Among the many insightful quotations that came out of Winston Churchill’s mind, the one about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others is one likely to be cited a lot this year, as voters in Germany, France and the UK cast their ballots. It goes without saying, of course, that over half the population of each country will be disappointed and dissatisfied with the result, though will for the most part nonetheless accept it. There are times, though, when the rules of democratic elections are so blatantly flouted that you almost have to admire the nerve of those responsible.
Exactly ninety years ago, the West African republic of Liberia entered the record books in a very undignified way: for having held the most fraudulent election in the history of democracy, anywhere in the world. The incumbent head of state, President Charles D B King, was the victor in the presidential poll of 3 May 1927, after a controversial campaign in which he had been accused of profiteering from a contentious business deal with an American entrepreneur over Liberia’s rubber industry. Nothing much to write home about, you might think – until you take a look at the numbers. King defeated his rival, Thomas Faulkner, by winning 234,000 votes to his opponent’s 9,000 votes. The problem with this landslide victory was that Liberia’s total electorate in 1927 numbered only 15,000!
Despite this blatant scandal, King managed to hold on to power for another three years. His inaugural address of the following year reads like that of a man feeling quite secure in his position:
There must be a solidifying of our populations into one compact whole. The various indigenous tribes must be brought into the body politic, taught the duties and responsibilities of civilized government. Into them must be infused or inculcated an appreciative knowledge and understanding of hopes and aspirations of the Fathers who established this nation. There should be no words known in our National Vocabulary of Speech or even of thought as “Americo-Liberian”; “the country-man”; “the new-comer”; “the Sierra Leone man”; or such like terms of designating the various elements of our population.
Faulkner and the opposition, however, weren’t prepared to let things lie there. They accused members of King’s party of profiting from slavery over the country’s rubber trade with the US. The League of Nations got involved before long, and in 1930 its Commission set up to investigate the scandal found not only that members of King’s government (including his Vice-President, Allen Yancy) had been involved in slave-trading, but also that the Monrovia government had consistently pursued a policy of discrimination against indigenous Liberians (in favour of Americo-Liberians – ie, those Liberians descended from the original free African-Americans who migrated there from the US in the mid-19th Century). King, Yancy, and other members of his cabinet duly resigned in December 1930.
Of course, electoral fraud is nothing unique to Liberia. Citizens in Northern Ireland, among other places, are well used to hearing the tongue-in-cheek slogan “Vote Early and Vote Often” in elections. Additionally, in the US, despite his victory in the last presidential election, Donald Trump and his team have claimed that millions of people voted illegally in the poll, though little in the way of irrefutable evidence of this has emerged. It could well be that The Donald is still smarting from losing the popular vote (if not the Electoral College vote) to Hillary Clinton.
The Liberian experience is, however, a useful case of how electoral fraud can carry with it lethal consequences. While Charles King’s career eventually came to an end, the Monrovia government’s policy of discrimination against indigenous Liberians continued, and this community didn’t win the right to vote until after the Second World War. The ethnic tensions nonetheless continued, and decades of resentment over the treatment of indigenous Liberians exploded in violent fashion in a military coup in 1980, when an indigenous officer in the Liberian army, Sgt Samuel K Doe, overthrew President William Tolbert (who was also murdered in the coup). This coup and its effects then led to the outbreak of the first of two bloody civil wars nine years later, in which Doe and around half a million of his fellow Liberians died.
Churchill was right. Representative democracy may well be the least worst form of government if not the best, but its rules must be upheld if it’s to work well. If they aren’t, the consequences can be lethal.