Sat, 11 Nov 2000

Democracy extravaganza

The greatest show of democracy on earth is undoubtedly also the most expensive. Yet, in spite of the US$3 billion which the two main candidates have spent in the election campaign, the United States still does not know who will be its next president.

We could think of many much more worthy causes on which to spend that much money. But, hey, this is America, and a rich one at that, after experiencing the longest ever period of uninterrupted economic expansion. The fact that $3 billion failed to settle the question may come across as exorbitant but the suspense and drama which this week's U.S. election produced made it seem almost worth every cent of it.

This is an election which has lived up to its mantra of "too close to call", not only in terms of the result, but also in terms of the two main candidates. Since the campaign started, Americans have had difficulties differentiating the policy platforms of Republican Texas Governor George W. Bush and Democratic Vice President Al Gore.

Democratic President Bill Clinton won the previous two elections by occupying the center of the political spectrum. In this year's presidential race, Bush and Gore tried to edge each other out of that spot. On just about all the major issues, it was hard to tell them apart, be it on social security, education reforms or even economic and foreign policies. The billions of dollars spent by the two candidates and their supporters were used to highlight the marginal differences, which really boiled down to style and personality. Or they were spent to mobilize their traditional supporters to go out and vote on election day.

Given the little policy differences which existed between Gore and Bush, it matters little to most Americans who will occupy the White House on Jan. 20, assuming that the matter is settled by then. The American presidential election has essentially been reduced to nothing more than a show. This year, it has become an extravagant show with an unknown ending, at least not for another week or so.

No doubt this year's U.S. election will also produce its share of commercial spin-offs. The suspense and drama are simply too good to pass for people in Hollywood and in the publishing industry. Political pundits in Washington and all around the world too will no doubt have plenty to comment on, even when many of them got their election predictions wrong.

One result to come out of this year's democratic processes in the United States is the academic debate about the electoral rules, including the archaic electoral college system.

The current standoff in the presidential race is also the start of what many fear would amount to a constitutional crisis because of the close call resulting from the election.

Americans are not only divided almost in the middle in choosing their president, but also in electing their representatives in Congress. Both the Senate and the House are almost equally divided between Republicans and Democrats.

Whoever eventually emerges as president will likely find his power and authority cut down to size when he takes charge of the nation in January. The partisan Congress can and will likely frustrate the administration, whoever is its chief executive.

The elected president will have to draw on his political skills and experience. He will also have to rely on his statesmanship and leadership skills, something that no amount of money can buy. Clinching the presidency could seem like a piece of cake compared to the difficult tasks ahead.