Authoritarian rule has become fashionable again

For people seeking stability and economic opportunity, democracy is not always the panacea it is set up to be
Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, pictured in March, 2010. The son of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, once thought to be heir-apparent, has been released from prison under an amnesty agreement made with the militia in western Libya.

I think US President Joe Biden, or at least those happy warriors in his orbit who still believe that “democracy” and “elections” are the answer to everything, need to meet a Malaysian friend of mine whom I am going to call “Nur”. That’s because recent events in Tunisia and Libya will have puzzled them no end.

In the former, President Kais Saied suspended parliament last month, dismissed the prime minister, and has taken on emergency powers. He cited the Covid-19 pandemic and poor governance for his takeover. It may well be temporary, and he insists that his actions are in accordance with the constitution, but what his opponents describe as a “coup” appears to enjoy majority support so far.

In the latter, Saif Al Islam Qaddafi has re-emerged into public life after having been captured by the Zintan militia in 2011. The one-time heir apparent to his father, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, told The New York Times that he was considering running for the presidency this year. The reporter wrote that “the limited polling data in Libya suggests that large numbers of Libyans – as much as 57 per cent in one region – express 'confidence’ in him".

This was not what was supposed to happen. In 2011, the two countries’ dictators, Qaddafi and Zine Abedine Ben Ali in Tunisia, were toppled. Democracy was ushered in to replace one-man rule, and both countries have held elections in the years since. And yet, in Tunisia the suspension of parliament has been greeted by many with approval, while in Libya not only did democracy fail to prevent civil war, but nostalgia for the rule of a man long considered the worst of tyrants may be so strong that Saif Qaddafi’s possible candidacy cannot be ignored.

Time to bring in my friend Nur. Back in the mid-2000s, she was living in Jakarta with her Indonesian husband. On a trip back to Kuala Lumpur, I asked her how life was in Indonesia. She startled me with her response. “Everything was much better when Suharto was in power,” she said. General Suharto had been the country’s authoritarian leader for 31 years until he was forced from office in 1998, and in 2004, the NGO Transparency International labelled him the most corrupt leader of the previous two decades.

Nur had been educated at a leading international school in Singapore and went to university in the US. She was worldly, well-travelled, and came from a western-friendly elite. Surely she didn’t prefer rule by a man many called a dictator to the rumbustious democracy Indonesia had become?

That she did taught me the lesson that for many people in many countries their first order priorities are not necessarily the freedom to vote, or to protest, or to have the right to say and print rude things about the authorities – although “true believers” of liberal democracy tend to assume they are.

Their real first-order priorities are to live in countries where there is a strong emphasis on harmony and stability, and where the state is at least seen to be doing its best to provide the basics for the masses and to steer the nation in the right direction. In other words: good governance. Commanding authority figures can potentially be quite good at that. Democracy, on the other hand, can be messy and divisive – and especially in countries with little experience of it and where strong centrifugal pressures have historically been managed by a strong central state.

In Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid became the first democratically elected president in 1999 but was impeached two years later. Atrocities were committed in East Timor after the province voted for independence from the country. There was a huge increase in the number of Islamist political parties, which Suharto had kept firmly in check, and its people suffered barbaric bombing attacks by the homegrown terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.

Surrounded by supporters, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos (C), his wife Imelda and his Vice President Arturo Tolentino make the "V" sign for victory of the presidential elections, 16 February 1986 in Manila at the Malacanang Palace. (Photo by HO / AFP)
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The liberal interventionists and neoconservatives were both wrong

From that perspective, it is not so much a surprise that democracy did not appear at that time to have delivered good governance to my friend Nur. Nor do I feel in any position to criticise her for taking that view, for without good governance all other freedoms are at risk, and the security of any individual, high or low, cannot be assured.

Another US reporter summoned to an audience with Mr Saied last week appeared to have reached a similar conclusion about Tunisia. “People seemed content to wait and see what the man they had entrusted with their country would do to fix it,” she wrote. “You had to wonder whether democracy the way the West sees it was what many of them had wanted in the first place, or just to live better, with dignity and more freedoms.”

Kind remembrance of authoritarians can involve the use of rose-tinted glasses. I have written in these pages before about the remarkable resurgence of support for the Marcos clan in the Philippines, and the controversial interring of its patriarch, former president Ferdinand Marcos, in the National Heroes’ Cemetery – despite his coming second only to Suharto in the list of corrupt leaders and being reviled internationally.

To think fondly of the Qaddafi era would require similar feats of memory erasure, to put it mildly. The Libyan leader may have started off as something of a visionary whom Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser said reminded him of himself, but he finished up as a deluded narcissist who had long been capable of committing endless brutalities on his people to preserve his own power.

What all this shows, however, is that administrations can acquire legitimacy and the trust and loyalty of their peoples in a number of different ways, including deeply engrained customs and traditions, and superior performance. The ballot box is another means, but not the only one. And if democratically elected governments fail in their basic duties – to grow an economy that truly provides for all, to ensure safety, security and reasonable hope for the future, and at the very least maintain the integrity of the state – then it is no wonder if people look to other models of leadership that they imagine may, in some ways, have served them better in the past.

The liberal interventionists and neoconservatives were both wrong, as has been shown time and again by now. Democracy is not a panacea. Good governance must always come first. So don't be surprised when people make it clear that is what they want, above all else.

Published: August 3rd 2021, 2:30 PM
Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National