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Bush Victory's Lesson to the World

By Nat Parry
November 11, 2004

On the surface, the world’s reaction to George W. Bush’s victory has been one of disbelief and revulsion. But underneath, the lesson may be even more troubling, as authoritarian regimes are tempted to cite flaws in the U.S. electoral process to justify their own anti-democratic impulses.

The day after the election, the British Daily Mirror asked plaintively, “How can 59,017,382 people be so dumb?” Not to be outdone, Russia’s Pravda asserted that “America was betrayed and murdered on Nov. 2, 2004. Also killed during this time of madness were the following virtues: truth, justice, integrity, freedom, compassion, brotherhood, tolerance, faith, hope, charity, peace, and respect for other cultures and nations.”

While those two commentaries may be harsher than most, their points of view appear to be widespread. A couple of weeks before the U.S. election, a newspaper survey of public opinion in 10 countries, including Russia and Great Britain, found that respondents, by a 2-to-1 margin, were hoping for a John Kerry victory.

In the days after the election, the television news reports in Denmark spent hours wondering how Kerry could have lost to Bush in what was such an easy and clear choice for the betterment of the world.

A Danish friend told me in an e-mail that he and his friends watched the U.S. election returns until 5:00 in the morning. “A lot of people here in Denmark followed the U.S. election very intensively,” he said, “and got very disappointed” at Bush’s victory.

“The future looks pretty bleak,” another Danish friend said. “It’s just hard to keep up the optimism with the perspective of four more years.”

Election Mission

I also witnessed the reaction of European parliamentarians who came to the U.S. as part of the Election Observation Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes the United States as a member.

I helped coordinate the mission, and on Election Day, I escorted about 10 observers to polling stations in Northern Virginia. While the observers were strictly neutral during the election, it was clear that many of them worried about four more years of Bush.

Besides Bush’s policies, some of the parliamentarians felt that questionable U.S. election tactics, including voter intimidation, undermined the image of popular rule in the nation that had long been considered the world’s leading democracy.

One Albanian told me that she had struggled for democracy for much of her life and suffered beatings by state security forces for speaking out for freedom. During those dark days, the United States had been the brightest beacon of hope, inspiring activists to keep fighting, she said.

But now, in the United States, she was learning about voter intimidation and other irregularities during a briefing at the national call center of the Election Protection Coalition in Arlington, Virginia.

Her voice shook as she recounted reports of black voters being challenged by Republican lawyers at polling places, of minorities asked for two forms of identification when only one was needed, of polling places moved to police stations in minority precincts, of hundreds of electronic voting malfunctions, and of polling stations lacking enough provisional ballots.

The Albanian parliamentarian, flipping through page after page of her notes, was stunned by the bigger picture of disenfranchisement aimed at minority voters. “How could this happen here?” she asked me. “How could this happen in America?”

Roadblock to Progress

She also was concerned about the worldwide consequences for democracy in Albania and elsewhere. When anti-democratic abuses happen in the United States, they encourage anti-democratic forces everywhere, she said.

This lesson was not missed by the OSCE observer delegation from Belarus. As I heard from numerous sources, the primary reason the Belarusians were so interested in observing the U.S. election was so they could cite flaws in the American electoral system to excuse their own lack of transparency.

Belarus is among the least democratic countries in Europe with one of the worst human rights records. For months, Belarus had been making statements at the OSCE’s Permanent Council in Vienna condemning the U.S. for its lack of democracy and its failure to respect human rights.

When the New York Police Department arrested 1,821 protesters at the Republican National Convention, Belarus cited it as proof that the United States didn’t respect fundamental freedoms, particularly free speech and the right to assemble.

On Oct. 21, the Permanent Representative of Belarus to the OSCE issued a harsh statement about the U.S. electoral system, asserting that it “does not meet present-day requirements, is archaic, unwieldy, frequently complicated and bureaucratic in nature and, in the final analysis, does not guarantee the holding of genuinely democratic elections.”

The Belarus representative noted that the United States itself has criticized early voting and electronic voting in other countries because the lack of security could lead to “manipulating voters’ votes.” Of course, the Belarusian criticism may have more to do with posturing than a concern for democracy. But by raising legitimate criticism about the U.S. electoral system, Belarus deflected criticism of its own system.

Obligations

Another issue raised by Belarus was the limited access granted to observers seeking to examine the situation at U.S. polling stations.

According to international obligations laid out in the Copenhagen Document of 1990 – which the U.S. government signed – all participating states in the OSCE are required to grant international observers unfettered access to polling stations in order to monitor the process of voting and the counting of votes.

However, U.S. authorities only granted the OSCE observers access to selected polling stations. While this policy may have had more to do with a lack of experience in dealing with international observers than any concerted effort to conceal electoral fraud, the impact on future OSCE observation missions in other countries could be profound.

Many OSCE officials worry that the U.S. precedent will be cited next time the OSCE seeks to observe elections in a country like Belarus. As election observers know, they must have the right to pop in unannounced at any polling station they choose, not be shepherded only to model precincts.

