Denying defeat, Trump offers fodder for world's strongmen

President Donald Trump's election challenges could provide a model for the leaders of problematic democracies.
President Donald Trump's election challenges could provide a model for the leaders of problematic democracies.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States has long championed democracy around the world, pushing persistently, if not always consistently, for leaders to give up power when they lose.

President Donald Trump is now establishing a new American model - refusing to concede, making unsubstantiated claims of fraud and seeking the intervention of courts and political allies in hopes of reversing his defeat to Mr Joe Biden.

Political figures and experts interviewed in several countries fear that Mr Trump's blueprint will be eagerly embraced in fragile democracies, especially in Africa, letting strongmen point to the world's most powerful nation in justifying their attempts to cling to office.

"Donald Trump's refusal to concede reinforces the view of our leaders in Africa that elections should be done in a way so that they don't lose," said Mr Mahamat Ahmat Alhabo, secretary-general of the opposition Party for Freedoms and Development in Chad.

Professor Eldred Masunungure, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe, said that Mr Trump was singing "sweet music to autocratic rulers".

"It's tragic. We are used to that in Africa, but when it happens in the US, we get shocked because it's happening in a centuries-old democracy," Prof Masunungure said.

"It's a dirty lesson our leaders will take advantage of and cite even in the long-term future when they lose and don't want to concede defeat."

Mr Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess legend and outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin, said that Mr Trump's assault on the democratic process will result in "many similar attacks in future elections, in the US and elsewhere".

"Democracy discredited, Putin's dream," he wrote on Twitter.

Changing discourse on elections

Dr Thomas Carothers, an expert on democracy promotion, noted that nations such as Russia, China and Egypt hardly needed tips from Mr Trump on how to oppose competitive elections.

But he said the effect could be more palpable in problematic democracies as leaders see how Mr Trump can brazenly claim victory and find some support, despite Mr Biden winning nearly six million more votes and edging Mr Trump out 306-232 in the state-by-state Electoral College that determines US elections.

"They see the power of that approach, that even a society as educated and sophisticated in certain ways as the United States can fall victim to that kind of big lie," said Dr Carothers, senior vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Studies in Washington.

He drew a parallel to Mr Trump's denunciations of "fake news", a term now cited around the world by governments that want to muzzle the media.

Dr Carothers said nations where Mr Trump's election challenges could provide a model include India, the world's largest democracy, which has long had robust votes but where right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been taking aim at civil society.

Dr Carothers said there could similarly be an effect in Mexico, where President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist populist, claimed fraud in two previous losing bids for office and remains one of the few world leaders, along with Mr Putin, who has not congratulated Mr Biden.

More indirectly, right-wing leaders in European nations such as Hungary and Poland could lose a source of inspiration in the White House.

Since the US vote, the State Department has congratulated winners of several elections, elsewhere including Moldova, whose Russian-backed president quickly conceded.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asked at a combative news conference if Mr Trump was hindering democracy efforts, called the question "ridiculous" and said that the United States takes time in examining all elections to see if they "reflected the will of the people".

Or is the system working?

US elections have often been messy, most notoriously in 2000 when the Supreme Court let stand that Mr George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes, handing him the White House over Mr Al Gore.

In 1960, Republicans alleged irregularities in Mr John F. Kennedy's victory but candidate Richard Nixon did not advocate a recount, later writing that he could "think of no worse example for nations abroad" than suggestions that the White House "could be stolen by thievery at the ballot box".

Mr Piers Pigou, an expert on Southern Africa at the International Crisis Group, said that US democracy "has not been held up as an example of best practice" but said Mr Trump could have a ripple effect in a region where many countries do not have clear procedures for transitions of power.

But several observers said that Mr Trump's challenge could send an opposite message - that, despite all the power at his disposal, he is still expected to leave office on Jan 20.

"Democracies' strength is their institutions," said Mr Jean Gaspard Ntoutoume Ayi, a member of the National Union opposition party in Gabon, where one family has run the presidency for a half-century.

"Unlike in African countries, American institutions will know how to impose the will of the American people on Trump's craziness."