Columnists

US chaos shows fragility of democracy

US Capitol chaos

A Trump supporter screams at police and security forces as demonstrators storm the US Capitol in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021. PHOTO | AFP

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Summary

  • While eventually the events did not affect the outcome of the elections, they raise fundamental issues that should serve as a lesson for the rest of the world on democracy and election processes.
  • The assumption is always that such problems are third world and reflect the fledgling state of democracy in these countries.
  • It has never been fathomed that it can occur in a mature democracies such as the US.

On January 7, the joint sitting of the Senate and House of Representatives certified Joe Biden as the next President of the Unites States of America. A process that was supposed to be ceremonial, celebratory and uneventful, became protracted and embarrassing.

For only the third time in recent history, the results were challenged. Capitol Building was invaded by pro-Trump supporters, bringing the session to a halt and by the time the process resumed three people were reported dead.

While eventually the events did not affect the outcome of the elections, they raise fundamental issues that should serve as a lesson for the rest of the world on democracy and election processes. Firstly, whenever challenges arising from elections happen in Africa and other third world countries, the West is either normally called upon or offers to intervene to restore normalcy.

The assumption is always that such problems are third world and reflect the fledgling state of democracy in these countries. It has never been fathomed that it can occur in a mature democracies such as the US.

However, the past week’s events showed that the challenges are global. It is therefore necessary that the international community rethinks its process of supporting states that face election-related crisis. The support must be designed in such a manner than they can be offered to Kenya just as to the US. Unless this happens, the feelings that international relations are based on a patronising attitude, which is not suitable for modern engagements, will endure.

Related to the above is the recognition that democracy is neither perfect nor settled. It is a work in progress and requires continuous efforts to improve it. The work of governing is both about securing a country’s democracy as it is about working to smooth its rough edges and make it more palatable for society.

Failure to do so can only result in anarchy and threats to the very existence of a society, even those that pride themselves in having strong democratic credentials. That task is neither easy nor one to be taken lightly.

Thirdly, leadership matters — sometimes much more than the quality of rules. While a democratic society is built on the foundation of strong and progressive laws and institutions, the practical operations of these two is predicated on the quality of leadership.

For long, it has been argued that the American democracy is because of strong laws and institutions built over centuries of hard work. Last week’s events proved that with bad leadership, such laws and institutions can easily be destroyed. It is therefore necessary that we pay more attention to the kind of leaders that we vest with the responsibility to govern us. With good leaders it provides a solid basis for developing strong institutions and good laws and then having them run the affairs of state using these tools. The reverse, as the US has demonstrated can be catastrophic.

Credible elections really matter. These elections must be conducted in a free and fair manner and to the satisfaction of most of the populace. That way even when the losers feel sad, it will be evident that the emotional reaction cannot replace the objective outcome of the process.

Two contending debates normally arise, and this relates to refusal to accept results vis a vis, the credibility of the process.

There is normally debate as to which of these two leads to electoral violence. Lats week’s events in Capitol Building were nothing short of electoral violence.

On the one hand was President Donald Trump refusing to concede defeat, on the other was an accusation that the results were rigged. The balance lies in how the country conducts its elections and the seriousness with which it takes complaints about lack of electoral integrity.

The lesson from Biden’s win last week is that both are necessary conditions for stable democracy. Losers must be willing to concede defeat. In addition, the electoral environment and conduct must be both beyond reproach and include a robust mechanism for challenging and resolving any alleged infractions in the process.