In many countries, where checks on both power and the abuse of power are scarce, people will be watching in awe as the U.S. Senate decides whether to remove President Donald Trump from office. Even though many Americans view either the House impeachment or the Senate trial as partisan, the formal exercise in accountability stands out on the global scene.
Just note these examples in a few big nations in which citizens have recently been denied a right to rein in personal power or ensure leaders reflect the integrity of their societies:
Two years ago, China’s president, Xi Jinping, arranged to have the ruling Communist Party eliminate a two-term limit on the presidency, allowing him to rule as “supreme leader” for life. A new official song for him is titled “To Follow You Is to Follow the Sun.”
In Egypt last year, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi won approval from parliament to rule until 2034 and to control the judiciary. He now has “authority with no accountability” in the Arab world’s most populous nation, said one Egyptian critic.
And in Russia on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for 20 years through concocted constitutional changes, made a similar move. Facing term limits in 2024, he proposed “reforms” that may allow him to rule for decades as head of a supreme “state council.”
Such authoritarian leaders can be popular – for a while. They might rule effectively to make “the trains run on time.” Yet such rule is based on the notion that individuals are not equal and cannot be trusted to define their freedom and rights through public deliberation, negotiation, and free elections. Leaders who arbitrarily set the law or deny an institutionalized mechanism for popular accountability place themselves and their cronies above the law. Corruption arises. Big mistakes are made as alternative voices are kept silent.
Holding people accountable relies on the very idea that values such as equality are universal. Just witness the mass protests of the past year in Hong Kong, Sudan, Chile, Iraq, and elsewhere. The vast numbers alone represent a demand for leaders to pay better regard to the greater good, which is best reflected in democracy. “We must always live as if we expected to have to give an account of what we have been doing,” said the statesman Scipio Africanus of ancient Rome.
In a study last year of 179 countries by the Varieties of Democracy Institute, democracy seems to be holding its own. Between 2008 and 2018 – and despite a global recession – 21 countries made progress while 24 were in the process of “autocratization.” Democracy still prevails in a majority (99) of countries. This means the methods of accountability, such as an independent judiciary and constitutional limits on executive power, still endure. In the United States, it means the people allow an impeachment trial of a president, no matter their disagreement or the outcome. Despite flaws in the process, they see their civic values at work.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world that is not so democratic can take note.