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Threats to liberal democracy

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Emmanuel Macron’s overwhelming victory over the right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen in the final round of the French presidential election by 66 percent of the votes cast to 34 percent 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 increasing.

In France, President Macron, whose new party La Republique En Marche has yet to hold seats in parliament pending the June election, faces huge challenges to his proposals to reform the way the French economy operates. Both right-wing and left-wing extremists will fiercely oppose him.

In Germany’s autumn elections, the right-wing AfD may gain representation in the Bundestag, but democratic processes in Germany are strong enough to cope with any threat from the right or from Russian attempts to manipulate the electoral process. Chancellor Angela Merkel remains Europe’s staunchest upholder of liberal democracy.

Some of the countries of Eastern Europe seem to be sliding into autocracy. Victor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, is a right-wing nationalist who is opposed to the democratic principles enshrined in the European Union treaties. The present Polish government has taken steps to enfeeble the judiciary and move toward a more autocratic regime.

In Britain there are a few right-wing Tories who denigrate liberal democracy and would support actions which in the past led to it being called “the nasty party,” as British Prime Minister Theresa May herself once famously described her party. A failure to achieve reasonable terms in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations would encourage some Tories who favor a hard Brexit to attack their opponents as “enemies of the people,” but liberal democracy will be safe in Britain so long as the media remain free and the judiciary keeps its independence.

The threats to liberal democracy from the autocrats of Russia and China are clear. The number of other countries that can claim to be liberal parliamentary democracies has significantly declined 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 there is no country that 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, which in the past was intent on propagating democracy in areas that had no knowledge of what it meant.

Trump appears to believe that as president he is above the law. He even ignores the law, which limits a president from accepting favors from a foreign country. He has refused to publish his tax returns or divest himself of his business interests, which could benefit from government contracts or foreign interests.

He has attacked judges who have ruled against measures that he wishes to take and seems to believe that federal judges are little different from civil servants bound to do as the president demands.

He has railed against members of Congress who held up and mauled his attempt to repeal Obamacare. He is contemptuous of congressional inquiries and privilege.

He regards the media as his enemies and has threatened to end official briefings. He prefers to work through social media, which he tries to manipulate with false news.

His recent dismissal of James Comey, the director of the FBI, was egregious. The method he used of sending a message delivered to Comey while he was speaking to members of the FBI was extraordinary and unnecessary. His language “you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately” was grossly rude and suggested a playground bully.

Comey was leading an inquiry into Russian contacts with the Trump election team. This inquiry was based on leads and information, which had already led to the dismissal of Trump’s first national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn. Comey’s sudden dismissal suggested that the FBI might have found leads to the president himself. This suspicion was reinforced by the reception at the White House on the day of Comey’s dismissal of Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and by the unconcealed glee in Moscow at the apparent Russian success in meddling in the U.S. elections.

Trump’s ambition to “Make America Great Again” looks unlikely to be fulfilled. America’s reputation has been sadly undermined by what commentator Edward Luce (in his recent book “The Retreat of Western Liberalism”) describes as “theater politics” in which “Trump will operate as a kind of Ku Klux Kardashian, combining hard-right pugilism with the best postmodern vaudeville.”

Trump’s unpredictability and emotionalism are dangerous characteristics in a president who is also commander-in-chief of what is likely to remain for some time to come the most formidable military machine in the world. We shudder at the thought of Kim Jong Un of North Korea having the capacity to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. But we should remember that Trump could destroy our civilization in a fit of pique unless restrained by responsible advisers.

Trump has called on State Department officials who disagree with his policies to resign, and he rejects and resents any attempt to get him to recognize unpalatable facts.

The most worrying aspect of recent developments in the U.S. is that according to opinion surveys Trump still has the support of the vast majority of members of the Republican party. There seems little readiness among Republican senators even to agree to the appointment of a special prosecutor to investing possible links with Russia, let alone to impeach the president for his flouting of the law.

The checks and balances in the American Constitution were designed to protect America from tyranny. But they will only work if individual Americans are prepared to speak truth to power and act to uphold and enforce the constitution. As Benjamin Franklin declared, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.