Editorial: Steps to autocracy

Often times, it is easy to ignore the bluster of the politicians when they chastise their political opponents. We see it as part of the cut and thrust of politics as opposing parties play a game of one upmanship. Lately, however, we have seen a type of speech and behaviour coming from Prime Minister Gaston Browne that should cause everyone to take a pause.  

Adding to the unrelenting Trump-like attacks on the media, for no reason other than disagreement, and the personal name calling and bullying of his adversaries, the Prime Minister has upped the rhetoric to dangerous levels. Regardless of your political affiliation, the recent threats and labelling of certain Barbudans are causes for concern. Keep in mind that we live in a democracy. Winning an election does not give you the power to do as you like. Politicians are elected for a term to do the people’s work. They are not ‘all powerful’ and we do not live in a society that demands that you do as a politician says. We do not work for them (the politicians), they work for us!

Our constitution also gives us freedoms and its establishment was done with “a desire to set up a framework of supreme law within which to guarantee their inalienable human rights and freedoms, among them, the rights to liberty, property, security and legal redress of grievances, as well as freedom of speech, of the press and of assembly, subject only to the public interest”.  With that in mind, and especially if you think we are overreacting, let’s examine the PM’s words and you will see that only the most rabid, kool-aid drinking supporter would seek to justify the comments. 

In a recent radio interview, the very frustrated and obviously irate Prime Minister said that he would not allow anyone to derail his government’s plans for Barbuda and made it clear that further disagreement would not be tolerated.  In a chilling outburst, he said, “The time has come for us to deal with them. I am at the stage now that when it comes to that, then we should just put them in jail. Anyone of them, Trevor Walker, Kendra Beazer continue with their lawlessness over there they are going to get jail.”  Think of that for a moment, the Prime Minister of a country advocating for the forced confinement of protesting citizens and political opponents, along with the discarding of due process in the legal system.  That is outrageous!

For Prime Minister Browne to even think that he can bully and threaten civilians and politicians who do not agree with his vision is frightening because it is evident that his leadership style is becoming more autocratic. If you were taking any solace in the fact that the PM cannot give the police direct orders to lock-up anyone, then hold that thought because we have not gotten to the worst of it. The PM doubled down on his threats, stating, “The lawlessness will not be tolerated and that’s a promise to Trevor Walker that if he does anything illegal over there I will send the army to pick him up and put him in jail. Dead serious, that’s a promise.” Again, pause and think about that statement.

PM Browne has now positioned himself as the decider of what “lawlessness” is, and he will dispatch the military to throw people in “jail” if they do not comply with what he determines is the law. This goes against all civil norms where the police enforce the law and the courts decide on what is “lawlessness”. The primary purpose of the military is to defend the state against outside aggressions; other missions, such as humanitarian aid, etc. are secondary to the primary mission. When the military machinery is turned inwards, toward the citizenry, then the military essentially goes to war against the people they are sworn and designed to protect. 

The PM has said that these dead serious promises are in response to the unwarranted hostility towards his government by Walker and others. However, promising armed military intervention and forcible confinement pales in comparison with the “hostility” to which he refers.  The protests in Barbuda were not of a violent nature and the protesters peacefully negotiated a resolution with the Police and the Fisheries Department.  How do we go from that relatively minor protest to the need for military intervention?

There are many people, including members of the Antigua Barbuda Labour Party, who are very concerned that the country’s leader is becoming more autocratic by the day.  Outside observers see the strongman trends as worrying and openly wonder if he is setting himself up as a ‘Prime Minister for Life’. The theory is hard to ignore when we look at some of the signs: the unwarranted attacks on the independent media alongside the rise of state and politically owned media, the gradual erosion of the separation of powers necessary in a democracy, the personal insults and demeaning labelling of opponents, and the threats of military intervention with forcible confinement without due process.

Like many other people, we also wonder what is next?  When buzz words such as “fake news”, “public nuisance” and “lawlessness” are bandied around so casually and with increasing frequency, there appears to be an intent. These are incendiary words that are used to create perceptions that allow the use of tactics that would not normally be tolerated. That is very troubling and cause for a pause.

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