Nelson Manrique has touched a nerve with a recent column. The re-election of Correa and Chavez is a dilemma for analysts who have cast these leaders as autocrats, as was the re-election of Evo Morales and Cristina Kirchner. The so-called “bad leftists” – in Jorge Castaneda’s argot – have proven remarkably popular. Reactions have come from Steve Levitsky, Martin Tanaka, Eduardo Dargent, among others. I’m mentioned by Tanaka, so am inclined to add a few thoughts.
Perhaps Manrique should not have rested his case so heavily on survey data of attitudes toward democracy, since we all know that the same data showed the popularity of Fujimori in the 1990s. Democracy is not just a popularity contest. But there are deeper reason for the success of the governments whose democratic credentials have been questioned.
In the first place, they have, by and large, governed well. This is certainly true by comparison with the governments that immediately preceded them. Who can forget the chaos that followed de la Rua’s resignation in Argentina? Or the catastrophic impasse in Bolivia in the middle of the last decade? And does anyone seriously think that any of the leaders of Ecuador over the past 15 years can hold a candle to Correa? Or that Chavez has not governed as well as Caldera or Andres Perez? We forget that these countries went through serious crises before their current governments got them back on track.
And it is not just that they have restored a sense of order, a sense that a better future is possible. They have governed, in contrast to extraordinarily callous neoliberal governments that proceeded them, with a single-minded concern for showing results for the majority of the population. Call it clientelism or vote buying if you like, but they have all tried to redistribute wealth to the benefit of marginalized majorities.
And not just wealth, power too. They have also experimented with a remarkable new repertoire of participatory innovations, from community councils and participatory budgeting to indigenous autonomies and, of course, plebiscitary consultations. These institutionalized mechanisms of popular participation have given citizens a stake in the political order, and in some cases has empowered them in relation to the bureaucracy. I just finished an edited book on this subject, with Eric Hershberg, Ken Sharpe and a great group of scholars from around the hemisphere.
Not only have these governments experimented with new forms of democratic participation, they have largely avoided the kinds of widespread and systematic abuses of rights that characterized authoritarian governments of the past, including the Fujimori regime. It is a gross and ahistorical exaggeration to compare Chavez and Fujimori in these terms, to say nothing of Ecuador and Bolivia. It would also be a gross exaggeration to compare any of the elections that have been held in Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, or Argentina with the Peruvian elections of 2000. Nor have any of these countries had an autogolpe. In every case constitutional reform has been pursued by electoral (albeit plebiscitary) means.
There is simply no valid reason to exclude these countries from the set of democratic regimes in the region. There is, however, reason to exclude them from the set of liberal democracies. And this is the nub of the dispute between Manrique and his critics. The problem with using liberalism as the normative base line is that implies that there is only one type of democratic regime. This blinds analysts to the reasons for the success of the delegative democracies we observe in the region today.
Liberalism is about checking the power of the state, but leaders like Chavez and Correa want the state to do things (redistribute wealth, for example), and that is why their followers support them. In Latin America, the tyranny of the majority has never been the central problem. It is the tyranny of powerful minorities – economically powerful groups, the media, the armed forces, and so forth – that prevents the social change demanded by majorities.
Similarly, liberalism offers a passive view of citizenship. Democracy is about voting. Between elections, citizens should be free to pursue their private interests. But the new participatory mechanisms in the region tap into a collective capacity for self-rule that exceeds the institutions of liberalism.
Let me be clear: I don’t like the way that power has been concentrated by the executive branch of government in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina. I would like to see powerful legislatures and independent courts serve to represent and protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens in these countries. But we have to start making the case for governing more democratically in terms that are more persuasive to the citizens in the region.
We can start by arguing that, in the long run, submissive legislature and politicized courts become obstacles to effective self-government. One of Guillermo O’Donnell’s great insights in his famous article on delegative democracy was that the ostensibly all-powerful delegative leader can quickly become impotent as the institutions of self-rule are eroded by the plebiscitary tendencies inherent in democracies in which mass participation exceeds the capacities of a lawful state. In a forthcoming book I argue that the separation of powers does not make states weak it makes them more powerful. It enhances overall state capacity by mobilizing resources in society for collective action to attain socially desired ends by legally legitimate means.
After all, the common denominator of each of the countries in question is that in none of them has the opposition been able to articulate an attractive alternative. Political scientists, manos a la obra! Our job is to imagine a wider range of possible democracies in which constitutionalism, the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedoms, and full and active participation are brought together in mutually reinforcing ways to make it possible to collectively achieve a better future for our children and our planet.
Published in Samara.
How might we redesign parliament for the 21st century? We can begin by asking what we expect or want from parliament. My own view is that parliamentary government is not well understood and, therefore, it might be wise to elucidate the principles and aims that are already inherent in our institutions, and then see if we can make them work better.
