Banana Republic Or Vibrant Democracy?

DRAMA, pathos, bathos, amazing twists and turns. The US presidential election has become a sensational non-election. It is stranger than fiction, more thrilling than a Tom Clancy thriller, more suspenseful than an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Some critics are having a field day laughing at the antics of the self-proclaimed leader of the free world. Others say the US has proved it is a truly vibrant democracy where every vote counts. There is something to be said for both sides of the argument, but I lean towards the latter.

The bizarre twists of the election have produced a spate of jokes about the whole system and its participants. Possibly the most bizarre outcome of the election season relates not to the presidential race but the Senate election in Missouri, where a dead man was elected.

Senator Carnahan died in an accident shortly before polling day, but the election continued regardless, he won, and his wife is taking his place in the Senate, with the full approval of the losing candidate! If dead people can contest elections, why not elect George Washington? Or Jesus Christ?

Nobody knows who has the best claim to represent George Washington in absentia, but the Pope and many others of the religious right would doubtless lay claim to representing Jesus.

Hollywood came out with a film called `Dead Man Walking’ some years ago. Dead man voting is now going to be part and parcel of the US Senate. One of the jokes going round drawing rooms in Washington is about Hillary Clinton’s reaction: “Gee, if I knew it was that simple, I’d have bumped off Bill long ago.”

Fidel Castro, who has long claimed that American democracy is a fraud, is now able to quote the US press and top politicians to say there are irregularities, fraud, deception and what not in US elections. Cuban newspapers have gone to town about the shenanigans in Florida.

Even in India, the biggest newspaper, The Times of India, has said the stand-off looks more like an election in Bodh Gaya, Bihar than in Bahia Beach, Florida.

More bizarre twists are still possible. Consider the following mind-boggling scenarios.

Lawsuits in Florida prevent any decision from being taken by December 18, when the Electoral College meets. In the absence of any electors from Florida, Gore is elected President.

Bush’s supporters demand an electronic recount in states like Oregon, Wisconsin and Iowa, where Gore won with slim majorities. After that he demands a hand count. Lawsuits produce further delays. Once again no electors from these states are in position by December 18, and so Bush wins the vote of the Electoral College and becomes President.

Bush wins the lawsuits and is elected President, but a later appeal to the Supreme Court reverses the verdict and Gore takes over half-way through Bush’s Presidency.

So many uncertainties abound that you can come out with endless permutations and combinations of scenarios. Nobody knows how the US institutional framework will tackle the unprecedented situation. Yet it seems to me that Americans can rejoice in the fact that democracy and the rule of law will triumph, regardless of which candidate loses.

For all the talk of irregularities and deception, there is no resemblance whatsoever between Florida and Bihar. Nobody in Florida has captured any polling booths or stuffed any ballot boxes. No voter went to the polling station to find somebody had already voted in his or her place.

Nobody voted several times by using chemicals to remove the election stain on their fingernails. Nobody intimidated voters of any community into staying away from the polls. It was election where the rule of law prevailed, where people were able to campaign and exercise their franchise without hindrance.

It is another matter that many human and mechanical errors created serious problems. Human beings are fallible, and make mistakes. So do the machines they operate. That means technical irregularities of all sorts will occur in a large-scale election. This should not be confused with willful subversion or manipulation of elections.

The ballot paper in Palm Beach County had a faulty design, which misled some supporters of Gore into voting for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan. But even the most vociferous critics concede there was no attempt to steal the election for either side.

The Bush camp says that human counters have biases, and so it is best to rely on unbiased machines for counting. But machines have biases too. In Florida, electronic machines reject any crumpled ballots, or ballots where a clean hole has not been punched through by voters.

Manual inspection makes it possible to make out ballots that are partially punched through, and thus indicate every individual voter’s preference. The process takes a long time, yet the end result is a fairer one. That is why the courts have rejected Bush’s attempt to stop the hand count.

Lawsuits have been filed in Palm Beach country demanding a re-poll in view of the misleading ballot paper in this county, which did not conform to legal specifications. But representatives of both parties at the county level had approved the ballot design. Maybe the courts will decide there has been an irregularity, but nobody is alleging fraudulent intent.

No election is perfect. Indeed, democracy itself is highly imperfect. Winston Churchill said, famously, that democracy is the worst of all political systems except all the other that have been tried so far. The USA is discovering that its system is replete with flaws.

Giving each state the right to determine its own election procedures creates problems. So does the indirect Electoral College system.

Even the punching of ballot papers is an anachronism in a high-tech country at the leading edge of technology, and needs to be replaced by computerised voting with encryption to safeguard the identity of each voter, a system that can tally the election result within minutes of the close of voting.

Yet the US can afford to be relaxed, find its own way through these issues. The delay in announcing the election result may be embarrassing for some and unbearably suspenseful for others, but does that really matter?

The US is unique in having an enormous time gap between election day (November 7) and the date of swearing in (January 20). No country is better placed to take in its stride all the post-election twists and turns. A final irony: what was once dismissed derisively as a Gush vs Bore election has ended up as the political thriller of all time.

What do you think?