The Slatest

If It Happened There: Key Test for Liberal Opposition in Legislative Elections

Donald Trump shaking hands with Ted Cruz on stage.
U.S. President Donald Trump is brought on stage by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) during a rally on October 22, 2018 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. Cruz, the incumbent, is seeking Senate re-election in a high-profile race against Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke. Photo by Loren Elliott/Getty Images

The latest installment of an occasional series in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.

WASHINGTON, United States—Beleaguered liberal opposition leaders here are looking to legislative elections next month as an opportunity to regain some power after two years of right-wing populist rule. But questions are being raised about the strength of the political institutions in what was, until recently, considered among the more prominent examples of multiethnic democracy in its region.

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The opposition is most likely to make gains in the national legislature’s lower house, where it needs to flip 24 of the 435 seats to take control. Gains will be harder to come by in the upper chamber, in which the apportionment of seats favors the country’s sparsely populated interior, where support for the government is higher. Elections are also being held for assemblies and governorships in many of the country’s 50 semi-autonomous regions.

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These will be the first major elections since the controversial right-wing president, Donald Trump, came into power in 2016. A former real estate developer and game show host, Trump is a charismatic populist firebrand in the mold of Silvio Berlusconi, Hugo Chávez, and Marine Le Pen. He gained power with the help of theatrical rallies, shrewd use of social media, and withering, sometimes profane, attacks on the country’s political and economic elites. Though his supporters portray him as a champion of the working-class citizens left behind by the country’s recent embrace of globalization and laissez-faire capitalism, human rights groups have raised concerns over his government’s mass detention of refugees and asylum-seekers—including children—as well as violent and discriminatory rhetoric targeting ethnic minorities, his political opponents, and the media. The small group of regime loyalists around Trump has also been subject to ongoing investigations over corruption, conflicts of interest, and ties to foreign powers, including traditional adversary Russia.

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Nevertheless, since coming to power, Trump has worked steadily and effectively to consolidate power within the once-skeptical ruling conservative party. With the recent appointment of regime loyalist Brett Kavanaugh, the party gained control over the country’s judicial branch, removing a key check on Trump’s influence.

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Meanwhile, the country’s opposition party has often appeared listless and unfocused: With two years left until the next presidential election, the opposition movement has no clear leader and is deeply divided over questions of ideology and tactics.

Despite Trump’s unpopularity, his opponents have had little success expanding their base of support outside traditional strongholds in the heavily urbanized coastal regions. Nonetheless, party leaders are hopeful that support from young voters, ethnic minorities, and women (a record number of female candidates are running this year in what has traditionally been a conservative male-dominated society) can turn the tide. Perhaps taking inspiration from the “color revolutions” that swept the post-Soviet world in recent years, opposition leaders have dubbed their movement the “blue wave.”

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In the days leading up to the vote, opposition officials and independent election monitors have raised questions about whether the vote will be truly free and fair. They point to restrictive voter ID laws and a lack of polling stations in some cities that will make it more difficult to vote in ethnic minority areas, including indigenous tribes living in the remote far north.

As Election Day approaches, the president, his supporters, and pro-government media outlets have also been ratcheting up their hardline nationalist rhetoric. In particular, they are peddling conspiracy theories in speeches and on the popular microblogging site Twitter, trying together opposition leaders, refugees, terrorists, and financier George Soros. Americans are increasingly reliant on online sources for news, and researchers are concerned about the proliferation of news and propaganda on sites like Facebook, the U.S. equivalent of VKontakte.

While the lead-up to the vote has been mostly peaceful, several recent events including street clashes between right-wing extremists and left-wing activists, as well as bombs sent to the offices of prominent opposition leaders, have raised fears of further violence.

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