Challenging Modern Authoritarianism Starts Much Closer than We Think

Challenging Modern Authoritarianism Starts Much Closer than We Think

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On 14th of July, Ershad, as he is commonly known in Bangladesh, passed away at the age of 89. With the passing of this elderly man, many Bangladeshis expressed their sadness and eulogized Ershad with personal and sympathetic words. Indeed, in the last fifteen or twenty years of his life, Ershad had become the national uncle and then the national grandfather, with his charming smile and his talks of poetry and love. Some hailed him for his political leadership and considered him among the greatest of the Presidents in the country.

But Ershad ran an authoritarian military dictatorship in Bangladesh. He had usurped political power after conducting a coup on the then government in 1983. At that time he was the Chief of the Army in Bangladesh. He then added the title of ‘Chief Martial Law Administrator’ to his other ranks and titles. In 1986, Ershad won in a general election considered to be rigged. This “democratically-achieved” political mandate allowed him to rule the country as an autocratic President until his resignation after a popular revolution in 1990. While he did face many challenges in Bangladesh, which was still recovering from the Liberation War of 1971, unfortunately his lasting legacies include removing secularism from the Bangladeshi Constitution and adding Islam as the state religion; allowing registration of the Islamic seminaries and madrassas and thus opening up the doors for Wahhabi Petro-dollars from the Middle East; and poisoning student politics in the universities by introducing guns and money.

Then why was this authoritarian dictator, who regularly used the military to crack down on people, lovingly eulogized at his death? Even though many had labeled him a political king-maker in the past twenty years, in reality he had very little political power. The political party he had created around him truly survives. He had often become a national laughingstock with his various stunts, tantamount to that of a drama queen. To most young people in Bangladesh, the image of him with a coy smile and a rose in his hand is the legacy of this poet-President. How can we forget the authoritarian dictator that he was and the ruthless and problematic policies that he pursued? Perhaps we forget very quickly when it comes to politics.

Or perhaps the situation in which we find ourselves these days make the Ershad days seem not so terribly authoritarian. After all, he had only rigged to win 153 out of 300 seats – not 258 of them. Ershad was a small-time authoritarian leader during the Cold War, and he held on to his illegitimately gained power and controlled the populace with a strong hand. But he was not alone, as there were many authoritarian regimes during those times, and some totalitarian regimes as well. Curiously though, as Robert Kagan has suggested, many of these authoritarian regimes were actually kept under a kind of check by the two superpowers of the time. So in an odd way, these traditional authoritarian leaders and regimes were still accountable to someone.

That is no longer the case in this post-Cold War global system, which has more of a multi-polar than a lone superpower structure. There can be no doubt that we have now entered an era of illiberal, authoritarian regimes around the world. Functioning liberal democratic societies have now receded. From China in the East to Brazil in the West, the world is dotted by increasingly more authoritarian regimes. They vary in their degree of control, but none of them vie to become liberal. When Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly states that “Liberalism is dead,” one must take this statement as a serious attempt to end the post-1945 liberal democratic idea. In these tumultuous times, when the United States and many European countries no longer seem to be the beacon of liberalism, Putin offers an alternative to the existing liberal democratic idea. But his alternative is nothing but authoritarianism, and this isn’t the first time that liberalism and authoritarianism confront each other.

In fact, the battle between liberalism and authoritarianism is age old. In its essence, the idea of authoritarianism is to establish the authority of a select few over the many in society. And as much as we often forget, authoritarianism was the predominant idea for most of the human history. Robert Kagan recently described this history of traditional autocratic societies. Although written with a more Europe-centric approach, as most of Western philosophy and history tend to be, Kagan argues that “when people started to believe that the individual conscience and body should be protected from the intrusion of the church, the state and the community – the idea of liberalism started to materialize.” He argued that the battle between liberalism and traditional authoritarianism remained the prime ideological confrontation ever since.

