AS TRUMP declines to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the US presidential contest, some fear the election will not just pit him against rival Joe Biden, but against democracy itself. Foreign Editor David Pratt reports.

It was left to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to voice the concern of many Americans.

“You are not in North Korea; you are not in Turkey; you are not in Russia, Mr President, and by the way, you are not in Saudi Arabia,” warned the California Congresswoman and country’s third highest office holder.

“You are in the United States of America. It is a democracy, so why don’t you just try for a moment to honour your oath of office to the Constitution of the United States?” asked Pelosi.

Pelosi’s comments last Thursday doubtless echoed the thoughts of those Americans and others outside the country who more than ever look on worryingly at the increasingly authoritarian tone of President Donald Trump.

The House Speaker was responding to Trump’s uncompromising remarks after two straight days in a row when he declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost the coming November presidential election.

In many ways the president’s thinly veiled threats were what the world has come to expect of Trump. But many observers felt there was something different about their resonance this time around, something verging on the genuinely sinister in an America that daily appears more fractured and politically polarised.

It was last Wednesday that a reporter asked Trump whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power “win, lose or draw” to Democrat rival Joe Biden.

“Well, we’re going to have to wait and see what happens,” replied the president, before then adding “we should get rid of the ballots,” and ending his remarks with the chilling words: “There won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.”

More than one commentator scathingly pointed out that Trump’s remarks were more akin to those of dictatorial Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko than the so-called ‘leader of the free world.’

There was more than a touch of irony too that just as concern was expressed in the US over Trump’s comments, Lukashenko was himself being sworn in for his sixth term in office at an unannounced ceremony. His inauguration came as mass protests continued on the streets of the Belarus capital Minsk by pro-democracy activists against an election result they say was rigged.

Almost as if to seal the parallels drawn by some commentators between the American and Belarusian presidents, reports surfaced too that the Trump administration had stopped vital technical assistance that had helped those same Belarusian pro-democracy activists evade state surveillance and sidestep internet censorship.

While some maintain that comparisons between Trump and Lukashenko are overstated, others argue that it’s hard these days when tuning into television news from troubled US states with their pictures of masked and armed militiamen on the streets not to be reminded of what is unfolding in Minsk.

It certainly speaks volumes about the damage Trump has inflicted on liberal democracy that the world's self-styled strongmen are almost at one in backing the re-election of the incumbent US president. That feeling too it appears is mutual.

In his recent book Rage, about the Trump presidency, Bob Woodward, the veteran investigative reporter and now associate editor of the Washington Post, describes Trump reflecting on his relationships with authoritarian leaders generally.

“It’s funny, the relationships I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them,” he told Woodward. “You know? Explain that to me someday, okay?”

This emphasis on personal relationships and deals as if trading real estate is, say Trump-watchers, the common denominator between the US president and other authoritarian leaders when it comes to foreign policy. Trump’s transactional approach they say leaves no place for strategies let alone values.

As the Financial Times columnist and chief political commentator Philip Stephens recently observed, those backing Trump include Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Israel’s own self styled strongman Benjamin Netanyahu and India’s hardline Hindu nationalist Nahendra Modi.

“The US president may have few friends among America's usual allies, but he sweeps the board in the contest with Democratic contender Joe Biden for the authoritarian vote,” wrote Stephens scathingly last week. The only exception he noted was Chinese premier Xi Jinping with whom Trump has been at odds over trade and Beijing’s supposed ‘responsibility’ for spreading the coronavirus pandemic.

But what does Trump’s closeness to such leaders mean for US democracy? Are his latest comments in declining to commit to a peaceful transfer of power a leaf out of the authoritarian playbook or just more bluster from a president who has made outrageous remarks his stock in trade?

“It’s impossible to underscore how absolutely extraordinary this situation is, there are really no precedents in our country,” insists Chris Edelson, an American University professor who has studied the expansion of presidential power during national emergencies. Speaking last week to The New York Times, Edelson said that Trump’s comments represented a unique threat to a central pillar of democracy.

“This is a president who has threatened to jail his political opponents. Now he is suggesting he would not respect the results of an election. These are serious warning signs,” added Edelson, expressing a view shared by other academics, historians, US constitutional experts and politicians.

In a speech delivered last Thursday, US Senator Bernie Sanders went into more detail on the possible scenario in which Trump might manipulate November’s bitterly contested ballot. Sanders told how he envisages Trump declaring victory in the election claiming that mail-in or postal ballots are fraudulent even if the evidence points to the contrary.

“What he is saying is that if he wins the election, that's great,” said Sanders. “But if he loses, it's rigged, because the only way, the only way, he can lose is if it's rigged. And if it's rigged, then he is not leaving office. Heads I win, tails you lose. In other words, in Trump's mind, there is no conceivable way that he should leave office,” Sanders was quoted as saying in a speech made in Washington and cited by the progressive news website Common Dreams.