From its observation mission, the OSCE concluded that the U.S. “mostly” met its international commitments for holding free and fair elections. But the mission cited a number of “significant issues,” particularly around implementation of the "Help America Vote Act," electoral fraud and voter suppression, as well as problems relating to the use of electronic voting machines.

The OSCE found implementation of the "Help America Vote Act" created new problems, such as multiple interpretations of the rules on provisional balloting. Further progress was needed on voter registration criteria and procedures, verifying and counting provisional ballots, and voter identification requirements, the OSCE said.

The Election Observation Mission cited Election Day problems with provisional ballots and electronic voting machines, as well as long waits to vote. “Significant delays at the polling station are likely to deter some voters from voting and may restrict the right to vote,” the OSCE said.

A German observer said he couldn’t imagine German voters showing the patience he saw among Americans as they waited hours to cast their ballots.

The OSCE also expressed concern that political party observers were present in many polling stations, while domestic non-partisan observers had no legal right to similar access. Still, despite pre-election indications that partisans would challenge voters over their qualifications, the OSCE noted that few voters were actually challenged.

Although the OSCE Election Observation Mission’s findings are not legally binding and do not carry weight other than as political pressure, it is significant that such a concerted international effort went into observing the fairness of the U.S. elections.

While the OSCE billed the observation mission as a formality that all participating states are obliged to accept, and emphasized that it had dispatched observers in previous U.S. elections, the reality is that never had such an extensive mission been undertaken in the United States.

International Response

In recent months, there have been other indications that the international community is taking a harder line toward U.S. behavior.

At last July’s Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, a resolution was passed condemning the use of torture in the U.S.-led global war on terrorism. The assembly called on all participating states to follow international commitments laid out in the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture.

Around the same time, the UN Security Council refused to extend the exemption from prosecution in the International Criminal Court for U.S. forces. Previously, U.S. forces were left exempt from prosecution in any UN-authorized mission. But after the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib prison, the UN Security Council let the exemption lapse, despite heavy lobbying by the United States.

Also in July, the International Court of Justice ruled that the wall being built by Israel and supported by the U.S. violates international law because it cuts into Palestinian land as determined by the 1967 borders between Israel and Palestine.

Perhaps seeking to capitalize on the momentum of the ICJ ruling on the Israeli wall, a group of 41 British members of parliament sent a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on July 20, asking him “to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on whether the war on Iraq was legal.”

The letter noted that the war was waged on false pretenses regarding threats posed by weapons of mass destruction and was declared by a “coalition of the willing,” rather than by the UN Security Council as provided for under the UN Charter.

“The International Court of Justice needs to be asked whether war could legitimately be declared by any of the parties under resolution 1441 (or its preceding resolutions) without a further explicit resolution from the Security Council,” the parliamentarians wrote.

The UN’s Office of Legal Affairs replied that the Secretary General can only request advisory opinions from the International Court of Justice upon the request of the UN Security Council or the General Assembly, and because neither had made the request, Kofi Annan could not follow through on the British MPs’ request.

‘He Forgot Poland’

Besides the multilateral actions by the UN and the OSCE, there are signs that bilateral relations are souring for the U.S. even with European allies. For example, Poland appears to be moving away from the U.S., as more and more Poles question the wisdom of strongly allying with George W. Bush.

As David Ost reported in a recent issue of The Nation magazine, Polish journalists are now questioning “how can we explain America's transformation from a country that introduced international law to one that intervenes militarily wherever it likes?” [http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20041004&c=1&s=ost]

Poland committed 2,400 troops to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, but Polish supporters of the war, such as Marek Beylin, chief of the editorial section of Gazeta Wyborcza, now say they were duped by U.S. assurances about quickly installing an Iraqi democracy.

“It seems we were naïve,” Beylin said. “It turns out they had no idea what to do with the Shiites, the Kurds, the resistance, the infrastructure. A superpower should be able to do this! That it can’t do it – this changes all our calculations.”

In September, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, long one of Bush's closest supporters, offered a rare condemnation, telling the New York Times that the United States needed to become “more flexible, more gracious,” and that the Bush administration should abandon its “neoconservative divide-and-rule policy.”

Poland’s participation in the Iraq War has caused tensions with other European countries. Although Poland entered the European Union on May 1, its reception has been cold.

Former Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, a pro-American voice in Polish politics, said that because of Poland’s strong alliance with the U.S., “Poland has never had as bad a reputation in Europe as it does now. We’ve alienated the two countries who ushered us into the EU – France and Germany.”

Because of growing concerns about Bush’s Iraq policies, Poland has hinted that it will reduce its Iraq contingent next year, although public pressure may force an earlier withdrawal.

Still, Bush has cited Poland as one of his foreign policy successes. In one memorable moment in the first presidential debate, Bush responded to Kerry’s listing of the original countries supporting the invasion by exclaiming, “He forgot Poland!”

Exactly how international relations will play out over the next four years may not be easy to predict. But it is clear that many nations won’t tolerate what many consider the continued lawlessness of the United States.


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