Curtain Raiser

Voting to Kill Democracy, Colltalers

It’s a relatively new trend and it’s all the rage among would-be authoritarian rulers. Encouraged by what’s happened in the U.S. and elsewhere, they’ve caught another promising break yesterday in France. This may be the dawn of a new, dreadful time: dictators voted into office.
An army, to stage a coup, or a party machine, to funnel cash, seem now obsolete. All it takes is a media-savvy campaign, a populist platform of discontent, warnings against external threats, and job-stealing immigrants, and voilà, practically any (rich) person can now be a president.
Some say it’s the Putin way, as the Russian leader can claim that his ‘mandate’ was earned in the polls. And as such, it worked for Turkey’s Recep Erdogan too. In Brazil and South Korea, the power grab used legislative tricks to unseat presidents, all with some popular approval.
To be fair, none of it is completely new, and there’s no need to go beyond 1930s Germany, to prove it. But since the millennium, there’s a new consolidation of power that has become more common, and it is its own animal, concerning both seated and would-be ‘by-the-book’ leaders.
In the 20th century, it was common for rulers to remain in power for generations, specially in Asia and Africa, where they’d perform as loyal servers to Western interests. While the American electoral process had more subtle ways of maintaining the political status quo, and kept its Democracy functional, West-propped up dictators had carte blanch to get rich and oppress their people as long as they remained aligned.
That was the time when popular leaders rarely won, and to prevent disrupting the colonial order, were routinely assassinated when running for or while in office. That somehow changed with the independence wars of the second half of the century, but not by much. The new crop of pro-West leaders, who turned into long-term rulers, ran hundreds of newly named nations, which were just as impoverished as before.
Real change, or rather, reversal to a bygone time, as well as exposure to the inner workings of the world, circa 20th century, happened with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and resulting killing of Saddan Hussein. Suddenly, ancient tribes and ethnicities kept at bay by Hussein, were unleashed and eager to regain their space. Similar situation may be playing out in Syria today, with predictable bloodshed as a result.
It’s a new era, when presidents get to rise to power no longer by bloody or lengthy battles, but with the support of those they successfully con into believing they’re the only answer. Religion used to fulfill this role, but apart from Iran’s theocracy,

and what the toxic combo of faith and privileged wealth produces in South Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, and other countries, even that template may be set for a reboot real soon.
As for political leaders being wealthy, that’s been a given for a while. Either they already come from money, or wind up richer than they were before. In the U.S., that goes back to Thomas Jefferson who, despite much help from Congress, died a wealthy but deeply indebted man.
In modern times, the honorable exception was Uruguay’s José Mujica, whose term in office didn’t ad up much to his banking account. Another one-term president worth including in this context is Jimmy Carter, whose dignified post-office work sadly remains the exception.
The overwhelming influence of money in the U.S. political and electoral process has been the single biggest factor conspiring against its democracy, as candidates are no longer evaluated on the sheer power of their message, but ability to generate returns to investors. Campaign war chests are now at least as important as a constituency, and gaining the majority of votes is far from assuring an electoral victory.
Populism, however, is arguably a new element, and we should fear the disturbing combination of that with fund-raising skills in a candidate, as it’s personified by the current U.S. president. Voted to office by a minority and utterly unpopular, he’s still running the world’s most powerful nation as the rep of the one-per centers. As such, on his agenda for the week, there’s a proposal for tax cuts to benefit his sponsors.
When socialist François Mitterrand finally won the presidency, in 1981, and became France’s longest-term president, Europe was enjoying a feel-good momentum, with hard-won peace and material stability, mainly Social-Democracies ruling its biggest economies, and the single-currency unification plan still a distant dream. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would crush all that within a couple of years, of course.
Mitterrand faded as world leader even before stepping down in 1995, but remains France’s last flirt with socialism. It’s moved in the opposite direction since, in what may have culminated yesterday, with Marine Le Pen becoming the first ultra right candidate to have a real shot.
What many feared is now a living, pulsating, and nauseatingly real possibility: the world is moving closer to ever more radicalization, and fear is the effective tool for political leaders justify their hold in power. Even if she doesn’t ultimately win, Le Pen just confirmed the power of xenophobia, manipulation, intolerance, and single-note emphasis on ‘us vs them’ gamesmanship, as a magnet for mass appeal and support.
The final irony of the French election is that she and Jen-Luc Mélenchon, the leftist contender, kind of ideologically met halfway, during their campaigns, through the vagaries of trying to get elected vs running on a radical platform. Both fine-tuned and toned-down their messages, mainly to appeal to the proverbial undecided vote, and absurdly wound up sounding as if speaking with a unified voice.
It’s really no wonder who won this race to appear less conspicuous. Le Pen’s likely opponent, Emmanuel Macron, is a young ex-investment banker, who never ran for public office but has the cash, instead. In a way, he’s no different than Nicolas Sarkozy or François Hollande, in lacking strong political skills, or even charisma. What Macron may gain in increased support may be no match to Le Pen’s street smarts.
We’ll see it on May 7th, the election’s second turn. By then, a motion currently being circulated in the U.S. will have instructed Trump’s impeachment, court reversals in Brasilia and Seoul will have reinstated Presidents Park Geun-hye and Dilma Rousseff, Erdogan and Putin are out, say what? Just kidding; spring fever always plays tricks on the overtly optimistic. Take your allergy meds and enjoy the weather. WC

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