Trump’s Submit-Election Ways Put Him in Unsavory Firm

MOSCOW – When the strong Belarusian ruler declared an implausible landslide victory in an August election and was sworn in for a sixth term as president, the United States and other Western nations denounced what they described as brazen defiance against the will of voters.

The victory of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, said Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo last month, was “a fraud”. Mr. Pompeo added: “We have opposed the fact that he is now privy to himself. We know what the people of Belarus want. You want something different. “

Just a month later, Mr Pompeo’s boss, President Trump, borrows from Mr Lukashenko’s playbook and joins a club of truculent leaders who declare themselves to be election winners regardless of the election decision.

This club counts among its members far more dictators, tyrants and potentates than leaders of the so-called “free world” – countries which, under the leadership of Washington, have been teaching others about the need to hold elections and to respect the result for decades.

The parallel is not exact. Mr Trump participated in a free and fair democratic election. Most autocrats defy voters before they even vote, excluding real rivals from voting, and flooding the waves of air with one-sided reporting.

But when they have really competitive voices and the outcome speaks against them, they often ignore the outcome and denounce it as the work of traitors, criminals, and foreign saboteurs and are therefore invalid. Mr Trump refuses to accept last week’s election results and is working to de-legitimize the vote. He has a similar strategy.

There is little evidence that Mr Trump can transcend the laws and institutions that ensure that American voters’ judgment carries through the day. The country has a free press, a strong and independent judiciary, electoral officials who are committed to an honest vote count, and strong political opposition, none of which exist in Belarus or Russia.

Yet the United States has never had to force an incumbent to concede a fair election defeat. And only by addressing the possibility of his being forced out of office has Mr Trump destroyed the basic democratic tradition of seamless transition.

The damage that Mr. Trump’s stubbornness has already done could be permanent. Ivan Krastev, an expert on Eastern and Central Europe at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, said Mr Trump’s refusal to admit would create “a new model” for like-minded populists in Europe and elsewhere.

“When Trump won in 2016, the lesson was that you can trust democracy,” he said. “Now they will not trust democracy and will do anything to stay in power.” In what he called “the Lukashenko scenario”, the heads of state and government will want to hold elections but “never lose”. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has been doing this for two decades.

The anti-democratic tactics Mr Trump has adopted include some that are commonly used by leaders such as Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe, Nicolás Maduro from Venezuela, and Slobodan Milosevic from Serbia. Tactics also include undermining trust in democratic institutions and courts, attacking the press, and vilifying opponents.

Like Mr. Trump, these leaders feared that accepting defeat would result in prosecution once they left office. Mr Trump doesn’t have to worry about being charged with war crimes and genocide like Mr Milosevic was, but he does face a tangle of legal issues.

Michael McFaul, the US ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama and a frequent critic of Trump, described the “refusal of the president to accept the election results” as “his parting gift to autocrats around the world”.

An early draft of the playbook, used by leaders who never admit defeat, was written in 1946 by the Socialist Unity Party, a communist organization in the then Soviet-controlled eastern countries of Germany. Greeted in the first German elections after World War II, the party known as the SED greeted its defeat with a bold headline in its newspaper – “Great Victory for the SED!” – and took over the rule over East Germany for the next 45 years.

Never again risked a contest vote.

When the Moscow-installed leader of Hungary, Matyas Rakosi, When the Communist Party lost the elections in 1945, he “went pale as a corpse, slumped in his chair without saying a word” a party official who was present and later described what happened to Hungarian historians. Within a year, most of his opponents were dead, in jail, or terrified – and he was ruling the country.

Nobody expects Mr. Trump to follow this cruel example. By insisting on winning a vote the results of which show that he has clearly lost, he has violated the norms of countries that consider themselves mature democracies.

“Trump’s behavior is unprecedented among the leaders of Western democracies,” said Serhii Plokhy, a Harvard historian who has studied former communist states like Ukraine. “Even in military dictatorships, the dictators often honor the election results and withdraw when they lose them.”

