The stakes are global, and so was the audience, illustrating the truism that presidential elections in the United States affect everyone, even those who are not eligible to vote in them
Europeans awoke Wednesday to the now familiar spectacle of an American presidential election gone off the rails. Like Asians hours earlier, they were riveted by the pitched battle between President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden and appalled by Trump’s demand to stop counting votes.
“Trump-Biden: The United States is tearing itself apart,” the newspaper Le Monde said in a front-page headline, summarizing French coverage of the election that has often depicted a country coming apart at the seams.
“OK, America, so what the hell happens now?” wrote Marina Hyde, a columnist for The Guardian, Britain’s main left-leaning newspaper. She answered her own question by venturing, “Rule nothing out, except maybe optimism.”
In Australia and Indonesia, crowds gathered around televisions in cafes, trying to steal a glimpse of states turning red or blue. In Iran, the hashtag #Elections_America trended on Persian Twitter, while in Japan, Fuji Television covered the election with graphics that mixed old-school cardboard cutouts with the avatars common in video games.
All over the world, the results trickling in from across the American electoral map made for confounding, fascinating must-watch drama. The stakes are global, and so was the audience, illustrating the truism that presidential elections in the United States affect everyone, even those who are not eligible to vote in them.
“It’s kind of like the World Cup finals,” said Moch Faisal Karim, an international relations professor at Binus University in Indonesia.
For many, the election was a chance to watch the hoped for defeat of Trump, who has frayed alliances, started trade wars and vexed foreign leaders with his erratic, transactional style. After the nonstop drama of his first term, much of the world hungers for the United States to shift back toward the more traditional course Biden has promised.
For those countries that have benefited from Trump, the prospect of a president Biden awakened more conflicted emotions. In Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has forged close ties with Trump, right-wing commentators seized on the unexpected result to vilify the American news media.
“The gap between what they said and what happened is simply too wide to believe they did not see this,” said Shimon Riklin, an ally of Netanyahu, said on Twitter. “We had predicted the most organised and splendid fake news in history.”
Many viewers wanted nothing more than a quick resolution, but instead there was uncertainty and angst.
First came the quadrennial refresher course on the complexities of the American process for electing a president — and then, as votes were counted, the hours of waiting, as news websites and television channels filled with the 50-state maps and charts familiar to Americans.
They tried to make sense of images of stores boarded up against potential violence. When Trump appeared at the White House around 2 am in Washington and prematurely declared that he had won, warning that he would go to the Supreme Court to try to shut down the rest of the vote counting, anxieties deepened.
“Donald Trump is playing with fire in a context that is already quite explosive,” Le Monde declared.
Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute, a research institute in Sydney, said, “President Trump’s statement should concern anyone who believes in democracy.”
“A contested election may be the worst possible result for the United States,” Fullilove added. “COVID had already made America look seriously unwell. Now it appears febrile and disoriented.”
In Asia, the election results came in while the markets were trading, setting off wild fluctuations.
In a region that has mostly controlled the coronavirus, many people tried to make sense of a country where infections remained rampant and voters seemed ready to reelect a leader who had falsely claimed that the virus would disappear.
South Korean newspapers relayed real-time updates on the vote counting with banner headlines on their websites, and cable channels had uninterrupted coverage, making this the most closely watched US election in the country in recent memory.
By Wednesday afternoon in South Korea, as Trump began to look competitive across the map and had picked up a handful of battleground states, news outlets and social media users expressed surprise at his performance.
“It’s just amazing that he is neck and neck in the race even after making a mess of the fight against COVID-19,” one local commentator wrote on Twitter.
In China, the State news media repeatedly highlighted the potential for riots or other election-related violence. CCTV, the State broadcaster, aired footage of the heavy police presence in Washington and protesters shoving one another near the White House, though protests there Tuesday evening were largely peaceful.
For some countries, there was hope that the election would augur a shift in the United States’ relationship with the world.
In Indonesia, some analysts said a Biden victory would soften the US approach to the Muslim world, while in Iran, where the economy has been battered by Trump’s sanctions, there was a sense among some that the election would have a greater impact on Iranians than on Americans.
“The slogan for the revolution was ‘no to the West, no to the East,’” Ebrahim Alinia, a real estate agent, wrote on Twitter. “But after 41 years we are looking to America’s election to save our economy.”
In Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro is a populist ally of Trump, critics pinned their hopes on Biden to change Trump’s policies. “A change in US policy can help to postpone and even reverse the tipping point of the Amazon rainforest,” Natalie Unterstell, an environmental activist, said on Twitter.
In Singapore, there was a sense of “helplessness” about the election, said Eugene Tan, a professor of law and a political analyst at Singapore Management University.
“We still tend to regard America as a flag-bearer of democracy,” Tan said. “And seeing how an election outcome is going to be challenged, how people believe there’s going to be violence, society is going to be more fractured, I think that has been quite eye-opening for many in Singapore.”
While the gravity of the election was evident in news coverage, in Japan it came with a bit of whimsy, intended or not.
On Asahi TV, the hosts explained the Electoral College with puzzle pieces of battleground states imprinted with electoral vote counts. A vote counter on the bottom of the screen showed images of the candidates reacting to increases in the counts: Trump was depicted with his mouth agape, hands waving on either side of his face. Biden appeared with a soberly thrust fist.
Even Alexei Navalny, the Russian Opposition leader who has challenged President Vladimir Putin and nearly died after being poisoned with a nerve agent, found humour in the gaudy ritual of American democracy.
“Woke up and went on Twitter to see who won,” he posted Wednesday. “Still unclear. Now that’s what I call elections.”
Mark Landler and Damien Cave c.2020 The New York Times Company
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