Day 694: El Presidente

25.11.10:

So what do you know about East Timor?  Not much?  Good.  You must be British.  Or American.  Aussies will have heard of the place for reasons I’ll come to later.  The first I heard of the place was about ten years ago on the Mark Thomas Comedy Product TV Show (Mark Thomas is the Michael Moore of the UK only much less fat) when he was going on about British arms companies supplying the weapons that the Indonesian army were using to kill civilians in East Timor.

So what follows is a potted history of this little nation.  Like most of the islands that make up Indonesia, Timor was fought over by the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spanish and god knows who else for a few centuries until the island was split down the middle (with a little odd enclave) between the Portuguese and the Dutch.

Poor old East Timor, it was doomed from the start.  In the league of Nations It Really Sucked To Be Colonised By, Portugal has to come joint top with Belgium.  Look at the ex-Portuguese colonies around the world: Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome and –urk – Cape Verde.  Basketcases one and all.  Portugal really quite spectacularly neglected pretty much all of it colonies, failed to build any decent infrastructure, educate the native population, or even prepare them for the transition into statehood.

Instead the Portuguese (under the universally loathed Salazar regime) just raped the land of its resources, orchestrated a devastatingly successful divide-and-rule policy, and then once day in 1975 pulled out without a thank you, goodbye, kiss-my-elbow NOTHING.  In Mozambique they trashed the place on the way out – setting fire to buildings, sabotaging vehicles and – sickeningly – pouring concrete down wells.  In Angola just ONE university graduate was left in a country the size of Western Europe.  A country with a population of fourteen million.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened next.  The civil war in Angola rumbled on for almost THIRTY years.

East Timor was spared the inevitable civil war only because Indonesia (at the behest of the US and Australia, by the way) invaded and annexed the country.  Predictably, people fought back, some with arms, others (more sensibly and more successfully) through diplomacy.  Step forward, Jose Ramos-Horta, current President and Nobel Laureate (he won the Peace Prize in 1996).  We shall learn more about him later.

Anyway, after 23 years of violent repression of the East Timorese independence movement, something weird happened.  President Habibie of Indonesia announced a referendum.  I guess it kinda made sense at the time – there was a lot of international pressure to lay off East Timor – once the results showed that the overwhelming majority of East Timorese wanted to stay with Jakarta, they would have the UN off their back.  Votes can be rigged right?

Wrong.

The canny East Timorese, in the face of intimidation and death threats, announced their intention to stay a part of Indonesian in public.  When it came to the private ballot though, HA!  Fooled ya!  They voted for independence.  By a landslide.

Indonesia’s army didn’t know what to do, so it did what tin-pot third-world armies do best: they trashed the place.  Massacres, arson and looting were rife.  Half a million people were displaced.  This brought East Timor’s plight to the attention of Australia.  Unfortunately, the East Timorese possibly didn’t realise they were on the doorstep of the Most Racist Country In The World™ and the only way they were going to get any help – humanitarian or otherwise – was if they handed over their future oil rights to the Howard administration for a song.  But the plucky ETs held their ground (despite the fact their countrymen were being slaughtered in the streets) and (eventually) got themselves a halfway decent deal.  That fat bastard Alexander Downer would have been happy for the massacres to go on (in his own words) “10, 20, 30 years… we can wait”.

What a nice chap.  I sure hope you didn’t vote for him.

Anyway, the UN came in too late, left too early, came back looking sheepish and are still here now.  The Indonesian army has gone and since 2001 East Timor (or Timor-Leste to be precise) has had a seat on the UN.

President Ramos-Horta survived an assassination attempt in 2008 (he was shot twice in the stomach) and is still going strong and still wanders about with a minimum of security.  Which was my good fortune today as he was speaking at a school down the road.  I turned up in my scruffs, clutching a couple of bags (perhaps full of AK-47s and rocket launchers) and was waved through the crowd peering through the school gates to take up a position just a few feet away from the man himself.  Good job I’m not The Jackal eh?

