Sunday, May 19, 2013

Authoritarian regime? Not in Dictatorland

I knew I was in for an interesting lunchtime discussion when I heard the words, “I don’t believe in elections.”

This discussion was with several participants from a recent Fulbright Association-Kyrgyzstan seminar called Generation Peace: New Media Technologies for Central Asia. Attendees were from five central Asian countries.

When I questioned the woman about her stance on elections, she backpedaled. Perhaps she had misspoken, or maybe I just didn’t understand. She elaborated on her comment by explaining that elections are inherently flawed and often corrupt, and that the process needs to be changed—not that elections themselves must be scrapped.

Before I could breathe a sigh of relief, however, the anti-election mantle was picked up by two other fellow diners, one a young man and the other a young woman. These young people were both from a central Asian country renowned for its oppressive government. I will call this place Dictatorland.*

First, some background. International human rights NGO’s like Freedom House and Human Rights Watch have been extremely critical of this country for its authoritarian government and consistent suppression of human rights and free speech. “Dictatorland” is consistently ranked near the bottom of the various lists these organizations produce. These criticisms have been echoed by the UN Human Rights Committee.

Both of the young people from Dictatorland said that they support the government, and that “the people” support the government, too. I jumped on the term ”the people.” All the people? Some? How do we know—through the government controlled media?

There have been elections in Dictatorland, but not elections in any Western sense. There are different parties, some representing interests like labor or the environment, I was told, but that none of these parties oppose the current leadership or their major programs. Still, the young lady told me that that these elections did represent the will of the people. She said that the people like the government, and approved of its leaders.

I challenged the young Dictatorland residents by proposing that if the government truly is popular and loved, that they should have no fear of free elections featuring authentic opponents running on an anti-ruling party platform. After all, I pointed out that if Dictatorland held real, contested elections, and if the the ruling party still won, that this would confer legitimacy upon the regime and perhaps help remove its status as an international pariah. The young man responded by saying, “You have a point.”

I left lunch a bit stunned by what I had heard. Were these intelligent, articulate young people typical Dictatorland residents? If they are, then one can reasonably conclude that there is definitely some support for the country’s regime. However, I believe this support is nothing but a house of cards, since it is built upon government manipulation and propaganda.

As we finished up lunch, I asked the young man if I would be welcomed to his country to teach peace journalism. He said yes, of course I would be welcome in his country, although there would be no need for peace journalism there since Dictatorland is completely peaceful. I plan to test his invitation, and see if Dictatorland’s regime will really be as welcoming as he says.

*I won’t name the people involved or their country, just in case it could cause problems for these two at home. This is probably paranoid on my part, but I wouldn’t want to do anything that might cause them problems. A little paranoia is probably a good thing when dealing with dictatorships.

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