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September 26, 2020

My Turn, Christopher White: America fortunate to have democratic system of government

By Christopher White

Alexander Lukashenko is in trouble.

Sometimes referred to as Europe’s last dictator, the 66-year-old autocrat has led Belarus with an iron fist for 26 years, but cracks have begun to emerge in his tight control over the landlocked country of 9.5 million people. Persistent economic struggles and political repression should have been enough to cause his downfall, but his supposed victory in the August 9 election with a whopping – and completely ridiculous – 80% of the vote has sparked intense civil unrest.

Belarus is surrounded by the Baltic states, Poland, Ukraine, and, most importantly, Russia to the east. To survive the massive protests against him, Lukashenko may be forced to rely on another longtime autocrat, Vladimir Putin, who managed to push through constitutional changes in Russia this summer that would allow him to stay in power until 2036. Putin said recently that Russian forces were prepared to intervene if the situation gets “out of control.”

Lukashenko came into power in July 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the adoption of the country’s current constitution, which established the office of the president, and he has remained in that role ever since. At that time in the United States, a young man named Bill Clinton had only been president for about a year and a half.

Now that the Democratic and Republican parties have concluded their respective conventions, which offered extraordinarily different visions, many observers have bemoaned the fact that American politics have become incredibly polarized and marked by tribalism, distrust, resentment and suspicion. Compromise is a dirty word. However, this might not be such a bad thing when considering the alternative could be far worse. Winston Churchill quipped that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Our pluralistic democracy was designed to be messy, challenging and frustrating. The Madisonian model of separation of powers working in conjunction with checks and balances is at the same time brilliant and maddening.

Furthermore, strong opposition parties play an essential role in a well-functioning democracy. One-party rule, often with a dictator at the top, are an unfortunate reality in much of the world where democratic governance is nonexistent. It is important to keep in mind that, wherever you might be on the political spectrum, we should embrace the diversity of perspectives and political persuasions that exist in American society. While the rhetoric from both sides of the aisle can be off-putting and has the unfortunate effect of deepening the country’s political divisions, we should appreciate the fact that events like the nominating conventions are even possible.

Indeed, except for George H. W. Bush’s victory in the 1988 election following Ronald Reagan’s two terms, the American presidency has routinely switched parties for decades. When Barack Obama won in 2008, the smart bet was the next president would be a Republican, but like most political scientists I never would have guessed that Republican would be Donald Trump.

The global trend over the past several decades has been a huge push toward democratic governance, which is a positive development for the international community. According to the Pew Research Center, of the 167 countries in the world with populations over half a million, 96 are some form of democracy. However, the flip side is that nearly 40% are not fully consolidated democracies and exhibit some form of autocratic government.

At Livingstone College, we are fortunate to have several outstanding international students from the East African country of Uganda who also happen to be terrific golfers. You might have seen them on the cover of the May issue of Salisbury the Magazine. These young men are excellent students and truly value the opportunity afforded them to come to the U.S. to pursue a college degree.

The Ugandan students often express frustration about the current state of the political and economic systems in their country and are quite interested in the U.S. as a clear contrast. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has been president of Uganda since 1986, meaning he has held power for 34 years and, in good dictator fashion, has managed to change his country’s constitution to enable his lengthy rule.

He did away with term limits and scrapped the presidential age limit. Museveni is the only leader those Ugandan students have ever known, and he was already in power for over a decade before they were even born. It is difficult for most of us to imagine such a situation.

The Ugandan students would give anything to have the opportunity to vote in a free and fair election for their country’s leader and have their voices heard, just like those Belarusian protestors hoping to get rid of Lukashenko.

Christopher White is an assistant professor of political science at Livingstone College.

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