With autocracy on the rise globally, respecting the popular vote matters even more
Having survived an assassination attempt in which he was shot 16 times in 2017, Tanzania’s opposition leader Tundu Lissu wasted no time in fleeing the country last week after receiving a death threat. The warning arrived shortly after Mr Lissu was officially declared the loser of the presidential election to incumbent John Magufuli, who received 84 per cent of the vote.
Mr Magufuli’s implausible victory was greeted with scepticism worldwide. The US state department raised alarm over “significant and widespread voting irregularities” that “call into question Tanzania’s commitment to democratic values”.
The twist is that, back in Washington, President Donald Trump and some other high-profile Republicans have alleged, without evidence, fraud in the US’s own presidential election.
From his vantage point, in a country where people risk liberty and even life to fight for basic democratic rights, Mr Lissu finds the situation troubling. “What happens in the US reverberates, rightly or wrongly, around the world,” he says. “So for a sitting president who has apparently lost a genuine election to make the kind of claims Mr Trump has made is very, very disturbing.”
When countries that are supposedly committed to democracy act domestically in ways that suggest otherwise, it damages their credibility. In September, the UK government declared it would knowingly break international law through a parliamentary bill proposed as part of its departure from the EU. In Europe, leaders in Hungary and Poland have grown more authoritarian even as the EU claims that “universal, indivisible and interdependent” human rights are “at the heart” of its relations with other nations. “How can any country be credible promoting democracy and the rule of law when it abuses it at home?” says Rosa Balfour, director of the Carnegie Europe think-tank. “These precedents create templates for other autocrats or would-be autocrats to do the same, further undermining global stability and institutions.”
Allegations of western hypocrisy about democracy are longstanding. What is more novel is when western governments denounce the fundamental credibility of their own domestic processes, or are open in their admission about trying to break international or domestic law.
For the US, it has already created several foreign policy contradictions abroad. Hours after Mr Trump branded the US election as a “major fraud on our nation”, Washington’s embassy in Ivory Coast called for that country’s leaders to “show commitment to the democratic process” following the October 31 presidential poll.
On November 9 — as debates raged in the US about the alleged suppression of black voters — secretary of state Mike Pompeo flagged concerns about the disenfranchisement of minority groups in elections in Myanmar. And this week Washington was full of congratulation for Maia Sandu, the new president-elect of Moldova. Yet Mr Trump continues to withhold acknowledgment of Joe Biden’s win in his country.
“For decades, pro-democracy activists around the world have relied on US statements to set a reliable standard about whether an election is free and fair,” says Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute think-tank. Republican support of Mr Trump’s claims of fraud undermine the US’s high standards of electoral conduct, she adds. “The US will lose its power as a standard-setter of fair elections, damaging democracy globally.”
With autocracy on the rise worldwide, basic messages about respecting the popular will, arguably, matter more than ever. As the US’s next president, Mr Biden has quickly pledged to restore his country’s “moral leadership” and the “power of our example”.
For Mr Lissu, there is still a long way to go. “We are fighting for the ability to vote and be voted for, the right to have one’s vote count and be counted, and for the right to have the correct winner declared accordingly,” he says. He plans to return to Tanzania to renew his political struggle there once he feels safe to do so. Meanwhile, his plea to the people of the west and their governments is to “live up to their ideals”.
This article was published by the Financial Times.