That the United States has gotten into such bad company has caused consternation and ridicule not only among Mr. Trump’s political enemies, but also among citizens of countries long accustomed to having leaders who exceed their reception.

After decades of “proclaiming democracy to everyone else,” said Patrick Gathara, cartoonist and political commentator in Kenya, the United States has been exposed as “drinking wine and preaching water”.

In November 2010, President Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast refused to accept his loss. He suppressed live ammunition protests, killed dozen and dragged the country into a brief civil war that killed over 3,000 people.

Like Mr. Trump, he freely used government machinery to question the election result, he insisted on not being defeated. The crisis lasted almost five months and brought the Ivory Coast to its knees economically.

With French military support, President-elect Alassane Ouattara finally took power when Mr Gbagbo – whose campaign slogan was “We win or we win” – was dragged from his bunker in Abidjan, the capital.


Oct. Oct. 11, 2020 at 6:57 p.m. ET

That year, Mr Ouattara amended the constitution to allow him a third term and stated last week that he had won a landslide.

However, even seasoned dictators sometimes admit defeat, especially when they can plan a succession that promises to ensure their personal and financial security.

General Augusto Pinochet, who took power in a 1973 military coup in Chile, accepted defeat in a 1988 constitutional referendum that would have allowed him to remain in office, and resigned the presidency in 1990 after an opponent won a presidential election.

But he remained in command and became a life senator immune from prosecution. (Nonetheless, he was arrested in the UK in 1998 following an extradition request from a Spanish judge investigating his alleged crimes as President.)

A 2018 study, based on elections around the world since 1950, found that only 12 percent of dictators who submit to elections and lose in the elections leave office peacefully. However, the study found that military dictators are generally more willing to concede defeat as they can return to barracks and avoid being arrested or killed.

“It is rare for dictators to resign, but when they do so they, like Pinochet, have a viable alternative, such as re-entry into the military, that allows them to avoid responsibility for human rights abuses,” according to the study by One Earth Future , a research group, said.

Mr Trump’s refusal to accept the election result has had particular resonance in Latin America.

Mr Trump used almost every instrument in his foreign policy arsenal against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who, despite his deep unpopularity and a catastrophic economic crisis, had fraudulently won an election in May 2018.

The vote was condemned as neither free nor fair by most Western and Latin American nations and immediately brought with it new American sanctions. To punish Mr. Maduro, Mr. Trump Ban transactions in Venezuelan bonds and impose crippling sanctions on Venezuelan oil.

And in January 2019, Trump recognized Venezuela’s main opposition leader and congressional spokesman, Juan Guaidó, as the country’s legitimate leader, another major blow to Maduro. Within a few days, dozens of America’s European and Latin American allies followed.

Mr Trump condemned Mr Maduro’s “usurpation of power”, saying that all options, including military intervention, were on the table to remove Mr Maduro and appoint Mr Guaidó to the presidency.

It was only in September that the Trump administration imposed additional sanctions on the so-called “attempts of the Maduro regime to corrupt democratic elections in Venezuela”.

Now, Mr. Trump also refuses to accept the election results.

Temir Porras, a former Venezuelan government minister who has since left Mr Maduro’s party, said Mr Trump’s refusal to recognize the US vote “delegitimized” America’s role as the international arbiter of democracy.

“The argument of ‘moral superiority’ that the United States had,” he said, “is undoubtedly influenced by Trump’s behavior.”

Geoff Ramsey, Venezuelan director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington-based research group, said: “How does the US government expect free and fair elections in Venezuela if our own president does not recognize the results of? a clean electoral process in our own country? It’s a propaganda gift to Maduro and every other autocrat around the world, and I guarantee they’ll love every minute of it. “

Mr Maduro certainly did not miss the opportunity to be happy. “Donald Trump, we are not losing an election here because we are the truth,” said an optimistic Mr Maduro in a national address on Tuesday.

The reporting was contributed by Adam Nossiter from Paris; Julie Turkewitz from Bogotá, Colombia; Anatoly Kurmanaev from Caracas, Venezuela; Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi, Kenya; and Monica Mark from Johannesburg.

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