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Donald Trump takes leaf out of autocrat playbook by falsely declaring victory before all votes counted

Donald Trump with a US flag behind him.
Donald Trump: a controversial speech at the White House in the early hours of November 4. Chris Kleponis/EPA

In the months leading up to US election day, it was predicted that Donald Trump would not accept the results if he lost, would cast doubt over the legitimacy of mail-in voting and would try to declare a victory before all votes had been counted. So far, he has done two of three.

These predictions were made easier by taking Trump’s words at face value. Trump had falsely claimed that mail-in ballots would be purposely sent to Democrats and not Republicans. He also spent months delegitimising the vote-by-mail process, even trying to defund the US Postal Service in efforts to derail Democrats, who were more likely to vote by mail.

In a press conference from the White House early in the morning on November 4, Trump said he would go to the Supreme Court to stop votes being counted. Equally concerning was his early, false declaration of victory, and his incorrect claim to have won in states that had not been called yet, such as Georgia and Pennsylvania.

The early declaration

While Trump’s manoeuvres are a rare occurrence in a liberal democracy, calling elections early is a hallmark of non-democratic regimes – and particularly presidential ones. As my own research, one of the notable trends in authoritarian regimes is that they have adopted democratic institutions in order to prolong their power while paying lip service to international and domestic demand for “democracy”.

International observers have made it more difficult for autocrats to engage in outright fraud since the cold war ended. This has meant that autocrats have had to figure out ways in which to win elections without stealing them in obvious ways, or engaging in electoral malpractice rather than electoral fraud. In addition to the usual tricks of physically harming the opposition, controlling media narratives and stacking electoral commissions with lackeys, authoritarian leaders are also quick to declare victory in close elections.

In the case of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quick to declare himself the winner of the 2018 June presidential election, even before all the votes were counted or the results ratified by the electoral commission. Erdoğan represents one of the most glaring cases of executive aggrandisement and democratic backsliding, as the country has seen its civil liberties threatened and the judiciary politicised.

Men holding torches hold poster of Turkish president Recip Tayyip Erdoğan
Supporters of Turkey’s president Recip Tayyip Erdoğan on election day in 2018. Srdjan Suki/EPA

In 2013, when there was not a full consensus that Venezuela was firmly authoritarian, the political heir to Hugo Chávez, Nicolas Maduro, narrowly won the presidential election by less than two percentage points. Maduro was quick to declare victory, leaving the opposition crying foul and demanding a recount. In 2018, Maduro “won” by a much larger margin, but again the opposition called into question the validity of the results.

Another example is Côte d’Ivoire, currently in the middle of a turbulent election cycle. An opposition boycott of the race led to victory for the president, Alassane Ouattara, with 94% of the vote according to provisional results announced on November 3.

Read more: Côte d’Ivoire's turbulent past remains front and centre in presidential poll

In 2013, it was former Ivorian president, Laurent Gbagbo, who controversially declared an early victory with 51% of the votes – despite earlier results pointing to a 54% share for Ouattara, then the opposition challenger. The discrepancy was due to the Gbagbo-backed Constitutional Council annulling the results in opposition strongholds. Violence ensued and eventually, Gbagbo paid a price for this and was put on trial at the International Criminal Court – though later acquitted.

Mastering electoral manipulation

There have also been many cases of early electoral victories declared in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. This is a region that has mastered electoral manipulation and the creation of false narratives about the level of support of presidential incumbents. In Belarus, for example, Alexander Lukashenko has tended to declare victory by a large margin, but in 2020 protests erupted in August disputing the validity of the result.

Incumbents elsewhere have also refused to accept electoral results. In the case of the Gambia, long-time leader Yahya Jammeh would not concede after he narrowly lost the presidential election in December 2016 to Adama Barrow, citing “abnormalities”. Jammeh then appealed to the country’s supreme court for the results to be annulled and sent in armed soldiers to take control of the electoral commission. Jammeh only surrendered after Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana deployed troops.

Some observers of American politics are bracing themselves for unrest in the aftermath of the 2020 election. With Trump given an early impressive lead in some key swing states due to in-person voting being counted first, the election may be disputed no matter who the winner is.

Part of the problem is Trump’s refusal to support the counting of all the votes, something that is antithetical to democracy. As presidential elections are often emotional, high-stakes affairs, delegitimising the counting process puts the US at risk of greater instability in the next few weeks, and deeper questions about the strength of its democracy in the face of a leader who openly challenges democratic norms and processes.

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