Then, late in the night of Nov. 14, the country’s security services detained and put Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old president under house arrest in what appeared to be a military coup. The whereabouts of his powerful wife, Grace, are unconfirmed.
But with each passing hour, it is increasingly evident that Zimbabwe – a country whose politics I spent uncountable hours grappling with as a State Department official – is poised to see its first real leadership transition since 1980.
Setting the stage for Zimbabwe’s coup
For decades, Mugabe’s grip on Zimbabwe was iron-clad. Even when challenged by an invigorated opposition in 2008, he kept the presidency by entering into a nominal power-sharing agreement. After a decisive electoral victory in 2013, though, he cast the coalition aside.
But as the elderly president grew increasingly frail this year, the power struggle to succeed him became frenzied. Two major camps were vying for power.
Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, who as a soldier fighting for Zimbabwe’s liberation earned the nickname “the crocodile,” represented the old guard. The 75-year-old enjoyed strong military backing, particularly from the veterans’ association, a powerful coalition of former combatants from Zimbabwe’s independence struggle which began in 1964 and ended in 1979.
Last year, the group broke with Mugabe in a public letter, declaring that he had “presided over unbridled corruption and downright mismanagement of the economy, leading to national economic ruin.” Many believed that Vice President Mnangagwa orchestrated the group’s letter as a shot across the bow to warn would-be rivals.
The second camp jockeying to control Zimbabwe before the coup was led by Mugabe’s current wife, Grace Mugabe. At a relatively spry 53, she represented the younger generation, drawing significant support from the ruling party’s loyalist Youth League and from an informal grouping of emerging leaders known as “Generation 40.”
But Grace Mugabe was deeply unpopular among ordinary Zimbabweans, who called her “Gucci Grace” because of her extravagant spending. Plus, she had a reputation for cruelty. Earlier this year, the president’s wife faced accusations of beating a 20-year old South African model with an electric cable.
In September, after Vice President Mnangagwa was emergency airlifted to South Africa due to a strange illness, Grace Mugabe had to publicly deny, on state TV, that she had poisoned her rival.
As recently as early November, it appeared that Grace’s camp had prevailed. President Mugabe sacked Mnangagwa, who fled to South Africa. Mnangagwa, it seems, had a different plan. While in exile, he stayed in touch with his military allies.
On Nov. 14, Mnangagwa’s camp struck back. By the next morning, Mugabe was under house arrest, his wife had reportedly fled to Namibia seeking asylum and Mnangagwa’s cohort appeared to control the country.
Democracy or dictatorship?
At least, that’s the picture right now. Events have moved swiftly in the last 24 hours, and some big questions remain unanswered.
If Mnangagwa officially takes power, the first unknown is whether he will rule by fiat or cobble together a transitional government. It’s unclear whether Mnanangwa and his allies have any real interest in introducing democracy to Zimbabwe. To do so, they would need to hold an election within a reasonable period of time, say six months.
Military coups don’t have a promising track record of ushering in democracy. Recent scholarship finds that while “democratization coups” have become more frequent worldwide, their most common outcome is to replace an incumbent dictatorship with a “different group of autocrats.”
Signals in Zimbabwe are mixed so far. Experts generally describe the latest developments as “an internecine fight” among inner-circle elites and ask two key questions: Which side will prevail, and will violence break out?
In my assessment, the answers hinge on Mnangagwa, a hard-nosed realist and survivor who was critical in securing Mugabe’s four-decade rule. Mnangagwa has an appalling human rights record. Many consider him responsible for overseeing a series of massacres between 1982 and 1986 known as the “Gukurahundi,” in which an estimated 20,000 civilians from the Ndebele ethnic group perished.
More recently, in 2008, civil society groups accused Mnangagwa of orchestrating electoral violence against the political opposition and rigging polls in Mugabe’s favor.
It is also true that Mnangagwa is massively invested in ensuring his continued and unfettered access to power, which has proven highly lucrative for him. The vice president is “reputed” to be one of Zimbabwe’s richest people. All of this suggests he might become yet another dictator.
‘Unity’ for Zimbabwe?
Nonetheless, reports indicate that Mnangagwa is currently talking to several opposition parties about potentially forming a transitional government.
A key stakeholder in any such arrangement would be Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, who served as prime minister to Mugabe as part of the 2009 power-sharing agreement.
That coalition achieved some success on economic matters, but Mugabe’s party never relinquished any real authority. Mnangagwa was among those who clung to power back then, but I believe he might play things differently now. Mnangagwa is no reformer, but he does need to find ways to bolster his legitimacy. Not to mention he will quickly need to confront Zimbabwe’s massive economic woes.