The essence of our system of government is captured by the phrase “parliamentary supremacy.” Today, however, parliament is anything but supreme.
Parliamentary supremacy is the idea that parliament is the source of all legislation. Where our system and presidentialism differ is that the executive branch is selected by the parliament. In principle, this means that the executive is embedded within a larger and more important collegial body. But over time the tail has come to wag the dog. Power has gradually been concentrated—first in the cabinet, and now, increasingly, in the office of the Prime Minister. The main source of this inversion of power is the modern political party.
Today, parliament is a pathetic semblance of its former self. It is an electoral college that chooses the government, which then governs with scarcely any concern for parliamentary debate or procedure. MPs are well-trained yes men and women who do what their party leaders tell them. They have little say over committee assignments, few free votes, and, what is worse, they devote precious little effort to legislation.
The inversion of power has come about because parties—which are increasingly PR firms devoted to permanent campaigns for office—control MPs from the moment they are nominated until the day they retire from public life. MPs are more accountable to their party leaders than to the voters. And voters are fed up.
So, if our aim is to restore parliament to some semblance of its former glory, what kinds of measure might we adopt?
To restore the supremacy of parliament would require the empowerment of ordinary MPs. There are many measures that could move us in this direction. They include more free votes, more opportunities for ordinary MPs to submit legislation, more power in the hands of MPs to decide committee assignments and distribute other perks, more power to select the cabinet and remove the leader, and more influence in decisions like prorogation.
The corollary would be less power in the hands of the Prime Minister. Less power to use confidence votes to discipline the house and caucus, restrictions on the power to dissolve the house, elimination of the routine use of time limits to shut down debate, tough rules to stop the abuse of omnibus laws, less influence over perks, assignments, and appointments, and less control over nominations.
The bottom line: parliamentary supremacy, the cornerstone of our system, demands that we clip the wings of the office of the Prime Minister. The alternative is a slide toward elective autocracy.
The Globe and Mail, January 7, 2013.
Venezuela faces multiple potential crises arising from the illness of President Hugo Chavez. The future of the so-called Boliviarian revolution hangs in the balance.
As a presidential democracy with fixed terms, the Venezuelan constitution of 1999 sets the inauguration for Jan. 10. If Mr. Chavez dies, his vice-president, Nicolas Maduro, temporarily assumes office; but after Jan. 10, the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, must assume leadership and convene new elections within 30 days.
As long as Mr. Chavez has a chance of recovery, his inauguration can be prorogued for 90 days. Moreover, according to the constitution, if the president cannot be sworn into office by the National Assembly, he can be sworn in by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. There has been some speculation that supreme court justices could travel to Cuba so Mr. Chavez could take his oath from his hospital bed. Needless to say, such scenarios inflame the passionate objections of the opposition. “Is Cuba part of Venezuela?” they ask.
Assuming new elections are held, the Boliviarian movement that Mr. Chavez has built over the past decade – a kind of civil-military, multiclass, nationalist-populist coalition, largely led from above, but heavily reliant on extensive popular mobilization, and unified by broadly statist and socialist orientations toward redistribution – would be put to the test. It is possible that mourning the loss of Mr. Chavez could benefit the eventual candidate to replace him (which could presumably be either Mr. Maduro or Mr. Cabello), just as the death of Nestor Kirchner made his widow, Cristina Fernandez, an irresistible candidate in Argentina’s 2007 elections.
The opposition to Mr. Chavez remains fractious and undisciplined. But there are also distinct factions within the regime, and they could split apart if personal ambitions trump common purpose. It is not for nothing that Messrs. Maduro and Cabello pledged to work together in their recent meeting with Mr. Chavez in Havana.
Moreover, elections could easily become a source of conflict and instability if either side decides not to play by the constitutional rules of the game. Under Mr. Chavez, Venezuela has experienced a drastic erosion of the separation of powers, accompanied by an inevitable concentration of power in the executive branch. The temptation to play fast and loose with the constitution will be high. Whether it is possible for the contest for power to be resolved decisively through elections under these conditions is a matter for speculation.
The deepest crisis that chavismo faces, however, is not governmental or even constitutional. Although the changes introduced by Mr. Chavez over 13 years in office have been deep and in many respects irreversible, the extreme personalism of his rule raises the prospect that the entire Boliviarian revolution could unravel without the force of his personality to keep followers in awe and opponents at bay.
Mr. Chavez has built a formidable apparatus of clientelism and patronage politics, involving huge social investments made by “missions” (social projects to improve literacy and health, for example) and “community councils” (self-governing local associations). These projects are designed to bypass a sclerotic bureaucracy, fragile representative institutions – especially political parties – and sub-national governments controlled by opponents. To sustain this system – and prevent it from degenerating into unrestrained corruption or factionalism – requires discipline and unity of purpose at the top and continuing enthusiasm and mobilization from below.
