Fascists love strong central government control. On the other hand, local autonomy represents good governance, something that is anathema to fascists. Today, around the world, local governments at the municipal, provincial, and regional levels are finding themselves under siege by central governments exercising what can only be described as fascist grabs for unitary executive power.
Among the countries where local governmental political, judicial, and financial authority has been under attack, severely limited, or completely abolished are Australia, Antigua and Barbuda, Turkey, Argentina, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States.
The Trump administration has threatened US municipal and state governments over everything from providing sanctuary to asylum-seeking immigrants, to cracking down on legalized cannabis, and moving to emaciate pubic health care and insurance services. When it comes to state’s rights, the Trump administration only supports them when they restrict a woman’s right to seek an abortion, codify institutionalized racism, and permit even the mentally-ill to own weapons. Moreover, the Trump administration has singled out for scathing personal attacks, mayors and city leaders in New York; Chicago; Philadelphia; New Orleans; Boston; Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland, California; Denver; Pontiac, Michigan; Charlottesville, Virginia; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The only reason Trump lashed out the mayors is because they are Democrats and critics of wide-ranging Trump policies.
The Trump administration is also infringing on Native American tribal rights enshrined in legal international treaties signed between past US presidents and tribal chiefs. For Trump, Native American lands are ripe for exploitation of their natural resources. Trump, who owned casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey, blames the failure of his casinos, in part, on the opening of casinos on semi-sovereign tribal reservations. Like a mob boss, Trump only seeks personal revenge against Native Americans and that is evident in his opening up their sacred lands to mining and oil companies in violation of the terms of valid international treaties between Washington and the tribes.
Australia, which prides itself on being a parliamentary democracy, is one of the worst abusers of local self-government. Norfolk Island, among whose population are direct Pitcairn Island descendants of the mutineers on board the HMS Bounty, was granted self-government in 1979. In 2016, the Australian government abolished Norfolk Island’s self-government status and its legislative assembly, abrogated the island’s laws, and cleaved it onto New South Wales for purposes of governing laws and the Australian Capital Territory for purposes of representation in the Australian parliament. Norfolk Islanders had no say in the illegal annexation of their island by a so-called “democracy.” The Norfolk islanders have petitioned the United Nations for recognition as a non-self-governing territory. All Australian citizens now have the automatic right of residency in Norfolk Island and there are concerns that the islands land will be bought by wealthy Australians, thus limiting the rights of the native islanders.
Australia also prefers to maintain the Northern Territory as a territory and not a full seventh Australian state of “North Australia.” Mostly white “Territorians” who live in the north around Darwin are hesitant to see a state that could become an “aboriginal state,” owing to the indigenous population in the southern part of the territory. There are proposals to separate the northern part of the territory from the southern area. “North Australia,” with its capital in Darwin, would have three senators in the Australian Senate and constitute the Australia’s seventh state. The remaining aboriginal area would continue as a territory, with its capital in Alice Springs, and the territorial affairs would be governed by the Anindilyakawa Land Council, the Central Land Council, the Northern Land Council, and the Tiwi Land Council. This “territory,” like those of apartheid South Africa and the Israeli contrivance established on the West Bank, would look like a non-contiguous Rorschach ink blot on a map.
Australia utterly failed to allow the Island Council for the Indian Ocean territory of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands to have a say when Canberra agreed, in 2012, to allow the United States to establish a drone and maritime surveillance air base on the islands. Similarly, the Christmas Island Assembly had little say in the former John Howard government establishing an immigrant detention center on the island for mostly Indonesians seeking asylum in Australia.
Other former colonies of the British Commonwealth have shown a similar disdain toward local government. Antigua’s Prime Minister is trying to abrogate the Barbuda Land Act, which grants communal land rights to the inhabitants of Antigua’s sister island of Barbuda. In a textbook case of implementing “disaster capitalism,” Antiguan Prime Minister Gaston Browne took advantage of the devastation wrought on Barbuda by Hurricane Irma to scrap the Barbuda Land Act, in force since the 17th century, and allow foreigners to begin buying up land on the island. The Barbudans cried foul and threatened to take Antigua to various international courts.