Jose Ramos Horta
Lovin' the shades...

After the speech he cut some cake, popped some champagne and declared the new tech wing of the San Miguel school (donated by the Rotary Club of Australia, by the way) open.  Just as the tape in my camcorder ran out I managed to shake his hand and say hello.  He was then whisked away much in the manner of Dungeon Master from Dungeons and Dragons.

Friends In High Places...

Heads of states eh?  I’m finally going places!

Afterwards I met up with my auld muckas Chesa and Simon, them wot’s tryin’ to get from Italy to Oz in a Fiat 500.  They had to wait a couple of days longer than me in Kupang for Simon’s East Timor visa, but they got it in the end and now here they were in Dili.  We met at the Castaway bar for a bit of grub and a natter.  I stuck to the soft drinks – no, I’m not on the wagon (as if!), it’s just that the price of the booze here makes me pull a sad face.

Day M249: Why I’m Not A Republican

Sat 02.06.12:

Today marked the start of the 4-day Diamond Jubilee celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th year as Head of State of The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and numerous Commonwealth realms.

It’s given the British people a couple of days off work, a free concert and injected some much-needed joy into a otherwise perpetually depressed nation. There are some that argue that the royal family is an anachronism, that it’s irrelevant, that it’s out-of-touch. So would I! But then, let’s face it, those adjectives could be used to describe every political institution in the world, not least the United Nations.

I’m not swayed by arguments wrung out by Daily Mail-types who believe that to criticise the monarchy is akin to collaborating with The Nazis. Nor am I swayed by arguments wrung out by tub-thumbing Trots screaming off with her head – these are arguments borne out of emotion, of jealousy, hatred, fear, misguided patriotism and xenophobia. These do not interest me.

As a graduate of History and Politics and well-travelled absorber of all things groovy and novel, what does interest me is political systems: ones that work and ones that don’t.

I want to convince you in the course of this essay that republics – democracies with an elected head of state – are a deeply flawed political system, and that constitutional monarchies – democracies with a un-elected head of state – are (perverse as it may sound) a fairer, more sensible and more democratic way of doing things.

When you’ve finished picking your jaw up off the floor, I’d like to refer you to the Democracy Index. A list of the most democratic nations in the world. Notice how 7 of the top ten most democratic states in the world are constitutional monarchies. In fact, 4 out of the top 5 most democratic states in the world are constitutional monarchies. Weirded out yet? I hope so.

This goes against all common sense – how can having an un-elected head of state be more democratic that having an elected one?

The answer, as with most things in life, is politics. In a constitutional monarchy, the monarch has no political power. Nor should they have – after all, they are just one man or one woman, who are they to frustrate the will of hundreds of elected politicians? Who are they to frustrate the will of the millions of people who didn’t vote for them? Who are they to steal the country’s natural resources or unilaterally declare war on another country?

The system that works the best is when the Head of State and Head of Government are two clear and distinct roles, the former having no political power and the latter not being in direct control of the army.

A presidential system naturally cedes far too much power into the hands of one man.

In the USA, which I believe has one of the worst political systems this side of North Korea, you have a situation in which the Head of State, Head of Government AND Head of the Armed Services is one man. ONE MAN. Let’s think about this for a moment.

ONE MAN can veto each and every bill that has spent months – maybe even years – passing through both houses of Congress. A bill that would have been carefully formulated, gone through committees, sub-committees, debates, re-writes, collective bargaining and been voted on by a majority in both the House of Representatives and The Senate. ONE MAN has the power to say ‘bollocks to that for a game of soldiers’ and throw the bill in his drawer and forget about it. You might presume that this amazing and unbelievable power would be something that happens maybe once or twice in an entire presidency.

Not so. George W Bush vetoed 12 bills.

That’s nothing: Clinton vetoed 37. George Bush Senior 44… and Ronald Reagan? 78.

Still, pales in comparison with Franklin Roosevelt’s kinda depressingly magnificent 635 vetoes.

