shared. 

Instead, there will be a collective nod and wave by the majority of the committee behind closed doors, and the SIS Amendment Bill will pass. What is being protected is not state secrets, not confidential material, or anything remotely connected to national security. The reason the hearings will be held behind closed doors is to conceal the lackey lock-step into which the committee will fall. It is about saving coalition face in an election year rather than addressing the serious concerns of intelligence service power-expansion. That shallow political PR calculation is the sole reason why these hearings will be held in secret.

So much for informed public consent and parliamentary accountability when it comes to security and intelligence in this small democracy.

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