Te whetu Orongo

Democracies today die in a much more subtle fashion than they used to.

Steven Levitsky, Harvard political scientist

In his book ‘How Democracies Die’, Steven Levitsky chronicles how the powerful seize power, sometimes through elections, thereafter dissolve the constitution, imprison dissidents, and muzzle the press. He also astutely observes that elected leaders transform the machinery of government to protect their friends and harass and punish their enemies.

In some countries, the constitution is dissolved through sheer evasion, avoidance, arrogance and disobedience. There is a right way, a wrong way, and a crooked way to do it. In some countries there is the kow tim way, as well, as a banker friend recently pointed out to me.

In politics and economics, a Potemkin village is any construction (literal or figurative) whose sole purpose is to provide an external façade to a country which is faring poorly, making people believe that the country is faring better.

The word “Potemkin” crept into politics and economics after Grigory Potemkin (1739-1791) who was known for his love of women, gambling and material wealth while he designed and constructed historically significant buildings in St. Petersburg, Russia, which pleased Catherine the Great.

Scholars point to Poland and Turkey where authoritarian leaders won elections and turned their countries into “Potemkin democracies”. It is happening in measured doses in many countries supposedly practising democracy. A very dangerous trend that seems unstoppable.

It seems to be happening in the United States today where President Donald Trump is not a monarch above accountability of any kind. Even Trump-sceptical conservatives seem to think so. The Biden-Harris duo, meanwhile, is picking up speed.

Potemkin democracies thrive very well in countries where there is a subjugated and willing voter population, vast material wealth to be made and shared by the elite and powerful politicians managing the affairs of state, especially billion-dollar mega-projects, and a permanent hand in the till.

Potemkin democracies also do very well in a climate where the police force is beyond investigation, reproach, control, and restraint necessitating appropriate punishment to the offenders. Apparently, such constraints are intrusive and counter-productive to “good police work”.

Admittedly, authoritarianism sprouts, thrives and flourishes in parliamentary democracies too. I have always believed that the key to preventing Potemkin democracies reposes squarely and entirely with the voting public.

Gandhi effectuated the first Brexit through non-violence and non-cooperation. The “bandh” worked wonders. Civil disobedience won the day because it flouted no civil or criminal laws. Ballot, not the bullet.

The Bersih Movement made me return to my beloved country when hope seemed like a shining beacon on the hilltop of true-blue liberty. That hope is still shining bright. I still see it. Isn’t an optimist a recycled pessimist?

Potemkin democracies depend on the elected elite to subvert the rule of law and pervert the course and cause of justice through wilful arrogance and audacity. The judiciary plays a hand in this by sheer obedience and pliancy.

The day will dawn when judges could be protected by a judicially selected and appointed praetorian guard outside the ambit, control and jurisdiction of the federal police subservient to the executive. That is the meaning and manifestation of judicial independence.

Judges today have no power of arrest, trial and punishment through imprisonment unless two different government agencies are summoned to step into the judicial process subtly jettisoning judicial independence.

Potemkin democracies are very adept at misinformation and propaganda. They are equally effective in making laws and having their appointed men and women interpret the law behind a black gown. Why it was never a white gown is beyond me.

The only way a Potemkin democracy could be stopped in its tracks is for the voting public to think different. If the government is represented by, say five million loyal salaried people, the rest of the adult population perhaps twice or thrice this many could use their numerical superiority for people-centric advantage and benefit.

Malaysia today stands at the crossroads of irreversible reform if and when young professionals step in and stand up. Our antiquated laws no longer reflect Malaysian ethos. The Federal Constitution (FC) looks ill-fed, askance, unkempt, bedraggled and hungry.

The FC needs proper nourishment and plenty of exercise. It is not a piece of paper fit only for a tourist ticket for special viewing in a museum. It should become an appropriately amended people’s contract embodying pragmatic Malaysian ideals.

I shudder when I recall George Washington’s observation that “government is force, not law or reason.”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.