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Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Democracy: Coups versus elections

It is a little too easy to say that democratic elections are the best method of changing leadership around the world. Unfortunately the international community has a bad habit of saying just this. It’s trendy to condemn coups and attempted coups on principle, though often the coups are attempts to regain democratic footing in countries where democracy is little more than powerful rhetoric used by militant leaders.

The recent military coup in Niger was purportedly an attempt to regain democratic equilibrium in a country where the president had a track record of altering laws to retain power. Ousted President Tandja had changed the constitution several times to stay in office and delay elections. He was democratically elected in fair trials, but his tenure in office was a step away from democracy.

Though he overstayed his time in office and the people were frustrated with him to the point of instigating a year-long constitutional crisis, the international community refuses the coup on grounds of a breach of democracy, despite that the current government promises to hold democratic elections in the near future.

This is not an isolated event. The international community, particularly highly-industrialized and developed countries, has a history of dogmatically clinging to elections as a symbol of fair and legitimate democracy. Recent coups in Madagascar and Honduras and political unrest in Kenya and Sudan reflect instances in which democratic elections are harmful to the democratic process. Last year in Madagascar, the incumbent President Ravalomanana imposed several campaigning restrictions to hamper the possibility of lesser-known opponents winning the elections. When his opponent did win the elections, Ravalomanana contested the results and refused to leave office. Rajoelina effectively led months of violent protest to oust the incumbent president, which the United States and the European Union condemned.

The recent arrest and trial of Turkish military officials allegedly attempting to overthrow the government is the latest in a recent string of coups around the world. Although those under investigation are denying their involvement in such an attempt, there has been remarkably little coverage on the increasing change of Turkish laws and constitution to reflect the Muslim majority, including laws that require all government officials’ wives to be covered with a head scarf and compulsory religious education for children. The hotly-debated question is if these changes are in fact democratic or if they reflect a government trying to solidify its power by changing laws.

While many governments refuse to support or recognize the legitimacy of governments that come to power via violent coups, the United States has not shied away from instigating coups when it sees an interest. Including coups to oust Haitian, Nicaraguan and Chilean governments, the United States has a brutal history of supporting undemocratic coups for far less noble reasons than what some current leaders of coups are espousing.

Supporting democracy is not a matter of clinging to current governments and advocating for elections at all costs. When incumbent leaders have the power to change laws surrounding the presidency and polling, elections do not necessarily represent the will of the people. The answer is not to shun all coups on principle, but to shun leaders who work to extend their power at the expense of democracy. Coups should be prevented by focusing on democracy before the situation elevates to the point where a coup is the only conceivable means of removing someone from power.

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  • S

    setryMar 11, 2010 at 8:15 am

    “When his opponent did win the elections, Ravalomanana contested the results and refused to leave office.” This statement is terribly wrong even if the author was reffereing to the 2001 election asRavalomanana was not an in office yet and also he did won the elections even his opponents agreed with the fact that Ravalomanana obtained the most vote.Whether he obtained a bit more or a bit less than 50% was the issue but even Ratsiraka’s own vote counts gave Ravalomanana a 10% lead ( 38% vs 48%. Also Forgetting to mention that he was re-elected in 2007 during the most transparent presidential elections the country has ever had is also signe of bias from the author. The article does make a lot of sense and raise interesting issue however the case of madagascar doesn’t fit with that hypothesis and using missleading factualy wrong statement won’t help it.
    Furthemore, “Ravalomanana of using political power to help family members and close friends getting prominent positions” this statement is also false, what the report of the Intl institutions said is that he passed regulations that benefited owned by some of his relatives but never had Ravalomanana appointed relatives to prominent positiions.

    Let us take into account some counter-factual hypothesis. What if Rajoelina would have wait the end of Ravalomanana’s term in office to present a candidate that could run against him and eventually won the election ?

  • D

    DanMar 6, 2010 at 9:09 am

    What Ravalomanana family members were given powerful positions? What powerful positions? I can’t figure out who or what positions you might be refering to.

    Thank you very much.

    • H

      Heather Nichols-HainingMar 6, 2010 at 8:19 pm

      The World Bank, the EU, and other lenders of Madagascar started suspending programs and financial support in 2008, accusing Ravalomanana of using political power to help family members and close friends getting prominent positions and using state money and policies to promote his own business interests. I do not know which family members or which positions, but I do know that this was a serious accusation that both the international community and his political opponents launched against him.

      • D

        DanMar 7, 2010 at 3:11 pm

        Please then provide citations for the sources that said that president Ravalomanana gave positions of power to family members. I would like to know what family members got what positions. Thank you very much.

  • W

    WallopMar 4, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    I read this article with interest. It is factually incorrect regarding Madagascar. I think that it is way too easy for someone to write and print without any basis of truth.

    There were no elections prior to the coup in Madagascar. To say that there were adds an element of legitamacy to what was and still is viewed by the free world as a military backed coup.

    • H

      Heather Nichols-HainingMar 4, 2010 at 6:13 pm


      You are absolutely right. The elections I was thinking of were actually in 2001 surrounding then incumbent President Ratsiraka and the opposing Marc Ravalomanana. In this case, the elections were hotly contested and several groups were called in to judge the legitimacy of the election results. Finally, Ravalomanana took power, declaring Ratsirka’s rule undemocratic, to which the international community (particularly the United States) responded negatively, marking the action as a coup and refusing to support the new government, who had arguably won the elections in the first place.