Whether the Boliviarian revolution and its constitutional and political underpinnings can survive will depend on the human qualities of politicians who, until now, have played secondary parts in the unfolding drama, and to whom falls the task of routinizing Mr. Chavez’s charisma. It will also depend on whether the revolution can retain its élan among the masses in the absence of their providential leader. The latter, above all, will decide the denouement of the multiple crises of chavismo.
It takes more than good laws and institutions for democracy to flourish. It also takes good people—good citizens and leaders.
And yet a lot of good people would never go into politics. They don’t like the toxic levels of partisanship. The don’t like the intrusive media scrutiny. And they won’t pay the high personal costs of the political life.
Politics has become a despised profession, not a noble calling. How can this be changed?
Let’s begin by asking, what makes someone a good politician? Is it a commitment to the public good? Or an instinct for power? Must a politician have a passion for politics? Or is it all of those things?
Of course all politicians tell us they want what is best for the public. None will ever say they want power. And we would never vote for a politician who said “I want to be elected because I like the salary, pension and benefits, the opportunities to travel and meet interesting people, and the trappings of power!”
Maybe our cynicism about politicians comes from the inauthenticity and hypocrisy that accompanies a job in which, in the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate, under the harsh glare of the TV cameras, you must always right and your adversary must always be wrong. You are always motivated by the public interest, while your adversary is motivated by base and unworthy aims.
We admire people who have the heart to make sacrifices. We admire people who have the brains to do the right thing. We admire people who have the courage of their convictions. “No heart, no brains, no courage – guys, why haven’t you gone into politics?” says a cartoon of Dorothy talking to the tin man, the scarecrow, and the lion.
We see our politicians as flawed because they seem to lack character. Polls show that we don’t think politicians are honest. We don’t feel well represented. We are unhappy with our parties. We don’t like our leaders.
I want to suggest that our democracy is in crisis not because our institutions are bad, but because we’re not doing enough to cultivate the character, judgment, and virtue necessary for our democracy to flourish.
Let me give you an example. Consider the job of the typical MP. She must balance the needs of constituents, the voice of her own conscience, the demands of her region or language or ethnic group, passion for issues, and a commitment to the legislative process.
To do that well demands not only heart, brains, and courage, but also empathy, judgment, a spirit of compromise, a capacity for deliberation, and the moral will and skill to do what is right for her self, her caucus, her constituents, and her country. That is a big job.
But what do we see? We see the circus antics of question period. We see legislation rammed through parliament with closure imposed to limit debate. We see MPs unable to perform even the most perfunctory oversight of the financial business of the nation. We see parliament reduced to an electoral college. We see ordinary MPs who no longer even think of themselves primarily as legislators.
Let’s be frank, political parties are a big part of the problem—all the parties. Party discipline has become excessive. Party leaders have more control over MPs than voters. The party line matters more than the conscience of the MP or the will of her constituents. There are few free votes, few non-partisan initiatives. The non-confidence convention is used by government to stifle and shorten debate. And the energy of the opposition is no longer harnessed to ensure government does what is right for the country as a whole.
Parties have become more powerful as electoral campaigns have become permanent, not episodic. Partisanship is no longer set aside in the interest of governing well. As a result, the spirit of compromise is destroyed. The capacity to build bridges is lost. Empathy is replaced by enmity; listening by shouting; deliberation by dictat.
American style hyper-partisanship and negativity has begun to turn us into an angry and polarized nation. Rather than persuade you to vote for me, I try to discourage you from voting by demeaning my adversary. That’s called voter suppression. In extreme cases it is illegal, as in fraudulent robocalls.
But before we place all the blame on parties and politicians, perhaps we should ask whether we’ve grown too complacent with the idea that as long as we have competitive elections, democracy will be fine. “Elections are war by other means” say our most cynical pundits. No, they’re not. Democracy is about citizenship not just elections. And citizenship demands public spiritedness, a capacity for compromise, care for others, a willingness to sacrifice for the good of all.
But we can’t ask for great leaders if we’re mediocre citizens. And what is our duty as citizens? In the first place, to vote. This simple act is at the heart of the democratic process. Yet voting turnout, as we’ve heard, is declining, especially among youth.
We have no business complaining about our democracy if we don’t vote. So I have a modest proposal. One answer to voter suppression and low turnout is to make voting mandatory. Paying taxes is mandatory. It is mandatory to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Is it such a stretch to ask for voting to be mandatory?
Some might ask why they should bother to vote. After all, all politicians are the same — right? What people who say that are really telling us is they don’t have the discernment, or weren’t paying enough attention, to know the difference between the politicians competing for their votes. With mandatory voting, you’d have to pay attention. You’d have to cultivate the skills for citizenship, which takes practice and learning by doing.
