LONDON – Emmanuel Macron’s overwhelming victory over right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen in the last round of the French presidential election by 66% of the votes cast against 34% for his opponent is good news for those who believe in liberal democracy. But the threats to democratic institutions in the West are real and growing.
In France, President Macron, whose new party La République en Marche does not yet have a seat in parliament pending the June elections, faces enormous challenges with his proposals to reform the functioning of the economy French. Both right and left extremists will fiercely oppose him.
In the autumn elections in Germany, the right-wing AfD could win representation in the Bundestag, but democratic processes in Germany are strong enough to deal with any threats from the right or Russian attempts to manipulate the electoral process. Chancellor Angela Merkel remains the fervent defender of liberal democracy in Europe.
Some Eastern European countries seem to be falling into autocracy. Victor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, is a right-wing nationalist opposed to the democratic principles enshrined in the treaties of the European Union. The current Polish government has taken steps to weaken the judiciary and move towards a more autocratic regime.
In Britain there are a few right-wing conservatives who denigrate liberal democracy and would support actions which in the past have led to it being called ‘the wicked party’, as British Prime Minister Theresa May she – even once described his party. Failure to reach reasonable terms in the upcoming Brexit talks would encourage some hard Brexit Tories to attack their opponents as ‘enemies of the people’, but liberal democracy will be safe in Britain as long as the media remains free and the judiciary retains its independence.
The threats to liberal democracy from autocrats in Russia and China are clear. The number of other countries that can claim to be liberal parliamentary democracies has declined dramatically in recent years. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and in the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte have shown that they intend to rule as autocrats above the law. In Africa, no country can claim to be a liberal democracy.
The most worrying threat to democratic institutions and the rule of law is that posed by President Donald Trump in the United States, who in the past intended to spread democracy in areas that had no knowledge of what that meant.
Trump seems to believe that as president he is above the law. He even ignores the law, which prohibits a president from accepting favors from a foreign country. He has refused to publish his tax returns or to divest his business interests, which could benefit from government contracts or foreign interests.
He has attacked judges who have spoken against the measures he wants to take and seems to believe that federal judges are little different from public servants who are required to do what the president demands.
He lashed out at members of Congress who resisted and mutilated his attempt to repeal Obamacare. He despises the investigations and privileges of Congress.
He sees the media as his enemies and has threatened to end official briefings. He prefers to work on social media, which he tries to manipulate with fake news.
His recent dismissal of James Comey, the director of the FBI, was blatant. The method he used to send a message delivered to Comey while speaking to members of the FBI was extraordinary and unnecessary. His “you are fired and removed from your post, with immediate effect” language was grossly crude and suggested a playground tyrant.
Comey was investigating Russian contacts with Trump’s election team. This investigation was based on leads and information, which had previously led to the dismissal of Trump’s first national security adviser, General Michael Flynn. Comey’s sudden sacking suggested the FBI may have found leads on the president himself. This mistrust was reinforced by the reception at the White House on the day of the dismissal by Comey of Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and by the undisguised joy in Moscow at the apparent success of Russia in meddling in the US elections.
Trump’s ambition to “make America even more beautiful” seems unlikely to be realized. America’s reputation has been sadly undermined by what commentator Edward Luce (in his recent book “The Retreat of Western Liberalism”) describes as a “theatrical policy” in which “Trump will function as a kind of Ku Klux Kardashian, combining far-right pugilism with the best postmodern vaudeville.
Trump’s unpredictability and emotionality are dangerous characteristics of a president who is also the commander-in-chief of what will probably remain for some time the most formidable military machine in the world. We shudder at the idea that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has the ability to launch a nuclear attack on the United States.
Trump has called on State Department officials who disagree with his policies to step down, and he rejects and hates any attempt to get him to admit unpleasant facts.
The most worrying aspect of recent developments in the United States is that, according to opinion polls, Trump still has the support of the vast majority of members of the Republican Party. Republican senators seem reluctant to even accept the appointment of a special prosecutor to invest possible ties with Russia, let alone impeach the president for his disrespect for the law.
The checks and balances in the US Constitution were designed to protect America from tyranny. But they will only work if Americans are prepared to speak the truth to power and act to uphold and uphold the constitution. As Benjamin Franklin said, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
Hugh Cortazzi was British Ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.
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