The choices that Zimbabwe’s political leadership makes in the coming weeks will have immense consequences for the future of a country whose development has stagnated under 40 years of authoritarian rule.
Real transitions in Zimbabwe are all too rare. Mugabe led the country to independence in March 1980, assumed the presidency and never left. His demise represents a chance for a political reset.
In March 2003, the Howard government involved Australia in an illegal military invasion of Iraq. The consequences of that war continue to be devastating for the people of Iraq and the wider Middle East. The prime minister was able to opt for invasion because in Australia the sovereign power to take the gravest decision, the commitment of the Australian Defence Force to international armed conflict, rests with the executive – in practice, often the PM alone – rather than with parliament.
Since 2014, further military deployments have taken place in Iraq. The bombing of Syria continues. Several months ago, the prime minister announced unqualified support in principle for the United States in possible military action against North Korea.
All these developments reinforce the dangers typically associated with secretive small-group decision-making. Closed decision-making breeds hubris; and hubris, the friend of folly and recklessness, often results in disasters. All are a curse for democracy. That is why the Sydney Democracy Network, in partnership with Australians for War Powers Reform, convened a public forum on the subject of the urgent need for war powers reform.
When governments kill in large numbers they always do so for a good reason. We must be on guard against that. – Howard Zinn
Australian politicians talk about ending terrorism but they make decisions that carelessly or inadvertently stir the pot and radicalise people. This then reinforces the dominant public narrative and makes military incursions superficially acceptable. Unfortunately, vigorous debate in Australia is encouraged only within the limits imposed by “unstated doctrinal orthodoxy”, particularly in relation to foreign policy.
Not only are the people who control what we know determining our future, the government secrecy surrounding Australia’s historical record deliberately obfuscates our understanding of what is going on right now. Symptomatic is the way the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has recently been found to be one of the least transparent military coalition members in Syria. The ADF won’t reveal “where they bomb, when they bomb or what they bomb”.
Syria’s recent history reads like a contemporary illustration of Chris Clark’s conclusion in Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914. The period analysed in that book shows that great powers had more than one enemy, and that executive decision-making was chaotic.
War was a consequence of decisions made in many places, with their effect being cumulative and interactive. These decisions were made by a gallery of actors who otherwise shared a fundamentally similar political culture.
On September 9 2015, Australia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Gillian Bird, wrote to the UN Security Council president claiming that Article 51 of the UN Charter recognises the inherent right of states to act in individual or collective self-defence when an armed attack occurs against a UN member state. States must be able to act in self-defence when the government of the state where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent attacks originating from its territory. Bird alleged that the Syrian government had, by its failure to constrain attacks upon Iraqi territory originating from ISIS bases within Syria, demonstrated that it was unwilling or unable to prevent those attacks.
Unauthorised and uninvited
The Australian government was not questioned about how Syria was unwilling or unable to prevent those attacks. It was not asked how airstrikes would affect the Syrian population and infrastructure.
There was no link between ISIS, a non-state actor, and Syria. ISIS was not acting under instructions from, or the direction or control of, the Syrian government. Western governments made no attempt to work with the morally disgraceful Assad regime to actually enable it to prevent attacks emanating from its territory (and indeed Australia didn’t recognise the legitimacy of the regime).
Moreover, the Syrian government didn’t invite us to carry out airstrikes in Syria, and there was no UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force. Neither the Australian government nor the opposition provided a clear explanation about why in August 2015 there was no clear legal basis for Australian involvement in Syria, but by September 2015 there was.
There was no rational discussion about our strategic ends. There was certainly no mention of the fact that in 2014 we already had embedded ADF personnel in Florida contributing to operations against ISIS in Syria.
There was, however, a letter, dated September 17 2015, from the Syrian government to the Security Council. The mainstream media did not report it, but the letter was referred to in documents I received following FOI requests. The letter disputed Australia’s unwilling and unable claims and pointed out that the Syrian Arab Army had, over four years, been fighting ISIS, the al-Nusrah Front and other groups being supported by Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Western states.
The letter called on others to co-ordinate with Syria. It said the international coalition led by the US had yet to achieve anything tangible in its war on terrorist organisations.
The Syrian government had a point, particularly since US President Barack Obama had already told VICE News (on camera) that:
ISIS is a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion in 2003, which is an example of unintended consequences.
What was omitted from the political and public discourse in the lead-up to Australia’s decision to become involved in Syria was the fact that Syria had experienced a severe drought between 2007 and 2010. The drought spurred as many as 1.5 million people to migrate from the countryside into the cities, creating significant social and economic tensions.
In 2012 the UK’s MI6 co-operated with the CIA on a “rat line” of arms transfers from Libyan stockpiles to Syrian rebels after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. That same year, Russia proposed that Assad could step down as part of a peace deal. The US, Britain and France were so convinced that the Syrian dictator would fall that they ignored the proposal.
