“This is a dictatorship, people” is a phrase we hear at least 20 times a week in Venezuela given the recent developments. But, let’s stop for a moment. Do we really know what a dictatorship means and entails?
How about we do a checklist…
According to political theorists such as Giovanni Sartori and Robert Dahl, a democracy is the government based on the people’s power; it receives its legitimacy from the people through periodical, fair and free elections. Although rulers are elected by the majority, minorities have the right to be listened and respected under the political pluralism principle. It’s about constructing a system in which conflicts are solved peacefully and where differences are all taken into account, achieving governability and thus a stable, healthy society.
In a democracy citizens of all views express their opinions, which are then considered when making political decisions. In a democracy everyone has the right to being elected, to free association and to search information from a wide range of sources. In a democracy the law rules; governments act under its guidelines and whoever violates it, finds the corresponding sanctions.
The dark side of the moon
Opposite to democracies, there are dictatorships, governments of indefinite duration in which the power is concentrated in a person or in small group of people without any limit.
Theorist Norberto Bobbio breaks down the main characteristics of dictatorships.
These governments are not constrained by law, they act above it and even translate it into their own will. Despite having an official nominal law, it does not have any real practical value.
The author also highlights the rigid character of the government due to the power it tightly concentrates. Since one figure possesses all the power, it is common for it to personify popular sovereignty, justifying in this sense its legitimacy. Adversaries find coercive repression as a mean to enforce their allegiance and to discourage their own political ambitions.
Bobbio also delves on the precarious rules that dictate the succession of power: “When the charismatic leader falls, there are no regular proceedings through which his or her exceptional qualities can be transmitted to others”.
Living in a dictatorship
We talk about dictatorship when in spite of having a body of law, the government does not follow its commands without encountering any sanction or deterrence. We live in a dictatorship when the legitimacy of elections raises (too) many eyebrows. There is dictatorship when the power is centralized with a tight fist. We see a dictatorship when adversaries are aggressively repressed. We are in a dictatorship when civil liberties are systematically undermined.
Venezuela, February 2014. The red light is now going green. So, democracy or dictatorship?