By Mike Ozekhome
Last week, we concluded our discourse on democracy as a form of government. Today, we shall x-ray the meaning, concept, causes and the possibility of having elective dictatorship in governance.
MEANING OF DICTATORSHIP
In all countries of the world, you won’t find a dictator who calls himself a dictator. Instead, dictators bear ordinary titles such as president, emperor, great leader and similar monikers. That’s because ‘dictator’ is a pejorative term assigned to certain rulers by other nations, particularly the developed nations of the West – that is, countries with thriving economies – such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and many others.
To be considered a dictatorship means that a country is known to be run by one person without any checks and balances on his/her power. Dictators make unilateral decisions that affect their countries without having to consult any other branch of government. That is because there is no other branch of government that is not controlled by the dictator. Human nature being what it is, dictators do not rise to power for the good of their nations (though, they usually claim otherwise). They seize power to benefit themselves, their families and their close political allies.
Dictators usually come to power through some kind of violent struggle, rather than the peaceful passage of power that we take for granted in the United States. In cases such as the late Kim Jong-il in North Korea, the ruler is even worshiped as a demi-god.
CONCEPT OF DICTATORSHIP
The concept of dictatorship, in its origin and evolution, may be better appreciated both as a complementary and protective constitutional device and as a complete antithesis to the democratic constitutional state. Thus, Carl J. Friedrich (1937), in referring to the ancient Roman model, makes a distinction between constitutional and unrestricted dictatorship. Franz L. Neumann (1957, p. 248) comments that dictatorship may arise and function as “implementation of democracy,” “preparation for democracy,” or the “very negation of democracy.” Plato and Aristotle saw the origin of tyranny in the weaknesses and degeneration of democracy, and political theory has been based on the polarity of democracy and dictatorship ever since. However, the view that a revolutionary dictatorship necessarily presupposes the existence or the counterpart of a democratic constitution is disputed. Answers may be provided by the recent sociological and political research into the historical process of transition from a constitutional, restricted dictatorship to an unrestricted, total dictatorship.
CAUSES OF DICTATORSHIP
The inability to function and the internal weakness of democracy are undoubtedly among the main causes of the establishment of dictatorial rule. The totalitarian communist system of the Soviet Union arose in consequence of the crumbling away of tsarist autocracy, hastened along by a mass movement. In general, it can be shown that unresolved social tensions and economic crises, together with the undermining of constitutional order and the development of undemocratic power aggregates, are among the conditions that give rise to dictatorial regimes.
POSSIBILITY OF HAVING AN ELECTIVE DICTATORSHIP IN GOVERNANCE
Over the years, the executive arm of government has always been seen as the primary source of tyranny, and in Britain the Parliament was developed to control its power. After centuries of struggle, this control was finally achieved in the nineteenth century by making the executive government responsible to the Parliament.
The growth of disciplined political parties in the twentieth century has reversed this responsibility, and the executive government can now often control the parliament, resulting in a form of elective dictatorship.
There is nothing new about the concept of an elective dictatorship. After all, nearly 2500 years ago, the Roman Commonwealth instituted the office of dictator, the incumbent to be chosen by the Senate to deal with crises such as war, sedition and crime, which were too difficult for the two annually-elected and often mutually antagonistic consuls to deal with. The dictator initially held office for six months.
The Nazi government of Adolf Hitler is an extreme example of a modern elective dictatorship, but Hitler was elected and his dictatorship was legal under the Weimar Constitution. The Weimar Republic had responsible government, with a Chancellor as head of government. The president-the aged Field Marshal Hindenburg at the time of Hitler’s accession-had considerable authority, including dictatorial power if public order and security were threatened.
The Weimar Parliament was elected by proportional representation, with consequent difficulty in forming stable governments.
The constitutional tradition and the rule of law are much more firmly established there than they were in the Weimar Republic. Nevertheless there are disturbing common patterns in all elective dictatorships.
In modern times, attention was first called to the new elective dictatorships by Lord Hailsham, in a famous address on the BBC in 1976. He later wrote:
Disregard the fundamental human values of justice and morality and you will soon turn majority rule into unprincipled tyranny. But in practice, human nature being what it is, every human being and every human institution will tend to abuse its legitimate powers unless these are controlled by checks and balances, in which the holders of office are not merely encouraged but compelled to take account of interests and views which differ from their own.
In pointing to the dangers of an elective dictatorship, Lord Hailsham was in fact echoing the views of a long tradition of political theorists, dating back to the times of ancient Greece. Even the expression ‘elective dictatorship’ was similar to Thomas Jefferson’s description of a type of government as elective despotism.
He wrote: The concentrating [of all the powers of government] in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation, that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. One hundred and seventy-three despots would surely be as oppressive as one … An elective despotism was not the government we fought for.
