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Kagame's Rwanda election win may bring Singapore-style authoritarian rule

Rwanda election winner Paul Kagame has expressed doubts about the wisdom of importing democracy, favoring a government similar to Singapore, where authoritarian rule oversaw steep economic growth.

By Jason StearnsGuest blogger / August 12, 2010

A supporter of Rwanda President Paul Kagame celebrates Aug.10, during a victory party held at the Amhoro stadium in Kigali. Kagame has said numerous times that he feels the kind of limited democracy of South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore – all countries where authoritarian governments oversaw periods of steep economic growth – is more suited for Rwanda.

Marc Hofer/AP

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Nairobi, Kenya

Pardon me for not blogging about Paul Kagame's electoral victory; it was not much of a surprise. Instead, I've been wanting to talk about something that he mentioned often on the election trail: Singapore.

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On numerous occasions over the past months, we have heard President Kagame express his doubts about the wisdom of importing democracy to Rwanda. He has said numerous times that he feels that the kind of limited democracy of South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore – all countries where authoritarian governments oversaw periods of steep economic growth – is more suited for Rwanda.

Political pundits like Andrew Mwenda agree, saying that the elites' isolation from popular pressures will allow them to avoid populist redistributive programs that mire the country in patronage. Their top-down management and lack of opposition can allow them to push through difficult reforms such as the new land law and the introduction of English as the language of instruction. He argues that this has allowed Rwanda to avoid the corruption trap of its neighbor Uganda, where the NRM has maintained its rule through patronage and co-option.

Others, such as Kagame's policy advisor Jean-Paul Kimonyo say that democracy could lead to conflict: "The issue here is how do you ensure political cooperation when confrontational politics will almost certainly lead to renewed violence?"

Pros and cons of authoritarianism

There are, indeed, some academics who might agree with this perspective. David Waldner, for example, suggests that Taiwan and South Korea succeeded at developing much quicker than Turkey and Syria, for example, because their elites were united (and authoritarian) didn't have to stoop to patronage politics, and were able to offer an educated and very cheap work force. It's not easy to push through tough policies like land reform and fiscal austerity – we need a strong state to do this, the argument goes (and if you don't believe us, look at Kenya and Nigeria).

However, most economists would insist that there is no recipe to growth. Dani Rodrik (Harvard), Pranab Bardhan (Berkeley), and Paul Collier (Oxford) – despite their many differences – would all agree that being authoritarian is not necessary for development. The danger is also that in very poor states, authoritarianism often goes hand in hand with weak checks and balances to hem in abuse of power. The bedrock of development – property rights, rule of law, fiscal solvency, and market-oriented incentives – could be easily undermined.

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