Replace the term church with religion, and you will also find the history of this battle in South Asia, except perhaps the incidents of liberal groups or societies are less frequent. But liberal values are frequently found in the philosophies of various scholars, thinkers, sages, and minstrels in the region. Most of South Asia struggles even today to move on from the clutch of traditional authoritarianism. This idea is embedded in every part of the society and in every level. If authoritarianism is to impose one’s authority over others, then just imagine how one faces it from the beginning of childhood. Physical violence on children by their parents is quite common even today, and the goal of it is to impose the authority of the parent. In educational institutions, workplaces, and everyday life in South Asia, physical violence, threat, verbal abuse, and aggression are daily occurrences for many. Over simple matters or even because of rumors, the will to impose authority through extreme violence is far too regular of an occurrence. So prevalent is this behavior that we don’t even think of it as authoritarian. In partaking in such acts, we are disrespecting the body and conscience of the other.

When these kinds of authoritarian behaviors are normal, regular, and common place amongst us, is it a big surprise that we don’t question such behaviors from our rulers? Granted, the regimes are the biggest proponents of this illiberal environment, and they continuously work to bolster their own power and authority. A recent Freedom House report has stated that in the “face of rampant corruption, anti-liberal populist movements, and breakdowns in the rule of law,” countries around the world have faced severe pressure in “backsliding and corrosion of their democratic institutions.” They are becoming increasingly illiberal. Furthermore, authoritarian states are “shedding their façade of democratic practice” that they used to maintain before. “With refined and nuanced strategies of repression, the exploitation of open societies and the spread of illiberal policies,” modern authoritarian regimes have succeeded in establishing their authority and increasing their power and influence.

The report finds that democracy and democratic practices around the world have been sliding backwards for many years now. It notes that modern authoritarianism has an “illusion of pluralism that masks state control over key political institutions,” it has a “strong grip on national economy to ensure loyalty,” it controls the media on “certain political subjects and in key sectors but otherwise allow it be appear pluralistic,” it “suppresses NGOs working on human rights and political reform but allows apolitical groups working on public health, education and development issues,” it “legalizes political repression with vaguely worded laws and politically obedient courts,” it uses “selective and typically hidden extralegal force or violence on political dissidents, critical journalists and officials who have fallen from favor,” and it conducts “opportunistic but non-ideological cooperation with fellow authoritarian states in the face of international pressure.” A critical analysis of the modern South Asian countries using these measures will not produce a very happy picture for the liberal, progressive, or democratic idealists.

But the question remains, are we, the people living in these countries, creating an environment through our practice of authoritarian behavior that is conducive for such rampant and flagrant abuse of ourselves by the authoritarian regimes? By creating many small insecurities in our societies, are we assisting to produce the image of the large insecurities that our authoritarian regimes use to justify their rules upon us? Perhaps we do. By tolerating, normalizing, and practicing authoritarian behaviors ourselves throughout our social lives, we undoubtedly decrease the space for liberal values, ideas and practice. The regimes, which are much more powerful than us individuals, use our practices and sentiments for their own benefit and impose control over us. When we forget the harm that an authoritarian leader like Ershad has done to our societies and eulogize him for his shy demeanor and poetic talent, we allow ourselves to be fooled and deceived, and we perpetuate a cycle that keeps deceiving us in return. Authoritarianism is back once again, and we must stand up against it. In addition to standing up in the streets, we also need to address it somewhere closer to us. We should start practicing from our homes the liberal values that respect the body and conscience of the other. That is how we turn this authoritarian tide.

Robert Kagan, “The strongmen strike back,” published on The Washington Post, on 14 March 2019.
Arch Puddington, “Breaking down democracy: Goals, strategies and methods of modern authoritarians,” published by Freedom House, in June 2017.
Anna Luhrmann and Staffan I. Lindberg, “A third wave of autocratization is here: what is new about it?”, published on Democratization, on 30 Jan 2019.

Asheque Haque is an independent researcher on politics and security in South Asia. He can be reached on twitter @ashequeh.

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