The US has long championed democracy around the world, pushing persistently, if not always consistently, for leaders to give up power when they lose.
President Donald Trump is now establishing a new US model – refusing to concede, making unsubstantiated claims of fraud and seeking the intervention of courts and political allies in hopes of reversing his defeat to Joe Biden.
Political figures and experts interviewed in several countries fear that Trump’s blueprint will be eagerly embraced in fragile democracies, especially in Africa, letting strongmen point to the world’s most powerful nation in justifying their attempts to cling to office.
“Donald Trump’s refusal to concede reinforces the view of our leaders in Africa that elections should be done in a way so that they don’t lose,” said Mahamat Ahmat Alhabo, secretary-general of the opposition Party for Freedoms and Development in Chad.
Eldred Masunungure, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe, said Trump was singing “sweet music to autocratic rulers”.
He said: “It’s tragic. We are used to that in Africa but when it happens in the US we get shocked because it’s happening in a centuries-old democracy.
“It’s a dirty lesson our leaders will take advantage of and cite even in the long-term future when they lose and don’t want to concede defeat.”
Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess legend and outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin, said Trump’s assault on the democratic process will result in “many similar attacks in future elections, in the US and elsewhere”.
“Democracy discredited, Putin’s dream,” he wrote on Twitter.
Shifting discourse on elections
Thomas Carothers, an expert on democracy promotion, noted that nations such as Russia, China and Egypt hardly needed tips from Trump on how to oppose competitive elections.
But he said the effect could be more palpable in problematic democracies as leaders see how Trump can brazenly claim victory and find some support, despite Biden winning nearly six million more votes and edging Trump out 306-232 in the state-by-state Electoral College that determines US elections.
“They see the power of that approach, that even a society as educated and sophisticated in certain ways as the United States can fall victim to that kind of big lie,” said Carothers, senior vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Studies in Washington.
He drew a parallel to Trump’s denunciations of “fake news”, a term now cited around the world by governments that want to muzzle the media.
Carothers said nations where Trump’s election challenges could provide a model include India, the world’s largest democracy which has long had robust votes but where right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been taking aim at civil society.