Charles Onyango Obbo

Americans are adept at selling their elections, but they too use dirty tricks

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Sunday, November 11   2012 at  02:00
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A tab on the New York Times website crowed: “Keep up with the election the whole world is watching”. That is not hype. As Americans went to the polls on Tuesday, many leading non-American news websites went with “US Election 2012”, “America Decides” homepage specials.

As the world’s sole superpower, what happens in the US still matters, but less so these days. What happens in China will more likely, to use the Ugandan expression “put posho (maize meal) on [our] tables” than who is in power in Washington, DC.
Yet, the world was not paying even half the attention to the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress that started this week.

The Congress will pick the next Chinese President and Prime Minister, and there is a 99 per cent chance it will be Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, respectively. American industry might be declining and it is up to its neck in debt (a large chunk of it owed to China), but the one thing the US has shown itself very good at is selling an election. If the country sold its products to the rest of the world as well as it marketed its election, it would not be in economic trouble.

There are many crazy and downright distressful things that happened (and happen) during US presidential campaigns. In the US, they refer to a wide range of electoral abuses delicately as “voter suppression”, but it is plain election theft.

Consider this. The US is a founding member of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). It usually sends election observers not just to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but also to OSCE member states like France, UK, and Canada.

However, when it was reported that the OCSE was sending election observers to monitor the US election, the Big Men in states like Texas and Iowa threatened to arrest them if they stepped there.

Imagine Kenya, Tanzania, or Uganda threatening to arrest international election observers! Some of the things they are doing to favour their presidential candidates would start a war in Africa.

That wonderfully liberal website, MotherJones.com, which exposed Mitt Romney at a private fundraiser dismissing nearly 50 per cent as people who don’t pay income tax and are freeloaders who will vote for Obama no matter what, carried a revealing story: “10 Dirty Ways to Swing An Election”, on these election shenanigans.

Dirty tricks
While, for example, the Kenyan election fall-out of December 2007 is still fresh, in the US, few of the dirty tricks will be remembered in a week. That is because of the way the election is sold. It creates more than enough alternative dramas and endless distractions.

First, there are the party primaries. The primaries are covered like a lottery. All the worthy and dubious men and women who enter the race are covered like any of them has a chance of winning.

This year, it was the Republicans, and several chaps with very frightening views about the world each had their day in the sun as potential victors during the over 20 debates they had.

Then it was President Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney after the latter had put away the competition. There were the debates, the breathless commentators, and the way Obama stumbled in the first one. He seemed to be toast at that point, and then he recovered in the second, and in the third, he finished off Romney. Twitter caught fire, with all sorts of people in obscure parts of the world weighing in on the two men’s debate performance. Finally, the opinion pollsters jumped into the fray.

60 polls a day
There were, on average, 60 opinion polls released in a day. If you were an Obama supporter, every day there were polls that broke your heart, and polls that delighted you. If you were for Romney, you went through the same seesaw of emotions. Through these tactics, Americans have become the only nation to turn their election into a second-rate imitation of a World Cup final.

In all countries, its ambassadors organise “election nights” and invite America’s friends and local luminaries to watch the returns. It is always a full house. America’s elections may no longer be the model of democracy, but they are most definitely in a class of their own as an example of marketing genius.

cobbo@ug.nationmedia.com