Making the world safe for democracy?

From the streets of Paris to offices in Japan, the world chuckles and shrugs at the U.S. election circus.

Published November 10, 2000 10:00PM (EST)

As protesters and TV crews flood the streets of Florida, and the country keeps its eyes glued to recount results in the Sunshine State, the rest of the world looks on with even greater confusion, and in some cases, derision and glee.

World headlines wailed, moaned and guffawed at the current election crisis unfolding in the United States. London tabloid the Mirror led its Friday cover with a picture of George W. Bush and Al Gore's heads superimposed on a park bench like two Forrest Gumps, side by side, with the headline, "Forrest Chumps: U.S. humiliated in Presidential Shambles." Germany's tabloid Bild Zeitung led with "U.S. Vote: A White House Mystery Novel," and Italy's La Stampa described the election debacle as "The New Cold War."

The following dispatches were filed by Salon contributors around the globe.


The Japanese have found the election confusion both frightening and funny.

"This is very scary -- the world's lone superpower still doesn't have a president," said Samito Ito, deputy foreign news editor for the Japan Times, the country's daily English-language newspaper. "Since the American people like to file lawsuits, naturally the legal wrangling will take a long time. It seems to me the United States will be in a brain-dead situation come January."

Other Japanese found the situation humorous.

"It seems like a comedy to me," said Koichi Morikawa, a 29-year-old software consultant for Oracle Japan. "But the question is, if Gore won in the Florida race, I don't think you have a very accurate way of collecting votes because Bush won in the first round."

Junichi Yahata, 44, was one of four Japanese software consultants shown the Palm Beach ballot two days after the election. When asked to "vote" for Gore, he and his colleagues chose the correct hole.

"I was not confused," he said. "It was quite clear for me."

Less clear is America's level of technical sophistication, he said.

"America gives me the impression that it is an information-technology super-country, and they are recalculating by hand? It's quite strange."

-- Heather World


The reaction in Russia to the U.S. election fiasco has involved equal measures of gloating, incredulity and humor.

After suffering through 70 years of American lecturing, hectoring and boasting about democracy -- not to mention a decade of Western aid designed to assist Russia in burying its totalitarian past and adopting American political values -- Russians are now able to point their fingers across the sea, enjoy a belly laugh and regain some self-respect.

"In Russia, presidential elections are conducted in a more democratic way [than in the United States] and are more easily understood by the voters," said Alexander Veshnyakov, chief of the Russian Central Elections Commission. There is no electoral college system in Russia; a Russian presidential candidate needs only to win a majority of the popular vote, or, failing that, a runoff round, in order to claim the top job.

President Vladimir Putin offered, albeit in jest, Veshynakov's services to the United States: "If necessary [Veshnyakov] can tell his American colleague how best to act." Former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov put it most bluntly: "This is simply quite stupid. The American electoral system needs modernizing."

Russian friends of mine have wasted no time in pointing out the similarities between past elections in their country and the ongoing poll in the United States: A privileged, inarticulate oaf with a history of boozing runs for president. The national media manifests its bias by misreporting the outcome, and turmoil ensues. That Gov. George Bush is the son of a former president evokes loathsome notions of favoritism and dynasties -- problems that have afflicted Russia throughout its 1,000-year history.

The campaigns of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Bush are not entirely symmetrical, of course. But the fact that the election now hangs on results from the one state where Bush's brother happens to rule, and where widespread "irregularities" in his favor just happen to have occurred, creates the appearance of Russian-style fraud and electoral finagling.

Russian women, I note, have strongly favored Gore both for his personal attractiveness and intelligent demeanor. Many have described Bush, in contrast, as having a "debil naya rozha" -- a dimwitted mug.

As they did with Yeltsin in the early days of his presidency, Russian men who are fond of the bottle enjoy perceiving a soul mate in Bush and consider him, between burps, "just like one of us."

-- Jeffrey Tayler


As far as France's opinion leaders are concerned, the United States is on the verge of anarchy.

The elite's newspaper, Le Monde, led off its Friday edition with the "Crisis in American Democracy," a phrase echoed in the bestselling Paris daily, Le Parisien. "The confusion is total," gaped the Parisien, while Le Monde editorialized, "This unprecedented crisis should lead the United States to examine the functioning of its political system." On the 24-hour TV news station, LCI, a pundit sagely predicted a popular uprising against the Electoral College.

Meanwhile, Parisians hear in the sound of an American accent an open invitation to questions and commentary -- on the virtues of voting, on whether or not an election can really be fixed in Florida, and especially on how a "cretin" (as the major provincial daily Sud-Ouest put it) like George W. Bush got to be a candidate in the first place.

Crisis or not, this election serves two major functions for the French. First, it distracts them from their own continuing political crisis, which erupted after evidence of vote-fixing and payoffs spread from Paris' City Hall to the palace of former mayor and current President Jacques Chirac. The French are no longer asking themselves whether their president committed crimes, but whether he can be tried for them. How nice to think that America "has no lessons to give" about democracy, as they say in Paris.

More important, the years since the Gulf War have seen the emergence of a new anti-Americanism in France, more widespread and more structured than at any time in memory. With the exception of businessmen, who consider the States a paradise, the country is regarded as a model of social cruelty -- it escaped no one here that both Gore and Bush support the death penalty -- and misuse of power (for example, trying to force Europeans to buy genetically modified grains).

