Dr. Chaulia also explained how economic problems can give rise to more authoritarian governments. He used the examples of the US, Hungary, Italy, Poland, the Philippines and Thailand following the financial crisis of 2008. As history students we could immediately connect these developments to the rise of fascism in Europe and elsewhere in the 1930s. The recent trend towards dictatorship seems all too familiar to those of use who recall the economic circumstances of the Great Depression and the emergence of authoritarian right-wing nationalism in Italy, Germany and Japan.
For many of us democracy is the ideal political system, one to which all freedom-loving people aspire. However, Dr. Chaulia noted that some countries such as Singapore, the UAE and Saudi Arabia enjoy above average income and – at least in the case of Singapore – seem to have happy citizens in spite of political systems that are less than fully democratic. However, these are exceptions rather than the rule.
Dr. Chaulia’s fascinating talk was followed by some equally stimulating discussions back in the history classroom. These centred around the nature of democracy and in particular its scope and application in poorer countries. Using examples such as China, Malaysia and South Korea, we discussed the controversial idea that authoritarian systems can provide the political stability necessary for the promotion of rapid economic growth. We also looked at the ways in which multi-party systems can be hi-jacked by corrupt and unscrupulous politicians, often leading to ethnic and sectarian conflict.
Dr. Chaulia’s talk was immensely valuable, not only for his intriguing arguments and perspectives, but also because of the ways in which he prompted discussion and debate among students. Most importantly, we were forced to question the oft-held assumption that the world of today is safe for democracy For that we are very grateful.