The proliferation of autocrats who love to stage presidential elections is a surprising political phenomenon. Of course, we’re not talking about free and fair elections that a dictator might lose. Oh no. What they want is an exercise that gives off the illusion – or at least the passing aroma – of democracy, but where their victory is securely guaranteed. And the strange thing is that, even though people both inside and outside the country know it’s all a sham, autocrats near and far continue to put on these threadbare electoral shows.
Rigged elections have a long history. Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, or the leaders of the Soviet Union and its satellites loved to hold elections they would always win with 99% of the votes, or, when it was tight, 96.6%. More recently, the likes of North Korea’s tyrant Kim Jong-un, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus, have all “won” fraudulent elections.
An extreme case of these is Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. A few years back he argued before the Nicaraguan Supreme Court that term limits injured his fundamental human rights. This absurdity was accepted by the justices who, obviously, were his lackeys. Inevitably, the international courts that considered this aspiration declared it void. That didn’t stop Ortega. In 2011, the president violated the Constitution and ran for a third term. He won that election using all sorts of tricks and traps. A few weeks ago he did it again. He was declared the overwhelming winner, making him president for an unprecedented fourth term.
In the early 21st century, more and more leaders begin to look for ways to extend their terms and weaken the checks and balances that limit their power from the moment they’re first elected
Ortega, an erstwhile Marxist who in the 1970s joined the armed struggle to overthrow the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, has now, at the age of 75, become a classic tyrant himself, a strongman who has misruled one of the poorest countries on Earth with an iron fist for two solid decades. The idealistic Marxism of his youth contrasts jarringly with the opulent lifestyle that he and his family now enjoy.
Ortega loves elections, especially when he can imprison the main opposition leaders, including businessmen, journalists, academics, social activists and student leaders. He throws them all in jail, including seven presidential candidates. He also brutally repressed street protests against his government’s corruption and authoritarianism. The abuse of state resources to support the autocrat’s re-election campaigns, the coercion of public officials who are forced to vote in favor of the incumbent, the censorship of social media and tight control of the armed forces are the familiar ingredients that tyrants like Ortega use to steal elections.
Rigged elections keep people under the sway of leaders and policies that deepen their misery, perpetuate inequity and enshrine ongoing injustice. They also underscore that the international community lacks the tools and strategies to punish those who do away with democracy in a given country. The United States, the European Union and most countries in America have denounced the abuse and illegality of Daniel Ortega’s government. The United States has imposed ever tougher sanctions on the leaders and main beneficiaries of the monstrous Nicaraguan regime.
Unfortunately, none of this will make Ortega give up his ruinous hold on power. The Nicaraguan dictator embodies George Orwell’s observation that “we know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.”
Paradoxically, democracy is based on just the opposite principle: on the premise that the power of rulers who are freely chosen by the people in fair elections must be held for a limited time only. The longest-lived and best consolidated democracies in the world have managed to establish laws, institutions and rules that stop leaders from perpetuating themselves in power. Other countries however, have become victims of Orwell’s insight: their leaders increasingly take it for granted that, once obtained, power is not to be let go.
In the early 21st century, more and more leaders begin to look for ways to extend their terms and weaken the checks and balances that limit their power from the moment they’re first elected.
Daniel Ortega, his family and his accomplices must be celebrating their make-believe win. Nicaragua’s election shows why dictators love such electoral shams so much.
Through the dim forest, a slow procession of hundreds of people largely dressed in white, some in a trance, others singing fervently, heads towards the Osun River. As they have every August for 700 years, Yoruba people gather here at the Osun-Osogbo sacred grove, a Unesco world heritage site in south-west Nigeria, for an ancient festival celebrating their traditional spirituality.
Yoruba religious practitioners, adorned with cowrie shells, some with crosses or Islamic beads, pray for protection and offer sacrifices. In a region where Christianity and Islam are dominant, Yoruba traditions have often been cast as demonic – a legacy of colonial violence against Indigenous faiths – but are practised by a devout minority and hold a wide significance for people of varying faiths.
Recent years have seen a growing appreciation of Yoruba spirituality among the younger generation, with more young people becoming practitioners and Ifá priests.
The two-week Osun festival attracts visitors from across the Yoruba-dominated south-west, along with diasporas from South America and the Caribbean, as well as tourists. Osun, the goddess of the river, is said to have appeared to an ancient warrior, instructing him to bring Yoruba people out of famine, into safety in Osogbo city. In return, they would offer a yearly festival.
Osunnike Ogundele, 53, wears a shimmering green and gold lace dress, her hair braided with cowrie shells. “I’ve been here all my life,” she says, explaining her mother’s influence, and her own guidance for her children.
“My fondest memories of the grove are our mothers before us who passed on the knowledge we have now. There was so much to learn from just observing them and we are trying our best to pass this on to our daughters too,” she says. “Osun answers all prayers, no one cries to her without leaving with a smile.”
Osunniti Sikiru, 32, a Muslim and Osun priestess, is one of a number of custodians of the grove. She describes how, for Yoruba people, cultural heritage should be understood as predating the advent of Abrahamic religion in the region.
“Most of our forefathers weren’t Christians or Muslims,” she says. “There’s a big misconception that as a Muslim one can’t combine it with Osun worship. Water is very symbolic in Islam and Osun worship, both emphasise purity. I am still a practising Muslim, I still pray five times a day, my son is named Ibrahim, but Osun worship precedes most religions in Yoruba land.”
Princess Adeola Iya Osun, 47, another priestess, chimes in. “One of my daughters is a pastor and my son actively goes to the church, but what I try to preach is a symbiotic relationship between faiths.”
