R. Rose
May 7, 2010
Who makes a dictator? Pt-2

Some 97 candidates have been nominated to contest the 41 seats at stake in the May 24 elections in Trinidad and Tobago which will determine who will govern that twin-island state over the next five years. Interestingly, among them is a former High Court judge, literally hot off the bench, having resigned his post only last week and announced his candidacy the very next day.{{more}} It is a development unprecedented in the history of jurisprudence in the English-speaking Caribbean and, naturally, has set tongues wagging. Adding to the controversy is the candidacy of a former magistrate, leading to many questions about the integrity of the judicial system in Trinbago. Both Prime Minister Manning and the Chief Justice have publicly raised concerns in this regard, the former making strident attacks on the integrity of the ex-judge, Hugh Volney, as he is due to contest for the opposition People’s Alliance.

In his opening salvo on the political platform, Volney has not only defended his position but accused the ruling PNM government and its Attorney General of undermining the justice system. He has thrown in his lot with the Alliance which justifies its existence on the need to preserve democracy in Trinbago and the need to remove Prime Minister Patrick Manning from power on the grounds that he is a dictator. Manning has even been described by some political opponents as “Mugabe”, a comparison with Zimbabwe’s tyrannical leader Robert Mugabe.

The term “dictator” has been loosely used in several Caribbean countries to describe leaders perceived as practising one-man rule. Perhaps the most infamous example is that of Sir Eric Gairy in Grenada before he was overthrown in March 1979. Gairy who gained notoriety for his violent methods against opponents and to suppress opposition was surely deserving of the description. But in pre-independence St.Vincent and the Grenadines, Robert Milton Cato, who led the country into independence, was accused, perhaps unfairly, by some of those who opposed his administration, myself included, of being a dictator. His haughty appearance and the strong-armed methods, sometimes employed to stifle dissent, certainly contributed to this characterisation, but looking at it objectively, can we honestly say that in our system of Parliamentary democracy, Gairy excluded, that we have had dictators in the classic sense, as for instance Papa Doc in Haiti, or the blood-thirsty generals who have sullied the name “Republic” throughout the history of Latin America?

Can a dictator in that sense emerge in our democracies? If so, under what conditions?

One of the biggest weaknesses of the Westminster Parliamentary model, imposed on us by colonial Britain, and which we seem to cherish as the proverbial “apple of the eye”, is that it is prone to subversion by the paramount leader, the Prime Minister. Though there are constitutional provisions safeguarding rights and freedoms, the reality is that such is the nature of the system, that Cabinet rule becomes Prime Ministerial rule and provides space for the expression of one-manism and the flourishing of dictatorial tendencies. A Prime Minister in these circumstances can become a virtual constitutional dictator, especially in the absence of an organised, conscious and vigilant populace.

The pity is that when the opportunity arises to critically examine such a system, as happened during our six-year constitutional reform process, we, for all kinds of reasons which have nothing to do with the Constitution, rights or freedoms, allow it to go to waste, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Not just Vincentians, mind you, in Trinidad and Tobago, too, in spite of the valiant efforts of a group of “concerned citizens” to stimulate public discussion on constitutional reform, mundane political and social issues ruled the day instead. Manning had even tried to put forward his own version of a new Constitution which would have had the effect of strengthening the rule of the maximum leader.

In all this, the role of the people, in preserving democratic practices and preventing the expression and manifestation of dictatorial rule, is critical. Even leaders themselves, our own Prime Minister Gonsalves being the most prominent example, admit that there ought to be curbs on the powers of the Prime Minister. But it is one thing to say so, remedying it is a horse of a different colour, and no matter how well-intentioned the leader, it cannot be left up to him/her to rectify the situation. The English-speaking Caribbean has experienced, time and again, leaders who have been voted in to office to “save democracy” themselves, years later, being accused of the very same anti-democratic practices that they were meant to correct.

It begins in the curious creature we call the political party where the maximum leader gradually comes to be the object of hero-worshipping and adulation. After a while almost all he/she says is Gospel, all his/her actions, no matter how indefensible become justified. The party, weaned on the Westminster winner-takes-it-all system, brooks no opposition and, within it, dissenters are not just frowned upon, but openly castigated by supporters of the maximum leader. The longer the party and Leader occupy political office, the worse it becomes. Therein lies the genesis of what we come later to call “the dictator”.

In societies where genuine participation of people in the democratic process is limited, it is all too easy for one-manism to rule the roost. Manning was supposed to save Trinbago from the one-man rule of Basdeo Panday. Awash with petro-dollars and spared the penny-pinching of many of his fellow leaders, he became even more aloof and at times seemingly divorced from reality. But the blame is not his alone. It rests as well with the cronyism of the PNM, the weaknesses in the democratic institutions in the society and the society’s failure to address them, the low levels of political consciousness among the people and the tendency to place personal considerations and material accumulation above all else.

Manning, and those of his colleagues similarly accused, if to a lesser extent, can be voted out tomorrow. But that is no guarantee, People’s coalition, or not, that another will not arise. In the long run, it is our unity, levels of consciousness and organisation, vigilance and willingness to take our civic responsibilities seriously which will be the safeguards of our democracy. We, too, have a hand in the making of the so-called dictator.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.