An iconoclastic look at personality-based rule in democracies, III [imitation democracies]

April 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

A parodic take by Florian Bieber, acting as a 21st-century Machiavelli, gives instructions for a hypothetical Balkan Prince. They describe very effectively the situation in the region next on the EU expansion radar:

1. Control the elections, not on election day, but before
2. Control the media, make sure you have many voices, which all say the same and have your junk-yard dog
3. Talk about the EU and wanting to join it, but make it hot and cold
4. Talk about fighting corruption and reforms. Talk and talk and jail a few.
5. Solve problems with your neighbours to get praise and create a few to be popular
6. Pick different foreign friends, some will like you for what you are, some what you claim to be
7. Hire your voters. Fire your opponents
8. Rule of Law, your rules, your law
9. Don’t have an ideology, it can only hurt you
10. Promise change, but make sure it stays the same

These are not principles of the EU, but this doesn’t seem to be of serious concern to them. Much criticism is appearing about the lack of interest the EU seems to exercise regarding the democratization of candidate states, yet there is a reverse argument — equally valid — that peace should come above democratic integrity [membership is meant to secure against war]. Let us look quickly into the regional situation.

In terms of personality-based rule in the Balkans, Milo Đukanović seems to be the ideal example of the rules above: formerly of the communist party, in power since 1991 with very limited breaks, & strong allegations that tie him to the Montenegrin mafia & to tobacco smuggling. He was a runner-up, beside Orbán, for Corruption’s Person of the Year 2014 [awarded to Putin, of course] according to the Organized Crime & Corruption Reporting Project. The Balkans are a region that has no tradition of democracy, which is evident in the resignation most people show towards Đukanović.

There is even acceptance of direct war involvement, in the case of Aleksandar Vučić, & the sort of nationalist rhetoric which had played a big part in the Yugoslav Wars, in the case of Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović [who will probably never be accused of submitting to the Merkelization of female political dress]. The Macedonian way of control has taken a more intimate approach, to put it mildly; this March, it was revealed that 20,000 people [or 1 per cent of the entire population] was spied on through wire-tapping, supposedly collected for Nikola Gruevski by his cousin & — incidentally — spy chief, Sašo Mijalkov. The accusation was made by Zoran Zaev, opposition leader from the Social Democrats, to make the whole affair more “personal”. Of Erdoğan, we will keep silent.

What is the problem, exactly, with having a personality-driven political system? To begin with, the political sphere closes almost entirely. It detracts from political problems by focusing on private stories, especially gossip or uncomplimentary photographs, of politicians. Identification of the leader with the state as a whole, the way monarchs once were, is an act of totemizing leadership & just one step away from holy wars with truly empty icons for flags. A coherent ideology seems to come out of the worship, some would argue. Hiring ministers & bureaucrats on the basis of mutual loyalty is also a custom, if not an inevitability. Traditional cleavage politics vanishes. Excessively long presidencies occur &, not only during the presidency but also after, replacements are not manifest or not sufficient. These traits all contribute to a weakening of democracy & a solidification of unified power.

Now what about alternative forms of governance? We have to leave the territory of Europe for an insight. On May 25, 2014, a leader of a very different type was pronounced dead: Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas movement — initially a military force, now a radical democracy in the southern-most Mexican state of Chiapas under the principle of “rule by obeying”. Yet it was Subcomandante Marcos that announced the death himself. Without remorse, the words came:

There will not be, then, museums or metal plaques where I was born and raised. […] There will not be widows or heirs. There will not be funerals, honors, statues, museums, prizes, or anything else that the system does to promote the cult of the individual & devalue the collective. This figure was created & now its creators, the Zapatistas, are destroying it.

Indeed, the eye color & height of Subcomandate Marcos was always changing. He was not a person, but many people [a decade earlier, in 1994, the same multiplicity was already being woven into the identity of Subcomandante Marcos]. The Zapatistas dressed up the figure in a way that would immediately reveal & disguise: with a ski-mask, military cap, & smoking pipe — a caricature of leadership & celebrity culture all at once. Members took turns at donning his heroic outfit [curiously, never yet a woman]. Of course, the death of a false leader did not pronounce an end for the Zapatista movement. It was actually another strategy of showing the irrelevance of individuality when it comes to political rule. To replace the dead Subcomandante Marcos, the “hologram” now goes by the name of Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano, to commemorate a killed fellow Zapatista, & has added a pirate’s eyepatch to the get-up.

It may seem like a joke that never ends, but they will continue to have the last laugh so long as society continues to legitimize personality-based rule in state power. It should be clear by now that not only is this incompatible with democratic principles, it also has many dangerous repercussions — the worst of which is resignation or not knowing otherwise. Certainly, the survey of leaders in this piece & the two earlier posts has relied almost exclusively on surface observations but this is not only because the series is already over-long. These people don’t deem deep consideration, for it is not individuals that rule in a democracy. It shouldn’t be so, at least.

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