Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


The difficulty with dictatorship
Ushio - December 2007

During the Cold War, it became a sort of joke to look at the use of the words "democratic" or "peoples" in the names of countries: the joke was that if the country used that word in their name, it guaranteed that the country was a dictatorship, often of an extremely nasty and totalitarian sort. For example, Kim Il Sung chose to name his Stalinist country "Democratic People’s Republic of Korea". Mao Zedong renamed China as "People’s Republic of China".

These days, in the 21st century, things are not so simple. Dictatorships really do come in quite varied forms, with some still talking about democracy but not intending to do anything about it (China); some talk about democracy and hold elections but make sure that the outcome is the one favoured by the dictator (Russia, Pakistan); while others don’t bother to talk about democracy at all (Myanmar) and just enforce their rule by killing and arresting protestors.

The dictators that do hold elections are, in my view, the strangest type of rulers. That point was emphasised for me when I received a phone call recently from top officials at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. The Commonwealth is the organisation that groups together many former colonies of Britain, and tries to encourage democracy and the protection of human rights. It sends teams of people to monitor elections in Commonwealth member countries, and they produce a public report saying whether the election was free and conducted fairly.

The reason for the phone call was to ask whether I might be interested in taking part in a monitoring team for elections that were due to take place in Pakistan in January. I might not be selected, I was told, and it was not certain that a team would be sent anyway, but they wanted to know whether I was interested and available. My question, however, was different. Pakistan has been a military dictatorship since 1999 when the head of the army, General Pervez Musharraf, seized power from the democratically elected government. So my question was: why is this dictator holding elections, and how can there be any chance that they are free and fair?

A different sort of answer came a few weeks later, on November 3rd. General Musharraf declared that Pakistan was facing an emergency, and that he was taking on even more powers. He dismissed most of the country’s top judges, including those in the Supreme Court, and placed many dissidents and leaders of opposition parties under house arrest or put them in jail. He shut down private television stations, so that he could control the messages reaching people through the mass media.

In a sense, General Musharraf was acting like a proper dictator, or in the way we expect a dictator to act. Almost certainly, this meant that there would be no elections and so no chance that I would be chosen to take part in a monitoring team for the Commonwealth. My wife was understandably relieved: a suicide bomb in Pakistan had killed 140 people at a political rally a few weeks earlier, so she feared that it would be dangerous to go there. I was disappointed: I like going to new places and having new adventures, and monitoring the election would have been an adventure.

Still, it had made me think about the different ways in which dictators try to rule their countries. In Pakistan, the army has seized power three times during the 60 years of the country’s existence (it was created in 1947, when India gained independence from Britain but was divided between India and Pakistan). But it feels uncomfortable about being in government. So it has in the past restored democracy for several years or even decades before then seizing power again. And when General Musharraf took power in 1999 he not only promised that democracy would soon be restored but also he claimed that he would be governing in line with the constitution.

So in 2002 he reestablished Pakistan’s parliament and held elections for it. He also retained the judicial system and said he would respect the decisions of the country’s Supreme Court. The reason why he chose to do this is that Pakistan is a very divided country, with many political forces hoping to gain control of all or part of the country, and it would take a huge and brutal army to be able to suppress them effectively. So he hoped to be able to give those many forces a voice in Parliament and to preserve some sense of legitimacy by maintaining the rule of law, which he hoped all political groups would respect.

The trouble is that this placed him in an ambiguous position. He wanted to keep the courts, but what would he do if they were to make decisions that he didn’t like? This happened earlier this year, and his answer was to dismiss the Chief Justice, the head of the Supreme Court. But this caused popular protests, and a nationwide campaign by lawyers, which forced him to reinstate the Chief Justice. At the same time, terrorist attacks were increasing in Pakistan’s main cities, and there is an insurgency under way in the country’s most western province, near the Iranian border, called Baluchistan. In October, General Musharraf had himself elected as president, but the election was challenged in the courts. He seems to have been worried that the Supreme Court was about to declare his presidential election invalid, which is why he has declared an emergency, suspended the constitution and dismissed the Chief Justice again

The story is rather farcical. It might be funny if it were not so serious. Pakistan is a nuclear-weapons state, with growing Islamic fundamentalism, and with Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda leaders hiding in its mountains. The collapse of the country could be a very dangerous moment, with the risk of extremists taking over or an outside power—India, America, Iran—feeling the need to intervene. Democracy is not simple. But neither is dictatorship.


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