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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

The World Sits Back in Wonder and Has a Laugh at U.S. Expense

Reaction: In Mexico, elsewhere, the glitches are met with mirth, mockery.

November 12, 2000|MARY BETH SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — For years, Mexicans had a favorite joke about their one-party system: "The Americans say they have such great presidential elections, because they know the winner the same night as the vote. But the Mexican system is more efficient. We know the winner weeks before the election!"

Suddenly, the joke is not on Mexico.

Mexicans have watched dumbfounded over the last few days as the election in the United States, a symbol of democracy, became snarled in uncertainty and charges of unfairness. Moreover, all this took place just months after Mexico held its most democratic presidential race ever--complete with a prompt announcement on election night that the opposition had won for the first time in 71 years.

And, like Mexicans, people around the world are reacting with astonishment and not a little mockery as they realize that the giant of democracy has its own clay feet.

"What happened to the champions of democracy?" demanded the Mexico City daily Cronica. "We still don't know who won last Tuesday. It's been a long time since we ourselves had such problems. And in the countries the Americans call banana republics they may count the votes by hand, but at least there's a result. What happened?"

Some of the loudest howling has come from countries accustomed to receiving American lectures on democracy, U.S. electoral observers and U.S. penalties for fraud. Now it's payback time.

In Russia, for example--the focus of American "democracy building" programs since the Soviet collapse--columnists and ordinary citizens have gleefully derided the electoral gridlock in the world's remaining superpower. Russia's Central Election Commission chairman, Alexander Veshnyakov, who observed the U.S. vote, said on his return Saturday: "We have a lot to learn from Americans, but Americans should not think too much of themselves either and should learn something from us too."

In Mexico, long resentful of the power and perceived arrogance of its northern neighbor, a columnist for the daily Milenio jokingly suggested that the world community impose sanctions. "If we refuse to drink Coke and Pepsi, to eat Big Macs, to use almost everything [American] . . . we'll finish off the gringos," said the columnist known only as Patricio. "In 15 minutes, they'll install whatever president we tell them."

Speaking to BBC Radio 4, the Zimbabwean government spokesman, Jonathan Moyo, quipped: "Maybe Africans and others should send observers to help Americans deal with their democracy."

If it prompted jokes and smirks, it also produced more serious doubts about a country that has seemed a bastion of democratic order and high-tech efficiency.

In the Czech Republic, which emerged in 1989 from decades of Communist rule, columnist Jaroslav Veis wrote Saturday in the daily Svobodne Slovo: "And how come the majority of Americans voted for Gore, but a majority of electors go to Bush? Try to explain to the kids at home [that] this is a just result of democratic elections! They will think you are pulling their leg."

In Italy, voters are accustomed to postelection confusion, missing ballot boxes and erroneous exit polls--but not when those occur in the United States.

"It's taking the country a long time to count the votes, and that surprises us," wrote Gianni Riotta, deputy editor of the newspaper La Stampa in Turin. "We imagine America is one big Silicon Valley where things get done in a flash, but certain parts of rural Florida are not so different from the villages of southern Italy."

Some went as far as to suggest that U.S. leadership ability abroad has been damaged. "What happened on Tuesday night . . . in the United States was the deafening collapse of a paradigm," wrote columnist Rene Delgado in the Mexico City daily Reforma. "The democracy that had been portrayed as a model and goal, above all after the Cold War, isn't what it pretended to be."

Still, many people recognized that their own countries are not paragons of electoral virtue either. In Russia, where Vladimir V. Putin recently won the presidency amid allegations of fraud, this joke has made the rounds: "In connection with the uncertain outcome of its presidential elections, America has asked Russia for technical assistance. Election Commission Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov has departed for the United States and new results are already in: Vladimir Putin is in the lead."

Similarly, Mexican cartoonists focused on a sure cure for what ails the U.S.: Gov. Roberto Madrazo Pintado, a ruling-party strongman in the southern state of Tabasco who was accused of manipulating a recent election to choose his successor.

The cartoonist Fisgon, of the daily La Jornada, portrayed a U.S. official holding a telephone receiver and telling a colleague: "It's the electoral committee of Tabasco. They say they'll solve our problem in five minutes." The alarmed colleague responds: "We run the risk that the winner of the U.S. presidency will be Bobby Madrazo."

For all the mirth and mockery, a few commentators said the imbroglio actually showed the strength of U.S. institutions. Rupert Cornwell, in an analysis for Britain's Independent newspaper, wrote: "In fact, the system is working. The problem is America's all-pervasive impatience, the lust to know everything instantly. 'One is enough,' Churchill famously said of majorities, and we are getting close to that now."

*

Times staff writers Maura Reynolds in Moscow, Marjorie Miller in London, David Holley in Warsaw and Richard Boudreaux in Rome contributed to this report.

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