Ukraine’s Election Poses Big Questions for the U.S.

Ukraine’s Election Poses Big Questions for the U.S.

Ukrainians went to the polls Sunday to elect a new parliament, and when the results are official, it is almost certain they will have a legislature with new faces and a confirmed tilt westward. 

That will surely please Washington and the European capitals, which have vigorously supported the government installed after the coup against the Moscow-allied Viktor Yanukovich last February. So Sunday’s polls must be the end of the story, another victory for democracy.   

Not by a long way. 

For one thing, Ukraine’s present constitution was made law the day Yanukovich, who was legitimately elected president in 2010, was extra-legally ousted. The subsequent procedure promulgating the new constitution was illegal and the document never got the president’s signature, as required by law. 

Related: Ukraine Leader Seeks Support for Pro-Europe Course 

For another, Sunday’s elections almost certainly involved considerable vote buying among the old oligarchs—not surprising in Kiev today, where parliament refused to pass an anti-corruption law governing its members’ behavior a few months ago. And another: President Petro Poroshenko’s government has a disturbing compliment of antidemocratic extremists, including neo-Nazis, in its cabinet.   

And yet another: It remains to be determined what degree of autonomy the Russian-speaking majority in the east will enjoy, as required in the ceasefire Kiev signed with rebel factions on September 5. The eastern Donbass is scheduled to hold elections of its own next month.   

In sum, the U.S. and the West European allies may like the new crowd in Kiev, but its democratic credentials are a work in progress.  

Here’s the larger point: One of the most fundamental questions facing the U.S. in the post-Cold War context is how it will react when electorates exercising their democratic rights choose leaders not to Washington’s liking—or when the U.S. preference is for leaders who came to power undemocratically. Communism is dead. Is the rise of democracy—the very thing the Cold War was waged for—now going to bite the U.S. in the backside here, there, and everywhere around the globe? 

Related: Bolivia’s Morales Claims Reelection Victory 


Bolivia. Bolivian voters just returned Evo Morales the coca farmer turned populist president, by a wide margin. Morales has the economy ticking over well, but he’s no friend of Washington’s (and vice versa), having so far expelled one ambassador, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.   

Brazil. Second-round polls opened Sunday, and President Dilma Rouseff is on track to take the second, although her lead has narrowed. Like Morales, the former guerrilla fighter is another key figure in Latin America’s leftward swing and is furiously at odds with Washington over Edward Snowden’s revelations that her phone was among those the NSA has tapped. 

Egypt. Washington approved of the coup deposing Mohammad Morsi last year and now backs Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who marks a return to military dictatorship. Given Morsi was the first democratically elected leader in Egyptian history, the irony of America’s preference for authoritarian rule is lost on few Egyptians other than the educated elite in Cairo. 

Thailand. The educated elite in Bangkok systematically wrecked the democratic process earlier this year because the impoverished Thai majority, naturally enough, has consistently chosen leaders who represent it for the past decade. Washington’s objections have been unsuitably muted as Thailand also slides back into military government

Related: Here’s John Kerry’s Next Foreign Policy Test 

Venezuela. By the evidence, the U.S. would dearly like to oust Nicolás Maduro, the popularly elected successor to the late Hugo Chavez. Maduro has so far expelled American diplomats on three occasions; not long ago, his foreign minister read aloud from intercepted cable traffic that appeared to implicate the American embassy and civil society groups in unrest among urbanized elites and university students.   

Maybe Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive, made the point binding these various situations as clearly as it can be made when he put his foot in his mouth last week. Addressing the crisis over open elections, Leung told a press conference, “If it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you’d be talking to the half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 a month.” 

Not too much democracy, in other words: The thought shocks when stated forthrightly, but a lot of people around the globe seem to share it. 

For sure, elections are not the only factor defining a democracy. Constitutions and social compacts that may or may not take the West’s as a model are others. In Latin America, where Western political forms are the norm, much of the continent has emerged from the era of caudillos and military dictators as strongly social democratic—not, historically, Washington’s favorite idea for its southern neighbors. 

In theory, support for emerging democracies around the world should be an obvious call requiring little thought. But the rise of electorates with interests outside those of Westernized elites—which I put among the most significant phenomena of the new century—brings complexities whether we like to acknowledge them or not. This has to be among the supreme ironies of our time.    

The question is especially acute for the U.S., given (1) its democratic ideals and (2) its unmatched ability to influence political processes in other nations simply by expressing support or opposition to outcomes.

Related: Obama Must Support Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Protestors

The U.S. record in decades past has been mixed to put it mildly. In cases such as Iran, Guatemala, and the Congo, where elected leaders were deposed under American direction during the Cold War, the scholarship is thorough and the acknowledgments and lately the apologies have been made. 

Post-Berlin Wall, with democracy clearly in the ascendant, the question must be examined all over again from a new perspective.

For now the question remains open, but good answers will require American policy makers to think more imaginatively than they have so far. “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them,” Einstein said famously and repeatedly. It is exactly the problem.

If you put the Obama administration’s record against Einstein’s thought, it fairly flunks. Backing al-Sisi’s coup in Egypt last year was out of the Cold War playbook and has encouraged the worst human rights violations in Egyptian history.

In Ukraine, where the logical solution to the nation’s political, historical, and cultural divisions is some form of federalism, the jury is out but soon to return. Let’s watch as the new parliament in Kiev addresses its biggest challenge--and how Washington reacts.

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