      In the more recent political crisis of 2009, Rajoelina accused Ravalomanana of undemocratically rewriting Madagascar’s constitution, including changing taxation laws to benefit his own dairy company and giving powerful positions to his family members. Ravalomanana had shut down Rajoelina’s TV and radio stations when Rajoelina invited former President Ratsiraka to speak on his radio show. This served as the cataclysm that encouraged people to rally around Rajoelina against Ravalomanana.

      I appreciate you correcting my facts and I apologize for my mistake, though I still maintain my point: it is too easy to write off coups as simply undemocratic without really investigating how elections or a democratically run government really works in practice. In one case, there were debatable fair elections between Rajoelina and Ravalomanana that were not respected and resulted in a coup, and in the other Ravalomanana had altered the democratic constitution to a point where it no longer resembled democracy, where free speech was constrained, and where Rajoelina was able to rally the increasingly impoverished masses to overthrow someone they understood as a dictator.

      • T

        TomMar 5, 2010 at 8:04 am

        Dear Heather
        You are still incorrect on your Madagascar facts. The US was the first Western country to recognize the Ravalomanana regime in 2002. Ravalomanana and Rajoelina never contested an election. Rvalomanana was the President, Rajoelina’s only election victory was for Mayor of Antananarivo. One factual mistake might be excused, two cant be. You flunk. Journalism doesnt seem to be your future perhaps you will find a more suitable career in the household domestic industry.

        • H

          Heather Nichols-HainingMar 6, 2010 at 8:30 pm

          Though the US and the international community eventually recognized Ravalomanana’s coup, the recognition was long in coming. Also, there is a difference between recognizing a leader and supporting him. I argue that the international community was hesistant to support the coup, claiming that any coup is a bad coup.

          Here are direct quotes from the US State Department and the French government:
          “The United States objects to the action taken by the opposition presidential candidate Marc Ravalomanana to declare himself president. We urge Mr Ravalomanana and all parties to consider carefully the repercussions that extralegal or violent actions could have on Madagascar’s future and its relationship with the international community.” (US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher)
          “This attempt to take power by force in violation of the constitutional rules of the country and of the principles of the UN and of the OAU cannot resolve the present crisis.” (French Foreign Ministry spokesman)

          As to your criticism that there was no election between Ravalomanana and Rajoelina, I have addressed that in my previous comment, where I admitted my mistake: “The elections I was thinking of were actually in 2001 surrounding then incumbent President Ratsiraka and the opposing Marc Ravalomanana. In this case, the elections were hotly contested and several groups were called in to judge the legitimacy of the election results…”

          I have done extensive research on this subject and would be happy to supply you with either my paper (which was unfortunately written in French) which has full citations and a bibliography, or just the bibliography (which is in English and most of my sources are in English).

      • W

        WallopMar 7, 2010 at 10:29 am


        I do not disagree with your theory, completely. I had a daughter stationed in Madagascar with the Peace Corps during this period. I have taken special interest in the affairs of this incredibly poor nation since. Though there are claims on both sides of the dispute, is is not possible to ignore the good that was done during Ravalomanana tenure. As with all unstable third world nations there are limited opportunities for the masses. Andry played this card in his favor, but things have gotten much worse for the people of Madagascar since he took power.

        • H

          Heather Nichols-HainingMar 7, 2010 at 3:19 pm

          I agree – Rajoelina certainly didn’t do the country a favor by instigating near civil war and ousting Ravalomanana. But I think the frustration the people felt leading up to the coup was real and probably should have been addressed in the international community before things got so bad that people were willing to riot. A better solution may have been to address the constitutional changes and try to regain democratic equilibrium before it came to that. As it was, some critics argue that the riots broke out more as a direct cause of hunger and financial need than politics. These are issues that should have been addressed.

          I don’t necessarily think coups are a great idea and I do think they’re a destabilizing, often destructive and violent force in countries that cannot handle much more destabilization. But at the same time, what else could the people do? The government wasn’t responding to their needs and the people did not see a means of regaining control over their constitution through legal means. The international community showed their unhappiness with Ravalomanana’s rule by withholding funds, which only served to increase discontent and poverty in Madagascar. Surely there is a better solution.

  • V

    vladmirMar 4, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Everything is moral that is necessary for the annihilation of the old exploiting social order and the unification of the proletariat. There can be no democracy in a society founded on class exploitation, only brutal class warfare.

    What is violence? subjecting billions around the globe to crushing structural exploitation and environmental destruction, or working to overthrow this structure?

    Marx and Engels remind us in The German Ideology that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” The petty pacifism of the new left surfaces only when the financial interests of the wealthy remain unchallenged. When people must be killed to continue the corporate dominance of the globe, many national militaries are up to the task.

    Socialism or barbarism is the inevitable choice that global capitalism presents humanity. We can either maintain the drive for profits through the continued exploitation of labor, which entails endlessly escalating wars, violence and policing, or to socialize production and inaugurate a new society whose founding principle is “from each according to ability, to each according to need.”

    Only Marxism is capable of EXPLAINING rather than merely complaining global social change. And only Marxism has explained how we may end the brutal class antagonism of the status quo.

    We must unite, comrades! We have nothing to lose but our chains!