In this context, the elections confirm to the French that America can't respect its own values, starting with what Le Monde calls the "troubling" fact that Gore can win the popular vote and lose the election. These days, the French think America can't be trusted. And they are taking this "crisis" as proof.

-- Mark Hunter


Serbia, which experienced its own elections drama last month when longtime dictator Slobodan Milosevic was forced from office, reacted to the U.S. elections fracas with a mixture of amusement and confusion over the inscrutable U.S. elections system.

"We are laughing," Miroslav Hristodulo, an advisor to opposition leader Zarko Korac said Friday. "People here think it is like Yugoslavia. And no one here understands the U.S. election system."

Bafflement at the electoral college system, which Belgrade newspapers were at pains to try to explain, was mixed with widespread cynicism borne of years of exposure to Milosevic vote rigging, including gerrymandering, ballot stuffing, ballots pre-circled in favor of Milosevic, and intimidation of opposition candidates. On learning that Bush was narrowly ahead before the Florida recount, Donizada -- a close observer of U.S. politics -- said, "Bush won by cheating, yes?"

In general, Serbs, who experienced 11 weeks of NATO bombing last year, prefer that Bush win over Gore, who served an administration many here consider responsible for leading the bombing campaign. The Serbian media has widely quoted comments by Bush's intended national security advisor Condoleezza Rice to the effect that, under a Bush presidency, Washington may pull U.S. troops out of NATO-led peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Bosnia.

But the way those comments trickle down into the Serbian public mind reveals some of the lack of information people here have. An older gentleman who takes his coffee every day at the same cafe in downtown Belgrade told me Wednesday, "Bush's wife promised he would pull troops out of Kosovo."

-- Laura Rozen


The outcome of the presidential race makes little difference to most people in the Middle East.

"Israel safe with Bush or Gore" announced a headline on the front page of Israel's highbrow daily Ha'aretz on Thursday. The commentator asserted that "the main difference between a Democratic and a Republican government is that Democratic administrations are more immediately available to American Jews and Israel." He emphasized that Israel was not a major topic of debate between the candidates and that in the past, "even when a challenger has criticized the Mideast policies of an incumbent president (as in the case of presidents Reagan and Carter), the new president ended up adopting the policies of his predecessor."

Syria's official newspaper Al Baath also proclaimed indifference to the final results of the presidential contest: "What interests us, as Arabs, is the readiness of the new government, be it Democratic or Republican, to work for the end of the dangerous situation in the area and the readiness of that government to be an honest mediator and without prejudice."

Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank head of the Tanzim paramilitary organization, put it more bluntly. According to Israeli radio, Barghouti said it didn't matter who wins the elections since the U.S. is always on Israel's side. That is why, in his view, international intervention is needed to protect Palestinians in the current clashes.

That said, a victory by Bush is favored by the Israeli right wing, which thinks a Republican administration will be tougher with rogue states like Iran and Iraq. And Bush is also favored by Arabs who feel heartened by the links between Bush and big-oil interests.

For the Iraqi daily Babel, headed by the son of Saddam Hussein, the Jewish lobby is responsible for the delay in the election results. "If the Jews manage to elect Gore, they will become the real leaders of America," states an editorial. Bush, on the other hand, would attach less importance to "cooperation with Zionist forces."

-- Flore de Préneuf


Many Peruvians, immersed in their own country's political crisis, remain calm about Uncle Sam's democratic woes.

Peru's most respected daily newspaper, El Comercio, shamefacedly printed the paper's most understated lead headline of the year on Nov. 9: "The presidency of the United States in suspense." This after their front-page headline a day earlier erroneously blared "Bush is the winner."

Fernando Rospigliosi, a respected political analyst, says "despite all the problems that have occurred with the U.S. election, the population still has confidence in their electoral system -- things there did not function poorly, it is just that the race was so narrow that now both candidates believe they may have won and want to be certain of the results. That seems reasonable."

In contrast, Rospigliosi says the Peruvian population has lost faith in the democratic process in light of President Alberto Fujimori's election to a third term in May amid accusations of fraud. A corruption scandal involving the president's personal advisor, Vladimiro Montesinos, has since prompted Fujimori to call new elections, to be held in April, in which he promised not to run.

"When the [U.S.] Democratic Party came [to Peru] in an electoral observer mission they said an election complies with international standards when it results in a change of power." Martha Chavez, a congress member and staunch Fujimori ally, told the Peruvian newsmagazine "Caretas." "The Democrats need to receive a dose of their own medicine, and let's see if they'll take it."

Most politicians and analysts however, regardless of their standing on Peru's current political crisis, hope for a Gore victory. Historically throughout Latin America the Democrats have been viewed as a more sympathetic neighbor.

There are fears throughout Central America that a Republican president could signal a return to the more intrusive politics of the Reagan years, when the U.S. government supported the right-wing governments of El Salvador and Guatemala, and backed the Contras, a guerrilla movement in Nicaragua, to unseat the Sandinista Socialist government. -- Stephanie Boyd

By Salon foreign correspondents

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