But voting is not enough. A flourishing democracy demands active citizenship. How? There are lots of ways to get involved. Join any of a large number of groups promoting democratic causes: Apathy is Boring, Samara, Big Money Out, Fair Vote BC, Lead Now, the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Your Country, Your Constitution. Join a party or a movement.
At the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, we recognize that universities could do more to help prepare people for public life. We want to work with schools and local governments. And we’re even exploring the idea of creating a training ground for future leaders and a space for democratic experimentation.
When the challenge is to be better citizens and leaders, the ultimate answer is for each of us to look at what we are doing — as educators, students, business people, professionals, workers or farmers, civil servants — and to ask how could we contribute more to the public good. We need to cultivate the skill to deliberate and act in the public interest, to hone our capacity for empathy and dialogue, to discern opportunities for compromise, and find the will to make a difference.
In this respect, UBC’s motto is apt: Tu um est. It is up to you. It is up to all of us.
National Post, July 13, 2012.
Watching the video of Stephen Harper calling Calgary the greatest city in the greatest country of the world reminded me of a scene from Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, in which a member of parliament for the little town of Mariposa arrives by train from Ottawa. “Most of the time,” wrote Leacock, “John Henry Bagshaw had to be at Ottawa (though he preferred the quiet of his farm and always left it, as he said, with a sigh).”
We like our politicians to be parochial, and they know it. It was no gaffe when former speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O’Neill pronounced all politics is local.
Stephen Harper was elected by the good people of Calgary Southwest, not by the electorate at large. Parochialism is built into our system. We expect our politicians to have the nation’s interests at heart, but were also relieved to know that they are like us. And most of us are a pretty parochial lot.
There is something reassuring about the idea that Jean Chrétien loves Shawinigan, or that Paul Martin lives on his farm in the Eastern Townships. We elect our leaders to the House of Commons, not the House of Cosmopolitans. Cosmopolitans don’t generally fare well in politics. Think of Michael Ignatieff.
So Harper feels patriotic about Canada and loves the city where he was elected. Big deal.
The real question is whether our politicians know how to balance parochial and national interests. In this sense, there is another subtext to Harper’s proclamation. For years the West has complained that Canadian prime ministers governed as if the country were composed of Quebec and Ontario. Now we seem to have a federal government that thinks that what is good for Alberta is good for the country.
I have no problem with the centre of political gravity shifting away from Upper Canada. Maybe the fork has to be bent to be made straight again.
But balancing parochial and national interests demands a kind of wisdom from politicians that is learned through practice. It takes ongoing and often difficult dialogue. It takes balance and judgment. The role of parliament is precisely to transform the narrow self-interest of politicians and their constituencies into something more ennobling and encompassing.
In recent years we have seen parliament diminished by the overweening executive power of the prime minister. To be sure, the problem began long before Harper. Harper’s love of Calgary would be more dignified if all members of parliament could be as passionate about their constituencies and equally able to reconcile their love of their neighbours with their service to the country.
From the Tyee, April 20, 2012.
NDP victories in Port-Moody Coquitlam and Chilliwack-Hope expose the vulnerability of the Liberal Party and Premier Christy Clark. The rise of the BC Conservative Party has divided the centre-right vote.
The landslide for former mayor Joe Trasolini in Port-Moody was no surprise. He “could have won as a Marxist-Leninist candidate” tweeted Mario Canseco, of Angus Reid.
But the disappointing third-place showing by BC Conservative candidate John Martin in Chilliwack-Hope is good news for the premier, who can still make the case that the Liberals remain the party of free enterprise. “If you care about free enterprise in British Columbia,” Clark warned before the by-elections, “remember this, in 1991 and in 1996, Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark were elected because there was a split in the free enterprise vote.”
Add Gwen O’Mahony, the new NDP MLA for Chilliwack-Hope, to that list.
Conservative leader John Cummins is not buying Clark’s line. It is not just that the Liberals need to articulate why conservatives should vote for them. More importantly, Cummins knows that his main obstacle to power is the Liberals not the NDP. He complains about the “drift to the left” of the BC Liberals, yet admits he voted NDP in 2009. That’s not inconsistent. The Liberals, not the NDP, block his path to Victoria.
The rise of the BC Conservatives makes an NDP victory in 2013 much more likely. Cummins believes that polarizing the party system is worth it in the long run, however, because his goal is to create the conditions for the rise of a more conservative right.
Bit of breathing room for Clark
The fact that the combined Liberal and Conservative vote in Chilliwack-Hope exceeded the vote for the NDP will renew pressure on the two parties to come together. But my sense is that the Conservatives have a longer-term game plan in which an NDP victory in 2013 is worth it as long as the Liberal Party collapses.
