How to elect a dictator

If you’ve been reading the coverage of the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez you will have been brought up short, as I was, by the persistent references to him as a “dictator”. Since anyone with the attention span equal to or greater than a gnat knows that Chavez was democratically elected several times in fair and open polls,it can only be that “dictator” is being used here in the unusual, but not unique sense of “decisive leader who does and says things the West does not like”.

It’s easy to assume that this is just hypocrisy – after all, no-one calls Karzai of Afghanistan or Kagame of Rwanda dictators, because we consider them allies. But I suspect there’s actually a deeper set of factors at work here.

Living inside the western political bubble, we tend to assume that the rest of the world is like us, and that what is important to us is important to them as well. National leaders who have different opinions from us therefore represent an anomaly which needs to be corrected, and it used to be thought that the simplest way to do this was through elections. After all, it was reasoned, leaders who thought differently from us could not really represent the views of their people. Get rid of those leaders, let the people choose, and, as if by magic, leaders more to our taste would be forthcoming.

Or maybe not, as, with great inevitability, popularly-elected leaders turned out not to share our ideas at all. In which case, there must be a fault with reality. Such leaders can’t really have been properly elected, can they? And if they weren’t properly elected, they must be dictators, mustn’t they? problem solved.