There have been concerns that the Osun River, seen as having healing powers, has been contaminated, sparking fears for the health of the worshippers who wash and drink here. Local media investigations allegedly found dangerous levels of lead, lithium, aluminium and iron, caused by the activities of artisanal miners and large companies.
Last year, pictures of the polluted river caused uproar and demands for government action. A warning by the state authorities not to drink from the river came on the penultimate day of this year’s festival, sparking further anger. Some chose to drink anyway, knowing the river was contaminated, believing they would be protected from ill-health.
Pollution is a serious worry for those attempting to maintain the integrity of the grove and its surroundings.
A committee of custodians leads these efforts, clearing the litter, while preserving the architecture and stone carvings.
On the final day of the festival, visitors crowd the banks of the river to meet priests and priestesses for consultation and prayers. Baskets are laid out full of kola nuts, fruits and vegetables.
In a trance, a priestess bellows praises to the goddess, then shares messages and warnings. As devotees arrive for prayers, testimonies are shared by people who have attended for several years.
Iya Osun’s parents had challenges having children, she says. “My mother came to pray to Osun for a child. I’m a result of that answered prayer.”
As the festival ends, the crowds leave the grove and the dense forest, their prayers made, hoping to return next year with testimonies of their own.
Earlier, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, said the republic is negotiating with Pyongyang on the arrival of builders from North Korea. In July, North Korea recognized the independence of the DPR and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).He said Russia will not force Donbas and North Korea to avoid cooperation.
MOSCOW (Sputnik) – The UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea do not apply to the Donbas republics, Director of the Department of International Organizations at the Russian Foreign Ministry Pyotr Ilyichev said in an interview with Sputnik.
Earlier, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, said the republic is negotiating with Pyongyang on the arrival of builders from North Korea. In July, North Korea recognized the independence of the DPR and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).
“The recruitment of labor from North Korea is subject to international restrictions established by UN Security Council resolutions. However, it must be taken into account that they apply to the member states of the world organization, which the people’s republics of Donbas are not,” Ilyichev said.
He said Russia will not force Donbas and North Korea to avoid cooperation.
The poliovirus is circulating again in the West. A virus that was on the way to global eradication has been detected in recent months in the wastewater of New York and London. This is not unusual, since it can appear in the fecal remains of vaccinated people with the attenuated pathogen. What’s different now is that the poliovirus – which causes the infectious disease polio – has been recorded in an adult in the United States, something that has not happened for a decade, and that samples from the United Kingdom suggest there is local transmission of the disease.
How did the virus get there? To answer this question, it is first necessary to understand the two types of vaccines that are used against polio. In countries where transmission is eradicated, an intramuscular vaccine is used. This contains the inactive virus, which is enough to prevent it from spreading in an environment where the pathogen is no longer circulating in the wild and most of the population is vaccinated. The second type of vaccine is made up of oral drops with a live attenuated virus, which is used in countries where polio continues to circulate. It produces antibodies in the blood, as well as the oral and intestinal mucosa. “With this vaccine, the immunized person would not develop the disease nor would they be able to infect others if they become infected with the wild virus,” explain researchers José Jiménez and Ana María Ortega-Prieto, from King’s College London, in an article in The Conversation.
The only two countries where polio remains endemic are Pakistan and Afghanistan, with 12 cases and one so far this year, respectively. Normally, when polio is detected in fecal remains in the wastewater, it comes from the excretion of people from these countries, which is not a major problem. What has happened now is that the virus is not just being detected in wastewater, it’s infecting people.
It’s still not fully confirmed that there is local circulation in London, but the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) has warned: “The poliovirus levels and the genetic diversity among the isolates suggests some level of virus transmission both in the areas where positive samples were found and in adjacent ones.”
Local circulation has been confirmed in New York, where one adult has been paralyzed due to the virus. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this case, is just “the tip of the iceberg.” “There are a number of individuals in the community that have been infected with poliovirus,” Dr. José Romero, from the CDC, told news network CNN. “The spread is always a possibility because the spread is going to be silent.”
As was seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, when a case is detected and its origin is unknown, it is normally a sign of uncontrolled transmission. “For every one case of paralytic polio identified, hundreds more may be undetected,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett in a statement. This is partly due to the fact that most people who contract the poliovirus are asymptomatic. Only in about 1% of cases does the virus cause problems: if it enters the central nervous system, it can cause paralysis and muscle atrophy.
What are the consequences of these outbreaks? In both London and New York, vaccination rates are lower than in the rest of their respective countries, meaning there is an elevated risk for children, who mainly affected by this disease. In London, authorities have already launched a vaccination campaign to offer booster doses to one million children between the ages of one and nine.
The road to polio eradication
The spread of polio is limited, at least in countries with high vaccination coverage. But these recent cases show that the virus still presents a risk and completely eradicating it is a complicated task, even if it seemed within reach.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched in 1988 with the aim of eradicating polio just as smallpox has been eradicated. In general terms, the program has been a success: the number of polio cases worldwide have dropped 99% since its creation.
Only Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Islamic fundamentalism makes vaccination campaigns difficult, report a few cases each year. And Nigeria, the other country where there is wild poliovirus (i.e. not the virus is transmitted by the attenuated vaccines), has not reported a single case since 2016.
The secret to this achievement is mass vaccination: first with the oral vaccine and then, when the country is already free of the disease, with the vaccine given by injection. Keeping vaccination levels high is key to curbing the virus.
According to UNICEF data, global vaccination levels dropped between 2019 and 2021 by 5%. In other words, 25 million children stopped receiving their doses. Vaccination rates are the lowest they have been in the last 30 years: 81% for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, which are considered a good indicator for other conditions. This means it is likely that polio coverage is at similarly low levels.