A light of moral legitimacy in Congo, Venezuela

Leaders in both countries face postelection challenges by citizens and institutions who rely on social norms to determine power.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends a military parade in Caracas Dec. 17.

In a globalized world, the methods of measuring the moral legitimacy of today’s rulers are changing fast. A good case can be found in Venezuela. On Jan. 10, President Nicolás Maduro is set to begin a second term. After years of violating so many democratic norms with ruthless power grabs, here is how his reputation measures up:

Last week a dozen countries in Latin America announced they would not recognize him as the country’s leader because Mr. Maduro’s election last May was not “fair and transparent.” This week, a Supreme Court judge who was to be involved in the swearing-in ceremony fled to Miami, saying the election “was not free and competitive.” A new poll shows only 12 percent of Venezuelans are happy with how their “democracy” functions. Meanwhile, at least 3 million people have left the country, a result of mass poverty and repression.

Rigged elections cannot cover up for lost legitimacy, as Maduro has discovered. A society sets its own norms, which are quickly made known these days via social media and the internet. Most of the time, those norms are rooted in the wisdom of a deliberative democracy based on public reason, equality, transparency, and accountability. Maduro still holds power by dint of a clever security apparatus. But that shallow sort of power is ebbing as the values held dear by Venezuelans and their neighboring countries are revealed.

Legitimacy is not just a matter of perception.

Another window on the notion of moral legitimacy are recent events in Congo. The results of a Dec. 30 election have yet to be announced. Yet the United Nations, the African Union, the Roman Catholic Church, and many other institutions have already put the outgoing leader, Joseph Kabila, on notice to ensure an accurate count and a peaceful transfer of power.

The Catholic Church, which monitored the polls, says the opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, won. Mr. Kabila cannot fool his people now by claiming his handpicked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, was the winner. His shutdown of the internet during the vote count only further damaged his credibility. The United States is so worried about mass protests in Congo that it has deployed some 80 soldiers to neighboring Gabon.

The world’s despots, or would-be despots, are up against new and faster flows of information that can easily put one spotlight on their flaws and another on a society’s norms. With enough light, the norms of dignity and mutual respect eventually win.

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