Elections And The Authoritarian Tendencies Of Some ‘Democratic’ Leaders

Mel Gurtov\PeaceVoice

Photos: Wikimedia Commons\YouTube Screenshots

South Africa, India, and Mexico just held general elections. Britain will hold a general election July 4. The US will hold one Nov. 5. Record-setting demonstrations in Israel may yet lead to a general election there. Five of these six elections reveal the precarious hold on power of the incumbents, and the threats to democracy posed by leaders and challengers.

South African voters dealt the ruling ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, a “seismic blow,” according to CNN. For the first time in 30 years, the party failed to win a majority, falling to 41 percent. 

Official corruption is endemic in that party, but so too in the party of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Jacob Zuma. Having previously ruled for nine years, Zuma heads a new party that received about 14 percent of the vote. He now appears to be the kingmaker as the ANC will need partners in a coalition government. But it is doubtful Zuma will accept having Ramaphosa continue as president. If no coalition forms in coming weeks, then by law new elections will need to be held.

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been on the job for less than two years, yet decided to call an early election May 30, fully aware that the Tories are miles behind Labor in opinion polls. Sunak made some terrible decisions on the public health system and refugees from Rwanda that surely helped sink him.

In the US and Israel, the rule of law is critical to the survival of democratic governance. The Biden administration has received a huge shot in the arm with the conviction of Donald Trump on 34 counts of violations of federal law. From now on, he will be identified as convicted felon Trump. But he’s ahead in most polls. Unimaginable as it may seem, the next US president could be a criminal who has not only been convicted of multiple counts of fraud and rape, but also faces various conspiracy charges.

In Israel, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is seeking arrest warrants for two Israeli leaders—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defense minister Yoav Gallant–as well as three Hamas leaders. Netanyahu’s authoritarian leadership is the subject of huge daily demonstrations calling for his resignation, but the arrest warrants are for war crimes committed in Gaza. 

Israel, however, is not a signatory to the Rome Treaty that established the ICC, thus the arrest warrants would not mean prosecution of Netanyahu and Gallant. Hamas, not being a nation-state and therefore not party to the treaty, also would be difficult to prosecute. But it might make it difficult for any of these people to travel abroad.

Lacking any enforcement mechanism for its decisions, the ICC is powerless in the face of ongoing Israeli military actions in Gaza. The Netanyahu government is clearly not disturbed by these warrants, which it denounced. So did the Biden administration. But make no mistake: the President is well aware of Netanyahu’s strategy for staying in power. In an interview with Time magazine, Biden, asked whether Netanyahu was prolonging the war in Gaza in an effort to hold on to office, said that he believes “there is every reason for people to draw that conclusion.”

In India and Mexico, ruling parties won in these latest elections. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have a third term, though his Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, won far fewer seats in parliament than expected. Modi’s intolerance toward Muslims and the economic inequalities that are growing as India’s GDP rises evidently boosted the opposition Indian National Congress, the second-largest party. 

Dalits, the lowest caste formerly called untouchables, abandoned the BJP, contributing importantly to Modi’s low margin of victory.  Modi has institutionalized himself, becoming increasingly authoritarian and dominating all media while putting opposing politicians in jail. Now he will have to govern in a coalition with other parties.

Mexico is the exception in these elections. Claudia Sheinbaum, a leftist, won by a large margin to succeed her mentor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. She’s a climatologist and Mexico’s first female president. 

The vote was a mandate for Sheinbaum to continue Lopez-Obrador’s anti-poverty programs, though according to the New York Times, he was “a deeply polarizing president, criticized for failing to control rampant cartel violence, for hobbling the nation’s health system and for persistently undercutting democratic institutions.” The cartels in particular are going to be a major challenge for Sheinbaum, both for the role they play in Mexican politics as well as the complications they create in Mexico’s relations with the US.

Can we draw any general conclusions from these elections? Probably the most important is the authoritarian tendencies of leaders and challengers in these democracies. We keep learning that winning elections is not the same thing as governing democratically. 

Official corruption, violence against critics, disrespect for domestic and international law, and disregard for public opinion are often features of democratically elected rulers as they are of rulers who are not elected.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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