Monday, April 11, 2005


When is an election a coup?

As evidenced by the past two U.S. Presidential elections, it is possible to take over a country under cover of an election without firing a shot. Is this a coup? Michael Wines of the NY Times uses an anonymous source to raise this question in the context of recent political developments in Africa.

The old Organization for African Union has been supplanted by the African Union (AU), "modeled, in name and purpose, on Europe's own union."

The new group, bowing to a democratic breeze blowing from Mali to Mauritius, stood for the premise that the rule of law is in, and despotism out.

Take it from Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, a thoroughgoing democrat. "Anybody who comes to power unconstitutionally," he said at the union's first meeting in 2002, "cannot sit with us."

Wines notes as AU accomplishments stifling a coup in Togo, sending peacekeepers to Burundi and Darfur and ending civil war in the Ivory Coast. All fine and good until we get to the case of Mugabe's recent "election"—

Nonpartisan election monitors and Western nations called the election grievously flawed. Not so the African Union: Zimbabwe's election was free and fair, it said. Far from declaring "This will not stand!," the group commended Zimbabwe's government for "making efforts towards creating an even playing field."

Wines suggests that the principal reason for this contradiction is that

African leaders fear that the defeat of a serious ruler like Mr. Mugabe may help spread the notion that any entrenched leadership can be unseated by a committed opposition. In Africa, where most democracies are effectively one-party affairs, such a notion can be dangerous.

This is a frightening thought and if not quickly stanched could spread to the Americas.

But here is the interesting question confronting the AU. According to Wines' anonymous source—

The African Union can put down a coup in Togo, he said, because its charter explicitly permits intervention in a member nation's affairs in the case of a coup. But the charter is silent on whether the bloodless theft of political power by, say, stealing an election, is a coup in all but name.

"What could change that is if Zimbabwean groups themselves make the call to the A.U.," he said. "You could make quite a strong argument that rigging and manipulating elections is a kind of constitutional coup."

If the AU decides in the affirmative, it would certainly be a precedent-setting decision to which the world might look in evaluating the legitimacy of other "democratic" governments. Is a bit of cosmic irony afoot?

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