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TRUMP AND DEMOCRACY – LESSONS FROM THE USA

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by Nigel Hatch P.C.

President Donald Trump (Trump) will be leaving office as a one term president on January 20 unless he resigns or is impeached for a second time or removed by the 25th Amendment prior to that.

His latest gambit was to incite his supporters to prevent the certification of the victory of President-elect Biden by storming Congress on Jan. 8. The images that flashed across the world of this frenzied mob attack stunned allies and was greeted with amusement by foes. Resultantly the Democrats who now control the House, Senate and the presidency are expected to impeach him for “incitement to insurrection”. Despicable attacks on democratic legislatures have historical antecedents – the Reichstag fire, the bomb flung at the parliamentary group meeting presided by President Jayewardene in 1987 and the 2017 attack on the UK Parliament.

This comes in the aftermath of Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the election after his loss to Biden by a majority of over seven million votes, perhaps the largest in US political history with unsubstantiated allegations that the election was “stolen” from him – somewhat reminiscent on a far lesser and certainly more peaceful scale of Gen. Fonseka’s claim that he lost to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010 due to a “computer jilmart”. Several ensuing law suits initiated by Trump failed. His lawyer Guilliani, a once respected Mayor of New York, has reduced himself to a jester.

The overrunning of Congress by his supporters was to prevent the final certification of the Biden victory ordained by the American Constitution. That constitution is unique in the world – the first written constitution, sovereignty vested in the people, an elected executive president, a Bill of Rights and a separation of powers with checks and balances between the branches of government.

Its influence on other constitutions is immense including the Sri Lankan second Republican constitution of 1978. The American commitment to constitutionalism also formed the bedrock of its foreign policy where the virtues of democracy and the rule of law was projected as the triumph of a liberal democracy signifying the “end of history” as there was no superior system known to man. Other nations are judged by the standards of the American system.

But the Trump presidency and the actions of his supporters have exposed the internal stresses of democracy even in the most powerful democratic country in the first world.

Trump’s refusal to accept what the Wall Street Journal editorialized as “the basic bargain of democracy which is to accept the result win or lose” has significant repercussions for democracy worldwide. His initial refusal to allow the incoming administration access to briefings and not yet conceding the election are some manifestations. But there was no excuse for senior Republican Senators McConnell and Graham delaying their acceptance of President-elect Biden’s victory once the legal challenges became manifestly ludicrous.

Part of the problem engendered by Trump is the process of electing a President in the US. It is perhaps the only country in the world where the winner can lose the popular vote but still claim the presidency due to the system of the electoral college which allocates to each State based on its population a number of electors a plurality of which determines the outcome. Thus despite losing the popular vote Bush beat Gore in 2000, and Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Given America’s Federal nature, each State controls the election process overseen by officials who have overt political affiliations to either of the main parties. Candidates are permitted observers at the counting centers and this has generally worked smoothly. Congress ultimately certifies the results of each State or electoral college – but the antitheses of democracy still persists in that the winner can be declared although he has lost the popular vote.

Fortunately for Sri Lanka we have a constitutionally prescribed threshold of the popular vote for a candidate to win, and an election overseen by an election commission. India too has a National Elections Commission which oversees its elections despite being a semi Federal State.

American democracy has been crisis ridden even before Trump – several shutdowns of the Federal administrative system due to gridlock between the president and Congress over budgets, fraught race relations and fierce internal debate over abortion, gay rights, and the ideological predilections of Supreme Court nominees. Attempts at disenfranchising black voters persists in certain areas despite the gains made under President Johnson in the early 1960s.

But arguably Trump exacerbated divisions in America. He took control of the Republican party and infused it with a toxic mix of a one man show and palpable dissembling with no dissenting voices, except Mitt Romney latterly. That he was perhaps the most inarticulate president in recent times beggars belief on his hypnotic ability in this regard. As President with majority support in the Senate (until Georgia) he escaped conviction despite prior impeachment by the lower House for offences which were egregious. He used foreign policy which is a presidential preserve as an extension of his personal political interest.

Partisanship and rancor has increased between the two parties in Congress. One recalls Senator McCain who lost to Obama who embodied bipartisanship. Clearly the Republican party lacks seniors in congress who have a bipartisan approach. For example Senator Ted Cruz urged Trumps supporters to become “revolutionary soldiers” and challenge the election results despite there being no basis. He picked an amenable AG in William Barr and had until recently the unconditional support of the Fox news empire which has raised debate over the power of a largely unregulated media despite libel laws.

In fact in Australia, former PMs’ Rudd and Turnbull, once political adversaries have joined to call for greater oversight of Fox. Trump indiscriminately used the presidential pardon in favour of his supporters or political allies. The extent, if any, to which his family business was enriched is yet to be fully investigated. His handling of the COVID-19 pandemic which has claimed over 300,000 deaths in the US further polarized society.