By this stage, the UN human rights commissioner had already confirmed 60,000 Syrian fatalities between March 2011 and November 2012. The current estimate is almost half a million deaths.
In September 2014 the US Congress determined that the US$500 million CIA program to arm Syrian rebels had failed. Arms had been ending up in the hands of the al-Nusra Front, and Jordanian intelligence officers were selling arms on the black market.
The following month, The New York Times reported that a CIA report had concluded that “many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict”. The report came a month after Australia had delivered weapons to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and a month before our successful delivery of 18,000kg of crated weapons from Albania to Erbil in Iraq.
On March 21 2015, international aid agencies and human rights groups released the Failing Syria report. This found that UN Security Council powers had failed to alleviate the suffering of civilians as the conflict intensified.
Two months later, the International Crisis Group released its own report warning that military aid had been given without an underlying strategy, which would prolong the battle with ISIS and inflame other local conflicts between intra-Kurdish rivals. The report noted that the US-led coalition had remained silent about Kurdish land grabs in disputed territories.
In May this year, Amnesty International urged the US and other countries to stop arms transfers that could fuel atrocities. This followed confirmation by a US Defence Department audit that the army had failed to monitor over US$1 billion worth of arms and other military equipment transfers to Kuwait and Iraq, which have ended up in the hands of ISIS.
A show for the domestic audience
In August 2015 rumours began to circulate that the then prime minister, Tony Abbott, had pushed for the US request to join airstrikes in Syria. Only five days before the bipartisan decision was made, Amnesty International reported that 220,000 people had been killed in Syria. Another 12.8 million needed humanitarian assistance and 50% of the population was displaced.
Still, at a reported cost of A$500 million a year for our air war against ISIS, and regardless of international law, we were first in with the US, beating our British counterparts who delayed plans for a parliamentary vote. A number of military strategists were of the view that Australia’s involvement was a show for the domestic audience.
The irony, of course, is that six days after the decision to conduct airstrikes in Syria, we had a new prime minister. Shortly after that a document titled “ADF Operations in the Middle East” was produced in response to my FOI request. It confirmed that “the prospects for a political or military solution are poor”.
The word “poor” seems highly inadequate. In order to supply arms to Syrian rebels, the Pentagon relies on an army of contractors from military giants to firms linked to organised crime. Saudi Arabia (a Western ally) and Qatar are providing clandestine financial and logistical support to ISIS, while Iran and Russia support Assad. Turkey is fighting the Kurds and the US-supported opposition groups, but is fighting with Russia against ISIS.
There are drone strikes and bombs being dropped by the US, Belgium, Jordan, Netherlands, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, France, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Israel, Denmark and Australia. There is disturbing evidence of the al-Nusra Front’s access to sarin gas. And to top it off, a Bulgarian journalist recently uncovered Azerbaijan Silk Way Airlines offering diplomatic flights to private companies and arms manufacturers from the US, Balkans and Israel and the militaries of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and US Special Operations Command to ship weapons around the world, including to Syria, without regulation.
Hidden agendas lead to humanitarian disaster
Our politicians continue to support the US, an ally that has historically forsaken the exploration of peaceful means and diplomatic solutions in favour of force and aggression. Under the pretext of responding “with decency and with force” to humanitarian concerns and the responsibility to protect civilians, Australia extended airstrikes into Syria.
Decency? Every war is a war on children when armed conflicts kill and maim more children than soldiers. Perversely, more soldiers die from suicide and peacetime incidents than war.
And then there’s the matter of secrecy. On January 6 2017, I issued an FOI request to the Defence Department for copies of documents confirming or specifying the dates, locations and outcomes (numbers of military and civilian casualties) of airstrikes by Australian forces in Syria. On January 20 2017, I received an email simply confirming that “the Department does not specifically collect authoritative (and therefore accurate) data on enemy and/or civilian casualties in either Iraq or Syria and certainly does not track such statistics”.
For all the political protestations about concern for civilian lives, we are not even trying to count our victims. To date, we have only claimed responsibility for the deaths of Syrian soldiers in airstrikes in September 2016.
This year, as if Australia wasn’t already an aircraft carrier for the US, the government decided to sell military equipment to Saudi Arabia. Overnight, Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne became a dedicated arms salesman, announcing that he wanted Australia to become a major arms exporter on a par with Britain, France and Germany, and to use exports to cement relationships with countries in volatile regions such as the Middle East.
Perpetual war has devastated the Middle East. Others rightly argue that a government that devotes the bulk of its budget to arms manufacturing implicitly makes a moral decision that militarism is more important than the creation of well-being for the population.
