A Riveted World Waits to See What’s Next in America

3 weeks ago

In Australia and Indonesia, crowds gathered around televisions in restaurants and cafes, trying to get a glimpse of American states turning red or blue. In Iran, the hashtag #Elections_America was trending on Persian Twitter, while in Japan, Fuji Television spent a good portion of Wednesday morning covering the election with graphics that mixed old-school cardboard cutouts with video-game-like avatars.

All over the world, as results trickled in across the American electoral map, it made for confounding, fascinating must-watch drama. The stakes are global, and so was the audience, glued to the sort of blanket news coverage most often reserved for elections closer to home.

“It’s kind of like the World Cup finals,” said Moch Faisal Karim, an international relations professor at Binus University in Indonesia.

The intense worldwide interest reflects the still-considerable power of America and the unpredictability that has shaped the last four years. President Trump has been a global disrupter in chief, seeking to redefine relations with American allies in Europe and Asia, working to blunt the rise of China and cozying up to autocrats in North Korea and Russia.

After surprise upon surprise during his first term, much of the world is desperate to know if the Trump era will continue, or if the United States will shift back toward the more traditional course that Joseph R. Biden Jr. has promised.

Credit…Matt Dunham/Associated Press

But while many viewers would have liked nothing more than a quick resolution, there instead was uncertainty and angst. First came the quadrennial refresher courses on the complicated American approach to 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 sliding charts familiar to Americans.

People around the world found themselves doing difficult Electoral College math, while trying to keep up with the patchwork of vote-counting procedures all over the United States. They tried to make sense of images of stores boarded up against the potential for violence and, like Americans, they wondered what voters would decide and what each candidate would say to the world.

When Mr. Trump appeared at the White House around 2 a.m. 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, the world’s anxieties seemed to deepen.

“President Trump’s statement should concern anyone who believes in democracy,” said Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute, a research institute in Sydney, Australia.

“A contested election may be the worst possible result for the United States,” he added. “Covid had already made America look seriously unwell. Now it appears febrile and disoriented.”

Credit…Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

Bright Simons, an analyst and executive with the Imani research institute in Accra, Ghana, said that a Trump victory would make it harder to support civil society movements all over Africa that are working to strengthen democratic values.

“African civil society actors are also increasingly beginning to realize that when it comes to deeper democratic culture goals, they can’t keep relying on Western hand-holding,” Mr. Simons said. “So there have been some interesting unintended consequences, which will sharpen in relief should the incumbent be retained.”

In Asia, where the results came in during the business day, prompting the markets to fluctuate wildly, interest never flagged. In a region that has mostly controlled the coronavirus pandemic, many people tried to make sense of a country where infections remained rampant and voters still seemed willing to consider re-electing the leader who had falsely claimed that the virus would simply disappear.

Credit…Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

In South Korea, all major newspapers relayed real-time updates on the vote counting through banner headlines on their websites, and several cable channels had uninterrupted coverage, making this the most closely watched American election in the country in recent memory.

By Wednesday afternoon, as Mr. Trump looked competitive across the map and had picked up a handful of battleground states, South Korean news and social media sounded surprised by his performance.

“I can’t say I am an expert in ​American presidential elections,” wrote one local commentator​​ on Twitter.​ “​But it’s just amazing that he is neck and neck in the race even after making a mess of the fight against Covid-19.”

In China, the state news media repeatedly highlighted the potential for riots or other election-related violence.

CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, shared footage of the heavy police presence in Washington and protesters shoving each other near the White House, though the protests there on Tuesday evening were largely peaceful. Xinhua, the state news agency, shared a video of police officers patrolling outside polling sites in New York and barricaded businesses.

The level of interest in the election was evident on Chinese social media, where the hashtag “American election” had been viewed more than 3.9 billion times on Weibo, a platform similar to Twitter.

Internet users’ commentary ranged from serious analyses of the election results to multiple viral clips of Mr. Trump dancing. One post, noting that America’s liberal urban centers were surrounded by wide swaths of red on the electoral map, joked that Mr. Trump had secretly studied Mao Zedong’s revolutionary strategy of “agricultural areas surrounding the cities.”

Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

In Russia, reporters for state television lingered on uncertainty in the vote count. President Vladimir V. Putin’s government relishes portraying the United States as hypocritical for lecturing post-Soviet states on democracy.

“What we see on our screens is a choreographed show between two parties, behind whom stand the elite,” Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Russian Parliament, told state television. “If they chose this system for themselves, let them be ruled by it, but then don’t turn around and teach us how to hold elections.”

In some countries, though, there was hope that the election would usher in a shift in the United States’ relationship with the world. In Indonesia, there was optimism that a Biden victory could soften the American approach toward the Muslim world. And in Iran, where the economy has been stifled by Trump-imposed 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.”

Pundits in the Philippines, a country led by a president, Rodrigo Duterte, who is often compared to Mr. Trump, used the election to underscore the global power of populism.

Richard Heydarian, a political scientist who wrote a book on Mr. Duterte called “The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy,” said on Twitter, “Let’s be honest, POPULISM is still a BESTSELLER.”

In another post, he said, “Coming from the PHILIPPINES, I’m like ZERO PERCENT SURPRISED by how TIGHT this RACE is!”

In Singapore, there was a sense of “helplessness” watching the election, said Eugene Tan, a professor of law and a political analyst at Singapore Management University.

The United States plays a significant role in the stability of Southeast Asia, he said, and there are concerns that a second Trump term, with perhaps an even more inward-looking disposition, could produce a “seismic change to the balance of power that’s been longstanding in this part of the world.”

The election has also changed how Singaporeans see the United States, Mr. Tan said.

“We still tend to regard America as a flag-bearer of democracy, 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.”

Credit…Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

While the gravity of the election was evident in news coverage around the world, in Japan it came with a bit of whimsy, intended or not.

On Asahi TV, the hosts explained the Electoral College by using large puzzle pieces of battleground states imprinted with electoral vote counts, affixing them to photos of the candidates. A vote counter on the bottom of the screen showed images of the candidates reacting to increases in electoral counts: Mr. Trump was pictured with his mouth agape, hands waving on either side of his face, in an exuberant “Home Alone” pose. Mr. Biden appeared with a soberly hoisted fist.

At another point, Asahi rendered swing states in flames. A correspondent on TBS, another network, seemed to report from a Sims version of the Oval Office. And Fuji TV displayed a vote counter with illustrations of the candidates that seemed more like characters in a Nintendo game, or bobbleheads, than depictions of the two men vying to lead the free world.

Reporting was contributed by Motoko Rich from Tokyo, Hannah Beech from Bangkok, Vivian Wang from Hong Kong, Yan Zhuang from Melbourne, Australia, Choe Sang-Hun from Seoul, South Korea, Farnaz Fassihi from New York, Andrew E. Kramer from Moscow and Abdi Latif Dahir from Cairo. Claire Fu contributed research.

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