Observations of an ex pat: Not so free or fair elections

Elections are great. They are the cornerstone of liberal democracies. They ensure that the government has the support of the people so that the country can move forward.

Elections are great… IF (notice the capital letters) they are free and fair. Otherwise they are an exercise in political hypocrisy designed to sacrifice the national interest to special interest groups—a sad, bad and ultimately dangerous road for the guilty politicos and the country they claim to represent.

There are several elements that contribute to making elections free and fair, including: Multiple parties representing a variety of political views; a free press; open debate; secret ballots;  transparency in polling procedures; an absence of foreign interference and an inclusive structure which ensures participation by all members of society.

Of course, the absence of any or all of the above conditions doesn’t stop the less democratic rulers from staging polls and claiming the mantle of respectability that elections bestow. They are a sham; easily exposed as such and suffer the consequences accordingly. It would probably have been better for the rulers concerned to have not bothered with the vote in the first place.

The most recent dramatic example of a sham election is Belarus where Alexander Lukashenko claimed 80 percent of the vote. There is no free press in Belarus. Virtually all of Lukashenko’s political opponents were thrown into jail before the election. Anti-Lukashenko rallies were banned. The ballot boxes were almost certainly stuffed, that is if they even bothered to count them. The result has been national chaos as tens of thousands have risen up to demand the end to Lukashenko’s 26-year-old dictatorship. Thousands have been beaten, arrested and thrown into detention. The electoral crisis in Belarus has sparked a foreign policy crisis as The European Union supports the Belarussian opposition and Vladimir Putin warns Brussels to back off.

Putin’s electoral record is also heavily tarnished. The restrictions are nothing like those in Belarus but “Russia,” as Melbourne University reports, “does democracy differently.” For a start, freedom of press is a rapidly disappearing asset in the land of the Muscovites. But more importantly is the handling of opposition candidates. If they become too troublesome they are imprisoned on trumped-up charges or simply “eliminated.” Elimination was the fate of liberal politician Boris Nemtsov who was shot and killed on a Moscow bridge in 2015. This week we learned that the oft-arrested and imprisoned Alexei Navalny is in a coma in Siberia after drinking, what his family claim, was a poisoned cup of tea.

Other countries’ claims to the mantle of electoral respectability are also suspect. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has described his country’s system as an “illiberal” or “managed” democracy. That is a generous self-assessment. Electoral observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were less charitable. They pointed out that the campaign literature of the Orban’s ruling Fidesz Party was paid out of government funds; opposition access to the media was restricted and there was limited scope for political debate.

Of course, the world’s attention is currently focused on the American elections, not least because of the American claim to be the world’s showcase for democracy. There have been previously expressed doubts as to the efficacy of those claims, but never more than in 2020. Political pundits claim that the American electoral map is now spattered with Republican-organised gerrymandered constituencies to reduce the voting power of the Democrat-leaning ethnic minorities. Donald Trump’s attacks on the media (purveyors of “fake news” and “enemies of the people”) can be said to have undermined freedom of the press and there is the issue of Russian interference which refuses to go away despite Trump’s “hoax” claims.

Perhaps most worrying is the president’s implication that the Democrats will attempt to steal the White House through electoral fraud. He presents no evidence to support this which leads to the growing belief that Donald Trump is laying the groundwork for a groundless Republican challenge to the November election result. This belief was given added credence recently when the White House spokesperson refused to say whether or not Donald Trump would leave the White House if he lost the election.

Trump’s supporters equate support for their president with the national interest. The danger is that the cult of Trump has grown so powerful that it could damage America’s electoral process with a knock-on effect elsewhere in the world.

 

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems. His book “America: Made in Britain” was published on 15 October.

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4 Comments

  • John Marriott 23rd Aug '20 - 11:24am

    It is unlikely that, if he loses by whatever margin in November, Trump will go quietly. If he does, it might be conditional of his not being prosecuted once he is an ordinary citizen again (although that very much depends on how you define ‘ordinary’).

    My worry is that the antiquated US electoral system, as ex pat Tom Arms has alluded to, founded as it was at the end of the 18th century (sounds familiar?), will deliver a result that few are currently predicting. It will be interesting to see the approach taken at the Republican Convention this week. I fear that the dirt that will almost certainly be dished then will become an veritable avalanche of mud a detritus by the Autumn. Let’s not forget that many people put Trump where he is, all those nodding donkeys we see behind him when he makes his statements or signs his Executive orders – and then there are all those MAGA supporters with their assorted collections of weapons.

    If Biden slips up at any time and with Fox News salivating at the prospect, we could be in for a very interesting few months.

  • Julian Tisi 23rd Aug '20 - 4:38pm

    While American democracy is far from perfect – as with the UK – I believe these concerns are overblown. Unless we have a hanging-chads situation in a close election once again, I just can’t see Trump being able to do anything to hold onto power if he loses, although I have no doubt he’s the sort of person who would want to. Look at what happened when Trump floated the idea a couple of months ago that the election might be postponed due to COVID. Even Trump loyalists laid into him saying this was unconstitutional and wrong. If Trump loses in November – unless it’s very close and there is some dispute – I predict even his praetorian guard will be turning on him to go.

  • We can either work to make elections freer and fairer or move to add further accountability to governments or both. Elections can give a mask of respectability to governments. It would be nice to have a global authority that ranked countries on their elections and thus provided some pressure to improve.

  • richard underhill. 24th Aug '20 - 5:10pm

    Tom Arms | Sun 23rd August 2020 – 8:55 am
    “This week we learned that the oft-arrested and imprisoned Alexei Navalny is in a coma in Siberia after drinking, what his family claim, was a poisoned cup of tea.”
    Is this right?
    or has it been overtaken by later events?
    An initial report stated that he was too ill to leave the country for medical treatment and later, that he was being allowed to do so, probably to Germany.
    Could it be that he is so ill that he is expected to succumb during or after release?
    My memory might be at fault. My main media sources are the BBC and Channel 4 News.

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