The difficulty is that Australians still aren’t told the truth about why we became involved in Syria. Those decisions seem to have been made in furtherance of unstated international coalition agendas rather than on open and objective assessments of their merit. This state of affairs is made profoundly worse by the fact that the decision to go to war was an executive decision, not a decision made democratically after full and open parliamentary debate based on the best objective information available.
We are fighting a difficult battle for transparency in these disturbingly Orwellian times, but the battle can and should be waged for as long as we have the will and the means to do so. Our best weapons are an accurate historical and geopolitical perspective and truth.
When it comes to war, our government needs to be more transparent and to open up decision-making on whether to become involved. Politicians and military personnel must be accountable for the human consequences of what they perpetrate in our name. It is our collective responsibility to do what we can to hold them to account.
Recent elections around the world have raised concerns about the procedures used for voter registration and their potential consequences. The effects include disenfranchisement (voters being prevented from casting a ballot) and voter rights, fraud and security, and mismanagement and accuracy.
It’s critical to strike the right trade-off between making registration accessible and making it secure. But how many countries are affected by these sorts of issues? And which is more problematic – lack of security or lack of inclusion?
The study used three criteria to monitor the quality of the voter registration process: inclusion, accuracy, and security.
These aspects can be considered equally important to ensure all and only eligible citizens are able to vote. The items can be analysed separately and also combined into an index.
As illustrated below, the results show the quality of the voter registration process in Northern Europe and Scandinavia performed well, as did several Latin American countries like Brazil.
At the same time, voter registration proved problematic in many countries in Africa and the Middle East, as well as in India and parts of Asia.
The US compared relatively poorly with equivalent liberal democracies on voter registration. This is in no small measure due to the partisan polarisation over the issue, and past reliance on self-registration. By contrast, governments in many other countries register voters on their behalf.
Inclusiveness versus security
The global comparison below shows mean ratings on the measure of inclusion on the vertical axis. The measure of security is shown on the horizontal.
Some countries performed well on both indicators – notably Sweden, Denmark and Finland, as well as Slovakia, Costa Rica and the Czech Republic.
By contrast, many other places (located in the bottom left quadrant) performed poorly on both measures, such as Syria (which failed to allow citizens to vote if they had fled to neighbouring states as refugees), Haiti (which lacked the capacity to administer elections), Bahrain (with internal conflict), and Afghanistan (with high levels of electoral corruption).
Finally, several countries scored worse on inclusiveness than on security. In these elections, experts thought the more serious problem was the exclusion of eligible citizens.
These problems can arise for many reasons – such as disputed citizenship rights, attempts at voter suppression, lack of capacity to include young people, women, linguistic or ethnic minorities and hard-to-reach rural populations, or failing to maintain up-to-date electoral rolls.
Responding to the challenges
So, the challenge is to strike the optimal balance between security and accessibility, to make ensure eligible citizens – and only eligible citizens – cast a ballot. Doing so strengthens public confidence in the electoral process and democracy.
Easier registration processes, such as the availability of online applications and same-day registration, usually strengthens voter turnout. But the introduction of more accessible registration without sufficient verification raises security risks of abuse and fraud.
In the US, parties are deeply polarised over whether the use of strict photo ID at polling places helps maintain accurate and reliable lists, or whether this suppresses voting rights for eligible citizens who lack such ID.
A 2012 report found many American states faced major challenges of accuracy, cost, and efficiency in their voter registration systems. Since then, they have made many efforts to upgrade electronic procedures by allowing citizens to register and check their records online.
An initiative sweeping the US – led by Oregon in 2015 – is states requiring citizens to opt-out rather than opt-in to being registered to vote.
But new risks have also became evident, not least Russian meddling and cyber-security threats to official voting records. To tackle this, the US Electoral Assistance Commission has recently issued new guidelines, working with the states and the Department of Homeland Security to implement them. Yet the overhaul of America’s ageing voting equipment will carry a hefty price tag.
Foreign attempts at interference in voting have been reported in other countries, including Germany and France.
Following the 2017 UK general election, the Electoral Commission expressed concern about the risks of double voting and duplicate registration applications.
In populous developing countries like Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, without reliable census information or identification documents, the challenges are even greater. Poor quality records can create opportunities for vote manipulation.
Strict registration processes, such as those relying on biometric technologies for ID, may remove ineligible applicants but simultaneously throw out legitimate voters and make the list less accurate, not more. And biometric voter registration, which many African countries have adopted, presents challenges for the protection of personal information.
It is impossible to follow the news without catching reference to the rise of populism. A once little-used term that denoted a handful of parties in otherwise unconnected political contexts, populism now seems almost definitive of a political moment in time.
