Pakistan is just one among dozens of countries gearing up for elections this year. In some cases – Russia and Egypt’s presidential elections in March, for instance – the results are practically a foregone conclusion. In others, not least the US midterms in November, there is cause for suspense.
In many of these polls, the question of foreign interference is likely to arise, particularly after the fuss over alleged Russian skullduggery in helping Donald Trump win the White House in November 2016. The jury is still out on that one.
It could be credibly argued that Western-style democracy has already been comprehensively corrupted through successful efforts to restrict voters’ choice to a pair of ideologically congruent parties. But that’s another story.
Russia can’t compete with the US in subverting democracy.
In the US case, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that senior Trump campaign figures were keen to get their hands on any “dirt” Russian sources could dish out on Hillary Clinton. It remains unclear whether anything substantial turned up, aside from the Democratic National Committee emails released through WikiLeaks.
The extent to which propaganda via social media may have swung voting intentions is almost impossible to determine. It has been alleged that Vladimir Putin was personally overseeing the effort to empower Trump. If so, one can only wonder whether he publicly followed the Russian tradition of plunging into freezing water at the height of winter as a penance associated with buyer’s remorse.
It’s more likely, though, that he just wanted to demonstrate his physical prowess to Russian voters. At any rate, even if the Robert Mueller investigation is able to come up with evidence of collusion strong enough to support an indictment or three, it won’t change the fact that the responsibility for electing Trump falls squarely on American shoulders. What’s more likely to be laid bare by the special inquiry is a money-laundering trail that passes through Deutsche Bank, possibly involving many Russian oligarchs.
Russian interference has also been cited in the context of a number of European elections, invariably in support of far-right nationalist forces, many of which do not hesitate to heap praise on the 21st-century tsar. To the extent that this is true, it is reprehensible.
However, although propaganda tools as well as illicit funding routes have changed, Russia can hardly compete with the US when it comes to subverting democracy in far-off nations. In fact, one of the more blatant efforts at collusion involved Russia itself, when in the mid-1990s it looked as though Boris Yeltsin might not prevail against his Communist Party rival. Bill Clinton’s administration secretly pumped PR expertise and other resources into the presidential election, and the strategy paid off.
This was merely one more reflection of a trend that dates back decades, with the first instance recorded not long after a victory, purportedly for freedom, had been won against Nazi Germany. In post-fascist Italy in 1948, when it appeared that communist resistors against Benito Mussolini might win the popular vote, the CIA intervened, surreptitiously but decisively. It was the first of many such interventions in various countries. The Soviet Union may not have been innocent either, but its propaganda was usually clumsy, and it never claimed to be a beacon of democracy.
Worse, when elections in key countries failed to go Washington’s way, it had few qualms about undermining the elected administrations or backing their overthrow, which invariably entailed colluding with the worst elements in the local military/intelligence/business spheres. The most obvious example of such ruthlessness is the coup against Chile’s elected leader Salvador Allende in 1973, but there have been believable – if not proven – allegations of a US role in regime changes later during the same decade: Harold Wilson in the UK, Gough Whitlam in Australia, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, even within the US electoral context, collusion with foreign powers is hardly a novelty. The Richard Nixon campaign successfully strove to avert a Vietnam peace deal in 1968, for example, and president-elect Ronald Reagan’s aides persuaded Iran to delay the release of US hostages until his inauguration.
In Trump’s case, at least one instance of contact with the Russian ambassador involved an attempt to ascertain, on behalf of the Netanyahu regime, whether Moscow might be inclined to step in after the Obama administration refused to veto a mild Security Council reprimand for Israel. It would be a welcome surprise if this particular instance of collusion received the attention it deserves from the Mueller inquiry.