By Chris Beatty
For the past ten years, I’ve worked in places where public confidence in the democratic process is shaky at best. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, elections are often marred by the lack of confidence in officials and institutions, as well as intimidation, violence and restrictions on free press.
Successful elections require years of preparation, extensive logistical planning, and, perhaps most importantly, confidence building. To achieve this, many countries require technical and financial assistance. While national leaders and institutions have the primary responsibility for a credible election, the international community, including the United States, plays a significant role in supporting elections by assisting electoral commissions, funding nonpartisan civil society groups, and advising political parties.
The upcoming American election is looking more and more like the election in a fragile democracy. We have the standard bearer of a major political party banning multiple major media outlets from covering his campaign, soliciting illegal foreign donations, accusing his opponents of being terrorists, and claiming that the vote will be rigged. This is dangerous, and not only for American democracy.
It is well understood that the ripple effects of the U.S. election will be felt the world over. Yet it is not the election results, but how the campaigns are conducted, that may matter most. If the United States loses its democratic credibility, the impact will be felt by American organisations and diplomats around the world seeking to promote democracy and preserve human rights.
In Nigeria last year, the international community played an active role in supporting the historic transfer of power from a party that had won every election since the country returned to civilian rule in 1999. USAID and DfID provided $68.8 million of assistance to the electoral process because “Peaceful and credible elections are essential to Nigeria’s development and …Nigeria’s stability is crucial to the security and economic prosperity of its neighbours.” While the process itself was still flawed, the Nigerian elections were largely viewed as successfully representing the will of the people and resulting in a government with a clear mandate.
Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a hurried election resulted in a fractured government without a clear mandate to govern. By official counts, Michael Martelly received 234,617 votes in the first round, which meant that 4.9 percent of the 4,712,693 registered voters supported him. Martelly eventually became president after receiving 716,986 votes in a runoff poll. Turnout was below 23 percent in both rounds and the failure of that government to address the country’s myriad of other issues continues to be felt by 100 percent of Haitian citizens.
Though not the worst of the threats to American democracy in this election cycle, the split in the Republican Party and the threats of many moderate GOP officials and voters to either abstain from this election or support a third-party candidate, is worrying. With his divisive campaign, Trump drew more primary votes against him than any other GOP front-runner in history, giving him less of a mandate from the party upon receiving the nomination.
In Kenya, most elections since the return to multiparty democracy have resulted in varying degrees of violence. In 2007-08, ethnically motivated, post-election violence resulted in over 1,000 deaths and charges of crimes against humanity levied against the country’s political leaders. In dozens of other countries, more moderate levels of violence – or even its threat – are enough to keep voters at home or encourage support for the ruling party in the name of “peace.”
It isn’t difficult to see the parallels with the GOP candidate’s well-documented record of hate speech. Perhaps most disturbing has been the physical violence reported at or following his rallies, directed at protesters, media, and any of the other targets of Trump’s inflammatory speech.
With polls just a month after ours, Ghana is also facing a close election. The previous two contests were fiercely contested, with margins of victory in both cases being less than three percent, and the stakes are even higher this year. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) recently carried out their joint pre-election mission to Ghana. Their assessment highlighted the rising tensions amid criticism of the Electoral Commission and a court case over the legitimacy of the voter register, and encouraged parties to avoid the “spread of misinformation and the use of inflammatory language and hate speech.”
Unfortunately, it looks like our own political parties could use the same reprimand. Immediately following the NDI/IRI press conference in Accra, TVs in the hotel lobby displayed the latest stories of the Republican nominee for president warning that the U.S. elections would be rigged, that the media was “disgusting and corrupt,” and that “extreme vetting” should be applied to certain groups of people seeking to enter the U.S.
Americans take many things for granted: reliable electricity, freedom of movement, fully stocked grocery stores, and access to free public education. But after generations of free, fair and transparent elections, we may have forgotten the dangers, both at home and abroad, of undermining voters’ faith in the election process. According to a Gallup poll released yesterday (August 22nd), more than half of Republicans (52 percent) view voter fraud as a major problem, despite the fact that there have only been 31 incidents of fraud in the process of casting of over 1 billion ballots from 2000-2014.
In all of the international examples cited above, and countless more, the U.S. has sought to play a role in ensuring peace, transparency, and integrity in the electoral process. Yet credibility is as important in effective diplomacy as it is in elections. Charged with engaging a wide range of stakeholders, U.S. diplomats regularly warn of the dangers of hate speech, inflammatory rhetoric, restrictions on free press, and unfounded attacks on the process that could undermine confidence in the integrity of the vote. Institutions like IRI and NDI consistently implore candidates to refrain from stirring up potentially violent constituencies, knowing how quickly anger and violence can spread like wildfire, undermining democracy at its core and destroying peace and trust.
As the US campaigns wear on and Secretary of State Kerry arrives in Nigeria today, I wonder how America’s representatives can be expected to effectively promote the values abroad that we seem to be ignoring at home. One can only hope that “hypocrisy” doesn’t readily translate to the languages of their host countries. Regardless of the outcome on November 8th, the impact of the conduct in these elections on U.S. foreign policy will be felt for years to come.
Chris Beatty is the Managing Director of KRL International, a firm that advises governments and companies on political, economic and security risk mitigation. He has worked and traveled extensively throughout Africa and is based in Washington, DC.
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