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Pushing back against authoritarianism

By William Milam

I have been, for several months, focusing my attention on the coming election in Bangladesh. The coming election in that country seems to me to encapsulate the struggle of liberal democratic sectors of many countries against authoritarian, or incipient authoritarian, governments. All the familiar elements are present: an authoritarian one-party government with complete control of the electoral process; a willingness of this government to bend the norms and rules of that process to guarantee its return to office; an opposition that has suffered the ravages and humiliations of being out of power and a serious campaign of human rights abuse to weaken it to the point of unviability as a serious political contender; and a government program of suffocation of any voices in the media or society in general that question the government’s actions in suppressing the opposition.

In many of these countries, the opposition is too fragmented, or too decimated by the suppression, or both, to fight back effectively. This seemed to be the case in Bangladesh until there appeared a leader, or leaders, from the middle of the political spectrum who have the gravitas with the society to pull together the various parts of the middle—left, center, right leaning parties—into a viable coalition of the center to challenge the government. They have been joined in Bangladesh by the remnants of what was the other major party, made virtually leaderless by government repression.

Nonetheless, the hope this challenge brings is leavened by the knowledge that the government has all the tools to rig the election in its favour and none of the institutional scruples necessary to constrain its actions to preserve itself at all cost. News from Dhaka makes clear, for example, that the chairman of the election commission has sided with the government on every procedural issue. In addition to election procedures, there is the technical harassment, such as government-ordered constantly interrupted communications near the opposition headquarters. Worse, there is the government-inspired physical and legal harassment. The latter involves filing spurious cases by the hundreds against opposition activists in completely politicized courts. The former is just plain killing or disappearing (which usually amounts to the same thing) many such activists.

I am thrilled by the fact that, despite its current ambiguity on human rights and democracy, the US government is taking a strong line to try to persuade the Government of Bangladesh to allow a free and fair election. Other Western voices seem relatively muted, and some are actually doing harm in their eagerness to seem neutral. For example, the EU recently announced it would not send observers, and a British MP leading an EU Parliamentary Delegation said to the press he was personally confidant of a free and fair election after talking to political leaders of Bangladesh. This personal opinion may, or may not, have reflected the EU position, but it will certainly be taken as the EU position.

The EU statement blames both sides rather than making clear that the government, which is in full control of the mechanisms to set those conditions, is the recalcitrant party. Clearly, this is not an incentive for the government to halt its serious rigging. While the center coalition developed quickly and caught many off guard, too late for most Western countries or institutions to send observers, in setting the election so close to Christmas, the Government surely wanted to minimize observers from the West.

The big election news this month was the US election on November 6, and readers might wonder why I have not yet crowed over the thumping Trump took. After all, the election was held over three weeks ago. The answer is that the results are generally, but not totally, good news and have some troubling implications that take time to sort out. Moreover, it seems that American midterm elections, i.e. those that are non-Presidential, are becoming slower and slower in providing definitive results. I wrote my last piece on November 12, six days after the election, yet at that time I still did not know how high the Democratic (blue) tide would rise. The reason is that voting methods are shifting, and more and more Americans are voting by mail or absentee ballot. These take longer to count. Although turnout was very high, fewer and fewer Americans voters are voting in person on election day.

Before the election, there was talk of a “blue wave,” meaning that the Democrats (blue) would take many seats mainly, if not only, in the House of Representatives from Republican (red) incumbents, more than enough to win the House back. At midnight on election day, that blue wave looked more like a blue trickle. Most of the races were too close to call. As the counting proceeded over the hours, then days, the blue trickle began to look more like a blue tide than a blue wave, slowly rising to the present count of Democrats taking 39 seats from the Republicans. Votes were still being counted two weeks later in some states. At this late date, three weeks after the election, one congressional race in California is still undetermined. Many of the “flipped” seats were in Congressional districts that had been historically Republican, and the elections were so close as to require recounts. For example, in Orange county, which is has been strongly Republican for as long as I can remember (it was thought of as the birthplace of Reagan Republicanism) all of its seven Congressional seats held by Republicans until November 6 will be now held by Democrats.

It was, in fact, a rout of the Republicans in the suburbs of most of the large metropolitan areas of the country, and thus in the House of Representatives. In most of those suburbs, President Trump had run strongly in 2016, though his margins of victory, if he had won the district (and he did not win all of them in any case) was usually not great. The shift away from Trump seems to have been suburban white women, but the other large addition to the Democratic vote count was a much larger turnout among groups that are generally opposed to Trump anyway but were energized for this election. The main issue for most of the voters was Trump himself—his approval rating keeps sinking among millennial, minorities, and women.

The Senate, however, is a different story—and a very different context—which in some part emphasizes the contradictions in what we call the American system of democracy. Just plain bad luck put the Democrats in a difficult situation because Senators have six-year terms and thus only a third (in theory) come up for re-election every two years. This year, most of the senate seats that came up were in rural states that Trump had won by large margins in 2016; in a sense the election of 2018 for the Senate took place in rural America, while that for the House took place in suburban America.

The glaring divisions in the US were, thus, only too prominent in this election. The good news (and it is very good news) is that a Democratic House will be a very necessary check on Trump. One can expect many clashes. One can hope that the Democrats use their majority strategically, to lay the groundwork for a victory in the 2020 Presidential election.

With the judiciary now stuffed with conservative judges, it will not be a check on Trump or on the imposition of a conservative, perhaps even nativist, agenda by a conservative minority on an increasingly liberal and diverse majority, which ultimately would result in serious social and political turmoil. The worrisome divisions in American politics that our convoluted and out-of-date Constitution are causing — the rural/urban, young/old, college educated/non-college educated splits — are shown in bold relief in this election. In the national figures for the Senate election, for example, the Democrats lost two seats while getting over 50 million (58 percent) of the votes, and the Republicans gained two seats while getting just over 34 million (40 percent) of the vote. In contrast, in the house election the Democrats gained 39 seats with 59 million (53 percent) votes, and the Republicans lost 39 seats with 50 million (45 percent) votes. If that isn’t a recipe for future trouble, I don’t know what is.