It also elicits a wide range of responses from specialists. The most common reaction is a negative recoil against the emergence of forces that seem to threaten democracy. The emergence of far left and far right political forces seems redolent of the 1930s, and look where that left us.
On the other hand, there are influential figures who argue that there is nothing to be afraid of in populism. Far from it: populism represents an appeal to The People, and on this basis is not just consonant with democracy, but with any kind of politics that seeks universal appeal.
Since political parties seek power, broad, if not universal, appeal is what they crave. Populism on this account is nothing more than “the logic of politics”, assuming politics to be what is of public or collective concern. A non-populist politics is doomed to fail, or to be the preserve of groups or identities who set their face against the demos.
So populism can be defined as something menacing and threatening to democracy, but also as something redemptive, celebratory and expressive of democracy. The question is, which of these two senses is the right one? Which gets closer to the “truth” about populism?
Populism as democracy’s pharmakon
In a famous essay on Plato’s Phaedus, Jacques Derrida explores the concept of “pharmakon” as an example of a term with apparently self-contradictory meanings.
Pharmakon, from which we derive the terms pharmacology and pharmacy, denotes a toxic substance used to make someone better, but which might also kill them.
Pharmakon is in this sense both poison and cure. It cannot be one or the other; it is both. Whether it is one or the other depends on dosage, context, receptivity of the body to the toxin, and so forth. In short, pharmakon expresses contingency and possibility, both life and death.
Now think back to what we have just been discussing in relation to populism. Do we really want to say that populism is always and everywhere a threat to democracy, something to be opposed or fearful of? Are there not moments or contexts where an appeal to the people versus corrupt or decadent elites might make sense in terms of saving democracy – from itself?
By contrast, are we really convinced that the appeal to the people is a necessary and constructive feature of politics, indeed something that we cannot avoid? Don’t we want to say, rather, that whether this appeal to the people versus the elites is to be celebrated or not depends on the position of the individual observer or participant in a vortex of political choices?
The emergence of a populist discourse in Spain accompanied a near-complete collapse in faith in the political elites. Millions of people flooded the streets in 2011 to protest against those who were inflicting austerity from the luxury of the presidential palace.
It was a manoeuvre pitched in the midst of well-documented examples of corruption, clientelism and cronyism – not to mention the extraordinary waste of public money on useless megaprojects that seemed to rub the noses of ordinary people in the dirt of their own powerlessness.
So the emergence of the populist Podemos and its potent message of “yes we [the people] can” chimed. However, it sounded a false note for others: fear of “charisma”, of leader-centred politics, and thus of the snuffing out and rendering irrelevant of the street protesters and micro-initiatives that had fostered the conditions for its creation in the first place.
The celebration of populism “from below” is mixed with an anticipation of problems to come – not least the cutting off of “the below” itself in a fanfare of triumphant, mediatised politics.
Consider too the emergence of France’s Emmanuel Macron, centrist saviour of the European project. Through clever semantics he countered the populist charge of Marine Le Pen with a neat populist manoeuvre.
Le Pen was the “parasite” living off the system she criticised, not he. He was the political outsider who had given up on the elites; she was the product of the elites – or least one part of it.
Macron was the figure untainted by association with the failed political order, while Le Pen reeked of stale battles and a lost France. He embodied France’s future, she its dark and gloomy past. Not a battle royale but a bataille Republican of Pharmaka.
But isn’t all this talk of outsiders and elites a little iffy stemming from someone who made millions as a banker with Rothschild? How long before this outsider rhetoric collides with the reality of budget cuts and labour market reforms?
Will it work?
Accepting the ambivalence of populism and pharmakon, so what? Why does it matter what kind of spin we put on the term?
Contemporary politics has by and large become a politics of reconstituting democracy after the collapse of the narrative of representation under which we have been living for at least two centuries. We have become less inclined to believe in the benign intentions of our representatives, of politicians.
We have become populists in the sense of seeing elites as disconnected or uncoupled from the people, and thus ourselves.
We seem inclined to believe those who set themselves up as defenders of the people against the elites, no matter how preposterous a gesture that is, and there are few gestures more preposterous than that of a billionaire property developer setting himself up as defender of the people against the elites.
We’re not sure if the cure, the exuberant outsider, will “work” and make life better, make America “great”, or whether it will kill politics stone dead.
We’re not sure if there is life after representative democracy, or whether some alternative model will work better or fail, leaving our world in tatters. But we are inclined to experimentation as the certainties that have sustained our politics for the past two centuries wither.
We watch the toxin descend with an admixture of hope and fear – populism: democracy’s pharmakon.
