Originally: Fall of a Pseudo-Democrat
Wednesday, March 17, 2004; Page A25
On the surface, the ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide appears sadly familiar: an elected leader driven from power in a de facto coup, and a terribly poor country beset by violence and anarchy. Yet, despite first appearances and regrettable violence and chaos in the streets, Aristide’s resignation is hardly a setback for democracy or the rule of law. Rather, Haiti’s murky revolution represents a trend in international life: the defeat of a leader who squandered his democratic mandate by tampering with elections, intimidating the opposition and tolerating widespread corruption.
As he resigned on Feb. 29, Aristide was no longer the democratically elected leader of his country. Rather, in recent years, Aristide and his supporters had resorted to a systematic campaign of authoritarian intimidation that had transformed Haiti into a pseudo-democracy riddled with corruption. The Organization of American States has indicated as much, by urging all parties to work toward the “development of a fully inclusive democratic process in the common interest.”
The erosion of Haiti’s fragile democracy began soon after the Clinton administration restored Aristide to power in 1994. It reached a turning point in July 2000, when Leon Manus, the head of Haiti’s election commission, refused to certify the country’s parliamentary elections because of evidence of widespread fraud, illegal tabulations and voter intimidation. Manus was forced to flee the country amid death threats emanating from Aristide supporters and a manhunt by police.
The campaign was so corrupted by gross violations that the United States, the European Union and Canada — the main forces that had restored Aristide to power in 1994 — refused to send election monitors to observe the presidential vote. In July 2000 the U.S. Senate passed a resolution calling for a cutoff of aid to Haiti until it held free and fair elections. In November 2000 Aristide won the presidential election, which was boycotted by the opposition, receiving 92 percent of the vote amid widespread ballot stuffing that inflated a much lower voter turnout.
The world’s democracies — including the United States under the Clinton administration — attested to Haiti’s status as a non-democracy in 2000 by excluding it from full participation in the Community of Democracies, an organization of 118 democratically elected governments. The Community of Democracies determines its composition on the basis of clear standards that exclude monarchies, military dictatorships, one-party states and states where elections are rigged. Having tampered with democracy and contributed to its erosion, Aristide now joins a growing roster of pseudo-democrats and wayward former democrats who have been forced from office in recent years. Their ranks include Georgia’s Eduard Shevardnadze, who resigned after rigged elections led to mass protests; Alberto Fujimori, removed from office amid a growing public furor over corruption and vote tampering; Philippine President Joseph Estrada, who resigned after evidence of his personal corruption sparked protests; Slobodan Milosevic, forced from office by massive public protests in October 2000 after he attempted to steal Yugoslavia’s presidential elections; and Albania’s Sali Berisha, driven from power by a combination of civil unrest and internationally supervised elections in 1997. What makes these changes significant is that each occurred within the continuity of the existing constitutional order — making possible the quick establishment of democratically accountable government.
Manifestations of the revolt against pseudo-democracy can also be witnessed in other settings. There is widespread discontent among Ukrainians with the elected president, Leonid Kuchma, who leads a highly corrupt and increasingly authoritarian state. And Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, having survived a coup attempt in 2002, faces mass discontent and intense growing civic pressure because he has strayed from the democratic path.
While the unseating of pseudo-democrats and corrupt democratic “turncoats” has been a growing phenomenon in recent years, it raises difficult questions. With the exception of Milosevic, most pseudo-democrats are not brutal tyrants. Rather they are contradictory and opaque leaders who gradually erode democratic practices and institutions.
In the past, when a brutal dictator fell, it was easy for everyone in the democratic world to cheer. Today, when a pseudo-democrat falls, not everyone — including many of the citizens in the country concerned — is likely to agree that this is a good thing.
Despite the ambiguities of such revolts, regime changes such as last month’s in Haiti represent, on balance, a healthy trend: a rising intolerance among publics and elites for authoritarian and corrupt rule, and the growing unwillingness of the international community to shore up ineffective, corrupt and democratically illegitimate leaders. Now what’s needed is for the Organization of American States, the European Union, the United States and Haitian civil society to work together to ensure that all parties in Haiti commit themselves to a renewed democratic process of free and fair elections — and then abide by the results.
The writer is counselor and senior scholar at Freedom House, and co-editor of “Freedom in the World 2003.” He will discuss this piece at 2 p.m. today on www.washingtonpost.com.