Of democracy, dictatorship and tyranny

The Middle East is on a roll – one dictator down, two more on the edge. The people are energized and a fresh breeze of hope seems to be blowing. But this is not the first time that euphoria has gripped a region and an old order has been brought down. Ukraine placed Viktor Yushchenko in power in 2005 and Poland elected Lech Walesa to lead the first non-communist government, in 1990. In both cases, the euphoria didn’t last long and both Yuschenko and Walesa lost their re-election bids.

Does euphoria create expectations that people like Yuschenko and Walesa find too challenging to handle or do they just get corrupted by power in office? The ‘power corrupts’ adage does apply, but several other factors come in the way of a successful tenure of a revolutionary leader. Sometimes it’s a leadership vs management challenge and sometimes it’s the establishment that makes things difficult.

Leadership vs Management Challenge: Political leadership entails rallying support to challenge status quo. Leaders inspire their followers to go outside the realm of law and order in open defiance, to change a paradigm in society. Gandhi led an entire nation to defy the laws imposed by the British. Lech Walesa unionized Polish workers in open defiance, during a communist regime. In short, leaders create chaos. But once the chaos settles, the same leaders find it a challenge to restore order and move forward. In 1947, after India was in flames as a result of the partition riots, the Indian leaders had to seek help from ex-viceroy Mountbatten, to manage the situation. The Indian leaders knew how to defy the law, but enforcing the law to manage a rioting country was a completely new paradigm for them.

So should leaders merely facilitate change and then handover the reigns to experienced administrators and stick to setting the broad vision and goals to be accomplished? If experienced administrators are the way to go, should they be career politicians or experienced hands from the industry?

And that brings up the debate on the accountability of electing the right leader. The modus operandi for that will vary based on the type of government. In a democracy, it will be upto the people to elect the right leader. Since leaders are great with swaying opinion, the electorate will prefer a passionate leader over a seasoned administrator.

Dictatorship faces the same dilemma. Dictators essentially are good military leaders, who are able to lead an armed ouster of an incumbent ruler for various reasons. Muhammar Qadaffi was a Colonel in the Libyan army and overthrew the monarchy in 1969. But just because he was a successful military leader didn’t mean that he was equally competent to lead Libya.

But in both cases – democracy and dictatorship, the power of the office is too tempting to give up. Gandhi stands out as one who did not covet any official power and to some extent, the same could be said of Martin Luther King Jr.

The difference between a democrat, dictator and a tyrant really is the length of tenure and the degree of misuse of power.

A leader’s tenure should be 8-10 years, maximum. Anything beyond 10 years and the power starts going into the head and all of a sudden, the line between democracy and autocracy starts getting blurry. India’s Indira Gandhi imposed a state of emergency in the country 10 years into her tenure to prevent open opposition to her government.

And once a leader crosses 20 years at the helm, the reign is likely to slip into tyranny. Malaysia’s Mahatir Mohammad curbed the judiciary during the latter half of his 22 year tenure and tortured a key political rival – Anwar Ibrahim. Tyranny is a state when the leader (dictator or democrat) begins to consider himself and his dynasty divinely ordained to rule the nation – anyone else is a clear target for elimination.

A 2-term limit is optimal. However several democracies like Great Britian, India, Malaysia, etc. do not impose any limits on the term of the elected leader and that itself creates dictators out of democrats. In several countries across Asia, one of the reasons for presence of dictators is the absence of an environment conducive to emergence of new leaders. Most of the time, it is a high handed democratic dictator whose power brigade apprehends or eliminates any emerging opposition to the rule. Other times, it can be a leader gaming the system to stay in command. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is an interesting example of this scenario. Russia imposes an 8 year term limit very similar to the US, so when Putin exhausted that in 2008, he ensured the new President Dimitry Medvedev appointed him Prime Minister.

The establishment: That brings us to the other variable in the equation – the establishment.  The establishment comprises the bureaucrats whose positions remain unchanged irrespective of the leadership changes at the top. For example, Robert Mueller, the FBI Director has been at the helm for 3 presidential terms now. New leaders, like Lech Walesa or even Barrack Obama, who come in with a lot of promise for change, often underestimate the power of the establishment to ensure status quo. The strongest establishments vary from country to country. In case of Pakistan, it is the army and the ISI – the intelligence agency, which are the strongest enforcers of status quo. In case of the United States, it is the Pentagon and the Congress.

Elected representatives constitute the establishment as well and there is no limit on their tenure. Senator Robert Byrd served in the US Senate for almost 52 years. More than 25 senators have served more than 34 years in the US Senate – that would make even Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak envious. This group often causes a lot of headache for new leaders like Lech Walesa who are completely new to the political arena.  Many of the constituents of the establishment tend to have a thinking at least one generation behind – the generation when they first came into office.

So, the question is, should a term limit be applied to the elected representatives as well? Possibly – because a large section of these are career politicians who have little hands-on experience in any field.

In case of a democracy, the establishment’s mindset is the result of the thought process of several leaders through the course of its existence. So the establishment doesn’t have an issue with a new leader – they just resist any changes to their way of thinking.

In a dictatorship, the establishment comprises staunch loyalists of the dictator himself. Whereas a democrat inherits his establishment, a dictator creates his establishment. As a result, over time, staunch loyalists of the dictator are entrenched in the establishment. With such an establishment behind him, the dictator has the leverage to convert his dictatorship into a dynastic rule, without much opposition. The most blatant examples of this are North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il naming his 20- something son Kim Jong Un, to be his successor and Cuba’s Fidel Castro making way for his 80-something brother Raul, to lead the nation. There is no lack of fresh leadership, but a well-entrenched loyalist establishment prevents the emergence of new leaders. And it is partly because of this that it is more difficult to overthrow a dictator. The advent of social media may have made the job easier on the rallying and communications front, but the hurdle of a loyalist establishment is still a tough one to overcome.