Imagine, for a minute, an undemocratic political system. Imagine a voting system in which someone has more votes than you because they own property. Or a voting system in which corporations have a vote – and maybe even more votes than regular people. A voting system in which, as a result, the power of your vote could be diluted by votes cast on behalf of corporations.
This voting system isn’t something from Britain during the Industrial Revolution, or America’s Deep South in the 1950s. Instead, as my recent paper outlines, this way of voting is a reality at local council elections in five of Australia’s six states.
It’s time for this to change.
Not just a Sydney problem
In recent years journalists have often discussed voting rights in the City of Sydney, which gets attention because of the high profile of its council and because of its unusual voting laws. Not only do property-owning corporations get two votes in the City of Sydney, but voting is compulsory for them.
But this type of undemocratic voting isn’t confined to the City of Sydney. It’s not even confined to New South Wales. In every state except Queensland voting rights at local council elections include voting rights based on owning or leasing property, votes for corporations, and various forms of plural voting (ways in which one person can have more than one vote).
In other contexts, Australia’s most senior judges have described plural voting or property-based voting rights as “conspicuously undemocratic” and “anachronistic”, and said that such systems would be unconstitutional if done at federal elections. Such a system enshrines inequality by giving some people more of a say than others.
These days our local councils perform a wide range of government functions. If we don’t accept undemocratic voting rights at state or federal elections, we shouldn’t accept them for local council elections.
We must recognise that local government is a form of government which affects every citizen within the particular local authority area; and I believe that all governing bodies should be elected on the broad franchise of one adult one vote. Probably Australia has led the world in connection with the adoption of that principle.
Surely what Queensland recognised in 1920 can be recognised in the other states in 2017.
And so, as my paper explains, in Queensland today you get to vote at local council elections if you can vote at state and federal elections. It’s that simple.
Essentially, this means you only get to vote for the local council that runs the area you live in, you only get to vote once, and there are no special voting rights for corporations or property owners. It’s the same at council elections in the Northern Territory.
Queensland hasn’t always been the torchbearer for Australian democracy. But at least voting rights at Queensland local government elections are designed to reflect basic democratic principles.
A kaleidoscope of different laws
The other five Australian states have different ways of deciding who gets voting rights at local council elections. British and Australian history has shaped these voting systems, and the relevant laws have often evolved slowly over time.
In somestates, for example, non-citizens can vote if they are resident in the area; in other states residents must be citizens to vote. In some states, voting is compulsory at local council elections; in others it is voluntary or compulsory only for some voters. The detail of the laws is complex.
Nevertheless, there are some rules common to many of the problematic laws in these five states. Being enrolled on the state or federal electoral roll in a local government area will generally entitle you to vote at council elections in that area.
Owning or occupying property in a council area will generally entitle the owner or occupier to vote in that area, especially if the owner or occupier is not also a resident. This also means that, where the owner or occupier is a corporation, the legislation will provide a process by which someone can vote on behalf of the corporation. Where someone owns or occupies multiple properties in a particular council area, or where they live in an area and also own or occupy another property in the area, the law will provide some sort of limit on the number of votes available to that person.
The complex provisions underpinning these voting rights stand in stark contrast to the simple terms of the Queensland law. But while they are complex, their result is clear. In different ways, as the paper shows, these laws allow for voting rights based on property ownership or occupation, voting rights for corporations, and allow individual people to cast multiple votes.
All of this dilutes the voting power of individuals, and runs the risk that local governments may become distracted from what is in the interests of their local community.
Local councils can’t fix this themselves
These laws are quirks of history that have no place in Australia’s 21st-century democracy. So what should be done?
Fixing the laws that govern local council elections is the responsibility of the states. From time to time, state governments and state parliaments consider the possibility of making local council voting rights more democratic.
Kem Sokha, the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was charged with treason last week, amid allegations of conspiring with a foreign power to overthrow the government.
In all likelihood, the charges mean the imminent dissolution of the main opposition party, leaving the ruling party – the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) – the only real contender in next year’s general elections.
The charges are the latest in the rolling back of democratic processes in the nation. They also reflect a shift in global democracy.
The latest development follows a pattern that has included alleged electoral intimidation in the recent commune elections, media suppression, and increasing threats of violence and conflict should the opposition win.
In the last three weeks, 17 radio providers that gave airtime to the opposition and aired programs produced by the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia – two Washington-based outlets that often include political critique – have had their licences revoked.
Last Monday, The Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper renowned for hard-hitting journalism, closed after 24 years, after being hit with an unaudited tax bill of US$6.3 million, with no course of appeal.
In August, the National Democratic Institute’s office in Cambodia was forced to close, and its foreign staff were deported, following alleged infringement of the Law on Associations and Non-governmental Organisations (LANGO). This law was passed earlier this year, severely restricting the rights of civil society actors across the nation.
