President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela can unilaterally stop prosecutions and change the legislature and constitution by a command or use of force. Now in his sixth month as president of the United States (US), Donald Trump cannot pass healthcare law, make his own Republicans support him on important election positions and has received zero support from the Democrats on the repeal of Obamacare (Affordable Care Act). Trump’s attempts at banning some people from majority Muslim countries were met with legal challenges leading the matter to be determined by the US Supreme Court.
Why is it that what Maduro can do with ease, Trump cannot? I offer three premises and submit that if followed, African governments and peoples, especially Zambians, will benefit from them long term: The US has mature democratic systems and institutions; Venezuela does not have a strong democratic base; and the media in the US is agile, in Venezuela it is the dupe of the State.
The maturity of the US democratic institutions: If one observes objectively, one cannot escape the realization that the US has lived up to its claim as the harbinger of democracy on earth. Trump has tested American democracy to its limit and the rubber has held. Trump has used non-legislative instruments like executive orders to negate Obama’s achievements. However, these are not permanent and can be reversed by the next president just by the stroke of a pen. But where it matters most – legislation – Trump has received some of the toughest checks on presidential powers American has never experienced. Despite the fact that the Republicans control both houses of Congress (House and Senate), the media, and to some extent, the opposition and courts, have slowed down or even completely stopped Trump from achieving some of his questionable policies.
Venezuela stands on shaky grounds democratically: Maduro can do anything he wants in Venezuela. There are two conditions which breed dictators. First, the weakness of democratic institutions in the country. Where the executive branch of government controls the other branches (legislature and judiciary), the president can do anything he or she wants. This situation is rife in Venezuela but absent in the US. Second, when people hastily hypersize prevailing economic conditions at the expense of real economic solutions. This happened in Nazi Germany and is happening in Venezuela. Leaders like Hitler and Maduro thrive on the disillusionment of the moment to propel their nationalistic rhetoric which may energize thuggish elements to resort to war-like behavior and chaos. Because of dire economic conditions people are easily deceived to follow the dictator in the guise of fake promises. When the dust is settled, all that is left is the emptiness (without systems, institutions and order) in which the dictator will do anything.
The role of opposition and the media: Democracy is anchored on free media and the voice of the opposition. When one or both of these are silenced, a dictatorship is brewing, whether it is obvious or in disguise. Savvy politicians realize this immediately and may begin a road to demoralize or eliminate them. In Venezuela, it has worked. In the US, Trump has failed or is failing. Maduro has arrested and silenced key opposition politicians and some may even have disappeared. Trump has attempted to insult the opposition and call the media fake news, but the rocks hold stronger in the US than they do in Venezuela.
It is not the greatness of individuals that strengthens and preserves democracy, it is the strength of its institutions. A nation that neglects its institutions (rule of law, constitution, courts, parliament, law enforcement, and etc.) will definitely produce strong individuals but democracy will suffer. Nations without strong democratic foundations discuss personalities and not issues which affect the people. Systems and institutions make seemly bad leaders better; but systems without adequate democratic systems tend to change good people into autocrats. Trump will eventually be tamed but Maduro will silence all.
Africa and Zambia are still reeling from weak institutions and broken systems. The priority should be to fix the institutions and improve systems and good and quality leaders will emerge.
By Charles Mwewa