The Erosion of Democracy

To be sure, the fact that a U.S. President has acted in such an unethical and unsavoury manner is despicable. But there are plenty of unethical, unsavoury and despicable people around the world who are all too ready to abuse their people in a bid to retain power

By Anil Madan

In the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election then President Trump was asked if he lost the election, would he accept the result and effect a peaceful transition of power? He gave an equivocal answer. The TV and Cable channels, the op-ed pages of newspapers and magazines, and the online commentariat went nuts, perhaps justifiably so. After all, this was America where it would be unthinkable for anything but a peaceful transition of power. 

Strangely, no one stopped to ask if Trump wasn’t going to accept the result of the election, why bother to have an election at all? Why not just declare himself President for life as Xi Jinping has done? Or Kim Jong Nuke for that matter?

Supporters of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s civilian leader who was ousted by the military in a coup, expressed their opposition in Bangkok last Wednesday. Photo NY Times

There seems to be a certain fascination among elected leaders around the world with holding elections and declaring themselves the winner even if they really didn’t win. Sometimes they use the armed forces and the police to retain control. So what deterred Trump? Perhaps it was the statement by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley that the military plays no role in politics, and that he has complete trust in America’s institutions to manage election disputes, which made it clear to Trump that he was on his own. To underscore the point, Milley said: “We have established a very long 240-year tradition of an apolitical military that does not get involved in domestic politics.”

But Donald Trump did not accept the result of the election. All the way up to January 6, the day on which the Joint Session of Congress was to meet to certify the results of the Electoral College — long since known — he insisted that he had “won” the election. And, worse yet, he invited his supporters to come to Washington, D.C., to get Vice President Mike Pence to reject the certified votes of the electors. Pence had no constitutional authority to do this, and Trump’s acts were in derogation of U.S. election laws and the Constitution. 

It is tempting to say that Trump’s derogation of democracy is responsible for the worldwide erosion of democracy, but that would give him too much credit. To be sure, the fact that a U.S. President has acted in such an unethical and unsavoury manner is despicable. But there are plenty of unethical, unsavoury and despicable people around the world who are all too ready to abuse their people in a bid to retain power.

I do not try to declare which of these is the most egregious because any attack on democracy is despicable. What strikes me, however, is that with the exception of China and Russia where the very concept of democracy means nothing, virtually every other instance involves putting an existing potential democracy on the funeral pyre.

Let us not let China and Russia off too easily. The wholesale slaughter of democracy in Hong Kong is a travesty. Only candidates approved by Beijing may run. In Russia, an opposition leader is poisoned and then charged with the crime of violating the conditions of release from a prior charge although he had been flown from Russia to Germany for treatment for poisoning and, being unconscious, couldn’t be in Russia. This did not impress the “judge” who was but a puppet.

Whether we look at Myanmar, Belarus, Uganda, Brazil, Iran, or Egypt for examples of the erosion of democracy, one is left with the sad conviction that rulers find it altogether far too easy to use the military or security forces to retain power and oppress dissent.

H.L. Mencken wrote in the early part of the 20th century the pithy observations that: “Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage,” and “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Indeed, democracy today is a Planet of the Apes scenario in far too many countries. It is time for people to get into the monkey cage and take control. 


* Published in print edition on 9 March 2021

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