Whether that happens depends on the leader. The weak performance of the Conservatives in Chilliwack-Hope gives the Liberals some — but only a little — breathing room. Calls for the removal of Christy Clark may be more muted. But if she wants to win, she has to do something to define herself more clearly. Is she a family-friendly, moderate liberal leader of the ilk of, say, Paul Martin? Or is she a tough-minded pro-business conservative like Stephen Harper?
It is not enough to oppose the NDP bogeyman. That does not cut it with moderates or conservatives. A centre that does not know where it stands will not hold in a polarizing party system.
From The Mark, April 17, 2012.
Think of the biggest policy failures you can imagine. Policies that make worse the very problems they’re designed to solve. Policies so perverse that they actually give people a stake in the failure of those policies. Policies that last for decades in the face of overwhelming evidence of their failure.
Such a policy would be what my pre-teen son would call an “epic fail!”
There are two such fails in the Americas today. The first is the pathetically lame U.S. embargo on Cuba. After 50 years, the Cuban gerontocracy remains firmly entrenched in power.
The embargo has not just failed to end the dictatorship in Cuba – it has actually propped it up. It provides the regime with the best possible argument for refusing to liberalize: Its leaders warn that as soon as they open up the country, Miami Cubans will flood back to reclaim their property and privileges. A Cuban official once told me that Cuba has no need for opposition parties – the Miami Cubans fill that role.
So, why does this failed policy continue? The answer lies in U.S. electoral politics: No president is prepared to defy the Miami Cuban voters in the crucial electoral battleground state of Florida.
The second epic fail in the Americas today is the war on drugs. Decades of prohibition have failed because they have attacked the drug scourge on the supply side while utterly failing to reduce demand. The entire burden is on enforcement, while prohibition policies ensure that the price of drugs remains high. The result is that thousands of Latin Americans are dying in a hopeless “war on drugs” with no end in sight.
Yet, the policies continue. Billions of dollars have created vested interests in the continuation of the so-called “war,” and politicians are reluctant to consider alternatives for fear of seeming to be weak.
These are monumental policy failures.
But consider this. Canada has never supported the U.S. embargo. Our country has maintained normal diplomatic relations with Cuba since 1959. Nor has it ever been a major advocate of the war on drugs. In fact, the Insight program in Vancouver, recently upheld by the Supreme Court, offers a health-based approach to drug addiction.
Yet there we were, at the Summit of the Americas, in Cartagena, Colombia, standing shoulder to shoulder with the U.S., refusing to include Cuba in future summits. Instead of supporting alternatives to the failed drug war, there we were backing U.S. prohibitionist policies. Indeed, Canada has been quietly ramping up co-operation with the U.S. military to fight drug gangs in Mexico and Central America.
This is precisely why Canada is finding itself out of step with the hemisphere, and why we’re increasingly excluded from diplomatic fora in the region. We may look back on the summit in Colombia and see it as one of the biggest miscalculations Canada and the U.S. have made in the Americas. We have underestimated the willingness of Latin American nations to say that the emperor has no clothes. We’re standing beside a naked giant and insisting that he is beautifully attired. What a fail!
The following commentary was published in Spanish in Politai, an initiative of political science students in the Catholic University in Peru.
The autogolpe of April 5, 1992, was an important event, and not only for Peru. As a political scientist, I opposed the autogolpe and worried about how the concentration of executive power would undermine Peru’s democratic regime. I was always conscious, however, that assessing the autogolpe was not a straightforward matter. The question of whether the autogolpe was necessary and justified was (and is) open to multiple, reasonable interpretations. I was frankly much less impressed than many other observers by the fact that Fujimori won overwhelming support from the public, at least as revealed by public opinion polls and anecdotal evidence. There are many petty dictators who have enjoyed moments of glory in the eyes of the public, and some vicious criminal regimes have started with widespread approval. What impressed me was that the support for Fujimori was not only understandable but, arguably, reasonable. That is to say, the Peruvian public had many good reasons in the early 1990s to feel desperately besieged by the twin evils of Shining Path violence and catastrophic economic troubles.
Of course, like many others, I believed that the Shining Path was already in deep trouble even before Abimael Guzman was captured. That event was a colossal stroke of luck that seemed to retrospectively justify Fujimori’s actions. Nevertheless, I could easily see how so many Peruvian citizens desperately wanted to see the kind of energetic leadership in the executive branch of government that Fujimori seemed to offer. Fujimori seemed to have the interests of the nation at heart, and he also seemed was to take difficult decisions necessary to place Peru on another course—something that previous governments were unable to do. Whether in terms of the struggle against the Shining Path, or the management of the economy, Fujimori showed leadership even if one did not agree with his policies. Moreover, he was attentive to the needs of those who brought him to power, and while he made peace with the business community, the Church, and political elites, he did not forget that the key to his power was his strong connection to a broad swath of the electorate.
