Later tonight — or, if worst comes to worst, in the next few days — either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama will be forced to take the stage and deliver a speech conceding the election to his rival. It’s a painful task: After more than a year of making the case that he spoke for the people, one candidate must humbly admit that the people have spoken — and chose the other guy. Here are six examples of candidates who utterly failed to step gracefully away from the limelight.
Richard Nixon, 1962
It’s hard to imagine how Richard Nixon returned to political prominence from the nadir of what he wrongly declared his “last press conference,” after losing the 1962 California governor’s race. Nixon’s remarks, a bravura display of self-pity, have widely been derided as the worst concession speech in U.S. history: “I leave you gentlemen now and you will write it,” he told the assembled reporters. “Just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more.”
It wasn’t the first time Nixon’s distaste for concession speeches left a sour taste in supporters’ and opponents’ mouths alike. He refused to deliver his own concession speech after losing the 1960 presidential election, instead sending out a staff member to read a short statement. The election’s victor, John F. Kennedy, privately eviscerated Nixon as he watched from Hyannis Port: “He went out the way he came in — no class.”
Jacques Parizeau, 1995
In the mid-1990s, it seemed as if the French-speaking residents of Quebec might finally muster enough votes to secede from Canada and establish an independent state. Quebec’s newly elected premier, Jacques Parizeau, was a staunch supporter of independence and called a referendum to turn the idea into a reality.
The referendum was narrowly defeated, with 49.4 percent of Québécois voting in favor of secession and 50.6 percent voting against. But it was Parizeau’s disastrous speech to his supporters following the defeat that hardened many citizens’ feelings against secession. His address was a hard-edged appeal for ethnic solidarity directed to French-Canadians, referring to the group as “us” — presumably to the exclusion of the rest of his fellow countrymen. “It’s true we were beaten, yes, but by what?” he asked. “By money and ethnic votes, essentially.”
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Andrés Manuel López Obrador, 2006 and 2012
The leftist politician nicknamed El Peje — after a “tenacious river fish” — is the perpetual also-ran in Mexican politics. Obrador lost the 2006 presidential election by a razor-thin margin, and then went on to be defeated convincingly in the 2012 presidential election. In neither case, however, did he present himself a gracious loser in defeat.
In the 2006 campaign, Obrador declared himself the winner on election night and — disobeying the election commission’s request — went on to call himself “president of Mexico” as the votes were tallied in the days ahead. Even after Felipe Calderón was declared the winner by 0.58 percent of the votes, the closest in Mexico’s history, Obrador approved a ceremony where his supporters declared him the country’s “legitimate president.”
The 2012 presidential election was no nail-biter — Obrador lost to Enrique Peña Nieto by roughly 3.5 million votes — but El Peje’s reaction was all too familiar. He once again refused to concede, petitioning the electoral commission to invalidate the election on the grounds of fraud. If the results were allowed to stand, he warned, “a gang of criminals” would be placed in power.
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Ahmed Shafiq, 2012
Egypt’s 2012 presidential election wasn’t just the country’s first since longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down — it was also the first time in history that its citizens got to choose their leader in a free and fair ballot.
The choice in the June runoff election couldn’t have been starker: Voters went to the polls to cast their ballots for either long-time Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsy or longtime Mubarak ally and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. Morsy was declared the winner on June 24, capturing 52 percent of the vote to Shafiq’s 48 percent.
The election’s aftermath would have been the perfect opportunity for Shafiq to concede gracefully, signaling to his supporters that the popular will and democratic norms must be respected. Instead, when Shafiq supporters looked around for their standard-bearer in the days following the campaign, he was nowhere to be found. Not only did he not deliver a concession speech, he fled to the Persian Gulf less than 48 hours after the results were announced.
The real reaction to Shafiq’s defeat was delivered by his campaign staff in Cairo, who murmured darkly about a conspiracy to steal the election and attacked the newly elected president. “I will no longer be proud to be Egyptian under a country led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsy,” said one disgruntled advisor. “I want to leave Egypt as soon as possible.”
Slobodan Milosevic, 2000
Slobodan Milosevic committed much larger offenses than election fraud — genocide and crimes against humanity top the list — but that didn’t stop the longtime Serbian strongman from trying to skew the polls when they weren’t going his way.
On Sept. 24, 2000, voters in Yugoslavia went to the ballot box to elect their next president — the first time they had done so — in a move widely seen as an attempt by Milosevic to secure his hold on power. But something unexpected happened: The famously fractious Serbian opposition united behind one candidate, the constitutional lawyer Vojislav Kostunica, and drubbed Milosevic at the ballot box. While the opposition claimed to have won 55 percent of the vote, the government-controlled election commission asserted that Kostunica had failed to win a majority — thus requiring a second round.
The ruling sparked fury on the streets of Belgrade, and hundreds of thousands of Serbians took to the streets to demand Milosevic’s immediate resignation. When it became clear that the army would not keep him in power, Milosevic conceded to the popular will.
“I would also like to thank those who did not vote for me because they took a huge weight off my chest, the burden of responsibility which I have carried for a full 10 years,” he said in his vainglorious resignation speech. “I personally intend to rest a bit and spend some more time with my family.”
That last hope, however, was not to be. Less than a year later, Milosevic was imprisoned and transferred to the custody of the United Nations, where he stood trial for crimes committed during the Kosovo War. He would die of a heart attack in his prison cell six years later.
Laurent Gbagbo, 2010
Laurent Gbagbo’s mistake was holding elections in the first place. The Ivory Coast president was still in power in 2010, even though his mandate had expired in 2005. But while he postponed the vote numerous times, international pressure finally forced his hand — Gbagbo was known to complain that he was “obliged to carry out the [French] Revolution of 1789 under the scrutiny of Amnesty International.”
The election went ahead in November 2010, setting the stage for a showdown between Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara. Like strongmen everywhere, Gbagbo seemed shocked to find his people’s undying loyalty in doubt: When the election commission declared Ouattara the winner with 54.1 percent of the vote, he simply refused to relinquish power. Many observers suspected nothing less from a candidate who used the campaign slogan: “We win or we win.”
Both Gbagbo and Ouattara took the oath of office, leading to escalating violence between the two candidates’ supporters that eventually devolved into civil war. “We are not going to give up,” Gbagbo said, painting a portrait of an international conspiracy to oust him from power. “Our greatest duty to our country is to defend it from foreign attack.”
U.N. and French forces eventually did help oust Gbagbo from power, ending the four-month civil war and eventually resulting in his extradition to the International Criminal Court. The former president, however, never abandoned his attempts to play on his people’s fears of colonialism: As he put it, “I find it absolutely incredible that the life of a country is played out, in a game of poker, in foreign capitals.”
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Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest. Prior to Fletcher, he taught at the University of Chicago and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Drezner has received fellowships from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Harvard University. He has previously held positions with Civic Education Project, the RAND Corporation, and the Treasury Department.| Daniel W. Drezner |