November 2000 replayed?
What will happen if, on the morning of 3 November, neither Bush nor Kerry is elected president of the United States? asks Mohamed Sid-Ahmed
With less than a week to go before the US presidential election, it is still difficult to predict which of the two contenders will emerge victorious. The race between incumbent President George W Bush and his Democratic challenger John Kerry is very tight and opinion polls, which anyway have a high level of uncertainty, are divided on the issue, some giving Bush the lead, others Kerry. An alternative scenario that cannot be discounted is that the race will end in a deadlock, a repeat performance of the bitterly contested election of 2000 when the outcome remained uncertain for over a month because of the closeness of the results and the different ballot-counting systems used in the different states.
It is entirely possible that on the morning of 3 November the Americans will not know who their next president will be. There are the already ominous signs presaging the difficulties that lie ahead, with questions raised over how states with touch- screen voting machines, which are unreliable and subject to hacking, can conduct manual recounts, and countless lawsuits already filed against election supervisors.
Thirty-seven major newspapers across the United States, with a total readership of eight million (including the prestigious New York Times ), are now openly endorsing Kerry, while only 17, with a total readership of 1.5 million, have come out for Bush. Both sides are working hard to mobilise their supporters and, as election day draws closer, the exchange of barbed rhetoric is rising to fever pitch.
The last time before the 2000 presidential election debacle that the American people witnessed such a deeply divisive campaign was in 1876, in the aftermath of the American civil war when the scars of the war were still fresh. It was only the following year that the situation was brought under control when Rutherford Hayes was nominated president by a bipartisan commission.
But things may be more complicated now, because the 2000 elections left important segments of the Democratic voters with a deep sense of bitterness and the feeling that victory was literally snatched from their hands. If the outcome of the upcoming elections is also attributed to a distorted vote count, this could have serious implications for the voting system in general. We might well see, for example, voices calling for an end to the electoral college system which allows a candidate with the fewest popular votes to come to power. This is what happened in 2000, when George W Bush, who received 50, 450, 219 popular votes got 271 electoral votes, while his rival, Al Gore, who received 51,003,894 popular votes got only 266.
The 2000 election was a deeply divisive moment for the American people, its repercussions still being felt today. More dangerous yet, while the outcome was being disputed, a vacuum at the summit of the most powerful nation on earth, the nation with the largest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, went on for 36 days. In any democracy, the choice of the head of the nation is a prerogative of the executive, not the judiciary, branch of government, except in exceptional situations which should not be allowed to become the rule. In the event, when the Supreme Court did step into the fray, it voted in favour of Bush by a narrow margin of 5 to 4. All these factors increased the reasons for friction and tension and did not contribute to a serene transition of power. The sharp polarisation continues at the present presidential campaign, which has cost the two candidates more than four billion dollars, one billion more than the previous campaign, and engendered a deep rift in American public opinion. The candidates are now concentrating on a tight list of target states, notably, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, considered crucial to the election outcome.
In the light of this strong competition between the two main contenders, each side has created a legal team to handle any problem that could arise in the election process along the lines of what happened in 2000 between Bush and the Democrat candidate Al Gore. The Washington Post reports that a large number of lawsuits challenging the credibility of some of the electoral practices have been filed in several states.
Kerry has mobilised ten thousand lawyers in the "swing" states in preparation for a preemptive legal battle in which he would claim victory as soon as the ballots are counted, provided he continues closing the gap with Bush until the last moment, to avoid a repeat performance of 2000, when Gore made the fatal mistake of conceding defeat even before the final results of Florida had been announced.
Florida governor Jeb Bush, George W's brother, said that America is more divided now than it was in 2000, when his brother won thanks to 573 votes in Florida. If Jeb's assessment of the situation is correct, that will mean that the outcome will not be decided by the voting process alone, but also by a number of factors difficult to pinpoint beforehand and which can carry many surprises.
There is also the question of the independent candidate Ralph Nader whose following is limited (between one and two per cent), but whose impact on the outcome can be crucial. A longtime consumer advocate his campaign against questionable manufacturing and design practices in the automobile industry brought him to national attention in the mid-1960s. His work provided the primary impetus for motor vehicle safety. Other issues of corporate ethics and human safety to which he has drawn attention include environmental pollution, danger of atomic energy plants, health hazards in food and medicine, fraud, secrecy and immunities of large companies. Because the issues Nader raise are issues of principle, he is not expected to pull out of the race. But although his support is negligible, even the small number of votes he can receive could tip the scales against Kerry. In other word by remaining in the race he is improving Bush's chances of winning while if he pulls out most of his constituency would cast their votes for Kerry. Indeed, believing he took crucial votes away from Gore in 2000 the Democrats have fought successfully to keep him off the ballot in several states.
In the heat of the electoral battle, the debates were an arena for the exchange of mutual vilification. But beyond the slander, there are real differences which, depending on who is elected, will determine the shape of things to come.
If the results are to Bush's advantage, he will interpret his election for a second term as a validation of his decisions to launch war on Iraq and Afghanistan, even if he has not succeeded in finding any WMD or catching Osama Bin Ladin and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. His victory will also lend credence to his argument that the removal of Saddam Hussein is in itself sufficient justification for the war whatever the disagreements this has triggered in the ranks of the Western alliance. A Bush victory will be a victory for his preemptive war doctrine, and it is more than likely that he will wage a new war during his second term, whether against Iran. Syria or any other country accused of being part of the "axis of evil".
In the case of a Kerry victory, there will be a deflection from the Bush line, a degree of respect for considerations of sovereignty, a certain keenness to being about a reconciliation within the ranks of the Western alliance and to give the United Nations more leverage. But neither the approach of Bush nor that of Kerry can guarantee that the 2000 election scenario will not be repeated.