At the same time, it is critical that we not whitewash the Fujimori regime. Nobody who supported him can play innocent. It is not as if the Peruvian public did not know about the abuses and atrocities committed by the regime. The victims were not just collateral damage. The bodies that were left behind in the massacres in Barrios Altos and La Cantuta were not simply unfortunate casualties of an otherwise ruthlessly efficient strategy of counter-insurgency. They were very much the intended effects, and they were welcomed. I cannot remember how many arguments I had with friends and colleagues at this time. I would often as ask if Abimael Guzman’s human rights deserved to be respected. The resounding answer was “no,” and that says just about all you need to know to understand why Peru had a decade of unjust and illegal trials and other judicial abuses of power under Fujimori.
And so the paradox of the autogolpe was that it was an event that occurred within a functioning, albeit battered and badly discredited democracy, and it occurred with widespread backing from a beleaguered public; and yet it created a monstrous system in which fundamental rights and freedoms were abrogated and the abuse of power ran rampant, a regime that undermined the most basic principles upon which democracy rests.
The question that emerged was, in some ways, as old as political theory itself. Who guards the guardians? In a democratic context, this means “Who will protect democracy when the guardians (the people) are willing to allow a dictator to rule on their behalf?” My answer, which is the answer of virtually every serious thinker from Machiavelli to the present, is that you cannot surrender your democratic rights and freedoms without losing them. When the people are willing to turn a blind eye to injustice – nay, to aid and abet a tyrant in acts of oppression – then democracy is lost. I predicted that the Fujimori regime once established could not persist as a democracy, that ultimately it would fail, and there would be a transition to a new regime. That transition would not happen democratically. In this sense, the autogolpe simply serves as yet another in a very long line of stories (we could go back to the Gracchi brothers in Rome, to Hitler in the 1930s) that show us the simple truth of Lord Acton’s dictum: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
It is, perhaps, a testament to the lack of appreciation for the basic truths of politics that these ideas were so hotly contested in the 1990s. Every generation believes it has reinvented politics anew; every political community thinks it can defy the rules that govern everyone else. As a corrective, the autogolpe in Peru provided a sort of living laboratory in which to observe, yet again, the inherent danger in the concentration of executive power, especially when accompanied by broad public approval. It breathed new life into the discussion of constitutional underpinnings of modern democracy, and some of the best work on the autogolpe helped us to understand that there is more to democracy than elections. The autogolpe became a point of reference for the discussion of electoral authoritarianism, the idea that there can be elections (not free and fair, but not entirely meaningless either) in authoritarian regimes. In fact, some of the most robust authoritarian regimes we have known (like the PRI in Mexico) routinely hold or held elections. The difference between a democratic and an authoritarian system must be more than elections. And it is not just that elections have to be free and fair, which is no trivial matter, but that in order to attain this there are constitutional underpinnings of a democracy that must be respected.
For me, personally, the autogolpe induced in a sustained interest in the topic of the constitutional separation of powers. My research focused on the way in which the events of April 5, 1992, created a democracy without the separation of powers. This is, at least under conditions of modern mass society, an oxymoron. Here is why. In a democracy, the people form a self-governing community of free and equal citizens under the law. That, at least, is the ideal. In practice, the will of the people takes the form of the law, and the mechanism for translating will into law is the legislature. It is the job of the legislature to produce the general rules that, in the view of the lawmakers, correspond to some sense of the public good. It falls to the judiciary to interpret what these general rules should mean and how they apply in particular cases. In order for the legislature to be a genuinely representative body, that is to say, a body that speaks for the political community in a way that reflects both its diversity and its unity, it must be able to deliberate about what is right for all citizens in a general sense. The independence of the judiciary is the institutional guarantee of impartiality in the application of the law, and this requires freedom from political influence and meddling. Working together, a representative legislature and an independent judiciary provide the legal framework necessary to ensure that all actions by all government officials are in compliance with the rule of law – above all the actions of the state’s coercive agents.
The autogolpe disrupted this system, and replaced a dysfunctional, reactive, weakly representative legislature with an even weaker legislature that operated at the behest of the executive branch; and it transformed a corrupt and inefficient judiciary into a political instrument of executive rule based on provisional judges and politically controlled judicial committees. Such a system could function within a sort of institutional masquerade of democracy provided the key features that gave it internal coherence remained in tact, and as long as it did not have to deal with massive public opposition. But opposition only mattered to the extent that the regime was internally divided, which it was not until the end. It was not effective opposition that ultimately brought the regime to its knees, but the internal divisions that emerged once the intricate web of blackmail and bribery managed by Montesinos was exposed. It was this informal web of power that held the regime together after the constitutional framework was effectively dismantled. I say effectively dismantled because it is clear that Fujimori’s goal was never to create a robust constitutional order. He dismantled the constitution of 1979, but not to replace it with something better. Fujimori, in this respect, is not like Chavez or Morales, and certainly not like Gaviria. He did not seek to build a lasting constitutional order but rather to perpetuate himself in power.