These actions are largely agreed to be manoeuvres to consolidate the political power of the CPP under the increasingly autocratic rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who, following Sokha’s arrest, has declared he will rule for another ten years.
The violence of Hun Sen
My research shows that Cambodian politics has always been a sphere of violence, but that since the 1993 UN-backed elections, it has happened under a veneer of liberal democracy.
According to Human Rights Watch, Hun Sen has the worst human rights record of any “democratic” leader.
Although his party lost the 1993 elections, he forced a coalition, before seizing power after violent clashes in 1997. Elections since then have been plagued by accusations of fraud, corruption and voter intimidation. Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard is implicated in much public violence, including brutal beatings of political opponents.
But these current moves are happening in increasingly public spaces. Their intensification appears to be aimed at preventing a replay of the shock results of the 2013 general elections, when the ruling party lost 22 seats to the CNRP, giving the ruling party its lowest share of seats since 1998.
2013: the beginning of the end
I was in Cambodia for the 2013 elections doing research for my PhD on the legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime. My work involved examining contemporary Cambodian politics.
The success of the opposition took many of us by surprise. Despite the allegations of fraud and corruption, the result seemed promising for its indication of free voting – there was hope that it marked a positive move for democracy. But among threats of civil conflict and unrest, the result also provoked tension.
Protests occurred in the capital, and several people were shot. Rumours started to circulate that Hun Sen had mobilised the army and that the deputy prime minister, Sok An, was planning a coup. Fear and tension bubbled below the surface for many of the people I was working with.
Hun Sen has repeatedly threatened civil war should he lose the elections. His threats are grounded in the all-too-well-remembered violent history of the Khmer Rouge, when up to 1.7 million people were killed.
To ensure the lives of millions of people, we are willing to eliminate 100 or 200 people.
Some in Cambodia fear he will be true to his word. It seems unlikely that Hun Sen will let the 2018 election result get as close as it did in 2013. After all, he has never shunned the threat of violence as a means of control.
Hun Sen also has the support of Tep Vong, supreme patriarch of the Cambodian Buddhist sect of Mohanikay. He has previously condoned controlling the freedom of the people, thereby ensuring spiritual legitimacy as well as political impunity for Hun Sen’s actions.
Global shifts in despotism, crumbling democracies
The moves towards media control and suppression of the opposition parallel turns across the globe. They reflect the rolling back of democracy and a rise of autocratic leaders in so-called democratic countries.
In April this year, a referendum in Turkey voted for constitutional reforms that give President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan single-handed rule with the right to pass new laws and dissolve parliament at will.
This legislation followed the failed coup in 2016. In the subsequent crackdown thousands of journalists, academics and lawmakers were jailed, and at least 156 media outlets forced to close. Turkey now has more journalists in prison than any other nation.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has admitted murder, threatened killings of drug dealers (and likened himself to Hitler in the process) and said he would pass political impunity laws to protect himself. More than 7,000 people have reportedly been killed in the last year.
In Poland, the ruling party passed legislation restricting the freedom of the press and giving itself increasing control of the courts. Only the prime minister’s signature is needed for action.
… characterised by an erosion of democratic institutions and a rise of autocratic practices across the globe.
Political violence, open suppression
Violence in politics is not new. The control of the people in Cambodia is not new. What is new is the increasing confidence of leaders, such as Hun Sen, to flex their political muscles openly and violently with complete confidence in their political impunity.
Cambodia is often heralded as a nation with an exciting future due to high levels of investment and development support. But the success of its peace and democracy is openly crumbling.
The CPP needs a powerful opposition to prevent complete disintegration of democracy and human rights. It’s making sure that is not possible.
We are “living in the end times”, or so Slavoj Žižek tells us. We have seen the arrival of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”: the global ecological crisis, sharp inequalities in the economic system, the biogenic revolution, and exploding social divisions.
The global rise of populism, it seems, is only a symptom of these long-standing tragedies in the making.
Populist claims – the grand promises that prey on unrealistic expectations, those that dodge responsibility by conjuring “alternative facts”, and the kind that leaves citizens committed to the project of Enlightenment dazed and breathless — are both outcomes and drivers of Žižek’s apocalyptic vision.
How should we make sense of these realities? Wicked problems and intractable conflict have indeed marked the past few decades. But these have also been times of widespread democratic experimentation.
Deliberative democracy could once have been dismissed as pie in the sky with no bearing on the world of practical politics.
More recently, practitioners of deliberative innovations have generated compelling evidence to show the democratic virtues of mini-publics. These involve small(ish) groups of randomly selected citizens who meet several times to deliberate on an issue.