Noting that America is currently facing “an unprecedented set of crises,” from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and mass unemployment to widespread lack of healthcare and soaring inequality, the Vermont Senator warned that November’s ballot wasn’t just an election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

“This is an election between Donald Trump and democracy, and democracy must win,” Sanders asserted.

As is often the case it's not just Democrats and other opponents of Trump that find good reason to take exception to the president’s more disquieting assertions. Some Republicans too have been nervy and found it necessary to rebuke the president over his latest remarks fearing the damage not only to the Republican’s election prospects but America’s global standing.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate who rarely censures Trump, on Thursday tweeted that there would be an “orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792,” a reference to the re-election of George Washington.

Underscoring the level of bipartisan concern, the Senate in the wake of Trump’s remarks unanimously passed a resolution that reaffirmed its commitment to an orderly transfer of power. While the measure has no legal standing, it put every Republican in the chamber on record with their concern.

“Fundamental to democracy is the peaceful transition of power. Without that, there is Belarus,” said Mitt Romney, the Utah senator and former Republican presidential nominee.

“Any suggestion that a president might not respect this constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable,” Romney added.

Despite such efforts however the Republican Party is unlikely to restrain Trump’s authoritarian instincts. So far he has shown no signs of taking the rebuke from within his own ranks lying down, conscious no doubt that defeat of an incumbent president is something that has only happened four times in the past 100 years.

If nothing else Trump’s ego will motivate him into doing all he can to ensure he doesn’t join the ranks of those four predecessors. To that end his administration has been engaged in an almost unprecedented campaign to undermine the democratic process in an effort to stay in power. They have done this by various means including through the courts, quietly in Washington’s corridors of power, or as with last week’s remarks out in the open.

Speaking of the potential for voter fraud for example, Trump has made unsubstantiated claims about election rigging even during his last run for presidency, but only recently focused on the issue of postal ballots. This also involves litigation in several swing states to block the expansion of postal votes. Such a move is predicated on indicators that more Democrat supporters plan to vote by mail than Republicans.

Blocking emergency funding for the US Postal Service during the coronavirus pandemic has also been a tactic, as has the targeting of ballot drop-off boxes that voters can use to securely drop off their ballots at locations such as schools or libraries to be collected by election officials.

According to Trump these are all vulnerable to “rigging,” even if historical evidence doesn’t bear out this claim.

For the moment most election watchers remain worried about what lies ahead in little over six weeks time. They point to how Trump’s “personality and the patterns of his presidency” suggest that should he lose in November, there will be a fraught transition. As a nation the United States presidential election has almost always succeeded in providing a clear-cut outcome. But many familiar with US election law and procedure concede that given conditions this time the ballot is ripe for creating a constitutional crisis that would leave the US without an authoritative result.

The worst case scenario, some argue, is not that Trump rejects the election outcome but that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him.

Under constant attack by his administration, the cracks are showing they say in core institutions and democratic structures that for so long now have been perceived as robust and secure.

“We are not prepared for this at all,” Julian Zelizer, a Princeton professor of history and public affairs, told The Atlantic magazine in a recent article entitled: The Election That Could Break America.

“We talk about it, some worry about it, and we imagine what it would be. But few people have actual answers to what happens if the machinery of democracy is used to prevent a legitimate resolution to the election,” added Zelizer.

The stark reality that liberal democracy only functions when major parties accept the right of their opponents to govern now faces America. There can be no clearer demarcation between democracy and autocracy than the peaceful transfer of power after an election and by his comments last week and protracted campaign to undermine the democratic process Trump has now shown that he is prepared to cross that line.

“This is a perfect storm in this country,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, America’s oldest and largest civil rights coalition.

“We can’t take American democracy for granted, as for a long time we did,” she warned, in a recent interview where the principals of five major US rights organisations also expressed their anxieties about the coming election and its outcome.

“Things are happening on our watch that are clear signs of authoritarianism,” Gupta said, “and we have to push back.”

Massachusetts senator and former Democratic presidential nominee Elizabeth Warren accused Trump of “flirting with treason” over his refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power. Strong words, that will only get stronger from both sides as the countdown to Tuesday November 3 begins.

As most political analysts will attest, the real test of any nation’s political system is whether politicians respect the will of the voters. Should they fail to do so the greatest danger is that those who have lost elections look to other forms of political activity for satisfaction.

America right now is a country riven by sharp division and reeling from social unrest. On its streets the clashes become ever more violent and have become the arena in which anonymous masked armed militiamen roam. It is a nation already moving into uncharted political territory.