Donald Trump uses the tactics of the autocrats he criticizes

MOSCOW – When the autocratic ruler of Belarus declared a landslide and implausible victory in the August elections and assumed a sixth term as presidentThe United States and other Western nations denounced what they said was a blatant defiance of the will of the electorate.

Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared President Alexander Lukashenko’s victory a “fraud.” “We oppose the fact that he took an oath to himself. We know what the people of Belarus want. He wants something different, ”he added.

Just a month later, Pompeo’s boss, President Donald J. Trump, is copying the strategies from Lukashenko’s manual and he has joined the club of hostile leaders who, no matter what the voters have decided, declare themselves the winners of the elections.

Protesters in Minsk, Belarus, denouncing the presidential elections. Photo: Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times.

Among the members of that club there are far more dictators, tyrants and potentates than leaders of what used to be known as the “free world”: countries that, led by the United States, for decades, have taught lessons about the need to hold elections and respect the results.

The parallelism is not exact. Trump participated in a free and fair democratic election. Most autocrats challenge voters even before they vote, by excluding real rivals from the ballot and flooding the airwaves with one-sided coverage.

But when the votes present real competition and the result works against them, they often ignore the result and claim that it is the work of foreign traitors, criminals and saboteurs and thus invalidate it. By refusing to accept the results of the election and working to delegitimize the vote, Trump is pursuing a similar strategy.

There is little indication that Trump can overcome the laws and institutions that ensure that the verdict of American voters prevails. The country has a free press, a strong and independent judiciary, election officials dedicated to an honest vote count, and strong political opposition, none of which exists in Belarus or Russia.

Yet the United States has never before had to force the incumbent president to admit a just defeat at the polls. And just by raising the possibility that he might have to be forced out of office, Trump has shattered the strong democratic tradition of a smooth transition.

The Damage already done by Trump’s stubbornness could be lasting. Ivan Krastev, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe at the Vienna Institute for Human Sciences, said Trump’s refusal to accept his defeat would “create a new model” for like-minded populists in Europe and elsewhere.

“When Trump won in 2016, the lesson was that they could trust democracy. Now they will not trust democracy and will do anything to stay in power, “he said. In what he called “the Lukashenko stage”, leaders will still want to hold elections, but “never lose.”

Among the undemocratic tactics that Trump has adopted are some commonly employed by leaders such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia: refusing to accept defeat and launch unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud.

Like Trump, those rulers feared that accepting defeat would expose them to prosecution once they left office. Trump doesn’t have to worry about being charged with war crimes and genocide, like Milosevic, but he does face a tangle of legal problems.

By insisting that he won a vote, although the results clearly show that he lost, he has drastically broken the rules of countries that consider themselves mature democracies.

That the United States has fallen into such bad company has sparked consternation and ridicule not only among Trump’s political enemies, but also among citizens of countries long accustomed to having leaders stick around longer than they should.

Even veteran dictators sometimes admit defeat. General Augusto Pinochet, who took power in 1973 in a 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 vote.

But he remained Commander-in-Chief and became a senator for life immune from prosecution.

A 2018 study, based on elections around the world since 1950, found that only 12 percent of dictators who stand for election and lose at the polls they leave office peacefully.

“It is rare for dictators to resign, but when they do it is because, like Pinochet, they have a feasible alternative, such as rejoining the Army, which allows them to avoid accountability for human rights abuses,” states the One Earth study. Future, a research group.

Trump’s refusal to accept the election result has resonated in a special way in Latin America.

Trump used almost every tool in his foreign policy arsenal against the president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, who fraudulently plotted a victory in the May 2018 elections, despite deep unpopularity and a disastrous economic crisis.

Most Western and Latin American nations denounced the vote. To punish Maduro, Trump banned Venezuelan bond transactions and imposed crippling sanctions on Venezuelan oil.

And in January 2019, Trump recognized the main opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as the legitimate ruler of the country. Within days, dozens of European and Latin American allies followed the example of the US.

Trump condemned Maduro’s “usurpation of power” and said that all options, including military intervention, were on the table to remove Maduro from office and install Guaidó into the presidency.

Now Trump also refuses to accept the results of the elections.

Geoff Ramsey, director for Venezuela of the Washington Office of Latin American Affairs, a Washington-based research group, commented: “How does the United States government expect to call for free and fair elections in Venezuela when our own president does not recognize the results of a clean electoral process In our country? It is a gift of propaganda for Maduro and for all the other autocrats in the world and I guarantee that they are enjoying every minute of this. “

© 2020 The New York Times

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