Trump skilfully tapped into the largely white, disgruntled blue collar electorate who had been marginalized by economic policies of his predecessors. A resurgence of white supremacists and a countervailing black lives matter movement necessitated by institutionalized police discrimination in some areas ensued. The American political ethos under Trump whose rallying slogan was to “make America great again” has been a blend of self styled “patriots” and a wild west frontier mentality with a latent but now overt belief in a citizens right to taking control of government manifested by the assault on Congress.

The latter in particular springs from a misguided perception that as that constitution vested the constituent power in the people in a federal setting, that an assault on the democratic process by a resort to violence was legitimate although it was clearly not. It is highly doubtful that the patriots who fought the revolutionary war for independence against Britain as immortalized in the Mel Gibson movie “Patriot” would identify with what transpired recently.

Trump constantly asserted that as President he had an unfettered right to do as he pleased. But this view did not receive judicial approbation and the Supreme Court in July 2019 rejected his claims that the New York State could not subpoena his financial records.

The constitutional and democratic landscape in America under Trump resonates in many parts of the world including Sri Lanka. America now has to reestablish its credentials as the leading first world democracy. But one thing is clear; in any democracy checks and balances and the rule of law and accountability are paramount. This includes internal debate, even within the ruling party.



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Features

UNFORGIVING CONSEQUENCES OF DEFORESTATION

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By Eng. Thushara Dissanayake

A forest is much more than a group of trees. Clearing of forests for agriculture has been an age-old practice. We accepted chena cultivation as a traditional livelihood of the rural poor. Secondly, we had ample forestlands throughout the country. Another cause of deforestation is development activities, besides logging and gem mining in some cases. Because of these acts, either legal or illegal, our forest cover has fast dwindled posing many serious environmental issues.

According to the World Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), by 2015, the estimated forest area in the world equaled 31 per cent of the earth’s surface area, most of which was located in tropical areas such as Africa, South America, and Indonesia. Today, according to experts, we have only 17 per cent of the forest cover left in this country.

People are the ultimate managers of forests and the higher their level of knowledge and awareness, the better their ability to conserve forests. It is unfortunate that recent incidents prove that people are not serious about the environment.

We are living in an era where climate change has become a major challenge. Ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere, mainly by the burning of fossil fuels has caused global warming, which renders myriads of bitter consequences. In the meantime, deforestation has been identified as the second major driver of climate change. It is forests which can help us reduce the excessive amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere playing a leading role in the fight against global warming. Forests act as a carbon sink and probably the only entity that is capable of carbon regulation. On average, the amount of oxygen produced annually by an acre of trees is about 2,500 kg while the annual oxygen consumption of a person is 750 kg.

Trees relieve people from stress and make them more comfortable while enhancing their well-being. Without trees, the world would not be beautiful and appealing. The earth has millions of different varieties of trees. Many trees do not remain the same throughout the year. When we plant a tree, we are emotionally attached to it and keen to observe its growth day by day. Sometimes we plant a tree to mark a special event and it may be our birthday, the day of marriage, or the demise of a close relative. Bhutan introduced the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, which is used to measure happiness and well-being of its people. One of the four pillars of GNH is environmental conservation.

Even our tourism industry, which is one of the main sectors that bring us foreign exchange, vastly depends on the natural beauty of this country. If we fail to maintain its unique natural beauty, the country will cease to be a tourist attraction, jeopardising the industry.

The contribution of trees to the ecosystem is massive. Trees improve air quality by trapping solid particles, retard rainfall-runoff and thereby mitigate floods, increase groundwater recharge, and preserve soil by preventing erosion. The sustenance of our river system largely depends on the central forest area being the source of water. Not only forests but even green areas such as shrubs and turfs inside forests also contribute to the ecosystem immensely. Although they receive less attention, they can filter air by removing dust and absorb many pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

Forests are home to wildlife. The same is true of humans and the survival of humans is also dependent on forest conservation.

 

The way forward

If the concept of vertical development is followed, not only in major cities but also in other areas, the acquisition of forest areas for human settlements can be significantly minimised as high rise buildings will obviate the need for many acres of land. Modern technology has to be used in agriculture together with methods that could contribute to high water use efficiencies to increase productivity rather than expanding agricultural land areas. Human settlements in less developed rural areas should be discouraged. There are large amounts of barren lands, including abandoned paddy lands, that could be used for afforestation if a proper mechanism is put in place to compensate landowners. These are several effective strategies which should be implemented sooner than later as policy interventions on all fronts are required to protect our existing forests. If the country’s forest cover shrinks further, we will all have to face bitter consequences sooner than expected.

