At Large

Winning Isn’t Everything

Hugo Chavez learns that sometimes losing is the best thing a despot can do.

By 12.9.07

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Nothing instills credibility like conceding defeat. As Al Gore proved after his 2000 concession speech, there's something lovable about a loser.

This even applies to undemocratic rulers, who have a lot to lose from winning elections. Consider two wannabe tyrants -- Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Russia's Vladimir Putin -- who emerged from national elections this past week. The victory of Putin's United Russia party only underscored Putin's illegitimacy, whereas Chavez's narrow defeat achieved just the opposite effect.

Losing the constitutional referendum allowed Chavez to win in the world court of public opinion. Even skeptics took delight in seeing that freedom isn't totally dead in Chavez country. President Bush said Venezuelans had made "a very strong vote for democracy," which is an important admission: it acknowledges they had the freedom to choose it.

Had it passed, the constitutional referendum would have allowed Chavez to serve as president for life, declare arbitrary and indefinite states of emergency, ban human rights groups, and build a society based on "socialist, anti-imperialist principles" -- traditional components in anti-American repression.

Chavez framed the election in nationalist terms. "Whoever votes 'yes' is voting for Chavez," said Chavez, "and whoever votes 'no' is voting for George W. Bush." By a (supposedly) narrow margin, Venezuelans chose the latter. Like the Russians who inexplicably chant "Rocky" at the end of Rocky IV, Venezuelans opted for an American devil over a homegrown savior. Indeed, Chavez was "humiliated by his own people," said the Daily Telegraph.

Paradoxically, this humiliation has gained him newfound respectability. "He proved his democratic credentials by accepting an electoral defeat," said Bart Jones, author of Hugo!: The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution. Losing gives Chavez something no victory could have possibly bestowed: a sense of legitimacy. He somehow would have seemed less authentic had he won, because dictators always win. By admitting defeat, Chávez proves that democracy still exists in Venezuela and thereby mitigates concerns about his authoritarian designs. "There is no dictatorship here," he can now boast.

As Chavez's defeat generated sighs of relief, Putin's triumph brought gasps of despair. The West reacted to Russia's parliamentary elections with heightened distrust of Russian "managed democracy."

Though Putin has ruled out serving a third presidential term, he says the win gives him the "moral right" to serve indefinitely as Russia's de facto leader, as "father of the nation." Putin is a popular figure in Russia, which makes it even weirder that he would rig the elections in his party's favor.

Things happened in Russia that just don't happen in normal democracies. In Chechnya, voter turnout was a mind-boggling 99.5% (578,039 out of 580,918 registered voters participated). Numbers like these are unthinkable in America; such political absolutism is typically only found in the lands of the unfree. Lilia Shibanova, head of the only independent Russian vote-monitoring group, said the high turnout numbers "only show that electoral laws were violated."

Western governments are similarly skeptical. "The election was not fair and failed to meet standards for democratic elections," concluded the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe in a joint statement. A German government spokesman said flatly, "Russia is not a democracy. The elections were not free, not fair and not democratic." The results, said the Czech Foreign Ministry, "will always cast a shadow over the future lineup of the Russian parliament." Translation: the Russian government is illegitimate. See what winning does for you?

Dimwitted despots are convinced that holding and winning an election or two is all it takes to earn a pass from the West. But if you look at the record, their subterfuges rarely succeed.

In October 2002, Iraq held an election. The ballot contained only one question: "Do you agree with Saddam Hussein's continued rule?" Of the 11,445,636 eligible voters, every single one of them voted "yes" -- a minor improvement over the 1995 election, when the Iraqi leader received a meager 99.96% of the vote. So sure of the outcome were the Iraqi authorities, they declared the day a national holiday even before all the votes were tallied.

The ploy failed -- badly. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said it was "not a very serious vote, and nobody places any credibility on it." "It is not even worthy of our ridicule," added State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

Sure it is, especially when you consider the explanations given for Saddam's landslide. "Someone who does not know the Iraqi people will not believe this percentage, but it is real," argued Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council. "Whether it looks that way to someone or not, we don't have opposition in Iraq." Of course, this claim had the plausibility rating of a Baghdad Bob horoscope.

"This is a unique manifestation of democracy, which is superior to all other forms of democracy," asserted Ibrahim.

There's nothing unique about dictatorships masquerading as democracies. When elections were held in North Korea in 1962, the reigning Workers' Party won by a 100% vote. Even in its less menacing forms, this kind of nouveau riche democracy -- where everyone participates, as an act of national braggadocio ("Hey, look at us!"), and everyone agrees -- is the antithesis of democracy. Dictators know they have to feign popular support to maintain any sense of legitimacy. However, their mistake is in overachieving; they fail by succeeding too much. They think the greater the number of votes supporting them, the more conclusive the evidence of democracy and therefore of their legitimacy. But the truth is just the opposite.

Voter neglect is a sign of democratic health. Not caring about politics doesn't mean the system is broken; usually, it indicates things are just fine.

A key ingredient in democracy is imperfection. Real existing democracies don't (and can't) produce the sort of unanimity that dictatorships can achieve through force and intimidation. As a result, huge victories can dispel a ruler's legitimacy more than a narrow defeat ever could. The only thing worse than losing a rigged election is winning one.

Some advice for dictators: Try losing. It will do wonders for your image.

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About the Author

Windsor Mann is a writer living in Washington, D.C., and the editor of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism.