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Yes, Virginia, Democracy Involves Voting

When is a democratic election not a democratic election?

When the U.S. government and/or the corporate media say it’s not?

Sunday’s election in Spain, in which record numbers of voters ousted the right-wing (and pro-Bush) Popular Party in favor of the Socialist Workers Party (which opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Spain’s ongoing military presence there), has rattled certain members of the world’s power elite, notably the administrations of U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It also has led to a characterization of the election in the mainstream U.S. media not as an expression of the people’s will but as a subversion of democracy by the terrorists whose bombs killed 200 people last week in Madrid. “Spain Grapples With Notion That Terrorism Trumped Democracy,” asserted a New York Times headline yesterday (Wed., March 17). “Thus, Islamic extremists have good reason to interpret the election results as proof that they can not only spread fear among whole populations but also bring down governments as well,” chimed in an Albany Times Union editorial that appeared the same day.

A little historical perspective is in order: Our government—most notably under Republican administrations—always has served up plenty of rhetoric about democracy but often has been less-than-enthusiastic about seeing it in practice, especially in countries of strategic or economic interest where our influence and ability to plunder are threatened when our ruthless despot friends can’t get themselves reelected. Thus the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in Chile in 1973; the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua was never recognized by the United States (or The New York Times), even after the widely-hailed-as-democratic elections of 1984, and eventually was hammered out of favor by a decade of economic sabotage; and most recently, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide apparently was kidnapped and thus removed from office in a barely concealed, U.S.-engineered coup. These are just a few highlights, and there is no end in sight; given enough time, the Bush administration surely will find a way to undermine the democratically elected government of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

If you haven’t noticed, the Republicans have brought their disdain for the people’s will home with a vengeance these last four years. Sure, they’ve always been opposed to such pesky manifestations of democracy as voter registration (perhaps because they would be oh-so-outnumbered if we ever approached full registration of the eligible), but the past few years have been truly remarkable—beginning with the obvious, the nondemocratic “election” of Bush in 2000. Then we had the California recall election, a skillfully planned and executed Republican plot to take control of the strategically important state shortly after voters had returned the admittedly unlikable Gray Davis to office.

And there were dirty tricks aplenty during the 2002 elections, notably in Minnesota; I won’t comment on the Wellstone plane crash, of which we know relatively little, but I will comment on the smear campaign orchestrated immediately after his funeral, which the media overdramatized as an offensive political rally, likely tipping the election to Norm Coleman. Finally, touch-screen voting machines were in place in a number of states, at least a few of which had surprise outcomes not foreseen by election-eve polls. Fraud? Who knows, but Republican strategy these days seems to go like this: If you’re not happy with the outcome of a democratic election, just change it.

Can Bush and his posse change the outcome in Spain? Not likely, in the near term—which is why, for now, they are trying to cast the election as a dangerous case of terrorists having their way with an entire nation, sabotaging democracy and dictating the outcome of an election. And with the corporate media’s help, they are doing just that. Which domino will be next, frightened citizens wonder: Italy? England? The United States? Never mind that it is not easy to predict how voters might react to a preelection terrorist attack in any of those countries (or whether Al Qaeda would prefer John Kerry to George Bush); this analysis of the Spanish election is simplistic and, ultimately, insulting to the concept of democracy.

For one thing, external events influence election outcomes all the time—and are exploited by candidates for whatever edge they might bring. Governments in power, as well as their challengers, typically try to manipulate public opinion—not always by legitimate means. In the now infamous “October Surprise” episode of 1980, President Jimmy Carter may have attempted to ensure his reelection by negotiating a last-minute release of American hostages held in Iran; and George H.W. Bush, William Casey, et al., may have thwarted that attempt and enhanced Ronald Reagan’s chances by secretly negotiating with Iranians in Paris to hold off any deal till after the election. It is of no small consequence that outgoing Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar first attempted to exploit the Madrid bombings to his party’s favor, both by suggesting that it justified his alliance with Bush (who also sought to exploit it to justify his “war on terror”) and by initially blaming the Basque separatists, even after the evidence pointing toward Islamic fundamentalists began to mount. To then despair publicly that the terrorists sabotaged democracy is pure hypocrisy.

More important, the post-bombing actions of the government deepened public hostility toward the government and its policy on the Iraq war, which was already opposed by some 90 percent of the Spanish populace. Reports from Spain suggest that Aznar’s actions underscored the conviction of many Spaniards that his support of the U.S. invasion had actually increased the threat of terrorism at home. Voters’ apparent desire for a safer Spain would make the analysis that they unwittingly sided with terrorists paradoxical at best. Finally, the record turnout Sunday may speak to long-simmering anger being forced to the surface rather than a knee-jerk expression of fear; variations of this sentiment are plentiful on the Internet right now, and even the Times reported that many Spaniards voted “not so much out of fear of terror as anger against a government they saw as increasingly authoritarian, arrogant and stubborn.” And finally, isn’t a surge in voter turnout, by definition, an enhancement of the democratic process?

As one observer put it in a Web post, “Why is it that people who claim to love democracy don’t trust the people to use it?”

—Stephen Leon

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