 

(Eng. Thushara Dissanayake is a Chartered Engineer specialising in water resources engineering with over 20 years of experience)

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HYPOCRICY OF OUR COLONIAL MASTER!

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Irrespective of what happens at the UNHRC, there is one thing we should never forget; the arrogance and hypocrisy of our colonial master! The behaviour of the British Government is despicable. The UK has taken from the ‘nouveau-evil empire’––the US––the task of pressuring member nations of the UNHRC to vote against Sri Lanka! All this for the crime of defeating terrorism! Is this what is expected of the so-called leader of the Commonwealth?

It is a shame that the British representatives have not read Mathias Keittle’s excellent, well-reasoned piece “A German Analyst’s View on the Eelam War in Sri Lanka” which appeared in The Island on 28 February.

Considering there are allegations that some friends of high-ranking politicians of the British government made a mint from Covid-19 epidemic, one begins to wonder whether the Tiger-rump has helped some of them line their pockets. After all, it cannot simply be for a few votes. It will be interesting to see if the British government can counter what Matias Keittle so emphatically stated:

“Sri Lanka eliminated a dreaded terrorist group, with intricate global links, but receives little credit for it. Unlike elsewhere in the world, Sri Lanka has succeeded in resettling 300,000 IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). There are no starving children for the NGOs to feed but this gets ignored. Sri Lanka has avoided mass misery, epidemics and starvation but the West takes no notice of this. Sri Lanka has attained enviable socio-economic standards for a developing country while eliminating terrorism but gets no acknowledgement. The government of Sri Lanka and its President continue to enjoy unprecedented popular approval through democratic elections but this is dismissed. The economy is functional, but remains not encouraged by the West.”

My concerns perhaps are confirmed by what Lord Naseby, a government peer sitting in the British House of Lords, has stated. The following from the statement by Lord Naseby published in The Island of 5 March under the title, ‘Lord Naseby asks why Adele not prosecuted in the UK for child recruitment’, surely, is an indictment on the British government:

“I am astounded how the UK or any other Member of the Core Group can possibly welcome the High Commissioner’s so called ‘detailed and most comprehensive report on Sri Lanka’ when it is riddled with totally unsubstantiated allegations and statements completely ignoring the huge effort to restore infrastructure and rehouse displaced Tamils and Muslims, who lost their homes due to the Tamil Tigers.

“Furthermore, I question how the UK government knowingly and apparently consciously withheld vital evidence from the despatches of the UK military attaché Col. Gash. Evidence I obtained from a Freedom of Information request, resisted by the Foreign Office at every stage for over two years. These dispatches from an experienced and dedicated senior British officer in the field makes it clear that the Sri Lankan armed forces at every level acted and behaved appropriately, trying hard not to harm any Tamil civilians who were held by the Tamil Tigers as hostages in a human shield.

“This conscious decision totally undermines the UK‘s standing as an objective Leader of the Core Group; made even worse by the impunity for not prosecuting the LTTE leader living in the UK, largely responsible for recruiting, training and deploying over 5,000 Child Soldiers – a real War Crime. It is time that the UK Government acknowledges and respects the recommendations of the Paranagama Commission, which involved several international expert advisers, including from the UK – Sir Desmond de Silva QC, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, Rodney Dixon QC and Major General John Holmes.”

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, has strived so hard to strengthen the Commonwealth of Nations so that the UK could successfully transform itself from a colonial master to a friend of the past colonies but Her Majesty’s Government seems to be behaving in a manner to undermine Her efforts. Her Majesty’s vision of friendship and cooperation seems to be countered by the bully-boy tactics of politicians.

The excellent editorial “Should SL follow UK?” in The Island on 24 February concluded with the following:

“Anything Westminster goes here. It is the considered opinion of the defenders of democracy that Sri Lanka should emulate the UK in protecting human rights. What if Sri Lanka takes a leaf out of the UK’s book in handling alleged war crimes? In November 2020, the British Parliament passed a bill to prevent ‘vexatious’ prosecutions of military personnel and veterans over war crimes allegations. This law seeks to grant the British military personnel, who have committed war crimes, an amnesty to all intents and purposes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has ascertained evidence of a pattern of war crimes perpetrated by British soldiers against Iraqi detainees, some of whom were even raped and beaten to death. Curiously, the ICC said in December 2020, it would not take action against the perpetrators! Too big to be caught?”

the UK may argue that it has to protect military personnel against vexatious prosecutions. If so, they should understand the position of Sri Lanka. We know that the US administrations, be it under Obama, Trump or Biden, run more on brawn than brain but we expect better from the UK. Why or why do they have to behave like a poodle of the US.

