Anxiety over the state of democracy in the United States is running high as the presidential election unfolds. And beyond America’s borders, pro-democracy activists around the world, already accustomed to following U.S. politics because of its global impact, see echoes of and implications for their own struggles.
The Washington Post spoke with four activists who have advocated for free and fair elections — in Egypt, Guatemala, Thailand and the Palestinian territories — about how the U.S. vote looks from their vantage points.
Ahmed, 35, is worried that Tuesday’s election won’t decide only the future of the United States but that “it will also determine the future of all developing countries that are seeking democratic transitions.”
When Donald Trump won in 2016, Ahmed sensed an immediate change in his part of the world. “We felt that the government doesn’t care anymore about human rights, about democratic processes,” he said.
“When journalists, for example, got arrested in [President Barack] Obama’s period, there was a comment or always a feeling that someone was watching, which keeps the governments of developing countries in check,” he said. President Trump, in contrast, appeared to turn a blind eye that enabled abuse, Ahmed said.
Ahmed spent much of his 20s in the streets taking part in Egypt’s 2011 revolution. That ended in 2013, when President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi took power in a popularly backed coup that pushed out the country’s first democratically elected president. In the years since, many protesters have been imprisoned or have remained silent as Sissi, whom Trump has called his “favorite dictator,” cemented control.
Ahmed now consults on democratic processes outside Egypt; he declined to provide his last name or place of employment to protect his security.
Watching America, he said Trump’s political style and attitude toward democratic institutions have raised major red flags. “It’s a sign to spot a populist when you see him skipping the institutions of the state and talking to the people directly,” he said. “If one person can decide on behalf of a whole country and they aren’t worried that the parliament will revoke this. … It’s much easier for Russia and China to deal with that one person.”
Bunkueanun “Francis” Paothong just wants every American to vote — because their vote still has consequences.
“Whatever your political beliefs … I would call on every American to vote,” said the 21-year-old Thai student-activist. “They still have democracy, and they should cherish it. We don’t have that. We can vote, but our vote does not matter.”
Bunkueanun faces possible life imprisonment on charges of threatening violence against Thailand’s queen, after he and other protesters heckled her motorcade during a demonstration in mid-October. He was taken into custody and charged but was released. Under Thai law, criticism of the monarchy is illegal, but Bunkueanun is part of a pro-democracy movement challenging that.
For months, youth- and student-led protests have called for Thailand’s prime minister to resign and demanded new elections, constitutional amendments and curbs on the monarchy. The prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, is a former general aligned with a military junta who seized power in a 2014 coup. Prayuth won a disputed election last year. It was Bunkueanun’s first vote.
“The integrity of the ballot box is crucial to maintain,” he warned.
Claudia Paz y Paz, an anti-corruption crusader and former attorney general of Guatemala, compares America’s growing polarization and partisanship to the loss of “common agendas” challenging Guatemala’s democracy.
Back home, fighting corruption — her life’s work — used to be something that all politicians said they support, whether they meant it or not. Now in Guatemala, politicians looking to obfuscate the issue dismiss anti-corruption efforts as an agenda pushed by the left, she said.
“The polarization has done a lot of damage to our countries,” she said of the region.
In the United States, Trump has worked to paint Democratic nominee Joe Biden as a socialist — a divisive but sometimes resonant message for voters with roots in Latin American countries, where certain strands of socialism have taken hold.
Paz spoke by phone from Costa Rica, where she recently relocated. She left Guatemala in 2014, fearing for her and her family’s safety as a result of her work, and settled in Washington, D.C. Now director of the Mexico and Central America Program Center at the Center for Justice and International Law, Paz has won awards for her efforts in Guatemala to reduce homicides and prosecute politicians and drug traffickers.
“We need strong democratic institutions, and we are building some of them in the region,” she said. But rhetoric out of the United States undermining the integrity of the U.S. vote “sends a very wrong message” to politicians and the public in Central and South America that they can similarly not respect election results, she said.
Palestinian activist Salem Barahmeh, 31, says Americans are voting in part on his future, too.
“America shapes the lives of billions of people around the world, including mine,” said Barahmeh, executive director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, a West Bank-based Palestinian rights advocacy group. “I wish it wasn’t this way.”
Barahmeh lives under Israeli military occupation in the Palestinian territories, which are governed by the semiautonomous Palestinian Authority. Decades of U.S.-led peace initiatives have failed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, leaving Palestinians like Barahmeh still stateless. Instead, Barahmeh said, U.S. policies have continued to support Israel and its occupation while Palestinians remain divided.
“I have not been able to vote for anyone that represents me and can help shape my life and my future,” he said. “The American democratic system has not always been open for everyone, and I know what it feels like to be living under a regime that doesn’t allow you the agency to shape your future.”
Barahmeh voted only once, several years ago in a municipal election in his hometown of Jericho, a Palestinian city in the West Bank. He was too young to vote in 2005 and 2006, the last time Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip held parliamentary and presidential elections.
“My advice to Americans is that democracy is both a right and a privilege, and a lot of people around the world crave it and yearn for it, and for them to take care of it,” he said.