From Nicolás Maduro to Brexit democracy is under threat

Big questions remain about source of Leave campaign’s funds

Leave campaigner Arron Banks (left), who is being investigated by the British National Crime Agency. The mysterious deeds and motives of men like Banks – the self-styled “bad boy of Brexit” – will be life-changing for many. Photograph:   Victoria Jones/PA

Leave campaigner Arron Banks (left), who is being investigated by the British National Crime Agency. The mysterious deeds and motives of men like Banks – the self-styled “bad boy of Brexit” – will be life-changing for many. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

 

It’s a big call but much of the western world has made up its mind about the humanitarian and political fiasco that is Venezuela. The new president, they have ordained, is the one who declared himself president; the relatively untested 35-year-old, Juan Guaidó, the industrial engineer described variously as a “centrist”, a unifier, “a Latin Obama” (using the Spanish version of “Yes, we can” as a slogan), “humble”, “incredibly brave” and possessing “the charisma of a young Kennedy”.

Or an “uncharismatic” “second string politician”, using the crisis as a brazen power grab while cosying up to far-right allies such as Trump and Brazil’s strongman, Jair Bolsonaro.

The narrative for and against naturally comes down to whether the critique is coming from the far-left, centre or right. But to outsiders observing the thuggery, the corruption and the millions of starving citizens forced to flee an oil-rich nation, Guaidó appears to be a risk worth taking.

On Monday, British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted that the UK would recognise Guaidó as constitutional president until “credible elections” could be held.

For all the talk about “credible elections” elsewhere, the UK’s own democratic process has come under the spotlight

Descending briefly from his permanent perch on the fence, her majesty’s leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, responded by attacking “outside interference” against the Venezuelan government.

He was accused in turn of defending the “dictator” Nicolás Maduro, because in some eyes, Corbyn will defend the devil himself if he comes accessorised with a hammer and sickle. His shadow attorney general, Shami Chakrabarti, wrung her hands and said it “would be very helpful if the United States and the UK Conservative government would . . . call out Venezuela but also look across the way at Honduras, where you have a US-backed government which is also crushing dissent”.

Sham elections

That game of whataboutery could be played for eternity. But Chakrabarti surely has a point. Vote-rigging and sham elections engineered by authoritarian thugs are hardly rare. Last year, CCTV footage from the Russian presidential election – when Vladimir Putin was credited with a stunning 77 per cent of the vote – appeared to show multiple voting slips being stuffed into ballot boxes.

In Cambodia, the prime minister, Hun Sen, rigged the election basically by banning the main opposition party – or, to be specific, the party was dissolved after the supreme court found it had plotted to overthrow the government, its president was imprisoned and 118 party members were banned from politics for five years.

Just a couple of weeks ago, elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo produced such a ridiculously implausible outcome that it would take a whole column to explain.

These are not outliers. A “remarkably high” proportion of elections are rigged in one way or another, write Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas, authors of How to Rig an Election. In 2017, according to Freedom House, 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. Nearly two-thirds of citizens across the world live under a system of government that is not fully democratic. We are, say Cheeseman and Klaas, in the middle of a “serious democratic recession”.

Authoritarian strongmen

This may be partly attributed to Donald Trump who openly embraces authoritarian strongmen from Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping to the Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Last year, while many in the West were agitating about dodgy elections in Turkey and Russia, Trump was on the phone congratulating the winners.

Meanwhile, for all the talk about “credible elections” elsewhere, the UK’s own democratic process has come under the spotlight. Leave.EU, the unofficial Leave campaign funded by the insurance tycoon, Arron Banks to the tune of £8 million – making it the largest donation in British political history – has already been found to have breached electoral law and is now under investigation by the National Crime Agency on suspicion that “money given . . . came from impermissible sources” and that Banks “knowingly concealed the true circumstances under which this money was provided”.

Big questions remain about how precisely Banks’s money was spent, why he has been so coy about the source of it (a Channel 4 reporter located his South African gold mines but found them closed) and why he downplayed the number of times he met the Russian ambassador in the lead-up to the referendum (11, not three or four). Banks has insisted the money came from a UK-based company he owns and did not breach electoral law.

These investigations have been instigated and kept alive mainly by dogged, courageous journalists. Yet the leisurely pace of the official investigations seems remarkable. Given the colossal stakes involved for ordinary people, the narrow winning margin of the referendum, the vast amounts of wealth to be made by disaster capitalism and the powers of disruption, the mysterious deeds and motives of men like Banks – the self-styled “bad boy of Brexit” – will be life-changing for many.

Yet when it comes to Brexit, there seems little appetite for such inquiries. Carole Cadwalladr, the brave, dogged Guardian journalist, describes this as one of the most frustrating aspects of her work: “Many of the allegations have now been proven and yet simply ignored. We seem to have accepted as a country that it’s okay to break the law.”

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