Is this not hypocrisy of the highest order? Shame on you, the British government!

 

 

 

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ASIAN DEMONSTRATORS AND THE AMERICAN DREAM

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The US was always a selective supporter of democracy, and now it is a diminished one. 

By Ian Buruma

One month ago, in Myanmar, protesters against the military coup gathered around the United States Embassy in Yangon. They called on President Joe Biden to make the generals go back to their barracks and free Aung San Suu Kyi from detention. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a big victory in the 2020 general election, which is why the generals, afraid of losing their privileges, seized power.

But is the US Embassy the best place to protest? Can the US President do anything substantial apart from expressing disapproval of the coup? The protesters’ hope for a US intervention shows that America’s image as the champion of global freedom is not yet dead, even after four years of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ isolationism.

Demonstrators in Hong Kong last year, protesting against China’s harsh crackdown on the territory’s autonomy, even regarded Trump as an ally. He was erratically hostile to China, so the protesters waved the stars and stripes, hoping that America would help to keep them free from Chinese communist authoritarianism.

America’s self-appointed mission to spread freedom around the world has a long history. Many foolish wars were fought as a result. But US democratic idealism has been an inspiration to many as well. America long saw itself, in John F Kennedy’s words, as a country ‘engaged in a world-wide struggle in which we bear a heavy burden to preserve and promote the ideals that we share with all mankind.’

As Hungarians found out when they rose up against the Soviet Union in 1956, words often prove to be empty. The Hungarian Revolution, encouraged by the US, was crushed after 17 days; the US did nothing to help those it had egged on.

Sometimes, however, freedom has been gained with American help, and not just against Hitler’s tyranny in Western Europe. During the 1980s, people in the Philippines and South Korea rebelled against dictatorships in huge demonstrations, not unlike those in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Myanmar in the last two years. So, of course, did people in the People’s Republic of China, where a 10-meter tall ‘Goddess of Democracy,’ modelled on the Statue of Liberty, was erected on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The Chinese demonstrations ended in a bloody disaster, but pro-democracy forces toppled Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship in the Philippines and South Korea’s military regime. Support from the US was an important factor. In Taiwan, too, authoritarianism was replaced by democracy, again with some US assistance.

But what worked in the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan is unlikely to work in Thailand, Hong Kong, or Myanmar. The main reason is that the former three countries were what leftists called ‘client states’ during the Cold War. Their dictators were ‘our dictators,’ protected by the US as anti-communist allies.

Propped up by American money and military largesse, they could continue to oppress their people, so long as the US saw communism as a global threat. Once China opened for business and Soviet power waned, they suddenly became vulnerable. Marcos was pressed on American TV to promise to hold a free and fair election. When he tried to steal the result, a US senator told him to ‘cut and cut cleanly.’ Marcos duly ran for his helicopter and ended up in exile in Hawaii.

Similarly, when South Korean students, supported by much of the middle-class, poured into the streets, angry not only with their military government, but with its US backer, America finally came down on the side of democracy. Dependent on American military protection, the generals had to listen when the US urged them to step aside.

The generals in Thailand and Myanmar have no reason to do likewise. Biden can threaten sanctions and voice his outrage. But with China willing to step in as Myanmar’s patron, the junta has no reason to worry very much (though the military has been wary of China up to now).

Thailand’s rulers, too, benefit from Chinese influence, and the country has a long history of playing one great power against another. And because Hong Kong is officially part of China, there is little any outside power can do to protect its freedoms, no matter how many American flags people wave in the streets.

Dependence on the US in Europe and Asia, and the clout that Americans held as a result, was sustained by the Cold War. Now, a new cold war is looming, this time with China. But US power has been greatly diminished since its zenith in the 20th century. Trust in American democracy has been eroded by the election of an ignorant narcissist who bullied traditional allies, and China is a more formidable power than the Soviet Union ever was. It is also vastly richer.

Countries in East and Southeast Asia still need US support for their security. As long as Japan is hindered from playing a leading military role, because of a tainted past and a pacifist constitution, the US will continue to be the main counterweight to China’s increasing dominance. But as Thailand’s deft balancing of powers demonstrates, US allies are unlikely to become ‘client states’ in the way some were before. Even the South Koreans are careful not to upset their relations with China. The US is far; China is near.

This pattern is to be expected. US dominance can’t last forever, and Asian countries, as well as Europeans, should wean themselves from total dependence on a not-always-dependable power to protect them. Being a ‘client state’ can be humiliating. Yet, the day may come when some people, somewhere, might miss Pax Americana, when the US was powerful enough to push out the unwanted rascals.

 

(Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.)

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