Asiaweek (Hong Kong)
Nov 25, 2000

Learn From Florida

The U.S. electoral deadlock is an example of things going right


formerly a regional correspondent in Southeast Asia, is now a London-based

[Breakout:] The lesson: the system is resilient enough to be tested
severely, so that both parties and most of the voters are reassured that
the ultimate result will be fair

Rafidah Aziz is worried and alarmed. Last week in that bastion of
Southeast Asian democracy, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia’s trade and
industry minister expressed concern over the electoral deadlock in the
United States, which has left the presidential contest of the world’s
second-most populous democracy inconclusive a full two weeks after votes
were cast on Nov 7. In a characteristic jibe, Rafidah offered to send
observers from the region to monitor U.S. elections, joining such worthy
democrats as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Cuban leader Fidel Castro,
and a fulminating Libyan envoy at the United Nations, who have made
similar suggestions.

A delegation of Asian observers monitoring the Florida recount is an
excellent idea. It will be a good education for them. For the unstated
claim — that the U.S. somehow isn’t capable of holding elections — is
preposterous. In some of the countries ridiculing the U.S. deadlock,
troops would have gone in by now and rounded up opposition leaders. And
independent-minded vote-counters would have been dismissed.

An Indian newspaper compared Florida with Bihar, the state known for its
polls-related violence. The last time elections were held in Bihar, dozens
of people were killed, requiring polls to be countermanded and new ones
ordered, particularly in areas where ballot boxes had been captured by
armed thugs. On Nov. 11, the Times of India gleefully noted: “Miscounts,
recounts, false starts, allegations, lawsuits — oh, how wonderful that
some of backward India’s favorite election time experiences should be
rubbing off on the world’s greatest democracy. So often have we been given
a pat on the back by Big Brother for being a good, little democracy that
it feels great to be able to return the compliment.”

The critics have missed a fundamental fact: Florida is not an example of
things gone wrong, but of things going right. Instead of troops and tanks,
the two parties have sent elder statesmen. Instead of clamping down on the
right to assemble freely, the system feels strong enough to let Floridans
argue vigorously in front of TV cameras. And instead of draconian laws
being imposed, the two sides have sent top lawyers who are arguing before
the state’s courts to make sure that the will of the people is reflected.

And, the biggest surprise of all, Americans are willing to wait. In the 10
days I spent in Washington and New York recently, virtually everyone I
talked to — commuters, people in elevators, delivery men, baristas at
Starbucks, policy wonks in Washington, bankers in New York, journalists,
academics — was not unduly anxious. Nobody says the delay will allow
either party to alter the will of the people, nobody wants the instant
gratification of an immediate result. This, in a country that wants
Internet on the run, and which would like instant access to everything.
Except for network news anchors, who’ve already had a spectacular debacle,
and some bitterly-partisan politicians, nobody seems to be in a hurry for
the results.

The country’s founding fathers left a full 10 weeks between the end of
voting and the inauguration of the new president. So politician-dictated
deadlines have come and gone, and the people at large are prepared to
wait. And that’s not because a culture that has taken delight in every
twist and turn of the O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky and Elian Gonzalez
sagas, has no interest in grave matters such as the presidency; but
because they trust the system and want fairness to prevail.

That’s a humbling but important lesson for politicians the world over. An
observers’ mission to Florida that teaches them about fairness,
independence of the judiciary, rule of law, and equal access to both
parties on TV and in the print media would be a good thing. Particularly
in contrast to the practices to which some Asians are accustomed, where
recounts would have been frozen by now; ballot boxes would have appeared
mysteriously, or disappeared bafflingly.

American democracy is not perfect: so large is the role of money that a
boy from a log cabin could reach the White House only in Abraham Lincoln’s
time. But the constitution lays down parameters of what the federal
government can and must do, and where the states can guard their
territory. It has checks and balances, and it is governed by the
principles of advice and consent. The idea of the electoral college,
seeming so arcane and possibly unfair to a candidate who polls more
popular votes, also has a purpose — to ensure that candidates take smaller
states seriously. It is a system where the executive administers, but the
legislature imposes checks, and the judiciary arbitrates. Those principles
have served the U.S. well for over 200 years.

Even though the outcome of this year’s presidential elections has been
particularly messy, the important lesson is that the system is resilient
enough to be tested severely, so that both parties, and most of the
voters, are reassured that the ultimate result will be fair. For Rafidah
and other cabinet ministers in Asia, there is much to be gained from
observing the American electoral process.