No Free Election is Safe

By Robert C. Cuddy

Democratic forces in South Korea have fought back. But the impeachment of their freely elected, progressive president when he was barely a year into his five-year term remains an ominous manifestation of a sinister trend that is creeping into western-style democracies. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that no legitimate election is safe from being undone.

From South Korea to Haiti to California, the forces of reaction are growing increasingly bold as they refuse to accept the voters' verdict. No sooner are votes counted than the regressives begin noshing like termites, chewing away at democracy.

The fact that they may be operating technically within the law in some of these cases, as with the California recall that put Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor's mansion, does not lessen this fact: By undoing an election before the elected individual serves his term, they are undercutting the concept of a binding election.

That is a first step toward undercutting elections altogether.

Consider the following recent examples:

• In South Korea, The Grand National Party orchestrated the impeachment of Roh Moo-hyun when he had served barely a year of his presidency. The popular Roh had been elected on a progressive platform that included a thaw in relations with North Korea.

• In Haiti, the US stood aside as democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown. Many believe the US government, whose current leaders pay lip service to spreading democracy around the world and have started a war in Iraq to ostensibly serve that end, was complicit in Aristide's removal.

• In rural Humboldt County, Calif., home of the world's most majestic redwood forests, Pacific Lumber laid out enough cash to get a recall of new District Attorney Paul Gallegos on the ballot. Gallegos had filed fraud charges against Pacific Lumber.

• And, of course, in the case that everyone knows about, plutocrats in California launched a recall against Gov. Gray Davis as soon as the votes giving him a second term had been counted. With breathtaking efficiency, Schwarzenegger has been handing the state over to the ultra-wealthy ever since he replaced Davis.

I could throw in President Clinton's second term, when conservatives in Congress and their mouthpieces in the media all but kept Clinton from governing, even though Americans had elected him to run the country.

And do I need to mention Florida, Gore-Bush and the Supreme Court?

I'm sure there are other examples. They all add up to this: In places where elections are supposed to be stable, the citizens can no longer consider their verdict final.

You could view this in several different ways. You could, for example, admire the power brokers for their tenacity. But I don't believe the children's ditty, "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again" was meant to apply to election cycles in free countries.

There is a more unnerving perspective: Unless this growing disregard of elections stops, what little faith people still retain in their power as citizens will erode even further.

When people stop believing in the legitimacy of voting, one of two things usually happens.

First, many people give up and sink into apathy. They stop voting and purge the phrase "civic duty" from their vocabularies. This has been happening. Barely half the people vote in national elections, and it is usually the disenfranchised and discouraged who decline to participate. A recent California poll showed that voters from low-income and minority communities vote less than affluent people do.

A second possible outcome in countries where citizens are stripped of power: revolution. History books are filled with examples.

There is, however, a third possibility: Citizens can take back the power. That is what happened in Humboldt County and South Korea, and it is encouraging.

In Humboldt County, Gallegos not only survived the recall attempt, he sent Pacific Lumber scurrying into the forest it so often tries to cut down. Gallegos took more than 60% of the vote.

In South Korea, citizens took to the streets and created a strong backlash against the scurrilous move to oust Roh. His supporters prevailed in April elections, and in mid-May the Constitutional Court overturned his impeachment and returned him to power, much stronger than he was before the impeachment.

It all harkens back to the John F. Kennedy admonition: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Or, as I often say, less eloquently, never turn your back on these bastards.

Cuddy, a former editorial page editor for the Oakland Tribune and Knight-Ridder, is a freelance writer in California. Email:

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