Europe is guided in the rights of local government by the Council of Europe’s 1985 “European Charter of Local Self-Government.” However, even in Europe, which prides itself on local self-determination, has seen an erosion in the rights of regional and local governments, particularly in Spain. The former government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took anti-democratic steps against the regional and municipal governments of Catalonia that were reminiscent of those adopted by the former fascist dictator, Francisco Franco.
Other European countries, all member of the Council of Europe, but which have not granted an acceptable degree of autonomy to local governments, include Albania, Greece, Cyprus, France, Ireland, Malta, Moldova, Hungary, Ukraine, Latvia, Luxembourg, Georgia, and Turkey. Council of Europe members that have abided by the 1985 Charter and granted more rights to local government include, Liechtenstein, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Estonia, Denmark, Switzerland, Poland, and Norway. Overall, the Nordic countries of Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland enjoy the highest degree of local autonomy. Running just behind the Nordic states in granting a high degree of local autonomy are Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein, Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Serbia, and Austria. France and Slovenia have taken steps to be at par with the Nordic and other high-degree of local autonomy countries.
But the picture for local autonomy in other countries of the Council of Europe is not as rosy.
Prior to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-election as Turkish head of state and government, with sweeping new powers, several Turkish mayors, including those who were members of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), were sacked by Erdogan in a political purge that affected at least six mayors. Ahmet Edip Ugur, the AKP mayor of Balikesir, in northwestern Turkey, complained that he was fired in October 2017 by Erdogan because he was suspected of ties to the organization of the US-based businessman and cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Ugur said that he received threats from Erdogan and his government that were “beyond unbearable.” Erdogan also dismissed mayors of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), a secular party. These included Murat Hazinedar, the mayor of the Istanbul district of Beşiktaş.
In 2016, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi attempted, via a referendum, to change the Italian Constitution. One of the changes was to be severe limitations on regional governments. Special autonomy was enshrined in the 1948 Constitution for four distinctly different cultural regions – Sicily, Sardinia, Valle d’Aosta, and Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol. In 1963, this autonomy was extended to Friuli-Venezia Giulia and in 1970 for the other fifteen regions of Italy. Renzi was called a “young caudillo,” a reference to Franco of Spain. Renzi, also referred to as “rottamatore” (“demolition man”), saw his “Renzi-ferendum” go down to defeat. Renzi’s power grab helped pave the way for the current anti-establishment and anti-European Union coalition government of the Northern League and Five Star Movement.
US mayors, who have incurred the personal wrath of Trump – including charges that they support the Salvadoran gang MS-13 – should take heed from Turkish mayors like Ugur. Demagogues like Trump and Erdogan must rely on external “bogeymen” to retain power. In Turkey, the menace is Gulen’s organization, which Ankara calls the “Fetullah Terrorist Organization” (FTO). In the United States, it is tattooed gang members of MS-13.
In Nigeria, steps have been taken by President Muhammadu Buhari to grant states more autonomy, including financial control over their own affairs. However, powerful state governors are balking on granting more powers to State Houses of Assembly and municipal local governments, which the governors see as abridging their own power. Three states in the restive south and southeast of Nigeria – Edo, Imo and Taraba – have rejected two federal bills aimed at granting the states more authority. A sizeable number of people who live in the mainly Christian south and southeast want more autonomy or outright independence from Nigeria.
In Papua New Guinea, grievances by local government against an often un-responsive central government in Port Moresby have led to calls for more autonomy from the governors of New Ireland, East New Britain, and Enga provinces.
Former US House of Representatives Democratic Speaker was fond of saying, “All politics is local.” Ignoring constituents and voters at the local level will result in political doom at the ballot box. Politicians in the United States, Australia, Turkey, and other countries attacking the rights of local governments should take heed.