We can learn a lot from the experience of the autogolpe of 1992. I believe that the main thing we should learn (or rather re-learn) is that democracy means not just the momentary and fluctuating expressions of the will of the people but a lasting commitment to living together in an egalitarian and law-based self-governing community. The laws should reflect enduring values and interests, a sense of what is generally just for all. Only when people learn to live together under laws that are just, both because they correspond to the will of the people and because have been formulated through democratic procedures that are inclusive and fair, can we properly speak of a self-governing community. And herein lies the biggest lesson of all. That a congress could be closed, and a judiciary purged and stacked, not only with impunity but also with the enthusiastic applause of the nation, suggests the degree to which the vital institutions of democracy lacked any public support. That is certainly a cautionary tale to heed as Peru and other democracies look to the future.
From The Tyee, 27 March 2012.
Now that Tom Mulcair is leader of the NDP, what happens to the proposal for cooperation among the opposition parties?
The idea is not dead, because the logic of the single member constituency electoral system punishes parties that fail to coordinate when they compete for the same space on the ideological spectrum.
That said, the NDP strategy under Mulcair is to expand the NDP rather than build alliances (quiet discussion among the leaders, behind closed doors, may still happen). The NDP will try and occupy the space historically occupied by the Liberals. And Bob Rae is not a good person to win that space back: his credentials are that he managed one of the worst provincial NDP governments ever.
If the Tory government continues to govern as if it has the support of a majority of the electorate, it is possible that this will generate enough backlash to enable the NDP to win a majority government in 2015. But that is not likely as long as the economy is in reasonably good shape. The robocalls scandal is a wild card, but so far has not done major damage. Even if the NDP and Liberals do not agree on any formal cooperation, however, they have to think in terms of how they might govern together as a coalition. These are the issue that partisans should be worrying about. But let’s look at the situation through less partisan lenses.
Cullen’s vision versus Mulcair’s
Nathan Cullen mounted an impressive leadership bid based on the idea of being less partisan. Both Cullen and Mulcair represented a change in the NDP — and shift away from the party establishment represented by candidates like Brian Topp or Peggy Nash. But there the similarity ends. Mulcair will expand the base of the party and thereby give it a less clearly defined social democratic identity. Social democrats have never won by sticking with their core constituency — they have to expand beyond organized labour and encompass a broader swath of the middle class. That was the process begun by Jack Layton, and it will continue with Mulcair. It is not about rhetoric or even policy so much as who the party wants to represent. It wants to represent the centre as well as the left.
Cullen wanted a broad progressive movement too. He called for cooperation to select join candidates. Much of the appeal of Cullen’s thinking was that it was new and refreshingly less adversarial. Mulcair may try and avoid getting nasty with the Tories, but he is adversarial by nature. A big danger is that he will try to whip the NDP into a more disciplined machine — something that operates a little bit more like the Tories under Harper. That would be too bad because the last thing Canadian policies needs is more party discipline, more sheep in the House of Commons, fewer free-thinking and independent MPs.
The call for cooperation among opposition parties is a call for democratic renewal based on the need for electoral reform. The fact that Cullen was defeated could put these issues on the backburner, but they are not going to go away.
Free the NDP MPs
The truth is political parties are part of the problem in Canadian politics. Some degree of party discipline is good, but too much undermines the deliberative quality of the legislature and weakens the connections between MPs and their constituents.
Mulcair needs to recognize that Canadian politics need to be overhauled. This means putting more power in the hands of riding associations, and giving more power to the ordinary member of parliament. Mulcair noted during the campaign that each region of Canada has its own issues and the national campaign has to be attuned to local issues. He should not forget this now that he is the leader.
Canadian parties need to be more democratic. The NDP convention was a good (if glitchy) exercise in democracy, but the way that party operates between conventions is not very democratic. The level of turnout in voting for the NDP leadership should also worry the party brass. More has to be done to engage members and especially youth.
One of the nice features of Cullen’s proposal for cooperation is that it would have given the riding associations a bigger role in deciding how to approach the next election. Even if cooperation is not immediately on the table, the NDP should involve riding associations in thinking about the strategic dilemma imposed on opposition parties in our electoral system. Convening joint meetings between Liberal, Green and NDP riding associations or groups of members and leaders could help ensure that the hyper-partisanship on the right is not matched by similar negativity in the centre and left.
The final NDP leadership debate exposed stark choices facing the party as it prepares for the next election. Tom Mulcair presented himself as the most natural successor to Jack Layton; he was an architect of the Quebec strategy, which gave the NDP credibility to cast itself as a truly national party and government in waiting. For those New Democrats who want to see Layton’s strategy fully executed, Mulcair is the obvious choice: he is from Quebec, holds the second NDP seat ever won there, and is probably most able to consolidate that position. His strategy would be to expand the NDP beyond its traditional base, and that means throwing out boilerplate language and tailoring the party’s message to diverse constituencies. Not only would this breath life into riding associations, it would help extend the party to places where it currently has few seats, like the West. This he called “modernization.”
