Last month, a New York Times story noted “an extraordinary event” in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose human rights record is not exactly the gold standard, “conceded defeat in parliamentary elections,” saying gamely that “democracy works in this way.”
It was outwardly unremarkable but without precedent. The human rights organization Freedom House pointed out that in Georgia, “this election marks the first time power has changed hands to a rival party through democratic means and diverts from the authoritarian trend witnessed in many of its former Soviet neighbors.”
Any country can hold an election. Any country can even hold a free and fair election. Those steps are important, but they don’t mean much if a third one is absent. Those in power, when they lose, must peacefully surrender power to those who won.
Many countries have yet to achieve these minimal requirements. In its 2012 survey of the world, Freedom House says that out of 195 nations, only 117 qualify as electoral democracies.
China is not one of them. The biggest country on Earth is about to undergo a leadership transition, but a highly constrained one. President Hu Jintao is making way for a successor, Xi Jinping, but the Communist Party, which has held power since 1949, will maintain control.
There is no authentic opposition party. In fact, a Kunming man was recently sentenced to eight years in prison for trying to establish one. When a president’s term ends, the only question is which Communist functionary will replace him. Ordinary people have no say.
Also missing the democratic trend is Russia, where Vladimir Putin was returned to the presidency in a March election that had the trappings of democracy without the substance. “The ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt,” complained international observers.
In many places, presidents serve as long as they want and are removed only through coups or revolutions. You think America is bitterly divided? Not compared to Syria or Libya or Sudan.
In historical terms, change through violence is the norm. Our avoidance of it is the exception. What we fight with mass rallies and Super PAC ads, they fight with guns.
American political campaigns are often strident, vitriolic and hateful affairs. They exploit our divisions and intensify our disagreements. They force us to listen to all sorts of allegations that insult our intelligence, week after week, chasing us wherever we might flee. They reflect, and fuel, a polarization that sometimes looks fatal.
But Americans rarely resort to violence, unless you count vandalizing yard signs. Our campaigns eventually end, and when they do, a few people cry foul or demand recounts. But the vast majority accepts the result and gets back to other business.
It happened in 2008, even though many people thought Barack Obama was constitutionally ineligible for his alleged Kenyan birth. It happened in 2000, when Democrats thought George W. Bush, who lost the popular vote, had stolen Florida with the connivance of the Supreme Court.
It’s happened through war and depression, with the notable exception of 1860, when Abraham Lincoln’s victory moved Southern states to violent revolt. Half of America may detest the winner of a presidential election —but they accept him as the winner.
The first time we saw a peaceful transfer of power from one party to another was in 1800, when the winner was Thomas Jefferson. His Federalist opponents portrayed him as an atheist and a radical who would bring horrific consequences: “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”
Because of a bizarre deadlock in the Electoral College, the election ended up in the House of Representatives, which went through 36 votes before Jefferson finally prevailed. Defeated President John Adams did not contest the outcome. He left office angry, but he left.
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Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.