In contrast, the Queen of Britain has vetoed exactly 0 bills. In 60 years. In fact, the last time the British Head of State vetoed a bill that had passed through both houses of parliament WAS in 1708. OVER 300 years ago. The power of veto is there in case of emergency, say if we get a loony Hitler-type in charge of parliament who wants to kill all the Welsh, but that’s never happened… and is rather unlikely to happen because the armed services of the UK do not swear alliance to the Prime Minister, they swear allegiance to the Queen. They have a right to say no. Unlike in the USA where…

ONE MAN can order the armed services to invade a foreign country FOR SIX WEEKS before having to seek permission from Congress for his actions.

You might want to rub your eyes and read that sentence again. SIX WEEKS!! Of course this rule was invented when it took six weeks to cross the Atlantic, and the British were running around burning down the president’s residence (according to scuttlebutt, the Yanks painted it white to cover the scorch marks). NOT when the USA had the capacity to WIPE OUT ALL HUMANS ON THE PLANET in the same given time frame.

Don’t forget: ONE MAN HAS THIS POWER. This is a presidential system. It is the reason the USA scores below the UK – which still doesn’t have an elected upper house, AND has a monarchy – in the Democracy Index.

It is the reason why France and Italy aren’t even down as ‘full democracies’, but rather ‘flawed democracies’ along with Cape ‘frikkin’ Verde. You look at the monumental corruption of Berlusconi, Mitterand, Chirac et al and then you look at how remarkably incorruptible the Queens of Britain or the Netherlands or Denmark are. Incorruptible because they aren’t greedy career politicians in it for the money, or the power, or both.

The line that sticks with me is in Gladiator when Marcus Aurelius Says to Maximus that he wants him to lead Rome back to democracy. Maximus says he doesn’t want the job. That, says Marcus, is why it must be you.

You see a job like that of Head of State naturally attracts the wrong sort of people. So does Head of Government, but at least in a parliamentary system the Head of Government can be over-ruled by cabinet or their own party… and can be gotten rid of as soon as they cock-up big style. Contrast the axing of Maggie Thatcher over the Poll Tax compared to the unbearable unpopularity of that dickwick George W Bush in his second term. Could the US voters get rid of Bush before the end of his term of office? NO. Not unless they could prove he broke the law. Being excruciatingly BAD AT YOUR JOB isn’t enough to fire a president – after all, he’s Head of State.

So let’s lay my cards on the table. In my humble opinion, the USA elects a dictator every four years. A dictator that has a phenomenal (and grossly un-democratic) amount of power. But the US isn’t alone in this madness. Look around the world – presidents are almost universally bad news (note that NONE of the top ten democracies are presidental systems).

In most countries in Africa, where a tribal-cum-parliamentary system would be best, you have a guy who is a member of one particular tribe – usually the biggest tribe – and he’s president. And he will look after his tribe to the detriment of all others. The corruption that stifles development in the third world is almost always linked to a presidential system. One man. Head of State. Head of Government. Head of the Armed Services. Let’s have a coup d’etat! Let’s kill the opposition! Let’s change the constitution so I’m president for life! This is not the way we should be conducting matters and running countries in the 21st century.

Yes a monarchy is anachronistic, yes it’s probably out-of-touch and yes I quite frankly hate Prince Charles. Maybe other political models work better, but that’s not the purpose of this piece. I’m merely telling you why I’m not a republican. It is because I find republics IN PRACTICE to be a one-way ticket to tyranny. Give me the checks and balances ensured by Constitutional Monarchies around the world anyday.

In closing, I’d just like to say that I once met a Jewish guy from the lower east side of Manhattan. This was in 2005, a few months after George W Bush was re-elected president. I suggested that he must be rather miffed that that walking disaster for the world had got back in.

“No”, he says, “I voted for him”.

My years of political study about voting patterns, demographics and political loyalty went flying out the window.

“WTF???” I scream, half in horror, half in sheer disbelief.

Well, says my Jewish friend, “you have to rally around your leader at a time of war.”

The prosecution rests.

GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!!!