Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 February 2020

In voting and viruses, political challenges become apparent

In China the immediate problem is to deal with coronavirus and in the US to ensure that the election of 2020 is as fair as possible

Candidate signs are seen the day after the Iowa caucuses on a building in Tipton, Iowa, last week. Matt Marton / EPA
Candidate signs are seen the day after the Iowa caucuses on a building in Tipton, Iowa, last week. Matt Marton / EPA

In his novel Anna Karenina, Tolstoy famously wrote that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In the past week we have seen something similar in world politics. Every successful political system turns out to be challenged in its own way.

That’s what brings together the unlikely pairing of America’s Iowa caucuses and China’s coronavirus outbreak. The US superpower and the coming superpower from East Asia are rivals with very different systems but in the past few days they have shown how challenging their systems can be.

In China, ever since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, while there has been rapid development, the coronavirus outbreak has revealed an issue, despite the respect it has gained for its rapid response and co-operation.

When Dr Li Wenliang pointed out that there could be a new health emergency in Wuhan, before it was officially identified, he was investigated for spreading the information online. Then he took ill and died from the virus he noticed. China then astonished the world by its efforts to track and contain the virus, and in building an enormous hospital and other facilities in just a few days.

In America we have seen a very different system exposed for its faults.

The same week that brought to an end the Washington impeachment process, has shown that US President Donald Trump does not tolerate criticism.

Mr Trump fired his ambassador to the European Union and a White House Ukraine expert because they raised the alarm about a potentially enormous problem. And the American political system proved creaky in other ways too.

When as a student I studied the American Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution I thought they were truly inspiring and wonderful documents. I still do. But it is possible to revere America’s 18th century Founding Fathers while recognising in the 21st century that the system of electing the president of the United States is about as reliable as a clapped-out old motor car. It keeps breaking down. In 2000, the Florida fiasco of which votes should be counted delayed the election of George W Bush. In 2016, Mr Trump was elected through the Electoral College system while his opponent Hillary Clinton achieved several million more endorsements in the popular vote. And for years, journalists like me have spent weeks in delightful but unrepresentative states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, where by tradition US presidential campaigns begin, wondering why we were there – why does a great nation choose its leaders in such a peculiar way?

Iowa, for example, does not have a single city with a population of more than 250,000, and is overwhelmingly white and rural, very unlike the diverse nation whose leader it is helping to choose. So why start here? And this year Iowa’s caucus system floundered publicly. Small face-to-face meetings in little towns and villages may have a kind of charm but the results, even in this information age, were not efficiently collated. The problem in the US was superficially with an app. But the real problem is a breakdown in the system. No political system is perfect. Here in the United Kingdom we have a government in London with a mandate to take us out of the European Union, and a government in Edinburgh, which claims a mandate to keep Scotland in the EU. The key point for all governments is to recognise that people in power are not infallible.

Political leaders generally want to do the best for their countries but they can make mistakes. So how can mistakes be corrected and disputes resolved? In China the immediate problem is to deal with coronavirus and in the US to ensure that the election of 2020 is as fair as possible. But the bigger problem is for people who reach the top in a political system – whether in Beijing or Washington or London – to recognise that the way in which the system worked for them may need to change. Accepting that kind of constructive criticism is never going to be easy.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter

Updated: February 11, 2020 02:01 PM

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