Yes, We Have No Banana Republic

What the foreign papers are saying.
Nov. 13 2000 9:30 PM

Yes, We Have No Banana Republic

The sniping continues against the United States' no-end-in-sight presidential election. El Tiempo of Colombia quoted former Uruguayan leader Héctor Gross Espie proclaiming that the United States "has lost its virginity when it comes to judging other countries; in electoral matters, no country can consider itself the master or the dictator." A Latin American ambassador in Washington told Clarín of Argentina, "If this had happened in one of our countries they would have sent a commission from the Organization of American States by now." Writing in Mexico's Reforma, the humor columnist Catón crowed, "It takes [the United States] so long to figure out the results of the presidential election. We knew at 6 p.m. on July 2 [that Vicente Fox had won]. And that's not all! In previous elections, we knew the results a year in advance."

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An op-ed in Britain's Guardian diagnosed a bad case of Schadenfreude: "You can hardly blame them. The Cubans and Russians, Italians and Africans have listened for so long to Americans lecturing them on democracy, it's no wonder they are revelling in the chance to get their own back." Contrary to many reports in the past week, America is not a banana republic, the piece declared. If it were, "Jeb Bush would have done a better job of rigging the Florida contest for his brother—or Bill Clinton would have declared a state of emergency and made himself president-for-life." The U.S. system is, however, "crippled by a nostalgic, unjustified attachment to mechanisms which are long past their sell-by date." It concluded:

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

There is much America can learn from democracies around the world. But first it has to realise that, though the founding principles of the republic remain inspiring, not every cog and wheel of that 18th-century machinery is sacred. America needs to recall its revolutionary origins, to remember that it was built on change—and that it can change now.

Others joined in pronouncing the U.S. electoral system archaic. El Tiempo's New York correspondent said: "If anything has come out of the mess … it is that the world's superpower, the home of high-tech, uses voting systems and techniques from the past century. And worse yet, many countries, especially those who often hear the lectures from Uncle Sam about free and fair elections, have discovered that the United States is not a perfect democracy." Spanish papers El Mundo called the electoral methods "antediluvian," and El País dubbed them "anachronistic." Mark Steyn, writing in the Sunday Telegraph of London, said the United States "runs its elections like a Ladies' Aid Society rummage sale presided over by three arthritic grannies."

The attacks on the Electoral College continued. Britain's Independent claimed, "The Electoral College is now an entirely nominal legacy from the age of horse-drawn conveyances and delegate democracy." The Hindustan Times seemed to overestimate Scandinavia's influence on U.S. public opinion when it pointed out: "Finland abolished the electoral college system in 1988. Voters had become fed up with candidates coming to power despite widespread popular opposition. Perhaps, after the dust settles, Americans can consider this." Several other papers made prideful assertions about India's democratic successes. Writing in the Age of Melbourne, Salman Rushdie declared: "India, with far fewer resources than the US, has managed—albeit imperfectly—to run a constituency-based, direct-election democracy for more than half a century. It's hard to grasp why Americans can't do the same." The Times of India admitted: "Of course, elections are chaotic here—booth-capturing, violence, shoot-outs, these are mandatory requirements of polling in this country. Yet, in the end, we somehow always get it right, which is a double achievement considering the sheer scale of the exercise—polling booths within walking distance for close to a billion people, a single electoral machinery for the entire country, and systemic preparedness to tackle violence springing from huge caste and regional variations." The editorial concluded with a slap at the United States:

It was only in 1964, with the Civil Rights Bill, that the US abolished discrimination in voting. By that time we were already a full-fledged democracy with well laid-out fundamental rights. The country that lectures the world has to hear out the world for a change—whether it is the taxi driver in Nigeria giving a piece of his mind or the Italians calling the superpower a Banana Republic.

Still, the United States did receive plaudits for the transparency of the process. Canada's Globe and Mail criticized its neighbor to the south for the woefully low turnout—50.7 percent even though voters in the West knew how tight the race was—the "lack of choice on offer," and "the system's apparently insatiable desire for money," but conceded: "[W]e are able to carp because we know so much about it. And whatever else we make of this extraordinary week in U.S. politics, it has been a triumph of openness and a stunning reminder of the power of information." The Moscow Times berated Russian politicians for their "gleeful" declarations that the American system is "confusing and undemocratic." The paper, which published evidence of massive fraud in that country's most recent presidential election, said the Russian election chief, in the States to monitor the elections:

[S]hould note that he is seeing a system that has earned the confidence of the public in the past and therefore is able to weather this close election without creating a national crisis. He should notice that aggrieved citizens and political parties are getting a timely and thorough hearing in the courts. He should notice that the election itself was held when it was supposed to be held and not when it was more convenient for one or another of the candidates.

The International Herald Tribune, "the world's daily newspaper," has run several stories celebrating the sudden importance of its key readership: "a group of voters who not only could play a crucial role in deciding the next U.S. president, but who also have never been polled and often feel ignored by the U.S. government: Americans living overseas." The paper reported that if American expatriates (whose numbers were estimated as 4 million and 6 million in the same piece!) "were a state, they would be 24th in population, with two senators and five or six representatives."

Looking forward to the days ahead, the foreign press counseled patience. An editorial in the Age proclaimed:

In an attempt to break what looks like becoming a difficult and lengthy deadlock, Mr Bush and his campaign people are trying to paint Mr Gore as a sore loser. In truth, they want to spin themselves into the White House by embarrassing Mr Gore into accepting an incomplete result in Florida. They should not succeed. The US presidency is too important, not just to Americans but to the rest of the world, to be handed to someone who might not deserve it.

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