Autocratic States Stage Elections, Claim Legitimacy

Autocratic States Stage Elections, Claim Legitimacy

A new disturbing trend has been occurring increasingly in which tyrannical regimes acquire an undeserved measure of respect and acceptance in the West by holding bogus elections and claiming to be democratic, says Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.

The leaders of established democracies—the U.S. and in Europe—are backing away from insisting upon basic human rights, i.e., the right to free expression, assembly and association, and fair elections.

In 2007, countries like Bahrain, Jordan, Nigeria, Russia, and Thailand, are passing themselves off as “democratic” by merely holding a vote, while engaged in election fraud, severe repression, intimidation and violence against persons of opposition parties, and threats and harassment towards the press.

Perhaps because the state has the veneer of a democracy, it makes it easier for the West to swallow the abuses.

“…The U.S. government has embraced democracy promotion as a softer and fuzzier alternative to defending human rights,” said Roth at the National Press Club, in releasing Human Rights Watch”s World Report 2008 on January 31. The 569 page report documents the abuses in some 75 countries.

“It seems Washington and European governments will accept even the most dubious election so long as the “victor” is a strategic or commercial ally,” Roth said.

Roth asserts that the U.S. itself does very well in implementing democracy here—the rule of law, free elections, and organizations free to work and advocate. However, the U.S. “cannot credibly talk about promoting human rights” when that might “conjure up embarrassing facts” regarding its counter terrorism program of “Guantanamo, secret CIA prisons, waterboarding, rendition, military commissions and suspension of habeas corpus,” said Roth.

Other countries too, Pakistan, United Kingdom, and France tolerate human rights abuses in the name of fighting terrorism, said Roth.

The popularity of appearing to be a democracy is even being taken up by China, which in the past, considered democracy a bourgeois, renegade concept. Chinese regime leader Hu Jintao called for more “democracy” within the Communist Party in an Oct 2007 speech when he used the word more than 60 times, according to Roth.

“Yet that has not stopped [Hu Jintao] from barring independent political parties, blocking legal efforts to uphold basic rights, and shutting down countless civil society organizations, and websites,” said Roth. The Chinese leader was referring to the Party allowing only 221 candidates to compete for 204 seats on its Central Committee—a far cry from being a normal national election.

Key to Legitimacy

Democracy is the “key to legitimacy,” said Roth, “as autocrats, tyrants, and dictators desperately try to pose as democrats.”

A good example is Uzbekistan, where its “ruthless leader” Islam Karimov staged elections in December 2007, says Roth. The regime imprisons around 7,000 persons for political and religious reasons; torture is widespread and endemic to the criminal justice system; and the Uzbek government repeatedly rejects “calls for an independent international inquiry into the May 2005 Andijan massacre when hundreds of unarmed protestors were killed,” says the World Report 2008.

No one dares mount a serious challenge to Karimov, says Roth, yet he still feels the need to legitimize his rule by the façade of an election.

Other leaders who want “to pass themselves off as democrats” include: Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Pervez Musharraf (Pakistan), Hosni Mubarak (Egypt), Melles Zenawi (Ethiopia), Vladimir Putin (Russia), and Umaru Yar”Adua (Nigeria), said Roth at the news conference.

A common pattern by the autocratic leaders is to qualify their brand of democracy with an adjective. Russia”s President Putin says “sovereign” democracy, where apparently he is the sovereign! China uses “social” democracy; Musharraf of Pakistan says “genuine” democracy, and in Burma, it is called “disciplined” democracy. In each instance, the true meaning of democracy is subverted, and the rulers” anti-democratic intentions revealed.

Pakistan: Pres. Bush Supports Gen. Musharraf Despite Anti-democratic Behavior

A country that is receiving a lot of attention nowadays is Pakistan, which the Bush Administration has allied itself with in its “war on terror.” General Pervez Musharraf imposed a state of emergency on Nov 3, 2007 that suspended the constitution and dismissed two-thirds of the country”s senior judges, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

Musharraf claimed his actions were necessary to “preserve the democratic transition,” said Roth, but he really wanted to prevent the Supreme Court from “ruling illegal his election as president while he remained the head of the military,” says Roth. Then Pakistani authorities arrested thousands of lawyers, judges and opposition activists and violently suppressed peaceful protests, says the report.

“Reporters working for local, regional, national, and international media faced torture, kidnapping, illegal detention, beatings and coercion,” says the report. “With the declaration of martial law, Musharraf imposed sweeping censorship rules to the media, closing down private television channels and international media agencies,” says the report.

The above is only a brief summary of the multitude of violations of the Musharraf rule, contained in the World Report 2008. Nevertheless, President Bush said Musharraf had “not crossed the line” and that “he believed in democracy,” and “Pakistan was on the road to democracy,” said Roth.

In the past, Musharraf has allied himself with Islamists to retain his power and oppose the moderates. Others have also pointed out that Pakistan”s two centralist political parties strongly oppose Islamic extremists, and so if either were in power, they would, no less than Musharraf, be inclined to fight terrorism. Islamic political parties have never gained more than 11 percent of the vote in national elections, also notes Roth. Fair elections would not bring Islamists to power, but would likely diminish their threat.

The Bush Administration sticks with Musharraf who everyday is undermining the rule of law. Washington could ask Musharraf to reinstate the independent Supreme Court judges, and could suspend its massive military assistance. But the U.S. would rather back someone who masquerades as a “democrat” than the “human rights principles that make democracy meaningful,” says Roth.

Human Rights Watch”s World Report 2008 describes in detail the recent past of all the world”s countries where there are trouble spots, i.e., tyranny and/or human rights violations, including a final section on the United States.

Teachers and students alike will find it an invaluable reference book for research. Additionally, five essays introduce the book”s contents, including an Introduction by Kenneth Roth, entitled, “Despots Masquerading as Democrats,” from which this article quoted extensively.

The World Report 2008 can be read at the Human Rights Watch website:

Human Rights Watch began in 1978 when it was known as Helsinki Watch. Human Rights Watch says it is an independent, nongovernmental organization, and accepts no government funds, directly or indirectly. “Our goal is to hold governments accountable if they transgress the rights of their people,” according to its literature.