So assuming equally strong managerial/administrative skills, a new leader faces steeper challenges when his/her predecessor has been a dictator than a democrat. The euphoria too is higher when a new leader replaces a dictator because of the decades plus tenure of the dictator.

Leadership vs management is an important aspect and can make or break an elected government. But for the electorate, it is not an easy choice. Democracy is the best form of government because it guarantees power to the people, but does the system give enough opportunities to the people to exercise that power. In the era of social change, is the current implementation of democracy also ready for a change? We will examine that in part II of this piece in a couple of weeks.


3 thoughts on “Of democracy, dictatorship and tyranny

  1. Hey Ajay,
    Good article. I agree with you about the level of entrenchment that Dictators achieve when in power for a long time. and I agree that this can make a change of Government difficult though i think the case of Cuba bears several distinctions from that of say, North Korea. I really want to get into the Cuban revolution and the US role in alienating Fidel and the people of Cuba. it seems that we as Americans assume we back the right side but we should remember in our thinking about Cuba and the change from Fidel to Raul that Fidel is a great hero to the vast majority of Cubans. Raul is a very popular fellow among the people. When Fidel, Raul, Che, and Camillo Cienfuegos began the revolution in the Sierra Maestra, the Nation was at the mercy of the Dictator, Fulgencio Batista. he had seized power in a military coup when it became obvious that the Cuban people were not going to elect him. Batista was very unpopular with the people because all of his policies were directed at accumulating wealth for he and his wealthy “elite” class of Cubans. he continued ecomomic policies that had been destroying Cuba’s huge middle class and favored the wealthy and the foreign “investers”, mostly Mafia Dons from the U.S. thus he facilitated the exploitation of the Cuban people, sent unemployment through the roof and created a nation of very rich and very poor people.
    The Revolution was a popular one. Fidel was seen as the liberator of the Cuban people. Although many of the former “Elite” loudly protested because they were losing the money(stolen from the people of Cuba) and their influence(which would allow them to steal alot more of the peoples money).
    In its article about the Revolution, Wikepedia sums up the new governments actions and America’s reaction as follows:
    “In its first year, the new revolutionary government expropriated private property with little or no compensation, nationalized public utilities, tightened controls on the private sector, and closed down the mafia-controlled gambling industry. The CIA conspired with the Chicago mafia in 1960 and 1961 to assassinate Fidel Castro, according to documents declassified in 2007.[61][62]”
    So although we have been taught to hate Fidel in our schools, and told of his evil intent by our government, the Cubans who supported and still support his revolution, believe Fidel did what he had to do to strengthen and save his nation and those people did not blame him for the hard times they have suffered since the revolution. The Cuban people blame the U>S> for those austere years because we encouraged the exploitive deals with Batista, conspired with the Mafia to kill Fidel, and then enacted a crippling “partial”commercial embargo in 1960 in retaliation for Fidel’s nationalizing the property of U.S. citizens and corporations i.e. the Mafia and Uber-wealthy American business predators who were part and parcel of the ruination of Cuba under Batista. Lacking the offer of support and assistance from the U.S and the U.S. decision to cut the amount of Cuban sugar imports from Cuba, Fidel was left little choice but to appeal to another great power who would buy their sugar and did not have an arms embargo against them (the arms embargo was enacted in 1958 to attempt to keep Americans from selling arms to Fidel’s revolution . The reason was so that the Mafia and wealthy American interests would not be nationalized as they knew was his plan. It was a natural thing for him to do since ending the criminal relationship between Cuba and those investors and returning that wealth to Cuba was a major part of of the revolutions agenda.
    When Fidel turned the Presidency over to Raul, Cubans cheered the change. Not because they were disenchanted with Fidel, but because Raul is just as much a hero to them as Fidel and Raul has not just the respect but the love of the Cuban people. And they still blame us for the troubles they have experienced as a result of our defence of and colusion with the wealthy American Rapers of Cuba
    I’m not sure that any of these things can be said of the North Korea, Kim Jong Ill, or his son.

    I am sure that although the embargo is now lifted and Cuba can trade with the U.S. they refused to do so inthe belief that America only wished to trade with them out of self interest and to again exploit the Cuban people.
    Imagine that!
    But who are the movers and shakers behind the lifting of that embargo? Altuistic Philantropists desiring to bring a better life to the people of Cuba? Nooooooooo.

    Liberal politicians and their constituants who realize that our treatment of Cuba was wrong and even criminal and that the time had come to do right by Cuba? Nooooooooo.

    In complete justification of the Cubans reluctance and distrust, the people who wanted the embargo lifted were the farmers, and other Agribusiness interests who saw that they were missing out on a huge opportunity for profit. Cuba has however in a kind of ironic twist limited it’s U.S. imports and placed severe restrictions on the actions and finacial freedon of Americans.

    1. Thanks for the indepth insight into Cuba. The overthrow of Fulgencio Batista by Fidel and Co. was justified. However, he overthrew a dictator and became a dictator himself. Another place where I will disagree with you, is the transition of power to Raul. If Raul is so popular with the people, then why not hold elections and let that happen the democratic way? As you point out, Fulgencio Batista became a dictator because he realized he would not be democratically elected. Fidel overthrew him, but himself chose not to follow the democratic process? Dynastic rule is an insult to the people – because it tries to show that country does not have the ability to produce leaders. Unfortunately, my own home country – India seems to be under this malaise.

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