The founders of the United States of America, particularly Jefferson and Madison, brought remarkable intellectual rigour and imagination to the problems of creating a new democracy. They may have been somewhat misled by the French philosopher Montesquieu, who thought that the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial powers was the secret of the success of the English system after 1688, and the American system was modeled on that principle. ‘The Americans of 1787’, wrote Bagehot, ‘thought they were copying the English Constitution, but they were contriving a contrast to it.’ In fact what Montesquieu was emphasising was the importance of the independence of the judicial system from political forces (unlike the situation in France), and this separation of powers is common to both the British and American systems.
As Lord Acton put it: ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Edmund Burke was also aware of the dangers of untrammeled power. Two hundred years ago he wrote that ‘in a democracy the majority of citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppression upon the minority.’ His views were echoed nearly a century later by J.S. Mill when he wrote of:
‘the evil effect produced upon the mind of any holder of power, whether an individual or an assembly, by the consciousness of having only themselves to consider … A majority in a single assembly easily becomes despotic and overweening, if released from the necessity of considering whether its acts will be concurred in by another constituted authority. One of the most indispensable requisites in the practical conduct of politics, especially in the management of free institutions, is conciliation: a readiness to compromise; a willingness to concede something to opponents, and to shape good measures so as to be as little offensive as possible to persons of opposite views.’
He went on to say that, to control a government, it was essential to:
‘throw the light of publicity on its acts; to compel a full exposition and justification of all of them which anyone considers questionable’.
This attitude was totally different to that of Dicey three decades later. Dicey believed that the true source of the life and growth of the British Constitution was ‘the absolute omnipotence, the sovereignty of parliament’. It must be admitted, though, that when this sovereign Parliament was prepared to take action with which Dicey disagreed-as in Home Rule for Ireland, his respect for the Constitution seemed to vaporize. He recommended a referendum (so much for the sovereignty of Parliament) and, if a majority voted for Home Rule, he was prepared to see armed insurrection (so much for respect for the British Constitution).
None of the countries above has anything approaching responsible government in Bagehot’s sense, though all pretend they have. What they have is party government, where the party which wins the majority of seats in the lower house forms the government and its leader become prime minister. The government is responsible, not to the parliament, but to the caucus of the government party MPs. The lower house merely registers the laws proposed by the government, after discussions with the government party caucus. The caucus relies for its electoral success on the party organization, which in some of the parliaments may give orders to the parliamentary party.
There are also other constraints. The doctrine of the sovereignty of parliament, under which its enactments cannot be struck down by any court, now applies only in New Zealand. Canada and Australia are federations, with entrenched constitutions. The powers are divided between the federal and state governments, and any disputes are decided by the courts. The UK is a de facto provincial member of the European Federation, with laws enacted by its Parliament liable to be overridden by European Union laws on certain designated subjects, and disputes resolved by a Union court.
These restraints still leave formidable and effectively unreviewable powers in the hands of a government which controls the lower house. The only remaining barriers to party despotism are upper houses, but these barriers are of very uncertain strength. If the government party has the numbers in the upper house it is really no barrier at all for, except in the UK, where party members of both houses meet in a common caucus where the upper house members are usually heavily outnumbered by those from the lower house. The decisions of this caucus are usually binding on upper house members, even in cases where most of them actually oppose the decision. Cross voting is rare; it is effectively non-existent among Labor members in Australia. The House of Lords was a special case, for most of the peers did not accept party discipline. The answer was inevitable. Exploiting the non-elective character of the House of Lords, governments managed to reduce its power to a mere delaying role.
However, if the government party does not have the majority in the upper house-and this is becoming increasingly common, with four of the six elected upper houses using proportional representation-the upper house can be a formidable obstacle to an elective despotism, reviewing legislation thoroughly, and amending and sometimes rejecting it. Government activities may be closely and critically scrutinized and inquiries held into matters the government does not want investigated. If elected by proportional representation, upper houses can reasonably claim to be more reflective of actual community opinion than a lower house elected by single member constituencies. This claim should be slightly qualified, if only part of an upper house-usually half-retires at each election. This is deliberately done to make the upper house a continuing body, without violent fluctuations in balance caused by temporary changes in public opinion. (To be continued).
There are two sides to every coin. Life itself contains not only the good, but also the bad and the ugly. Let us now explore these.
“Yesterday, I attended a burial of a friend’s grandfather. But their tradition is that at every burial ceremony, an old man would come out and announce the next person to die. So this old man said the first person to leave the burial ground will be the next person to die. Since yesterday, we are still at the burial. Even one elderly man that is over 95years is asking me if my parents won’t be looking for me.
THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK
“Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.” (Plato).