Written by Andrew Higgins
When the strongman ruler of Belarus declared an implausible landslide victory in an election in August and had himself sworn in for a sixth term as president, the United States and other Western nations denounced what they said was brazen defiance of the voters’ will.
President Alexander Lukashenko’s victory, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month, was “fraud.” Pompeo added, “We’ve opposed the fact that he’s now inaugurated himself. We know what the people of Belarus want. They want something different.”
Just a month on, Pompeo’s boss, President Donald Trump, is now borrowing from Lukashenko’s playbook, joining a club of truculent leaders who, regardless of what voters decide, declare themselves the winners of elections.
That club counts as its members far more dictators, tyrants and potentates than leaders of what used to be known as the “free world” — countries that, led by Washington, have for decades lectured others on the need to hold elections and respect the result.
The parallel is not exact. Trump participated in a free and fair democratic election. Most autocrats defy voters before they even vote, excluding real rivals from the ballot and swamping the airwaves with one-sided coverage.
But when they do hold genuinely competitive votes and the result goes against them, they often ignore the result, denouncing it as the work of traitors, criminals and foreign saboteurs, and therefore invalid. By refusing to accept the results of last week’s election and working to delegitimize the vote, Trump is following a similar strategy.
There is little indication that Trump can overcome the laws and institutions that ensure the verdict of American voters will carry the day. The country has a free press, a strong and independent judiciary, election officials dedicated to an honest counting of the votes and a strong political opposition, none of which exists in Belarus or Russia.
Still, the United States has never before had to force an incumbent to concede a fair defeat at the polls. And merely by raising the possibility that he would have to be forced out of office, Trump has shattered the bedrock democratic tradition of a seamless transition.
The damage already done by Trump’s obduracy could be lasting. Ivan Krastev, an expert on East and Central Europe at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, said Trump’s refusal to concede would “create a new model” for like-minded populists in Europe and elsewhere.
“When Trump won in 2016, the lesson was that they could trust democracy,” he said. “Now they won’t trust democracy and will do everything and anything to stay in power.” In what he called “the Lukashenko scenario,” leaders will still want to hold elections but “never lose.” President Vladimir Putin of Russia has been doing that for two decades.
Among the anti-democratic tactics Trump has adopted are some commonly employed by leaders like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia: refusing to concede defeat and hurling unfounded accusations of electoral fraud. The tactics also include undermining confidence in democratic institutions and the courts, attacking the press and vilifying opponents.
Like Trump, those leaders feared that accepting defeat would expose them to prosecution once they left office. Trump does not have to worry about being charged with war crimes and genocide, as Milosevic was, but he does face a tangle of legal problems.
Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama and a frequent critic of Trump, described the president’s “refusal to accept the results of the election” as “his parting gift to autocrats around the world.”
An early draft of the playbook used by leaders who never admit defeat was written in 1946 by the Socialist Unity Party, a communist outfit in the then-Soviet-controlled eastern lands of Germany. Trounced in the first German election after World War II, the party, known as the SED, greeted its defeat with a bold headline in its newspaper — “Great Victory for SED!” — and took over ruling East Germany for the next 45 years.
It never risked a competitive election again.
When the Moscow-installed leader of Hungary, Matyas Rakosi, watched as the Communist Party lost elections in 1945, he turned “pale as a corpse, slumped into his chair, without saying a word,” according to a party official who was present and later described what happened to Hungarian historians. Within a year most of his opponents were dead, in prison or terrified into silence — and he was running the country.
Nobody expects Trump to follow that gruesome example. But by insisting he won a vote that results show he clearly lost, he has broken sharply with the norms of countries that view themselves as mature democracies.
“Trump’s behavior is without precedent among leaders in Western democracies,” said Serhii Plokhy, a Harvard historian who has studied former communist states like Ukraine. “Even in military dictatorships, the dictators more often than not honor the results of elections, and they retire if they lose them.”
That the United States has fallen in with such bad company has stirred dismay and mockery among not only Trump’s political foes but also citizens of countries long accustomed to having leaders who overstay their welcome.
After decades of “preaching democracy to everyone else,” said Patrick Gathara, a cartoonist and political commentator in Kenya, the United States has been exposed as “drinking wine and preaching water.”
In November 2010, President Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast refused to accept his loss in an election, suppressing protests with live ammunition, killing dozens and dragging the country into a brief civil war in which more than 3,000 people died.
Like Trump, he freely used government machinery to challenge the election result, insisting he had not been defeated. The crisis stretched out over almost five months and brought Ivory Coast to its knees economically.
With French military support, the president-elect, Alassane Ouattara, finally assumed power as Gbagbo — whose campaign slogan had been “We win or we win” — was dragged out of his bunker in Abidjan, the capital.
This year, Ouattara changed the constitution to allow him to run for a third term and declared last week that he won in a landslide.
Even veteran dictators, however, sometimes concede defeat, particularly if they can engineer a succession that promises to guarantee their personal and financial security.
Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who seized power in 1973 in a military coup in Chile, accepted defeat in a 1988 constitutional referendum that would have allowed him to stay in office and relinquished the presidency in 1990 after an opponent won a presidential vote.
But he remained commander in chief and was made a senator for life, immune from prosecution. (Still, he was arrested in 1998 in Britain after an extradition request by a Spanish judge investigating his alleged crimes while president.)
A 2018 study, based on elections around the world since 1950, found that only 12% of dictators who submit to elections and lose at the polls leave office peacefully. But military dictators, the study found, are generally more willing to concede defeat because they can return to the barracks and avoid getting arrested or killed.
“It is rare for dictators to step down, but when they do it is because, like Pinochet, they have a feasible alternative, such as rejoining the military, that allows them to avoid accountability for human rights abuses,” the study, by One Earth Future, a research group, said.
Trump’s refusal to accept the result of the election has resonated with particular force in Latin America.
Trump used almost every tool in his foreign policy arsenal against Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, who fraudulently manufactured a victory in a May 2018 election despite his deep unpopularity and a calamitous economic crisis.
The vote was denounced by most Western and Latin American nations as neither free nor fair and immediately brought fresh U.S. sanctions. To punish Maduro, Trump banned transactions in Venezuelan bonds and imposed crippling sanctions on Venezuelan oil.
And in January 2019, Trump recognized Venezuela’s chief opposition leader and congressional speaker, Juan Guaidó, as the country’s legitimate leader, another major blow to Maduro. Dozens of America’s European and Latin American allies followed suit within days.
Trump condemned Maduro’s “usurpation of power” and said that all options, including military intervention, were on the table to remove Maduro from office and install Guaidó to the presidency.
Just last September, the Trump administration imposed additional sanctions against what it called the “Maduro regime’s attempts to corrupt democratic elections in Venezuela.”
Now Trump is also refusing to accept the election results.
Temir Porras, a former minister in the Venezuelan government who has since left Maduro’s party, said Trump’s refusal to recognize the U.S. vote “delegitimizes” America’s role as an international arbiter of democracy.
“The argument of ‘moral superiority’ that the United States had,” he said, “without a doubt is affected by Trump’s behavior.”
Geoff Ramsey, the Venezuela director for the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington-based research group, said, “How does the U.S. government expect to call for free and fair elections in Venezuela when our own president won’t recognize the results of a clean electoral process in our own country? It’s a propaganda gift to Maduro and every other autocrat around the world, and I guarantee they are loving every minute of this.”
Maduro certainly hasn’t missed the opportunity to gloat. “Donald Trump, here we don’t lose elections because we are the truth,” an upbeat Maduro said in a national address Tuesday.
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