The next 10 weeks could be rocky … even rockier than the rest of 2020. President Donald Trump has yet to concede the election to President-elect Joe Biden, and the transition to the 46th U.S. presidency will be anything but smooth. But fear not: Plenty of nations have survived these kinds of democratic potholes in the past. This OZY Special Dispatch takes you through modern history’s most tumultuous global political transitions.
run until you win
Joe Biden lost his two previous presidential campaigns in 1988 and 2008 before triumphing this year. But he’s not alone — others before him have had similarly challenging paths to power that have been decades in the making.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declared victory on the night of the presidential election before the results rolled in. Then, after he narrowly lost the vote, he told millions of supporters he had been defrauded, led giant protests through the capital, demanded a recount and — in front of his followers — declared himself the country’s “legitimate president.” Sound familiar? In fact, you could think of Obrador as Trump in reverse. AMLO, as he is widely known, was the opposition leader, not the incumbent, in 2006 when he challenged his narrow loss on the streets of Mexico City for a period of months. Then in 2012, he again came in second in the presidential race and alleged that the winner, President Enrique Peña Nieto, had bought votes. In 2018, AMLO would no longer need to level such charges; he won without dispute. The moral of the story? Don’t count Trump out in 2024.
2. Brazil’s Poster Boy
The markets were terrified when former trade unionist Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva won the Brazilian presidency on his fourth attempt in 2002, after losing in 1989, 1994 and 1998. Brazil was in the middle of a debt crisis and the leftist leader had dithered on committing to a resolution. But Lula moderated his position, while also ushering in some of history’s biggest social welfare programs, such as the Bolsa Família cash transfers for 50 million low-income Brazilians, spawning copycat initiatives in multiple nations. By 2009, Lula had an unlikely fan: U.S. President Barack Obama. America’s 44th commander in chief described Lula as the “most popular leader on earth.”
3. Indian Ocean First
Perseverance pays. No one knows that better than Wavel Ramkalawan — and the small nation of Seychelles. The popular Indian Ocean island country was long a democracy in name only. A military coup in 1977, a year after the country gained independence, led to one-party rule under the Seychelles People’s Progressive Front. Even after other parties were allowed to contest in the 1990s, the SPPF repeatedly won presidential elections. Ramkalawan, a priest and the nation’s principal opposition leader, fought and lost the presidential vote five times — in 1998, 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016 — before finally winning this year in what was the nation’s first-ever peaceful transfer of power.
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Progressive former Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou was widely expected to return to power in national elections that year. The country’s military — a key power behind the scenes in Greek politics at the time — didn’t like him, and decided to preempt the popular vote. A team of colonels grabbed power. The country’s King Constantine II swore in the military junta that would eventually rule until 1974. It’s a stain the now 80-year-old king — who later claimed he had no choice — has struggled to erase, even though the monarchy itself ended in 1973.
2. India, 1975
The Indian National Congress, the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru that led India’s freedom struggle, had been the country’s only political formation in power for three decades since independence. But by 1975, Nehru’s daughter and then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was facing growing street protests. Then came the biggest blow she would face in her political career: A court ruled her election illegal on charges that she had misused government machinery for her campaign. That meant she would have to resign as prime minister. Instead, she imposed a state of national emergency, suspending civil liberties, arresting opposition leaders and curbing press freedoms. But two years later, she partly repaired her reputation, lifting the emergency and allowing fresh elections in which a united opposition trounced her.
Yet when the future of their country is at stake, some statesmen have chosen to turn their political enemies into their closest aides for national unity.
1. South Africa, 1994
In the country’s first free and fair elections, where voters of all races were allowed to participate, Nelson Mandela was elected president, hammering the final nail in the coffin of apartheid. Days later, Mandela would build on his vision for a “rainbow nation” — picking his closest electoral rival, former Prime Minister F.W. de Klerk, as one of his deputy presidents, and another political opponent, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, as his minister of home affairs.
2. Afghanistan, 2014
The war-torn country was headed for a crisis akin to what Mexico faced in 2006 with AMLO’s protests. Ashraf Ghani won a tight presidential race against Abdullah Abdullah by a narrow margin, prompting the latter to form his own parallel government. The state was set for a deepening of ethnic tensions — Ghani is a Pashtun leader while Abdullah has the support of northern communities including the Tajiks. That would have been an ideal situation for the Taliban to spread further mayhem in Afghanistan. Instead, in a remarkable show of leadership, Ghani and Abdullah came together in a power-sharing arrangement, with Ghani as president and Abdullah as the government’s chief executive. After a similarly contested vote in 2020, they’ve again come together to share power.
dictators to democrats
It’s hard to believe, but some authoritarian leaders have turned to democracy — and quietly ceded power.
A revered freedom fighter who helped defeat Portuguese colonialists, Chissano became the socialist president of Mozambique — then a single-party state — in 1986. But as a civil war raged, he negotiated a peace deal with rebels in 1992 and agreed to democratic elections. He won those in 1994 and 1999 before stepping away, respecting the two-term limit.
2. Mathieu Kérékou
The Berlin Wall had just fallen in 1989 when the army major turned socialist leader of the small West African nation of Benin decided to transition the country to a multiparty democracy. In the 1991 elections held after nationwide consultations, Kérékou contested, lost and calmly gave up power. The first democratic transfer of power in postcolonial West Africa set an example that the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Togo, Burundi, Rwanda and Niger would all follow in the 1990s. And unlike many such tectonic shifts that have been stained by civil wars, Benin’s transition was totally peaceful.
For some socialists, it was the end of a dream. For others, it was the demise of what started out as a revolutionary ideal but became a monster resembling the imperialist powers it had promised to counter. And for still others, it was the culmination of decades-long efforts to bring down what President Ronald Reagan called an “evil empire.” Whatever your view, there has been no political transition in the past century more significant than the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It’s easy to think of that moment as inevitable, but the country’s then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev could have easily continued like his predecessors, using the ruthless military and intelligence infrastructure at his disposal. Instead, after surviving a coup attempt, he allowed Ukraine, Belarus and others to gain independence from the USSR and paved the way for its dissolution.
kings who showed the way
Not all monarchs have waited until public pressure — or the threat of a revolution — forced them to embrace democracy.
1. Juan Carlos I
He was widely expected to continue Francisco Franco’s authoritarian rule after the Spanish dictator’s death in 1975. Carlos was king of Spain, and had worked closely with Franco. But instead, he reinstituted democracy. And that’s not all. In 1981, military leaders led by Lt. Col. Antonio Tejero plotted and executed an audacious attempt at a coup, entering Parliament with 200 soldiers and holding legislators hostage for 18 hours. But unlike Constantine II of Greece, Spain’s king didn’t compromise with democracy. He ordered the army to take on Tejero and his men, who eventually surrendered.