The problem with Mulcair is that he is a newcomer to the NDP, having served previously in Jean Charest’s Liberal provincial government in Quebec. Peggy Nash challenged Mulcair on his view that the party needs renewal. Mulcair countered that he does not propose to take the party in a different direction so much as continuing to move forward with Layton’s strategy. Some of the other candidates were skeptical. Brian Topp said Mulcair had been “very critical of the party.” Mulcair responded that at one point the party was strenuously advocating universal daycare – a message that did not resonate in Quebec, which has had such a policy for some time. With respect to the West, his view was that the NDP should do what it did in Quebec: listen to the local constituencies and tailor the message. The NDP, he said, has trees with shallow roots (Quebec) or roots with no trees (Saskatchewan, where the party has won no seats in 4 consecutive elections).
Topp painted himself (and Peggy Nash) as an “unreformed social democrat,” thereby highlighting his loyalty to traditional party commitments. Topp has the big establishment endorsements, including party icon Ed Broadbent; he talked about being with Layton when he wrote his final letter to Canadians. Nash, for her part, has links to the labour movement (auto workers), leaving no doubt about her social democratic bona fides. The two seem like the most likely to benefit if Mulcair stumbles. Ashton also positions herself close to the party activists – attacking Mulcair for not supporting opposition to trade deals – but she lacks gravitas.
The most personal attack on Mulcair came from Paul Dewar who said that Layton was a “happy warrior”; Mulcair, no the other hand, “got the warrior part down” but where was the inspiration?” This got chuckles from the audience, many of whom know of Mulcair’s reputation as a pugnacious and often bad-tempered leader who does not always work well with colleagues, particularly women. One woman I spoke with after the debate said that Mulcair’s smiles did not seem genuine; another said she found him stiff and unnatural (he read both his opening and closing statements). But Mulcair’s answer to Dewar was to say that it is not enough to quote Layton about being “loving, hopeful and optimistic” (which Topp did in his opening remarks), one had to incarnate this by taking the high road and being good, kind, and respectful of the other candidates in the race. He also noted that the point is to win.
The second major cleavage was between those who would work with other opposition parties and those who would not. Ashton struck a partisan note when she said, in her opening remarks, “Liberal, Tory, same old story.” Only Nathan Cullen – and, with some big caveats, Peggy Nash – seemed to be willing to talk about working with the other opposition parties. Both advocate electoral reform because they believe the Tory majority is, in Cullen’s terms, “false” – that is, based on electoral arithmetic that is allows 39 percent of the voters to have an absolute majority of the seats in the House of Commons.
The cooperation issue emerged when Paul Dewar alluded to the Leadnow.ca website where Peggy Nash, in response to a survey on where the candidates stand on cooperation, argued that she would be willing to pool resources with other opposition parties. Dewar noted that this seemed like a change in position and he wanted to know what it meant. Nash responded that she was not endorsing Cullen’s plan for joint NDP/Liberal candidates in key ridings to dislodge Tories, but she saw no reason why Liberals and New Democrats might not, for example, work together on an ad campaign against building more jails or in favour of proportional representation.
Niki Ashton challenged Nathan Cullen on his plan for joint opposition candidates in Conservative held ridings saying there are no shortcuts to forming government. Cullen responded that Tommy Douglas was elected on a CCF and Social Credit ticket, and he insisted that Canadians are not as partisan as people in the NDP often think (there are more members of the Mountain Equipment Coop, he noted, than in any political party). Politics is one thing, partisanship is another, and there is no evidence, he argued, that Canadians won’t accept a different way of doing politics, as revealed by public support for budget deals and past coalitions: “politics is about working together to get things done, and that is what Canadians want” he said. In his closing remark he insisted that the party has both an opportunity and responsibility to do everything it can to prevent another Tory government, which he characterized as a “clear and present danger” to Canada.
In short, there seem to be two cleavages in the current line up of candidates. These cleavages are directly linked to inter-connected risks the NDP faces. The NDP’s orange crush could fizzle if the base in Quebec is not held and expanded westward. Another risk for the NDP is that competition with the Liberal and Green parties could divide the votes needed to form government. In the first-past-the-post system, failure to coordinate is heavily penalized. Worse still, these risks intersect. For the NDP to hold onto its base and grow, it must compete with the Liberals. Yet competition with the Liberals could result in another Tory majority. It could also make it harder to form a coalition in the event that no party wins enough seats to form a majority on its own. This is a tough strategic dilemma for the members of the NDP as they select their next leader.