Does Authoritarianism Work?

By Kevin Baldeosingh

The State of Emergency proclaimed by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar on August 21 takes the premise that authoritarian measures are necessary to stop crime. Although the assumption is that this is just a temporary suspension of citizens’ constitutional rights, it appears the Government’s approach has fallen on fertile ground. The majority of citizens seem to agree that the extreme approach is justified. One TV news poll asked viewers if they wished to know the reason behind the SoE—over 80 percent replied “No”. Even though such polls are unscientific, the fact remains that persons watching that newscast actually took the trouble to text to say they didn’t want information. The fact that the government is constitutionally mandated to provide this information adds an additional dimension to this apparent willingness among Trinidadians to abandon democracy, even if temporarily.
However, in a professional opinion poll, the World Values Survey, which was done in 2006, a full 58 percent of the respondents asserted that democracy was the preferable way to govern a country, with 27 percent instead saying that democracy was a bad system. Only 20 percent thought the army should take over the country if the government was incompetent.

Officers check a vehicle during the curfew hours. —Photo: DAVE PERSAD
The problem with this kind of poll question is that “democracy” is a slippery concept, so it’s not always clear what people mean when they say they are for or against it. Fifty-nine per cent believed that Trinidad and Tobago was a democratically governed state. But, in their book Modernisation, Cultural Change and Democracy, political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel observe that “Effective democracy reflects the extent to which office-holders use their powers in ways that do not deprive citizens of their formal rights as citizens. Thus, the most serious violation of effective democracy is elite corruption.” That was the case with the PNM, and the PP’s 60-week record in office so far show no signs that anything has changed.
Thus, despite the 58 percent who say they support democracy, it is those individuals who have authoritarian views whose opinions are most widely disseminated. Psychologists have found a strong correlation between religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism, and the born-again Christians, narrow-minded Hindus, and Muslim leaders almost all oppose liberal and tolerant values. And, inevitably, the politicians in office, even while paying lip service to democratic values, typically pass legislation which reduce, rather than expand, the rights of citizens. It therefore seems that the 27 percent who consider democracy bad is either too low a figure or consists of respondents who control the mores of the society.
In relation to crime, it is clear that many citizens believe that authoritarian measures are the best way to combat this. Over 90 percent of people support capital punishment, with some individuals calling for public hangings and even torture of convicted criminals. In this regard, although some commentators point to Singapore as the example we should emulate, the working model is the Middle East Arab states. According to the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Report 2009, “The majority of states failed to introduce democratic governance and institutions of representation that ensure inclusion, the equal distribution of wealth among various groups, and respect for cultural diversity.”
Muslims here, when talking about the crime situation, frequently refer to how safe these Arab states are. Those who have travelled to them often give anecdotes to illustrate this, such as walking through the city late at night or jewellery stores which have their goods displayed on open trays. These views are confirmed by the UN report, which says, while many Arabs live under various ‘un-freedoms’ which effectively deny them voice and representation, and while the threat of state-initiated violence against them is ever-present, the region offers a degree of protection from crime not found in other developing regions.
Attorney General Anand Ramlogan
Barring the cases of foreign occupation and civil war, a relatively low incidence of conventional violent crime remains the norm for the Arab countries. Statistics from 2002 indicate that, at that time, the region had the lowest police-recorded homicide and assault rate, not only among all regions of the South, but also in both the developing and developed worlds.”
When giving their stories, the Muslims here almost invariably cite the system of punishment as the reason for this low crime rate – e.g. the penalty for stealing is having your hand cut off. But there is, of course, a price to pay for this low crime rate. “The rule of law indicator rates the Arab region as the second worst in the world. Performance on that indicator deteriorated for the region between 1998 and 2007,” says the UN Report. “All Arab justice systems suffer in one form or another from blows to their independence that stem from executive domination of both the legislative and judicial branches. In addition, judicial independence is being undermined by the spread of state security courts and military courts, which represent a negation of the principles of natural justice and detract from guarantees of a fair trial.”

Additionally, although the Muslim apologists often say that women can walk the streets without fear of being raped, violence against women is quite high in Arab countries, with estimates that one in three women experience physical violence. And, given State sanctioned violence, it is not clear that the lower crime rate really means a lower rate of overall violence, especially if you include State killings. The death penalty, notes the Report, “is applied liberally in several Arab countries, which do not limit it to the most serious crimes or exclude its imposition in cases of political crime.”
Would Trinidadians be willing to sacrifice democracy for low crime? The Muslim model obviously cannot work here, not necessarily because it would mean scrapping our British-inherited institutions, but because it would mean scrapping Carnival. But what about Singapore? The argument that this model can be applied here is really based on one factor – that Singapore is also an island nation. But this is not too pertinent. Sociologist Chua Beng-Huat has suggested that country’s economic progress in terms of three factors: Singapore’s head-start in getting foreign investment; the integrity and sense of public responsibility of Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership; and Confucian values of education, merit, hard work, frugality, and family. Dr Eric Williams, by contrast, tolerated the widespread corruption of his Ministers and officials, practised nepotism through welfare projects, and reduced education to expanded edifices.
Other research also suggests that economic stability, after a certain point, depends on democracy. Economist Paul Collier, in his book Wars, Guns, and Votes, has with Dominic Rohner performed a statistical analysis on the effects of democracy on political violence, using data from nearly every country in the world since 1960.
“We found that in countries that were at least at middle-income levels, democracy systematically reduced the risk of political violence,” he writes. “…In the absence of democracy, as a society starts to get rich it becomes more prone to political violence. Democracies get safer as income rises, whereas autocracies get more dangerous.” (The acid test case of this theory will be China over the next decade.)
As journalist Judy Raymond perceptively noted in her Sunday Express column of 28/08/11, “In an increasingly fissive society, the State of Emergency is entrenching the divisions, and they run from top to bottom.” The People’s Partnership, especially through its gun-talking Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, is showing that they cannot handle the untrammelled power conferred by an SoE. What is more worrisome, however, is that this may also be true of what are called “the majority of law-abiding citizens.”

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