Random selection, similar to the logic of jury selection, underpins this process such that the forum represents a microcosm of the wider population.
In recent years, the case for mini-publics has been articulated more boldly, by David van Reybrouck and then, just this year, by Brett Hennig. Both make a case for sortition, where a group of citizens drawn by lot are given a mandate to deliberate and propose, if not decide, policies that bind the rest of the polity.
Given the enthusiasm for mini-publics, why has this not been enough to avert “the apocalypse”? There are three ways of looking at this.
1. We haven’t scaled up enough
The application of mini-publics has been disparate, inconsistent and small-scale.
Had people, especially the so-called “pissed-off white men”, had more opportunities to participate in deliberation, they would have, potentially, taken a more complex view of issues that they feel threaten their identities, such as immigration or gay rights.
Had “smug cosmopolitan liberal types” engaged in deliberation with “pissed-off white men”, societies could have developed a shared vocabulary to cohabit a world with meta-consensus on the range of legitimate discourses.
There is evidence that mini-publics work in deeply divided societies. Examples include deliberative polls in Northern Ireland and deliberative forums involving ex-combatants and paramilitaries in Colombia.
We can only wonder how the US elections or the UK’s Brexit referendum might have turned out had they convened a “deliberation day” where citizens deliberated systematically before the vote.
2. We are scaling up incorrectly
One could argue that mini-publics, by themselves, are not the answer to mass democracy’s legitimacy deficit. Even where well-resourced, excellently designed and high-quality deliberations unfold, these have little bearing if the epistemic gains and civic virtues developed in these forums do not spill over into the broader public sphere.
What use is it if we replace politicians with a randomly selected group of citizens if the public sphere is mostly still characterised by partisan point-scoring, cheap political tactics, spin-doctoring and market-driven media?
The reforms of deliberative politics must equally focus on reforming the broader structures that shape public discourse.
3. Mini-publics are not the answer
The logic of mini-publics primes participants to be respectful, public-spirited, other-regarding and open-minded. Unsurprisingly, citizens who harbour deep scepticism, strongly held views and defensiveness in their private interests may not find these forums to be the most understanding and supportive spaces.
In other words, mini-publics may have inherent limitations in processing populist rhetoric. This is because they, by design, aim to keep loud and insistent voices out of the room to celebrate the voice of the “average reasonable person”.
Discursive enclaves such as those found online, or in assemblies of populist supporters, may provide a more hospitable stage for impassioned, confrontational and sometimes bigoted discourses.
While mini-publics enable citizens to carefully reflect on their prejudices, one must take a step back and consider that some do not want to reconsider their views.
Research on climate change deniers provides evidence for this. Australian studies have revealed how deliberation not only fails to dispel scepticism but also makes the deniers feel like they are not listened to, so they become more dogmatic and belligerent.
Other research data demonstrate how people with a “social dominance orientation” tend to see participatory processes as rigged if the forums do not produce their preferred outcomes.
The issue of trust compounds such alienation. Mini-publics typically rely on information presented by expert witnesses and resources persons, and we now know that many people have simply had enough of experts.
Beyond expertise, public trust in Australian politics and politicians is at a staggering low. Recent research suggests the public has little trust in any level of government in Australia. For the most part, mini-publics in Australia are instigated by or at least associated with government.
Even though the best-designed forums are independently organised and facilitated, we have to recognise that people may simply not trust the process, organiser or the expertise presented. “Micro” deliberative events don’t exist in a political vacuum. We cannot design out the broader context and power relations.
How can things go right?
There are many reasons to consider populist rhetoric as the opposite of deliberative reason. Populism appeals to base instincts. It sacrifices intellectual rigour and evidence to the promise of quick solutions.
The polarising speech style of populism creates information silos, which bond rather than bridge, opposing views. Inherent in the populist logic is the division of the “virtuous people” versus “the dangerous other”. This inflames prejudices and misconceptions, instead of promoting public-spirited ways of determining the common good.
Given the coming populist apocalypse, then, it is worth revisiting how deliberative democrats conceptualise power and its relationship to knowledge.
The populist moment reminds us of the insidious legacies of power, the kind we generally take for granted, but experience every day. Drawing on the “epistemologies of ignorance”, the solution is not simply to offer facts, but to lay bare the structural phenomenon that disables people from seeing in a certain way. We undeniably find ourselves facing:
… an ignorance that resists … an ignorance that fights back … an ignorance that is active, dynamic, that refuses to go away.
Deliberative democracy may have been the punching bag of those who remain sceptical of the virtues of participation governed by reason. But it has also been a beacon of hope for visionaries who keep on asking how we can make democracy better.
This field of democratic theory and practice has a lot more to offer, especially when we set our gaze towards spaces for reform beyond the forum.